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  • Global Nomad Tibet & Jimpa

Kumbum, the 100.000-image monastery

Kumbum is important mostly for Buddhists from the Gelukpa school. You will know why in a few minutes..

1. Why is Kumbum monastery so important?

Kumbum used to be a village. Tsonkhapa was born there in the 14th century. If you want to learn about historical figures from Tibetan history, that’s probably one name you should remember.

Here is a quick summary of Tsonkhapa’s life story. If you already know it, feel free to skip this part!


Tsonkhapa is the founder of the Geluk school, to which the Dalaï Lama and the Penchen Lama institutions belong. All the famous big monasteries in Lhasa are Gelukpa too (Sera, Drepung and Ganden).

Tsonkhapa became a novice monk at a young age. He met his master in his hometown in Kumbum. That master took him along for meditation sessions in caves nearby. Tsonkhapa took full monastic vows at 16. Then he moved to Lhasa. He actually never came back home after that.

In Lhasa, he learned from all Buddhist schools (Nyima, Sakya and Kagyu). He spent time meditating in many caves around Lhasa. And most importantly, he created a new way of practicing Buddhism, therefore founding the 4th and last school of Tibetan Buddhism: the Gelukpa school.

Among many other things, he was an advocate of the full monastic life, including living within monastic communities in monasteries and celibacy vows. This lifestyle was quite appealing to many Tibetans. Until then, as there were no rules imposing celibacy, other many Buddhist practitioners had founded families and lived in the society among lay people. That strict Buddhist way convinced many people and Tsonkhapa’s philosophy soon became popular.

Mongolian leaders, who had become Buddhists in the past century thanks to some important masters from the Sakya school, ended up supporting Tsonkhapa. Most Mongolian Buddhists have been followers of the Gelukpa school ever since. Buddhist Mongolians consider that they have to come to Kumbum at least once in their life as it was Tsongkhapa’s birth place.


It is said that when Tsonkhapa’s mother gave birth, drops of blood from his umbilical cord spread on the floor. And that from those drops of blood a tree was born. This tree grew to have one hundred thousand leaves, an image of the Buddha on each of them. That’s the origin of the monastery’s full name: Kumbum Jampa Ling (སྐུ་འབུམ་བྱམས་པ་གླིང་) which means the 100.000 Buddha images monastery.

The 3rd Dalaï Lama decided to build the monastery where that 100.000-buddha tree grew. He had passed through Kumbum when he was on a visit to Mongolia. As he was part of the Gelukpa school, this place was sacred so he came to pay homage. That’s when he asked the locals to build a temple there. The locals accepted and that’s how Kumbum monastery was built.

2. What does Kumbum monastery look like?

The architecture is mixed because it was influenced by Mongolia, China and Tibet. It looks quite different from the monasteries in Central Tibet.

It’s clearly not the largest monastery but very important because of it was Tsonkhapa’s birth place.

Alexandre David-Néel stayed there for 2 years.

There are around 400 monks living there. The majority of them are Tibetan or Mongolian (and there are some Han Chinese).

3. What are the highlights of Kumbum monastery ?

  • The stupa in the Gsersdong chapel ("Golden tree" temple) which is the holiest place in the monastery.

  • Butter scriptures : Tibetan nomads work during the year, but not during the winter. They go in the monasteries and do a lot of offerings. They don’t have flowers to offer because it doesn’t grow in winter. They thought about offering flower-shaped butter.

  • A 16 arhats embroider in the assembly hall

  • 8 massive stupas at the entrance

And so much more.

Kumbum Monastery is very close to Xining, only 20+ km south of Xining. It is unfortunately very touristy (especially in summer) but it is worth visiting. If you really want to enjoy the site, avoid July and August.

From Kumbum, you can continue to the Tibetan areas, like Rebkong and Labrang.


This article was co-written with Jimpa, our Amdo partner.

Please write to us if you would like more information about Amdo or if you would like us to put you in touch with Jimpa directly!


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