KEY FACTS ABOUT SHALU
School of Buddhism: Sakya order, suborder Bodong (Buton)
Founded: 1040 by Chetsun Sherab Jungnay
Location: 20 km from Shigatse
Altitude: 3,890 m
Shalu monastery is an old monastery located 20 km southeast of Shigatse (or 69 km from Gyantse) famous for its outstanding murals. It will be very interesting for those curious about Tibetan Buddhist Art, religion, and history. You should visit this wonderful monastery if you are looking for off-the-beaten-path destinations and want to get away from the popular tourist places.
During our recent visit to Shalu, monks in the chapels told us about the history of the chapels, the main statues and explained to us the significance of the murals, cultural influences, etc. As it often happens, visiting smaller monasteries offers a unique experience. You can spend time exploring the chapels, get blessings from the monks, and observe local visitors.
Shalu monastery belongs to the Buton school of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a suborder of the Sakya sect. Although Shalu is a minor order, it is highly influential. The tradition was founded based on the Sakya and Kadam teachings by Abbott Buton Rinchendrub in the 14th century. He edited 227 manuscripts of the Tibetan Buddhist Canon translated from Sanskrit Buddhist texts.
LOCATION OF SHALU
The monastery is located about 20 km southeast of Shigatse and 69 km from Gyantse. It is best to visit Shalu from either Gyantse or Shigatse.
If you are traveling from Lhasa, you might not reach it before it closes. Many monastery chapels are closing early in the afternoon.
When you make a turn towards the Shalu monastery, first you will drive by the Gyengong Lhakhang located to the right from the road.
Gyengong Lhakhang is said to be the first temple built in Tibet at the beginning of the Later Diffusion of Buddhism in 997. Its founder was Loton Dorje Wangchuk, a disciple of Lachen Gongpa Rabsel, and teacher of Jetsun Sherab Jungne. The main image in Gyengong Lhakhang is of Dorje Rabtenma, a form of the protectress Shridevi.
In the 13th century, Sakya Pandita received ordination as a Buddhist monk in Gyengong Lhakhang.
The restored Protectors chapel lies to the left of the entrance. Outside of the Chapel, there is a stone basin, that Sakya Pandita used following his ordination.
Pilgrims always visit a mushroom growing from one of the entrance pillars and protected by glass. It started growing when Gyengong’s incarnate lama was born in India.
SHALU MONASTERY COMPLEX
Shalu monastery architecture is different from all other monasteries in Tibet because of its Chinese architectural details. The Chinese-style roof is made of yellow and green glazed tiles with carvings. The main monastery was built in the 11th century. The complex was severely damaged by the earthquake in the 14th century. Han construction workers and artisans were hired to rebuild the monastery’s main temple Serkhang Temple. Although the complex was damaged during the Cultural Revolution, the main temple remained almost intact as it served as a storeroom.
Monks living quarters in the Northern part of the complex were home to 3,800 monks. Nowadays around 80 monks live in Shalu.
The Serkhang Temple of Shalu stands within Shalu village. Chetsun Sherab Jungnay originally built the temple in 1040. After the earthquake in 1290 and 1333 Gonpopel, Drakpa Gyeltsen and Buton Rinchendrub renovated the temple with the help of Mongolian emperor Oljadu. To the left from the main temple, there is a protector’s chapel. There are ancient murals there as well, however, it is hard to see them.
After the 14th-century reconstruction, the main entrance of the temple was turned into a wall. The main entrance is now on the right side of the temple.
The stunning interior murals reveal the influence of Mongol, Newari, Tibetan, and Chinese art styles.
There are three floors. The main Assembly hall Tsokhang is on the ground floor. There are seven chapels and an inner kora-pilgrimage circuit decorated with incredible 14th-century murals. The inner Serkhang contains a statue of Buton. There are also statues of the monastery’s founder and the tantric deity Dukhor (Kalachakra).
The South chapel – Segoma Lhakhang housed the Shalu famous library. You can still see ancient Kangyur scriptures displayed inside. The beautiful Newari style murals decorate walls.
The West chapel Lhakhang Lhoma contains some of the most important relics of Shalu. In the chapel, you will see the naturally appeared statue of Chenresig, Compassion Buddha. It is the most important relic of the monastery. In the same chapel, you can see the ritual vessel of the Indian master Virupa. This vessel with sacred water was opened only once in 12 years when pilgrims could receive the blessing. Next to the vessel, there is a self-sounding conch shell and a sandalwood mandala.
On the walls of the West chapel you can see unusual 3-d murals (tsha-tsha in Tibetan). Many of the murals are now missing, some fell down but many were taken as souvenirs.
The Upper floor has four chapels corresponding to cardinal directions.
All of the chapels have large murals painted on the walls. Buton Rinchendrub was overseeing the painting of these murals in the 14th century. Many of these mandalas are in rough shape and obscured by hanging thangkas or cabinets with sculptures and scriptures.
The South chapel displays some Kangyur scriptures. Unlike the scriptures in the South chapel of the ground floor, these are newer. You can also see Mandala murals painted on the walls.
In the West chapel, you will see copper stupas that contain relics of Atisha and Buton Rinchendrub. There are also statues of 16 Arhats.
On the second floor, you can visit a recently opened chapel with Buddha statues of cardinal directions.
PLACES TO VISIT NEAR SHALU
Phuntsok Ling is another monastery with great ancient murals. The murals are well-preserved and have high cultural and historical value. You will enjoy visiting the monastery. It is surrounded by the mountains and monastery stands by the Brahmaputra River 105 km away from Shigatse.
Tashi Lhunpo is one of the six great Gelug monasteries in Tibet. It is also the seat of Panchen Lama – the second most revered Lama in Tibet. The large complex has spectacular chapels with ancient artifacts. One of the most important chapels houses the Future Buddha statue – the largest Maitreya statue in the world. It is decorated with many kilograms of gold and hundreds of precious stones.
RECOMMENDED TOURS TO VISIT SHALU
This private tour starts in Lhasa, where we spend the first three days acclimatizing. While in Lhasa, we visit UNESCO World Heritage sites: Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple, and two main monasteries in Lhasa: Sera and Drepung. After that, we will drive on the scenic road visiting Yamdrok Lake, Karola glaciers and Gyantse monastery, before reaching Shigatse in the evening.
On the next day, we visit the Tashi Lhunpo monastery before returning back to Lhasa. We recommend also visiting Shalu monastery after going to Tashi Lhunpo.
This slow-paced private tour takes you from Lhasa to Gyantse and Shigatse, where we spend the first few days acclimatizing. We will visit many of the historical and religious places, such as Potala Palace, Jokhang temple, Gyantse monastery, and Kumbum Stupa.
You can visit the Shalu monastery on the fifth day when you are driving from Gyantse to Shigatse.