Kumbum is a large complex spreading up and across a hillside about 25 km south from the center of Xining. It’s central temples lie in a notch between two hillsides while its auxiliary buildings sprawl upwards on both sides.
Kumbum was ordered constructed by the 3rd Dalai Lama in 1583, marking the place of Tsongkapa’s birth in 1357. The name of the monastery means “100,000 enlightening bodies of the Buddha,” referring to the images that appeared in the leaves of the “Great Tree of Merit” that had grown up upon the spot where Tsongkhapa’s umbilical cord had touched the earth.
It seems to be a hugely popular tourist destination for the Chinese, possibly because it’s one of the more accessible monasteries. There are, after all, 200 million Buddhists in China. This sounds like a lot. But considering the total population is about 1.2 billion, such a number hardly raises an eyebrow. On this day it was teeming with groups small and large swarming every inch of this complex.
We entered perhaps a dozen small temples, each devoted to different figures, Shakyamuni, Buddhas of the past, Maitreya, (the Buddha of the future) and Kalachakra. We entered a couple of assembly halls as well as Manjushri’s temple.
A magnificent new temple three stories high inside featuring a glass-enclosed very detailed diorama (which, judging by the space, promises to become even more amazing) made entirely of yak butter. There is also the centerpiece of the entire site, the golden temple of Tsongkapa. Photographs are prohibited inside every one of these–except of the yak butter–with guards at the doors and monitors ambling throughout.
The “Golden Tiled Temple” is revered throughout Tibet and Mongolia. It is a small building with a roof of pure gold plate. Inside, it is full of wonderful relics, great banners of silk brocade called “katas“, wonderful lamps of gold and silver, thousands of small vessels burning butter, a colossal figure of Tsong Kapa, said to be made of gold. All is in semi-darkness which adds to the mystical effect, and the gleam from the butter lamps threw into relief some beautifully wrought temple vessels, or the queer blank face of some saintly Buddha image.”
Many visitors recite prayers, make offerings, are blessed by an attending monk before leaving. The assembly hall was a dark and dense space, the wooden floors and walls.
The walls in this particular hall were covered either with 1000 niches eight levels high each containing a small statue of Tsongkapa, or with niches housing sutra in their wooden boxes draped with colored fabric, some apparently untouched for a century. The ceiling was hung with banners, thangkas hung from the rafters, the pillars were wrapped with carpeting.
The golden pagoda housing a huge image of Je Rinpoche (as Tsongkhapa is often called), who is considered to be an emanation of the bodhisattva Manjushri, lies on the spot where the “Tree of Great Merit” grew. It was once accessible to direct contact, but now resides behind a glass enclosure. The whole of it cannot be seen, but any part of it displays some of the 270 kilos of pure gold that cover its surface. Pilgrims outside this small temple perform prostrations day and night.
Naturally, there was a large Manjushri temple, but the Kalachakra temple is most notable because it houses several finely detailed golden three-dimensional replicas of the Kalachakra mandala. Again, photos are not allowed, but when I visited, the guard was outside.
Kumbum is one of six principal Gelug monasteries in Tibet. Three are in Amdo, three in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. I did not exactly plan it this way, but by the time I am complete here, I will have visited five of the six. Not that this is particularly significant, other than confirming the historical picture of the stature and influence of the Gelug school.