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Gedan Songzanlin Monastery

Last Updated on 2020/12/07

Gedan Songzanlin Monastery (噶丹·松赞林寺) is located in the north of Shangri-la County town, initially established in Ming Dynasty and extended in 1679 under Emperor Kang Xi’s authorization, and finally built-in 1681.

The fifth Dalai Lama named the temple “Gedan Songzanlin Monastery”. It is entitled to the Tibetan Art Museum of epitomizing the Tibetan plastic arts.

Gedan Songzanlin Monastery Map

Basic Information

Geographic location: 5 kilometers away from downtown of Shangri-La County in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture
Scenic status: the largest Lamaist Temple in Yunnan province; a provincial key culture relic.
Tour time: 2 ~ 3 hours

Travel Tips

  1. Tibetan Buddhism is one of the three divisions of Buddhism. It is also called Tibetan Classical Buddhism and more popularly known as Lamaism. Tibetan Buddhism mainly includes four sects, namely, Nyingma Sect, Sakya Sect, Gelug Sect and Kagyu Sect. Tibetan Buddhism was introduced into Yunnan in the middle of the Dali Kingdom Period (11th century) while Kagyu Sect was the first to come to Yunnan. Among these sects, Gelug Sect had the greatest sphere of influence and Kagyu Sect was next. In Yunnan Province, Tibetan Buddhism, which is practiced by the Tibetans, some Naxis, and Pumis, is popular mainly in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and Ninglang County in Lijiang Prefecture.
  2. The forms of service in Tibetan Buddhism are mainly the assembly for preaching and Icham (Tibetan Buddhist Dance). People wearing masks follow a set of dance movements during an Icham. Nowadays Icham has become a folk festival activity. Buddhist assemblies have also been enriched with new content and become traditional folk activities. The grandest occasion is the assembly for worshiping and commemorating Sakyamuni on 5th~15th January of the lunar year.

Recommended Tour Route

Entrance → Zhacang Hall → Zhacang Rear Hall → Jikang Hall → 8 side halls

Key Points

Basic facts of Shangri-La; the meaning of the name of the temple; the history of the temple; frescos at the entrance; the cause-effect doctrine of Buddhism, Tsong-kha-ba’s experiences, and status; Dalai Lama VII


Lost Horizon by James Hilton

Shangri-La is the new official name for Zhongdian County in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture since September 2001. It is located in the northwest of Yunnan Province, neighboring Tibet in the northwest and Sichuan Province in the north. It’s about 700 kilometers away from Kunming.

Shangri-La means in the Tibetan language “the sun and the moon in the heart” and “paradise” in English. It also means “a place of idyllic beauty” and represents a state of mind and a dream of people —- the yearning for simplicity, honesty, and harmony.

As a loanword, it first appeared in 1933 in the novel “The Lost Horizon” by the British writer James Hilton. The novel tells about a British diplomat and three friends flying from China to India. During the flying over the southern part of the Himalayan Mountains, the plane, lacking gasoline, was forced to land on the snow-covered place. While in despair, they were rescued by some kind local Tibetan people and spent some wonderful time in a beautiful land, which was full of the sunshine, everlasting snow, flowers in blossom, and herds of cattle and where Tibetan people were leading a tranquil life. Later they came back to seek for that place but failed. The only thing they could remember about the place was the Tibetan word sounding like “Shangri-La”, after which the place in the novel was named. Upon its publication, the book became the best seller. It was especially popular after Hollywood shot a film based on it.

Its theme song “This Beautiful Place” helped “Shangri-La” become better known around the world. Consequently, travelers, adventurers, ethnologists, and other people began to explore and locate the place “Shangri-La”. The place was not found until in 1971 when Guo Henian, an overseas Chinese in Malaysia, expressed his desire and dream in a very special way. The brothers Guo invested in a five-star hotel in Singapore and after careful study and consideration named it “Shangri-La”.

