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Built in 1447, the Tashilhungpo (meaning auspicious Sumeru) Monastery is located on the southern slope of the Nyima Mountain to the west of the Xigaze city. It is one of the four monasteries of the Gelug Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. According to historical documents, the monastery was built under the supervision of the first Dalai Lama Genden Zhuba, a disciple of Zongkapa, the founder of the Yellow Sect. When the fourth Panchen Lobsan Qoigyi became the abbot, it was expanded to a large scale. Since then, the monastery has become the residence of Panchen Lama. Listed as a key relic under state protection by the State Council on March 4, 1961, the monastery occupies 150,000 square meters. Facing south, the complex is built symmetrically against the Nyima Mountain. Its wall, over 3,000 meters long and built according to the topography of the mountain, surrounds 57 buildings, or more than 3,600 rooms.
The earliest building in the monastery is the Coqen Hall (Large Scripture Hall), whose construction lasted 12 years. Inside are 48 red pillars, which support the ceiling. In the center of the hall is the throne of the Panchen. To the left of the hall is the Great Buddha Hall, built in 1461 with financial support from Jorwo Zhabung, king of Guge Kingdom in Ngari. Inside stands the 11-meter-tall, benevolent-looking Maitreya. To the right of the hall is the Tara Hall, which houses a two-meter-tall bronze statue of White Tara and two clay statues of Green Tara. The interior is decorated with schist collected at the foot of the Himalayas and radiates a peaceful aura. In front of the hall is a 600-square-meter area where the Panchen gives Buddhist lectures and lamas discuss Buddhist scriptures. On the surrounding stone walls are engravings of the images of the Buddhism founder, the four Heavenly Kings, the 18 arhats and 1,000 statues of Buddha with different facial expressions. In the middle of the northern wall are engraved images of sages such as Zongkapa, the founder of the Yellow Sect, 80 senior monks and variously styled flying apsaras and Bodhisattva.
Gyinalhakang, the Han Chinese Buddhist Temple, houses many gifts to the Panchen from the Chinese emperors of past dynasties, such as ancient porcelain wares, gold and silver goblets, tea sets, bowls and plates, jade containers and refined fabrics. The earliest objects, the nine bronze Buddha statues, are said to have been brought to Tibet by Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). A red Tara bronze statue is believed to have been made in the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368). A 16.5-jin gold seal, inscribed with the three languages of Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan, is a gift from an emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). There are also Buddhist beads made of precious stone, imperial mandates and Buddhist scriptures. Inside the hall hangs a huge picture of a Qing-dynasty emperor in kasaya holding a Dharma wheel. Before the picture is a tablet inscribed with Long live Emperor Daoguang (reigning 1821-1851). When the emperor issued a decree, the Panchen would kowtow to express his gratitude before the tablet after receiving it. The side hall of the Han Chinese Buddhist Temple is the meeting room where the Qing-dynasty grand minister resident of Tibet and the Panchen used to meet.
West of the Tashilhungpo Monastery is the Qamba Buddha Hall, which was built in 1914 under the supervision of the ninth Panchen Qoigyi Nyima. The hall is 30 meters high and covers 862 square meters. In the hall, the bronze statue of Qamba Buddha is the highest of its kind in the world. It took 110 workers four years to finish casting it. The statue used 6,700 taels of gold and 115,000-odd kilograms of copper. The statue sits on a 3.8-meter-high lotus seat. It is 26.2 meters high, his shoulder 11.5 meters wide, his foot 4.2 meters long, his hand 3.2 meters long, his middle finger 1.2 meters long and his ear 2.8 meters long. Between his eyes are inlaid a total of 1,400 pieces of diamond of various sizes, pearls, amber, coral and other precious stones.
In 1985, the State Council allocated special funds to renovate the divine pagoda of the fifth to ninth Panchen Lamas, which had been destroyed during the 1966-1976 cultural revolution. Under the personal supervision of the 10th Panchen, the sacrificial hall built to the memory of past Panchen Lamas was named Tashinamgyi (Auspicious Heaven), which opened on January 22, 1989. The whole project lasted three years and eight months. Covering a floor space of 1,933 square meters, the hall is 33.17 meters high, inside which the divine pagoda is 11.52 meters high. The gilded pagoda is covered with a layer of silver and inlaid with precious stones. Its decorative patterns look grand and solemn. The remains of the Panchen Lamas in five sandalwood boxes are placed inside. In its center is the bronze statue of the ninth Panchen Qoigyi Nyima, while the walls of the hall present murals depicting the contributions of famous lamas of different sects.
The 10th Panchen Erdeni Qoigyi Gyaincain passed away on an inspection tour to Xigaze on January 20, 1989. Three days later, the State Council issued a decision to build a sacrificial hall to enshrine the body of the 10th Panchen Lama for people to pay their respects and to remember his love for the country and his devotion to Tibetan Buddhism. On an inspection tour to Tibet in 1990, President Jiang Zemin paid a special visit to the Tashilhungpo Monastery to the memory of the 10th Panchen Lama and inquired about the construction of the hall. With careful choosing of the design, the construction started on September 20, 1990. The state allocated 64.24 million yuan of special funds, and 614 kilograms of gold and 275 kilograms of silver to be used in building the hall. The project lasted three years. A grand inaugural ceremony was held on September 4, 1993 and the hall was named Shesongnamgyi, meaning sacrificial hall for the three sages of Paradise, Human World and Nether World. The naming itself was a serious matter. Four names were submitted, and each was wrapped inside a zanba in the shape of a ball. The four balls were put in a bottle before the body of the Panchen Lama. After three days of sutra chanting, a ball jumped out of the bottle when it was being shaken. Peeling off the zanba, the name appeared: Shesongnamgyi. The 35.25-meter-high sacrificial hall covers a floor space of 1,933 square meters, and its wall is 1.83 meters thick. The style of the building is at once traditional and modern, displaying both ethnic and religious features.
