A Quick Guide To Himalayan Buddhist Sites

So you’re planning a trip to the Himalaya and you keep reading about the stupa, chorten, mani, lhakhang, gompa, and dzong that you will see along the way. Wait … the what?

These terms can be confusing to travellers who aren’t so familiar with Buddhism, so we’ve put together a quick guide to help you understand what they all mean. Use this guide so you can spend more time enjoying - and understanding - what you’re seeing, and less time getting lost in language.  

1.     Gompa = Monastery

Ubiquitous in the Himalaya, gompa means monastery. Gompa can range in size from small structures to village-like campuses, but all serve the same purpose of educating monks or nuns and taking care of their surrounding lay community’s religious needs.

Gompa usually contain a courtyard, assembly hall used for prayer services, apartments for the monks, various temples, scripture halls, and a communal kitchen. Their primary function is as a university – engaging students in programmes of study to take them from novice to graduate geshe (the Buddhist equivalent of a PhD) over time. You may see children as young as seven years old who have been sent to begin their monastic education, as new entrants are welcome at any age.

A secondary function, which enables the gompa to partially provide for itself, is as a company providing religious services to the surrounding community. These services include the performance of rituals, reciting of prayers for ill or deceased loved ones, and selling blessed objects for protection or spiritual development.

Near Tagong.jpg

2.     Lhakhang = Temple

Lhakhang comes from the Tibetan language, and means “House of the Gods”, which we translate into English as temple or chapel. Lhakhang can exist both inside monasteries and separately, and some big monasteries will have multiple different lhakhang that you will visit.

Each lhakhang is dedicated to a specific god or saint, who you will see images of on the main altar inside. Many Himalayan monasteries will also have a gonkhang, which is a different type of temple dedicated to the wrathful protector deities. Gonkhang are dark and disquieting places, and women are traditionally forbidden from entering them.

LHAKHANG interior, dedicated to Tsongkhapa - Tibet.jpg

3.     Stupa/Chorten

Whether you hear it called a stupa or a chorten, this word means the same thing (stupa is from the Sanskrit language, chorten is from the Tibetan). This is one of the most recognisable Buddhist sites you’ll see across the Himalaya, and serves several different functions.

One function is as a reliquary – housing the remnants of the Buddha, his disciples, or saints. As well as ashes or bodily relics, these remnants can also be important scriptures, which are regarded as the speech of the Buddha, or a saint’s begging bowl.

Stupa can also serve a symbolic function, representing events in the life of the Buddha, or aspects of Buddhist theology. These ones are subtly differentiated by their shape and form, see if you can spot the differences!  

4.     Dzong = Fortress

This term is primarily found in Bhutan, as the fortresses of old in Nepal and Tibet are mostly in ruin nowadays. Dzong means fortified place, and can be used to refer either to a fortified watchtower or fortified palace.

In Bhutan, dzong are usually part-administrative and part-monastic, reflecting the duality and close connection of religion and government in the country. Their strong structure was necessary during past conflict and invasions, but these days serve only peaceful purposes.

Tiger's Nest.jpg

5.     Mani = Prayer

You’ll see and hear the word mani used plenty in the Himalaya, usually referring to either mani wheels (prayer wheels) or mani walls, which are long walls made of piles of stones that have been carved with auspicious prayers.

You may also think that prayer flags would be called “mani flags”, but in fact they’re not! Prayer flags are referred to as “lung-ta” which means “windhorse”, in reference to the idea that as the wind blows, it will carry the prayers on its back like a galloping horse.

30149767030_3d79daccc0_o.jpg

 6.     Lha-tse = Mountain God’s Shrine

Although you may not hear these words said much, you’ll definitely see the site they refer to on your Himalayan journey. Lha-tse refers to the small shrines planted at the top of hills or mountains, dedicated to the local mountain gods. Usually decorated with prayer flags, and sometimes armed with wooden spears or swords, these are maintained by local villagers for the purpose of appeasing the mountain gods, in a tradition that pre-dates Himalayan Buddhism.

LHA-TSE - Tibet peaks.jpg

Now you know your lhakang from your lha-tse, we hope you enjoy exploring the Himalayas in confidence.

Haven’t booked yet? Contact us to have a chat about where you’d like to go in the Himalayas, get inspired by our Bhutan, Ladakh, Nepal and Tibet itineraries, and share this post with a friend who’s going there too.

