“Gyantse Kumbum,” Tibet’s Sistine Chapel (posted 04-28-12)
One of the most stunning, unspoiled art centers of Tibet is the nine-story Stupa known as Kumbum, in the town of Gyantse, central Tibet. Gyantse was an independent kingdom until recently. The king’s castle (now empty) towers from a hilltop, overlooking a massive 3 story Monastery temple called Pelchor, the Kumbum Stupa, and a medieval village called Gyantse.
Gyantse’s Kumbum is one of the spiritual centers of Tibet. To the east, a seven hour drive over Neji Kangsa Pass and Yamtso Lakes is Lhasa. To the west is Mt Everest, and the road south to Sikkim and Nepal. To the far west, a three-day journey by jeep, lies Mt Kailash, the Kingdom of Guge – with Separang and Tuoling temples, and Ladakh. Kumbum, which means “tens of thousands,” refers to the immense number of Buddhist images painted and sculpted in Gyantse, a genre of 15th century art unique to central Tibet.
By sealing the doors with patriotic slogans, the Pelchor temple and the Kumbum stupa were kept intact from the ravages of the Red Guard and the Cultural Revolution. Since the 1420’s the monks have preserved Tibet’s grandest collection of Statues, murals, and sacred Mandala for pilgrims to admire. It is by far the favorite place of the visitors and students, whom I have taken with me to Tibet. From mid May through mid-June is the best time to go, before the monsoons begin, after the below-zero autumn and winter cold ends. The sacred masked dances called CHAM, on Sagadawa, Buddha’s birth celebration, can also be seen during this time. The Kumbum Stupa was completed in 1427, nine decades before Michelangelo painted the Sistine chapel ceiling (between 1508 and 1512). There are in fact 27,600+ images and statues on display throughout the nine floors, in 73 chapels, shrines, and sanctuaries.
The ground floor of the stupa, not open to the public, contains in fact the basic design of the Kumbum structure, a mandala, or geometric plan of the cosmos as sacred encounter, with “Dorje Chang” (Vajra Dhara), the ultimate Buddha who purifies and enlightens all sentient beings by the use of thunder and lightning, as its focus. Above the First Floor, there are 8 more stories, containing Kumbun’s 27,600 images, as follows:
1st floor, 4 major temples, 16 chapels, using images for purification from the Kria tantra;
2nd floor, 16 chapels, with images for illuminating with the Carya tantra;
3rd floor, 4 temples, 16 chapels with Yoga Tantra images for apophasis, ie, sunya emptying;
4th floor, 12 chapels, with Anuttaraya Yoga images of Tibet’s holy monks and sages;
5th-floor, 4 major temples with images of the 5 “Salvational” Buddhas; (special permission is requird to go above the 5th floor);
6th floor, the “lower Harmika dome” with images of “father” tantras;
7th floor, the “upper Harmika dome” with images of “mother” tantras;
8th floor, the Campana, with the image of Vajra Dhara, Thunder-lightning Buddha;
9th floor, a copula, coming out of the inner dark corridors to the open sky
The great Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci wrote a 3 Volume description of the Gyantse temples, which can still be bought in Hong Kong bookshops (Rome: 1941; New Delhi, 1989). F. Ricca and E. Lobue published a beautiful single volume of color prints, called “The Great Stupa of Gyantse” (London: 1993), which can be found in Swindon’s bookshop in Kowloon.
Five images taken on site are posted below:
1. Pelchor temple and Gyantse Kumbum, with Michael Saso and Kunga-la
2. Machig Lobdron, Tibet’s great Woman Mystic, 4th floor “Chod” chapel
3. Milarepa, Tibet’s great mystic poet, 4th floor Guru Chapel
4. Ozer, or Marici, Light goddess, (also in Daoism and Japanese Buddhism) 1st floor chapel