Tibetan RegionsU-Tsang | Kham | Amdo


“U-Tsang,” is the Tibetan traditional way to refer to Central Tibet, U means “center” in Tibetan and Tsang is a regions west of Lhasa. It includes also the Changthang, Ngari and Gompo regions. These regions are in the “Tibet Autonomous Region” and foreigners need a permit to get there.

Principal historical sites in Lhasa

In Tibetan Lhasa means “Gods’ Lands”. It’s on Marpori, the Red Hill where today is erected the Potala, where according to the tradition, the great king Songtsen Gampo (617-649/50) would have built a castle.

But it was in the seventeenth century, during the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) that Lhasa became capital. But Lhasa is also a holy city, a place of pilgrimage.

The temples of Jokhang and Ramoche

The king Songtsen Gampo consolidated his power thanks to marriage alliances. He obtained in marriage Wengchen, a Chinese princess and a Nepali one, Brikuti (although there are doubts about the veracity of the historical existence of the latter). The Chinese princess brought as a dowry a statue of Buddha Shakyamuni (Jowo the Lord) at the age of 12 years and the Nepalese princess brought a statue of Buddha (Jowo Mikyidorje) at the age of 8 years.

The king built two temples to put these statues. Ramoche temple which had to contain the Chinese princess’ statue, was Chinese architectural style and facing east (towards China). The Jokhang Temple, dedicated to the statue of the Nepalese princess was Tibetan and Newari style and was facing south (towards Nepal). Faced with the threat of invasion, Princess Wengchen hid the statue of Jowo in a secret chamber of the Jokhang. In the eighth century, another Chinese princess, wife of the Tibetan king Tride Tsugden, found the statue and put it in the central chapel of the Jokhang (“House of the Lord”) where it remained. This temple has become the largest pilgrimage location in Tibet, all the Tibetans are dreaming about going there one day in order to pay tribute to Jowo.

The Potala Palace

Originally Potala is the name of the pure land of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, protector of Tibet. King Songtsen Gampo is presented in later sources as the first king of Dharma, that emanation of Avalokiteshvara who, in collaboration with its Chinese and Nepalese wives have introduced Buddhism to Tibet. He is said to have built a castle on the red hill (Marpori). Today we can still visit the cave in which he would have meditated. In the seventeenth century, the Fifth Dalai Lama, Lobzang Gyatso (1617-1682) built on the same hill the Potala Palace.

Park Norbulingkha

The Seventh Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso (1708-1757) is responsible for the construction of the Norbulingka. Suffering from health problems, he often swims in spring of medicinal water and he made built a palace nearby. His successors, attracted by the beauty of this place, also erected other buildings and the government got into the habit of spending a month in this beautiful complex that became known as the Summer Palace.

Pilgrimage routes

The pilgrimage is a central element in Tibetans lives and one of the key practices is the circumambulation of the holy places, turning, for Buddhists, in the sense of clockwise for Bönpos (followers of the religion which co-exists with Buddhism in Tibet), anticlockwise.

In Lhasa, as in most of the holy places, there are three ways of Pilgrimages:

  • The Nangkor (literally “inner circumambulation”) inside the Jokhang Temple. The pilgrim enters each of the different chapels, marking a special devotion to the chapels which contains the statue of Jowo, the most sacred statue of the whole Tibet known to have been performed at the time of the Buddha himself Visvakarma by the craftsman of the gods.
  • The Barkor (“intermediate circumambulation”) track that turns around the Jokhang and which is also the site of an important market.
  • The Lingkor (“outer circumambulation”) surrounding the Potala Palace, Mount Chapkori and the old city of Lhasa with its many sacred temples and chapels. This path is 8 km long.

Ganden, Drepung, Sera

These three great monastic universities of the Gelougpas School of the Tibetan Buddhism are with Tashilhunpo in Shigatse, Labrang and Kumbum (Amdo) the biggest of the whole Tibet.

Thousands of monks were studying Buddhism there with big Lama and Guéch” (Doctors in traditional Tibetan philosophy). Even today, these monasteries are famous for historical heritage and the quality of their teaching.

Ganden Monastery (45 km from Lhasa)

Built in 1409 by Djé Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelugpas order, the Ganden monastery is about 50 km east of Lhasa. Tsonkhapa focused on the need for monastic discipline and the importance, for the devout, of the gradual path. Originally from Amdo, he came during his early years to study in Central Tibet. He gave to the monastery the name of Ganden, Tibetan name of the pure Land of the Buddha of the future, Jumpa (Maitreya). It’s the place where he died in 1419. There were about 300 monks.

Drepung Monastery (along Lhasa)

Founded in 1416 by Jamyang Choje Tashi Pelden (1397-1449), one of the main disciples of Tsongkhapa, Drepung is located 8 km northwest of Lhasa. This monastery was not only the biggest monastic university of Tibet but also an important administrative center when the Second Dalai Lama Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542) settled there by the end of fifteenth century. The monastery had up to 7000 monks and lamas and scholars were trained.


Sera Monastery (At the North of Lhasa)

5 km north of Lhasa, Sera lies at the foot of the Pourbouchok mountain, beneath a hermitage where Tsongkhapa spent many years in meditation. Its founder, Jamchen Choje Shakya Yeshe (1352-1435) was a disciple of Tsongkhapa. He began the construction of the monastery in 1419, the year of the death of his master. The monastery contained about 5000 monks.

Like all great Tibetan monasteries, it is composed of colleges where monks study and, of houses in which they reside.


Other Holy places in Lhasa

Very visited by Pilgrims, but much less by tourists than the great Monastery, these locations stepped in history offer a more authentic experience and allowed depending to the travel to have an overview of the daily life of Lhasa.