Hidden Caves of Tibet's Wild West

Last year our Beyond The Clouds team member Becky travelled to Tibet to visit the two most important monasteries in Amdo – Labrang and Langmusi. Part one followed her experiences in Labrang Monastery. Part two here carries on that journey, now with the company of a friend, in Langmusi.

Our shared car travelled south from Labrang, chasing the border of Gansu and Sichuan Provinces. It was evening by the time we arrived, and threatening to snow again. Being April, it was still too early in the season for many places to warrant being open, knowing that tourists wouldn’t brave the cold to venture out here. Langmusi was a ghost town.

We found our way to one of the few open guesthouses, up on a hill facing the dramatic red cliffs, where we settled in for the night (thank goodness for electric blankets to keep us cozy), and looked forward to exploring the monasteries the next day that we could only peek at in the dimming light today. 

Known in Tibetan as Taktsang Lhamo, Langmusi was not at all what I was expecting. It was like we’d arrived in a Wild West village – Tibetan cowboys rode their horses down the main street of town, a cool wind blew off the snowy peaks forcing monks to shroud themselves in heavy robes, stray dogs roamed in search of a meal. Maybe it was the dark morning weather or maybe it was the fact there were no other tourists around, but I felt like I’d stumbled into some moody, disquieting film set.

All these illusions were shattered as soon as people started to notice us – two white faces with fair hair sticking out like sore thumbs – and we received an onslaught of morning well wishes, smiles, and offers of service. I’m sure the real Wild West wouldn’t be this welcoming to strangers.

The red cliffs at sunset.

The red cliffs at sunset.

Monks walking through town.

Monks walking through town.

Tibetan cowboy riding down the main street of Langmusi town.

Tibetan cowboy riding down the main street of Langmusi town.

Langmusi is a curious town, straddling the border of two provinces, and with a sizeable monastery on each side – Kirti Monastery on the Sichuan side, and Sertri Monastery on the Gansu side. The sun was hiding so out came the compass to figure out which direction was which, and off we set for the Gansu Sertri Monastery.

Although it’s the smaller monastery, with only 350 monks versus the 750 on the Sichuan side, Sertri Monastery has the advantage of being built up into the hillside, allowing it views over the town and the other monastery. Unluckily, when we visited it was all locked up, so there was no chance of seeing the assembly hall or any of the chapels – or even finding anyone with the key. (Note to self: next time get a tour guide! )

Becky walking around the closed Kirtri Monastery.

Becky walking around the closed Kirtri Monastery.

The only people in sight were other pilgrims performing kora, so we followed their lead. After skirting past the front of several elaborately decorated temples we came to a dusty, worn trail that snaked up into stunted forest behind the monastery. A scrambling steep climb brought us to the lip of a cliff, from where we could look back down at the two monasteries, and further afield to the dramatic cliffs at one end of town and the winding road that led into the middle of nowhere in the other direction.

Although I was breathing heavily – still getting used to exerting myself at high altitude – the views were worth the effort. As we took the opportunity to sit and breathe in the views around us, the sun came out and the golden rooftops gleamed brightly below. From up here, the village below looked almost European, with its steep-roofed houses and quaint alpine feel. It really was beautiful when the sun came out – transformed from the Wild West to a miniature Switzerland.

Heading back down, following the trail, we found ourselves back in town and starving for some good warm comfort food – Tibetan noodle soup is what we needed. Two giant bowls of steaming, flavourful, freshly made noodles arrived at our table in the teahouse and were quickly drained. After a little stilted conversation with the teahouse owner, he offered to show us around for the afternoon, as he was insistent that we’d miss the highlight of Langmusi if we didn’t know our way around. I soon found out why.

The highlight of Langmusi is well hidden and unsignposted, and I’m sure there are many visitors who’ve missed it over the years. Behind the Kirti Monastery on the Sichuan side of town, across a field at the back of the final outlying temple, there’s a narrow gorge through the cliffs that is really the highlight of Langmusi.

This is the Namo Gorge, which hides several caves and is so narrow at parts that you can touch both sides with outstretched arms. A shallow stream runs through the middle of it, which soon becomes the path to follow as the bank on either side narrows and disappears.

Here is where the name Taktsang Lhamo, “Goddess of the Tiger’s Cave” really comes from – the first cave we encounter was the Tiger’s Cave, inside of which are several impressive stalagmites and stalactites that represent the shape of goddesses. The legends vary regarding the origins of these goddess formations – some say they arose naturally, and were recognised as sacred forms, some say there was a real goddess who tamed tigers and then transformed into a part of the cave, some say the goddess and the tiger were one and the same, living in the cave and then becoming part of it.

