The Great Monlam at Labrang

tiger in the crowd at hoincang


the masked procession

I’ve spent the last month holed up in a house outside of Labrang monastery, Tibet, studying Amdo-dialect, huddling by the stove, and feeding two cats. The house belongs to a Canadian woman named Tenzin Dolma and her husband Choejor, from Ngawa. Tenzin Dolma spent ten years at the Gomang Dratsang in Karnataka and now runs a thangka painting school here in Labrang. She has gone back to Canada for a little during the Tibetan New Years, and I am cat-sitting.

One of the big events of the Great Monlam (smon lam chen po) prayer festival at Labrang is the unveiling of the butter offerings (me tog mchod pa) in front of the main assembly hall of the monastery. Each of these offerings is presented by one of the six monastic colleges (grwa tshang), and the contents of the offering represent the specialty of that college. The offerings are traditionally viewed at night; starting at six in the evening and continuing into the early hours of the morning, a massive line of pilgrims snakes around Labrang monastery. Many pilgrims will wait four or five hours for the chance to process beneath the butter sculptures and make a quick obesience before being pushed onward.

So I took pictures of them all (you can get into the square behind without waiting in line) and then ran them all by my Tibetan teacher, a monk named Lobsang Choedrak, to find out who everyone in the sculptures was. This type of thing is useful for me to do, since my Tibetan is terrible and I often don’t know the Tibetan names or iconographies of even the most basic deities. The placement of the offerings is also interestingly symbolic of the intellectual ordering of the Tibetan sciences. In the center, directly in front of the gates of the hall, are two offerings representing the college of philosophy (thos bsam gling). Flanking this on either side are the upper and lower schools (rgyud stod smad), and on the outside, physically and intellectually, are the offerings of the Medicine College (sman pa grwa tshang) and the Kalachakra College (dus ‘khor grwa tshang). A recurring figure is the various incarnations of the Kunkhyen Lama (kun mkhyen rin po che; the Treasury of Lives refers to this line as the Jamyang Zheba), which is the main line of trulkus at Labrang monastery. I’ve got a lot of help from wikipedia, the Treasury of Lives biographical database, and obviously my teacher, Lobsang Choedrak. Here they are:

metok front


1) The College of the Wheel of Time:

(dus ‘khor grwa tshang): This college specializes in Kalachakra and astrology. It is famous for having designed the calendar now in use in this part of Amdo.

dus 'khor

rigs rdan drag po

rigs ldan drag po detail

Lower: Kalki Raudra (rigs ldan drag po), the “Fierce Destroyer” in Sanskrit, or in Tibetan, the “Fierce Holder of the Lineages”. The legendary twenty-fifth and last ruler of Shambhala who will ride out to destroy the infidels at the end of the world.

kun mkhyen gnyis pa

Upper: The second Kunkhyen, Jigme Wangbo (kun mkhyen sku phreng gnyis pa ‘jigs med dbang bo).


2) The Upper Tantric College:

(rgyud stod grwa tshang).

rgyud stod grwa tshang

jo'i sku

Lower: The Buddha Sakyamuni, aged twelve, seated on a lotus (lo mju gnyis na tshod can gyi jo bo rin po che’i sku) This image is a copy of the one that sits in the Jokhang Temple at the center of Lhasa.

kun mkhyen lnga wa

Middle: The fifth Kunkhyen Lama, Tanpa’i Gyaltsen (kun mkhyen sku phreng lnga ba bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan), flanked by Chinese-style dragons. This Kunkhyen was the one who established the Upper Tantric school in 1941.

tshe dpag med

Upper: Amitayus (tshe dpag med), the Buddha of Infinite Longevity. This is an obscure form of Amitabha (od dpag med), the Buddha of Infinite Light and the ruler of the Western Pure-Land Sukhavati (bde wa can).


3) Hevajra College:

(kyai [kyee] rdor grwa tshang). Hevajra is a tantric Yidam.

kyai rdor grwa tshang

tsi dmar chos sku detail

tsi dmar chos sku

Lower: The Red Pith (tsi’u dmar po), the Dharma-Defender of Samye Monastery. Also known as Nochin Chenpo (gnod sbyin chen po), “The Great Demon”. This deity is obscure; there’s a Florida State University PhD dissertation by Christopher Paul Bell on the topic.

kun mkhyen bzhi wa

Middle: The Fourth Kunkhyen, Tharto Gyatso (kun mkhyen sku phreng bzhi wa thar ‘dod rgya mtsho). The fourth Kunkhyen established the Hevajra college in 1879.

mgon po he ru ka

Upper: Tromgon Heruka, the Protector of the Trom Clan, Drinker of Blood (‘brom mgon he ru ka). I’ve not been able to find out any information about this deity.


4) The Academy of Study and Reflection: (1) (thos bsam gling).