Up to the year 1988, the brother Guo had set up 36 luxurious hotels in the Asia-Pacific region, among which fourteen were in China. As their business prospered, the younger generation knew “Shangri-La” as the name of modern hotels, but few people heard of the novel “The Lost Horizon”. However, some experts were still holding the hope to find the place Shangri-La. They had been to many places such as Tibet, India, and Nepal to find out where that mysterious land was. As time went by, people paid more attention to the northwestern plateau of Yunnan. The scenery described in “The Lost Horizon” is very similar to what can be found here. Such scenery in the concurrent flow of the three rivers can be seen in Yunnan only, and Diqing is the central part of the three parallel flowing rivers.

By the middle of the 1990s, much evidence has proved that “Shangri-La” is right here in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. In December 1996 Yunnan Government invited numerous experts and other people concerned to make a thorough investigation. These experts reached the conclusion that Shangri-La is actually located in the Diqing area. In September 1997 Yunnan Government proclaimed that Shangri-La was in this region and that a scenic resort of international levels would be built here within 10 years. In 2001, China State Council approved that the name of Zhongdian was changed to Shangri-La. Now more and more tourists from home and abroad choose to tour in Shangri-La, Diqing, the bright pearl of the tourist Kingdom of Yunnan, which is emitting a more brilliant light.

The Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery

There are many magnificent scenic attractions in the Shangri-La area, for example, snow mountains, deep valleys, great rivers, highland lakes, meadows, unique buildings, and virgin forests. Among them, the Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery is really worth visiting as one of the unique buildings. Five kilometers away from Shangri-La, it is the largest Tibetan Buddhist lamasery in Yunnan Province as well as one of the 13 famous Lamaist monasteries in Tibetan regions.

Throughout history, Tibetan Buddhism has developed into different schools and such sects as the Nyingma Sect, the Sakya Sect, the Gelug Sect, and Kagyu Sect. The Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery features the Gelug Sect.

This lamasery has a history of over 320 years. In the Qing Dynasty, Dalai Lama V suppressed the conflicts between different Buddhist sects in Tibetan regions, and after that, he sent a report to Emperor Kangxi, under whose authorization he started the building of the Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery in 1679. Dalai Lama V chose the site in person and found the ideal place with good surroundings. When construction was completed in 1681, with the permission from Emperor Kangxi, Dalai Lama V named it Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery. And then the following Emperor Yongzheng in the Qing Dynasty bestowed it a Chinese name called Guihua Lamasery. Since then the Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery has been a holy Lamaism temple for pilgrims. In 1936 the Second Route of Red Army marched to Zhongdian when General He Long and Xiao Ke went to the lamasery and visited the living Buddha and lamas. During their stay there, they presented the lamasery with a silk flag with the words “May the Tibetan prosperous”, and the lamasery offered grains to the Red Army. This silk flag is now preserved in the Museum of Chinese Army.

Lection Tower in a Lamaist Temple in Shangri-la

The lamasery took up the whole area of about 33.3 hectares. It was built in the pattern of the Potala Palace in Lhasa and hence the name “Small Potala Palace”. Besides the lamasery itself, it has 2 main buildings at the top in the center and 8 wing buildings around them. The main building can hold 1,600 monks sitting and chanting scriptures. There are also hundreds of small houses for Buddhist monks, living Buddha, and lamas. The outside parts of the lamasery buildings are all oval walls.

The Gadan Sonzanlin Lamasery has a good collection of treasures and historical relics, including the bronze statues of Dalai Lama V,Dalai Lama VII and Maitreya as well as Buddhist scriptures on leaves. Compared with Han Chinese Buddhist temples, Tibetan Buddhist temples or lamaseries are invested with an air of mystery. Therefore, the lamaseries in the Tibetan areas are tall and large but somewhat gloomy inside, with streamers hanging down and the pillars decorated with colorful carpets. All of these reveal a sense of solemn and mystery.