Lukhang – Naga Temple

The construction of the Potala had left behind the building, a large hole which was later filled by a lake. The Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1705) chose to build a small temple on an artificial mound. The Sixth Dalai Lama, despite his unconventional attitude (refused to take the vows of ordination and multiplied the total female conquests), is beloved of Tibetans. He is credited with numerous and beautiful poems. This temple is a great place to walk, not only for the beauty of the site, but also for the quality of the murals that we can admire.


Lhasa had two tantric colleges: Gyütö (which hosted Ramoche) and Gyümé. Gyümé was founded in 1433 by a disciple of Tsongkhapa, Je Sherab Senge. The monks learnt tantric rituals, doctrines and tantric practices there. 550 monks could live there.

Meru Nyingpa

Founded by Relpachen, third king of the Dharma in the eighth century, it was destroyed shortly after by the king Langdarma who is associated with the persecution of Buddhism by the Tibetan tradition. The assassination of this king in 842 put an end of the empire of Yarlung. The temple was rebuilt by Atisha Indian master who came to Tibet from 1042 to 1054. The monastery became Gelugpa in the Third Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso (1543-1589).

Tsepak Lhakhang

Ani Tsamkhung

This convent of nuns, located not far from Barkor, is one of three nunneries in Lhasa. According to tradition, a temple was built in the seventh century, the time of Songtsen Gampo. It was transformed in the fifteenth century in a convent of nuns by a disciple of Tsongkhapa.

Nechoung temple

Nechoung was both the residence of the Protective Divinity and the seat of the oracle of State through who was speaking the protector Dorje Drakden. Any important decision was taken by the Dalai Lama without consulting the oracle. The monastery is located about a mile southeast of Drepung.

Sangye Tonggu

Pabonka Monastery is one of the oldest Buddhist sites in the region. It was built in the 7th century by the King Songtsen Gampo. The King Trison Detsen and grand master Padmasambhava would have also meditated in this place. In one of the temples, we can see the letters “Om Mani Padme Hum” which would be the first letters engraved by Thonmi Sambhota, the minister of King Songtsen Gampo, who developed Tibetan writing system. You can also see a meditation cave in a rock shaped like a turtle and various chapels.

From the Pabonka monastery it is also possible to hike of 3 to 4 hours on the upper part of Lhasa to discover, besides the calm places and a beautiful panoramic views of Lhasa, the hermitage of Tashi Choling, Takten; Rakhadrak ans Sera Utse.

The hermitage of Tashi Choling was composed of four buildings, but only the principal one was rebuilt. Due to the presence of a controversial statue, this place is not very popular with pilgrims.

Inhabited by twenty nuns, Takten is a peaceful hermitage with caves and some buildings built in the hillside. In the main cave we can see a representation, which appeard spontaneously, from an eye of the divinity Cakrasamvara (Demchog) so as a source of healing power.

Dominating Sera monastery, Sera Utse was built on one of the meditation site of Dje Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the gelug order of Tibetan Buddhism. This cave can be visited.
The hermitage of Rakhadrak is composed of three caves of meditation of Dje Tsongkhapa and of his disciple. It’s in this place that Dje Tsongkhapa received a delegation from the Chinese Emperor asking him to stay in the Chinese court.
The hermitage of Keutsang was built near the old hermitage where we can see the ruins on a cliff.Currently, 25 monks are living in the new buildings.

Gyantse, Shigatse, Sakya

Located at the junction of the trade routes to India, Bhutan and Nepal, Gyantse was a city of utmost importance in Tibetan history from the 14th century. Palkhor Chode monastery can be visited there and the Kumbum Choten, a stupa of 35m high with 77 Chapels whith frescos which are from the 15th century let show Nepalese, Chinese and Tibetan artistic influences.

Currently Shigatse is the second most important time of Tibet, once the capital of the kings of Tsang and trade junction on the Nepal road. Tashilunpo Monastery was built in the 15th century by the First Dalaï Lama Gedundrup, and has become the head office of the Panchen-Lamas (the most important reincarnation line after the Dalaï Lama’s one).

Sakya Monastery is the birthplace of the Sakyapas School, one of the four main Schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Before the Cultural Revolution, Sakya was one the largest Monastery in the country. It is from here that the Tibet was governed during the hegemony period of Sakyapa (1268-1365). Today, Pilgrims came essentially to pay tribute to Lhakhang Chenmo, a masterpiece of Tsang, shaped fortress.

Yarlong Valley

Yarlung Valley

It is said that the Tibetan people is born from the union of a monkey (emanation of Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva of compassion) and a demon (emanation of Tara, Feminine divinity). The cave where they lived is located in the Yarlung Valley.



Samye Monastery is located about 150km southeast of Lhasa, not far of the north shore of Tsangpo, in a sand dunes landscape. Samye is a Monastery of a medium size if we compare it to the large Guelugpa Monasteries around Lhasa, much later, it’s true. Its symbolic value is huge. Its construction represents the triumph of Buddhism on the indegenious religion that preceded it, but this wasn’t happening without difficulties. The great king Trisong Destsen (742-792?) is at the origin of the construction of Samyé. He invited the big master Padmasambhava who by the strengths of his magical skills defeated all the locals divinities, turning them into religious protector. So he made possible the foundation of Samye.

The monastery is built on the model of a mandala. In the center stands the main temple, three floors high, opening to the east and identified at the Mount Sumeru. The four cardinal points, four temples represent the four major continents and between them, eight temples correspond to the eight minor continents. Four stupas in four colors, white, red, blue and black mark the four cardinal points. Each was built by one of the king’s ministers. Just as the universe is surrounded by a barrier of mountains, the monastery is surrounded by a circular enclosure. Outside the walls, each of the three wives of the king built a temple.