The 11.55-meter-high pagoda covers 253 square meters, its exterior covered with a layer of gold and inlaid with pearls and precious stones. On the pagoda are 818 bags, which hold 24 different kinds of stones, altogether 6,794 pieces. Strictly in accord with religious rituals, the interior of the pagoda is composed of three storeys. The first storey holds barley, wheat, rice, tea leaves, salt, various kinds of dried fruits and candies, sandalwood, various medical herbs, silk and satin, elaborately carved saddles, pilose antlers, rhinoceros horns, silver, pearls, stones, kasaya and Tibetan costumes. The second storey holds Tripitaka, classical works by the three founders of the Gelug Sect, works by all the Panchen Lamas in history and Buddhist scriptures written with gold powder ink. The top storey has Buddhist scriptures and Buddha statues. On August 30, 1993, the body of the 10th Panchen Lama was moved into the pagoda. The body was first put in a sandalwood bier, which was then put into a specially made safety cabinet and finally moved into the Precious Bottle in the pagoda. At the entrance is a life-size statue of the 10th Panchen Lama. Around the body are a variety of religious articles, such as kasaya, tangka painting scrolls, Buddha statues and scriptures.
Deqen Galsang Phodrang is the summer palace of the Panchen Lama. The summer palace of the Panchen Lama was originally built in Gongjor Lingka; thus, it is also called Gongjor Ling Palace. In 1954, the Nyang Qu River flooded due to snow avalanche and the rare floods destroyed the Gongjor Ling Palace. Because of the concern of the late Premier Zhou Enlai, the state allocated funds to build Deqen Galsang Phodrang, which was called New Palace. Located east of Xigaze city, the palace comprises the living quarters for the Panchen Lama, his office and five sacrificial rooms enshrining more than 100 Buddhist statues. The building complex looks classical and elegant, with verdant trees and lush grass and flowers. The 10th Panchen Lama died there and, four months later, his body was moved to the Tashilhungpo Monastery where he was buried and worshipped.
In August on the Tibetan calendar each year, lamas in the Tashilhungpo Monastery hold the Ximoqenpo Festival the Holy Dance Festival. Originally a religious ritual to drive away evil spirits, it gradually evolved into a traditional festival in Xigaze. According to historical documents, the festival was first sponsored by Dainbai Nyima, the seventh Panchen Lama, about 200 years ago. On August 3 on the Tibetan calendar each year, a dance contest is held among lamas in the monastery, and the festival formally commences on August 4 and lasts three days till August 6, when it is open to the public. The monastery now boasts 39 lamas who can dance 61 different kinds of dances. A huge tent is set up on a platform. On its left are seats for distinguished guests; on its right is the orchestra of the monastery; and in front of the platform is the audience who have traveled far to attend. The whole activity is imbued with a strong religious fervor and follows a strict protocol. The dance is simple in rhythm and slow in execution. To enliven the atmosphere, some short, light pieces are performed between the dances, which always make the audience rock with laughter. During the three-day festival, dozens of holy dances will be performed, such as Buddha's Warrior Attendant Dance, Skeleton Dance, Deer and Cow Dance, Bhiksu Dance and Six Longevity Dance.
On the first day of the festival, the first to take the stage are people wearing deity masks, who dance while circling the stage before retreating backstage. Several minutes later, four ghosts jump onto the stage; they have long fingers and toes like skeletons. They dance and then retreat, too. The third group, wearing iron hats, dance while circling the stage. The fourth group of 20 enter the stage with hats and different silk ribbons hanging on their bodies. The fifth come to the stage imitating the animals. The sixth group are clothed in yellow, red, indigo-blue and purple masks, baggy pattern clothes and hats with tassels. Among the seventh group, four lamas dress up like ghosts, carrying a body molded of butter and zanba; they are followed by deities. After chanting sutras, the dancers stab the body with a knife, pour oil on dry firewood, light it and throw the body (representing ghost) into the fire.
The second day starts with a lama wearing a large Buddha mask and sitting straight on a lotus seat, motionless like a wood or clay sculpture, with two boys waiting on him on both sides. On the stage are two lamas wearing masks and colorful clothes, and dancing according to the rhythm. They soon retreat. Then a pair of lamas dressing up like guards of Dharma come onto the stage, followed by more than ten pairs. The last four wear skeleton masks and strange costumes. Two small ghosts carry a bag of zanba and let the four in skeleton masks take zanba out to spread in all directions.
On the third day, six images of longevity appear on the stage: crane, deer, human, mountain, water and village. The lama sitting on the lotus seat expounds Buddhist scriptures to the wolf and deer. Two white-haired old men then appear on the stage, holding bows and arrows and aiming at the wolf and deer upon seeing them. The lama stops them, telling them it is a sin to kill. Then he talks eloquently about the cycle of incarnation. Finally, the old men and the animals, led by the lama, ascend to the immortal world.