The Scenery of Shangri-la

Entrance Gate of the Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery

At the gate of the Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery is a horizontal board inscribed with “Gedan Song Zan Lin Si”(the Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery). It is greatly related to the first Gadan Lamaism temple built in Lhasa in Tibet. In 1410 A.D., the Buddha Tsong-kha-ba hosted the dedication ceremony for the construction of Gadan Lamaism Temple for the Gelug Sect, and after that many Lamaism temples were named “Gadan”, aiming to inherit the name of the first temple of Gelug Sect in Lhasa. “Song” in the Tibetan language means “three”, which is an auspicious number in Buddhism.

According to Buddhism, Buddha, Buddhist law, and monks are called “three creatures of Buddhism”, and at the same time sutras, disciplines and doctrines are called “Tripikata”, and the world is divided into three smaller worlds — Eastern Glazed World, Human World and Western Paradise. Buddha Sakyamuni also has three bodies including the body of Buddhist law and truth, the body of reward and the (physical body of) incarnation Sakyamuni. “Zan” means the recreation place of God, and “lin” means the place of paradise full of happiness, while “si” is a Chinese word with the meaning of temple. Such a picturesque land, seen as a holy place, stands for the supreme stage for Buddhism believers.

On the two sides of the gate are the frescos of four deva kings. “Four Deva Kings”, also known as “Four Buddha Warriors”, are the most influential guardian gods. The Four Deva Kings refer to Southern King (meaning developing merits) with a sword as a magic instrument is in charge of the bumper harvest in four directions; Eastern King (meaning protection of Buddhism) with a musical instrument called in Chinese “pipa” is responsible for adjustment; Northern King (meaning knowledgeable) with an umbrella is in charge of rain; and Western King (meaning far sight) holds a tamed dragon or snake in the right hand. They are all responsible for guarding the gate of the heaven.

The-Gedan-songzhanlin-Lamasery-in-Shangri-la-Gedan Songzanlin Monastery
The Gedansongzhanlin Lamasery in Shangri-la

Inside the gate are four wall-paintings on two sides. The first painting is about a Mongolian man fastening a tiger. This painting tells us a historic event. Once Dalai Lama III gave Buddhist lectures in the Mongolian area and developed a good relationship with the Mongolians. Later, Dalai Lama V replaced the power with the support of Mongolian force and Gelug Sect became the dominant sect in Tibet. This painting was drawn in order to praise and practice the devotion of the Mongolian force. The second painting is about the harmonious coexistence of four animals. According to Buddhist fairy tales, the elephant, the monkey, the hare and the pheasant having lived harmoniously wanted to follow one another according to their age. As a result, the pheasant was considered to be the oldest, the monkey the second, the hare the third, and the elephant the last. Therefore, the elder one carried the younger on backs respectively. This indicates people’s respecting the elders and taking good care of the youngsters. The third painting is called the Longevity Picture, with deer, cranes, pine-trees, and green mountains in it. The last painting is a complete picture of the Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery.

To sum up, the gate hall shows that during the administration of Dalai Lama V, people lived peacefully and harmoniously thanks to the widespread and influence of Buddhism as well as his devoted contribution to the area.

Zhacang Hall

Zhacang Hall is the highest and greatest part of the lamasery. A horizontal golden board hangs over its gate. On the board, there are four Chinese characters: “Ci Yun Guang Fu”, which means “widespread of the benevolent clouds”. It was bestowed by Prince He Shuoguo, a brother of Emperor Yongzheng in the Qing Dynasty.