Entrance to Namo Gorge.

Entrance to Namo Gorge.

Following the stepping stones up the gorge.

Following the stepping stones up the gorge.

Further up the gorge, I couldn’t resist the temptation of a rope trailing down from a second cave, high above us in the cliff. Doing my best Indiana Jones impression I gripped the rope and began heaving myself up (note that our teahouse owner/new guide managed just fine climbing up next to me without anything to hold onto). At the top was the relic of another old stalagmite, although it was almost unrecognisable under the layers of white silk scarves that’d been wrapped around it as offerings.

After sliding carefully back down to the bottom of the gorge, we made the difficult decision to call it a day – the sun had disappeared again and the rain and snow was threatening to return, bringing darker skies with it.

I would love to return to Langmusi in warmer, sunnier weather – I’ll definitely plan for summer next time, and I’m sure I’ll see it as a whole new town. Langmusi is popular with intrepid travellers for its awesome hiking opportunities and multi-day horse treks in the surrounding mountains – that’s certainly on my list for next time. Still, I’m glad I got to experience it in all its deserted Wild West glory without the crowds. It just whet my appetite for more.

Becky in Langmusi.

Becky in Langmusi.

Little Tibetan Switzerland.

Little Tibetan Switzerland.

Yaks behind the monastery.

Yaks behind the monastery.

If you’d like to visit Langmusi (in hopefully better weather than I did!) contact us today to start planning your trip. We have itineraries that take you through a range of off-the-beaten-track sacred and stunning locations in eastern Tibet – see more about our Authentic Amdo journey or our Mountains, Myth and Magic epic road trip of the southeastern regions. Or you can add a deeper significance to your adventure by making it a Spiritual Journey, and visit Labrang Monastery too.

A pilgrim at Kirtri Monastery.

A pilgrim at Kirtri Monastery.

Monks at Sertri Monastery.

Monks at Sertri Monastery.

16 Unmissable Things to See & Do in Bhutan

Bhutan is a delightful travel destination, but it’s also shrouded in a lot of mystery. Many would-be visitors know that there are beautiful monasteries and some high mountains, but struggle to know what else there is to see and do in Bhutan. Here’s a list of our favourites.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang)

It's an unmissable icon in Bhutan - clinging like a swallow's nest to the edge of a cliff high above the Paro Valley, it makes many foreign visitors wonder how such a monastery could ever be built. It is only accessible by narrow mountain paths, and is surrounded by dense forested mountains and dramatic rocky drops. It’s one of the most popular places in Bhutan for pilgrims and awe-struck tourists alike, and is an absolute must-visit destination in Bhutan, whether you have two days or two weeks in the country.

Tiger's Nest.jpg

Punakha Dzong

A dzong is a fortified monastery building, found throughout Bhutan and Tibet. One of the most beautiful and important in Bhutan is the Punakha Dzong, where the kings of Bhutan have traditionally been crowned. It’s the administrative centre of Punakha District. Constructed in the mid-17th century, it’s the second-oldest dzong in Bhutan (the oldest is Simtokha Dzong, which is only a few years older than Punakha Dzong).

Chimi Lhakhang Monastery—aka, the Fertility Temple

The Chimi Lhakhang Monastery in Punakha District is commonly known as the Fertility Temple because it’s believed to be a powerful place for people wanting to have a child. The monastery buildings and the surrounding village are adorned with ornately decorative phalli, which many visitors find amusing, although they have important and serious meaning to the devout local people.

Check out our pilgrimage tours of Bhutan, during which you can visit the Chimi Lhakhang Monastery.

Black-Necked Cranes in Phobjikha

Black-necked cranes are one of the rarest varieties of crane in the world. Up to 500 of them come to the Phobjikha Valley in Bhutan for the winter, between late October and February, after spending the summer on the Tibetan Plateau, where they breed. The Government of Bhutan has made special efforts to protect the birds by establishing the Phobjikha Conservation Area. Wildlife and bird lovers will especially enjoy seeing the cranes in Phobjikha. Plus, the Black-Necked Crane Festival is held in autumn, making this one of the best times to visit Bhutan.

