Covering an area of nearly 300,000 square meters, the magnificent Tashilhunpo Monastery is one of the Six Big Monasteries of Gelugpa, also known as the Yellow Hat Sect. Founded by the First Dalai Lama back in 1447, the monastery has served as the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking tulku lineage in the Gelug tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, ever since the Fourther Panchen Lama took charge of the monastery. The Panchen Lama had temporal power over three small districts, though not over the town of Shigatse itself, and as religious influence in the area swelled the monastery’s structure was subsequently expanded.
The monastery sits at the foot of Drolmari, otherwise known as Tara’s Mountain, and the complex itself houses a variety of main structures, namely the Maitreya Chapel, the Panchen Lama’s Palace and the Kelsang Temple. Standing at the entrance to Tashilhunpo, visitors will be greeted with a view of these building’s golden roofs and luminous white walls, and as you wander through the monastery grounds you will come across a glorious Thangka Wall which stands a staggering nine floors high and displays various images of Buddha so enormous that they can easily be seen from Shigatse City. Furthermore, upon entering Maitreya Chapel on the west side of the monastery, you will find yourself face to face with one of the largest statues of a sitting Maitreya Buddha inside the chapel, which took a small army of 900 craftsmen nearly a decade to complete. The statue, which stands 26.2 meters high, is decorated with regal flourishes of gold, amber and coral, as well as diamonds, pearls, and other precious stones, presenting a glorious view for visitors lucky enough to bask in its presence. Although approximately two thirds of the monastery’s buildings were destroyed by overzealous Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, most of the buildings destroyed were residences, and a significant portion of the monastery’s relics were saved by locals and later returned to Tashilhunpo under the guidance of Choekyi Gyaltsen, the Tenth Panchen Lama. These days, the monastery houses around 800 practicing lamas, who safeguard the monastery’s relics and scriptures, mindful of the past and working in their own diplomatic ways, towards a more peaceful future.