The Academy of Study and Reflection is the central, oldest, and largest college of Labrang monastery. Thus instead of one butter sculpture it has two, placed directly in front of the assembly hall doors. The college specializes in the study of philosophy and debating.

thos bsam gling 1

kun mkhyen tang po

Lower: Je Tsongkhapa (rje tsong kha pa), the founder of the Gelug sect, seated in a palace. Seated beneath him are two of his main disciples, on the left Gyeltsabje (rgyal tshab rje) and on the right Khedrubje (mkhas grub rje). Beneath him is Mahakala (mgon po), the principle protector of the Gelug sect, and around him four Indian masters. Together with the four represented on the second sculpture of the Academy of Study and Reflection, they reflect the “Six Ornaments and Two Supreme Ones” (rgyan drug mchok gnyis). Clockwise from the upper left, they are: Nagarjuna (glu sgrub), Vasubandhu (dbyig gnyen), Asanga (thogs med), and Shakyaprabha (Sha’ kya ‘od)

'jam dbyangs dmar ser

Middle: Red-Yellow Manjushri (‘jam dbyang dmar ser). Seated on a lotus throne holding up a sword to cut through ignorance; on his right is the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra floating on a lotus.

sdon pa sakyamuni

Upper: The Buddha Sakyamuni (ston pa / sha kya thub pa)


5) The Academy of Study and Reflection (2) (thos bsam gling):



Lower: The First Kunkhyen Lama or Jamyang Zheba  (kun mkhyen tang po or ‘jam dbyangs bzhad pa). The first Kunkhyen Lama was a Gelug monk who founded Labrang monastery in 1708 or 1709. There is a legend which states that when he arrived in Lhasa for the first time in 1668, he presented a white scarf to the statue of Manjushri in the Jokhang temple. The statue smiled at him, and hence his name: “Jamyang Sheba” “He upon who Manjushri smiled”. Underneath him is the oracular protective spirit Nechung (gnas chung), also called Dorje Drakden and Pehar Gyalpo. Around him is a lineage of early Indian masters. Together with the four represented on the first sculpture of the Academy of Study and Reflection, they reflect the “Six Ornaments and Two Supreme Ones” (rgyan drug mchok gnyis). Clockwise from the upper left, they are: Dharmakirti (chos grags pa), Dignana (phyogs glang), Aryaveda (‘phags pa lha), and Gunaprabha (yon tan ‘od).


Middle: White Manjushri (‘jam dbyangs dkar po).


Upper: Amitayus, the Buddha of Infinite Life (tshe dpag med).


6) The Lower Tantric College (rgyud smad grwa tshang)

rgyud smad grwa tshang

'jam dbyangs bzhad pa sku brang tang po

Lower: Je Sherab Sengge (rje shes rab seng+ge). Sherab Sengge was a disciple of Tsongkhapa, who in 1433 founded the Geluk sect’s first tantric college in Lhasa. After a second one was founded in 1475, this became known as the “lower” (sman) college.

rgyal ba rdo rje 'tshang

Upper: King Vajradhara (rgyal ba rdo rje ‘chang), the “Thunderbolt-Bearer.” Vajradhara is the ultimate primordial Buddha in the Geluk and Nyingma sects.


7) The Medicine College: (sman pa grwa tshang)

sman pa grwa tshang

gtsang rgan ye shes bzang bo

Tsangmen Yeshe Zangbo (gtsang sman ye shes bzang bo), who doesn’t appear in the Treasury of Lives that I can find, but according to my monkish informants was an old teacher in the Medicine College.

kun mkhyen gsum ba

Middle: The Third Kunkhyen, Jigme Gyatso (kun mkhyen sku phreng gsum pa ‘jigs med rgya mtsho). I’m not sure if this Kunkhyen had any particular relationship to the medicine college or not; it’s not mentioned in his Treasury of Lives article.

sman lha

Upper: The Medicine Buddha, Bhaisajyaguru (sman lha or sangs rgyas sman bla). He sits cross-legged, holding a jar of medicine.

So that’s that. Just for fun, here’s the rest of the pictures I took during the Cham dances and processions after. Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t take pictures of this stuff but the scene was too wild and strange to pass up…

the procession moving through the monastery (3)

monks walking with drums (1)

on a back street in Labrang

soldiers lining the procession way out of the main square (1)


One comment

  • March 16, 2015 - 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Great post and fantastic pictures! I’ve been following your blog for quite a while now and really enjoy your posts. I’m currently doing a PhD on Western travellers in East Tibet in the early 20th Century. I’ve made one trip out to Kangding, Sichuan and I’m hoping to go back at some point. Would love to get to Labrang too. The link attached is to my blog, where I’ve written some posts on my research and travels, if it’s of interest. Best wishes, Tim

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