Project Overview | Baiya Mural Conservation | Palpung Architecture Project
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1995: Bathing the Gods | 1996: Whacking the Gods | 1997: Monastery Repaired | 1997: Accounting Practices
1998: Day in the Life | 1998: Conservation Complete | 1998: Baiya Revived  | 1999: Art Report

China Exploration & Research Society (CERS) and Kham Aid Foundation

 Palpung Architecture Project  
A Chronicle of Restoration

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The last reigning Dege King, photographed while in detention in Batang with his family
Denba Tsering, one of the great Dege Kings


It is believed that the founder of the monastery was Palden Shangchub Lingpa. He was originally from eastern Dengko (now incorporated into Dege County). He successfully merged a number of small monasteries, Trana Gonpa, Langrog Gonpa, Yanong Gonpa, and Wuchhen Gonpa (present day Palpung) into one big monastery. His successor was called Ngara Rinchhen Tshultrim.

Because Palden Shangchub Lingpa belonged to the Sakya Sect he converted Palpung into Sakya. When the monastery was converted back to Kagyu is not known. The most famous Dege King, Chögyal Denba Tsering, vigorously supported Palpung and made the Eight Tai Situpa Rinpoche, Chögyi Jungne, the head tulku (incarnate lama). He is considered by many to be the founder of the monastery.

Palpung subsequently became the most important of the five large monasteries under the Dege King's patronage. It is also the largest and most important Kagyu monastery in Dege.

Religious leadership

Palpung is the traditional seat if four lines of incarnate lamas (rinpoches, or tulkus). Of these, Situ Rinpoche is the oldest and most important. Situ Rinpoche so far has had twelve generations of reincarnations. The Kongtrul line has four generations, (including the latest, who is now a young boy), the Khyentse line has two, and Wöngen, three. Currently, only Wongen Rinpoche is in residence; the others live in exile. He is ten years old (in 1999), and is receiving a traditional religious education.

There are also many famous monk-scholars in Palpung's history. Some of them are well-known throughout the Kham area and the Tibetan plateau, for example Jara Khenpo, Tropu Khenpo, and Joru Khenpo.

Several Buddhist groups have posted information about these tulkus on the World Wide Web; see for example this article by Ken Holmes about Situ Rinpoche, or this article about Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche presented by a Kagyu organization.

Meaning of the monastery’s name

The Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rin-poche traveling to Palpung in 1991

In Chinese, the monastery is called Babang, which is not too far from the local pronunciation of the Tibetan name (approximately "Bebung"). There are several possible derivations of Palpung (dPal sPung): The syllable "Pal’ could have been taken from the founder of the monastery, Palden Shangchub Lingpa. Pung means ‘heap", perhaps referring to the large number of people living there, or who participated in the construction, or to the large number of shrines, prayer halls, and constituent monasteries that compose it. Alternatively, based on an interpretation of early Tibetan, the name of Palpung means a land of good fortune wealth and prosperity, or a place where talented people are cultivated. Palpung is situated at a site where three mountains converge resembling three sacred elephants, therefore the name could also have been derived from "where three elephants meet".

Art at Palpung

For the last few hundred years Palpung has led the surrounding area in painting skills. Few of its original murals survive, but the monastery does have many thankas. Palpung is the birthplace of the Karma Kagyu (or Gar) painting style. As a major school of art, its murals are grand in style, colorful and artistic. Beside stories about the Buddha and bodhisattvas there is also wildlife, architecture, history, etc. depicted in these paintings. The recent paintings are a departure from the tradition by not being directly painted on the walls. They were first painted on cloth (resembling huge thankas) before being hung or pasted to the walls. This method, though unconventional, helps avoid damage from the cracks and instability of the wall face.

Some Palpung thankas have made their way into collections outside Tibet, for example a painting in the collection of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation. Paintings have also been spotted in the collections of the Pacific Asia Museum (Pasadena, California), and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Use your browser back button to return from outside links)

Palpung during the Cultural Revolution

During the political upheavals of 1958 most of the monasteries of Ganzi Prefecture were closed and the monks evicted. Within Dege County, Goenchen and Palpung were retained as protected monasteries. At Palpung about ten older lamas were allowed to remain within the monastery as keepers. Later during the Cultural Revolution the monastery became the administration building of the local village government. Other government agencies that used the monastery were the trading company, food and grains store, health and medical units, and so forth. Because of its practical use during those turbulent years, the monastery was saved from destruction.

In 1982 the monastery was reopened to religious activities. The Government has twice allocated money for the repair and maintenance of Palpung. The total amount is 206,000 yuan (in 1982 the currency exchange was US $1 = 1.7 yuan). Subsequently, major support has come from Situ Rinpoche, Akong Rinpoche, the China Exploration and Research Society, and the Kham Aid Foundation. The local people as well as the monks have also contributed money, labor and material for the maintenance of the monastery.

In the early 1950s there were over 500 monks at Palpung. It was recorded that at its height the monastery had over 1000 monks. In November of 1984 when the Situ Rinpoche returned to Palpung for a visit from India he gave a set of robes to each monk at the monastery. At the time the total census and sets of clothing given out was 371, however many of these monks do not normally reside in the monastery. In 1991 those in residence numbered about 140, and form a more or less stable population. They came from the local area of Palpung and the rest of Sichuan, TAR, Qinghai, and Yunnan. Thirty of them were considered Lama with the remaining being trapa (student monks). In 1991 the oldest monk was 73 years of age; six monks were over 60 years of age, with the youngest monk being 11. At Palpung it takes usually a trapa four to five years of study to become a monk. Another three years and three months and three days of meditation at the Ridong (house of meditation) with much restriction on activity are required before being conferred the title of a lama.

The architecture of Palpung

At some 3950 meters above sea level, perched on a stupendous lookout above the Bei Chhu River, the main temple of Palpung is an extraordinary structure. It is the second largest traditional Tibetan building in the world, and known locally as the "Little Potala Palace." Because of its huge size, the building is far more complex than typical Tibetan structures. It has as many as five stories in some parts, three courtyards, about 115 rooms (not counting the basement catacombs), an assembly hall 49 jian in size (meaning it has 36 pillars), a chamber housing a 20-meter tall Maiteya statue, suites of rooms for four incarnate lamas, numerous kitchens (most with ventilation shafts to the roof), classrooms, storage rooms, and student dormitories.

Palpung, south wall overlooking south courtyard

Palpung is built with standard Tibetan post-and-beam construction: click here for diagrams of typical floor and ceiling designs. The materials are all locally found: timber, clay, and stone. Exterior walls are made of rammed earth. Interior walls are timber, rammed earth, or wattle-and-daub. The roof is made of layered logs, branches, and clay. Most interior surfaces are decorated.

Like many Tibetan buildings, Palpung’s main temple is constructed like a fortress. There are only three entrances. The walls are more than one meter thick at the base. Windows are small, high, and equipped with sliding wooden panels so they can be closed easily. Stairwells can be closed off with wooden hatches.

More photographs of Palpung's construction can be found in the project reports; just click on one of the links below.


1995: Bathing the Gods | 1996: Whacking the Gods | 1997: Monastery Repaired | 1997: Accounting Practices
1998: Day in the Life | 1998: Conservation Complete | 1998: Baiya Revived  | 1999: Art Report

Project Overview | Baiya Mural Conservation | Palpung Architecture Project
How You Can Help | Project Personnel | About CERS | About KAF