In Zhacang Hall there are two other important pictures. One is the Picture of Birth and Death Transmigration. It’s said that cause, effect, and doctrine are the three core ideas of Buddhism, so Buddhism believes that everything has cause and effect and that the origin and existence of everything are the successive processes of cause and effect. That’s why people say “Virtues cause good rewards; vices cause bad rewards”. When the time comes, it is realized. The picture tells people that if one follows the four noble truths of Buddhism, he can get rid of the worries. The inside part of the wall is like the grand maze. Many streamers on the post create a mysterious and solemn atmosphere. Here are frescos of Buddha, Bodhisattva, and Buddhist Guardians. The most important part of the hall is the Buddha platform in the middle. The statues of Tsong-kha-ba and his followers Maitreya, Sakyamuni, and God of Mercy and Dalai Lama V are much appreciated and worshiped. Among them, the statue of Dalai Lama V is the biggest one.

Zhacang Rear Hall

Zhacang Rear Hall was reconstructed during the period of Dalai Lama VII. There are three gold-covered copper statues of Tsong-kha-ba, Maitreya, and Dalai Lama VII. What impresses visitors is the height of the statues being all over 10 meters.

The first statue is that of Tsong-kha-ba, who was born in 1357 and was the founder of Gelug Sect of Lamaism. Tsong-kha-ba became a monk at the age of 7 and studied Buddhism for 9 years with his teacher. In 1385 he became a Buddha of high reputation. Later he made reform of different sects of Lamaism and founded a new Gelug Sect. Because of his great contribution to Lamaism, his statue is made the biggest.

The second statue is Maitreya. Maitreya is the appointed successor of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism who is called the Buddha of Future. Maitreya managed in his period to make people’s life easy and beautiful, making the land a peaceful one. That is why he is worshiped and his statue is also highly respected.

The third statue is Dalai Lama VII. He lived during the Period of Emperor Yong Zheng. When he was re-conferred the title by Emperor Yong Zheng, he held power in politics and religion in Tibet and became a real ruler with the power of both politics and religion. It was he who combined politics and Lamaism and began the system of unification of the power of both. He was at his time the highest religious leader and represented the most powerful leader in politics. He made a great contribution to political, economic, and religious development in the Tibetan area. One example is that the Rear Hall of the Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery was rebuilt during his administration.
On the other parts of the walls are the followers of the great Buddha Tsong-kha-ba. It is said that Tsong-kha-ba had many pupils, among whom 135 became very famous.


Further on, there is the Tsong-kha-ba Hall or Jikang Hall. The hall was built during the Minguo Period under the supervision of Songmou Angwengluosang Danzengjiacuo, the abbot of the Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery. The Tsong-kha-ba Hall also presents the magnificent characteristics of the lamasery — the appearance of the hall is the same as that of the main hall. The two unique characteristics of this hall are that the glittering gold-covered tilts on the roof can be seen from miles away and that the gold-covered copper statue of Tsong-kha-ba enjoys the fame as “the greatest statue in the Tibetan areas”.

After the 8 side halls of the Buddhist Association in Tibet, the sights worth visiting are the Fiendish Gods Hall, God Spring, and God Tree. They each have a beautiful legend related to Gods.
The Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery is abundant in precious cultural relics. Therefore, a visit to the Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery is also a journey to the ancient architecture of the Tibetan Buddhism Monastery and an appreciation of mysterious Buddhist ceremonies.

Words and Expressions

the Gadan Songzanlin Lamasery 噶丹·松赞林寺
Dingqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture 迪庆藏族自治州
Tsong-kha-ba [人名] 宗喀巴 (格鲁派创始人)
Gelug Sect 格鲁派
Lhasa 拉萨
Sakyamuni 释迦牟尼
Dalai Lama V 达赖喇嘛五世
Zhacang Hall 扎仓殿
Prince He Shuoguo 和硕亲王
Jikang Hall 吉康殿
Shangri-La 香格里拉
Minguo Period 民国时期
Songmou Angwengluosang Danzengjiacuo [人名] 松谋·昂翁洛桑·丹增嘉措
Qinghai-Tibet Plateau 青藏高原
The Lost Horizon 《消失的地平线》(小说名,作者为英国作家詹姆斯·希尔顿)

Images: Oliver Huang

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