The Haa Valley

Between Haa and Thimphu is the picturesque Haa Valley. From Paro, cross the Cheli La Pass (3,810 metres) to reach the valley. It’s one of the least-visited areas in the country and retains the air of an unspoiled, primeval forest. Haa is home to a number of nomadic herders. Visit the 7th-century Black & White Temples, and go on a day hike or mountain bike ride.

Attend a festival

Bhutan has almost 200 festivals each year. These range from small local events in a village to great celebrations in the major monasteries of Paro and Thimpu. Attending a festival in Bhutan is an experience like no other. You’ll have the opportunity to mingle with friendly local people and immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of ancient Bhutanese culture. 

Bumthang Valley

The Bumthang Valley is in Central Bhutan, and is one of the most beautiful and sacred valleys in the country. Explore the little-visited region with its many hidden delights, including a 16th-century palace (the Ugyen Choling Palace). Sample a Red Panda Beer at the local micro-brewery, nibble some Swiss cheese and enjoy a fondue dinner at the guesthouse run by a Swiss-Bhutanese family. 

sam 5.jpg

National Textile Museum, Thimphu

The Bhutanese people were a beautiful range of traditional textiles in their daily lives. To learn more about them, to see them being made, and to purchase some for yourself, visit the National Textile Museum in Thimphu. Royal garments are on display, as well as examples of textiles from different parts of the country.

Send home a personalised stamp from Bhutan Post in Thimpu

The Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, is a quirky little town, and one of the most interesting things to do there is to have personalised postage stamps made with your photo on them! These are legal tender, so you can send postcards home with them. You can also provide them with a picture ahead of time, so you’re stamps are ready to collect when you drop into the post office to pick them up.

Watch (or Play!) Archery

Archery is Bhutan’s national sport. The bows are made from bamboo, and the target sits 145 metres from the archer—which is much further than the kind of archery you may be used to seeing in the Olympics. It’s done in traditional dress, which adds to the beauty of the display. Guides in Bhutan will often arrange a casual match for their guests while touring Bhutan.

pema dances.jpg

Visit the Paro Weekend Market

If you happen to be in Paro during the weekend, check out the Paro Weekend Market. It’s not large, but it sells a range of Bhutanese food items, most of which you couldn’t find at home, like dried yak’s cheese.

Visit the Motithang Takin Preserve

Takins are an interesting-looking animal, also called a cattle chamois or gnu goat, and look somewhat like a cross between a moose, a goat, and a deer. They’re the national animal of Bhutan, although they can also be found in parts of India and China. Visitors can check them out at the Motithang Takin Preserve, a forested habitat on the edge of Thimphu.

Simply Bhutan Museum in Thimpu

The Simply Bhutan Museum in Thimphu is an immersive museum where visitors can see handicrafts being made, dress in traditional costume, see cultural performances, and more. One of the goals of the museum is to provide young Bhutanese people with job opportunities, so visiting the museum is supporting a worthy cause.

Rinpung Dzong, Paro (Paro Dzong)

The Rinpung Dzong in Paro (usually just called the Paro Dzong) is a monastery and fortress. Most of the chapels themselves are closed to tourists, but you can still visit the outside areas, and the architecture is especially stunning. Many fabulous festivals are held here throughout the year—it’s worth travelling here during a festival so you can experience these fabulous affairs.

IMG_2959.jpg

Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu

To the north of the capital, the 13th century Tashichho Dzong houses government offices, including the king’s throne room. This means that visitors can’t see much of the insides, but it’s still a must-visit attraction in the city. The architecture is beautiful, the surrounding gardens are large and well-kept, and the location on the banks of the Wang Chhu River is serene.

Photo:  C/M/E/ Flickr

Buddha Dordenma Statue, Thimphu

The 50-metre high golden seated Buddha statue on the outskirts of Thimphu is an impressive enough attraction if you take it at face value. But, inside are 125,000 miniature Buddha statues! Unlike many of the sights you’ll see throughout Bhutan, the Buddha Dordenma Statue is not very old—it was built in 2015 in honour of the 60th birthday of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck—at an expense of almost $100 million!

IMG_2771.jpg

Find out more about some of our Bhutan tours on the following pages:

Annapurna Circuit vs. Everest Base Camp: Which Trek Should You Choose?

Annapurna Circuit vs. Everest Base Camp: Which Trek Should You Choose?

They’re the two most popular trekking regions of Nepal: the Annapurna Circuit and Everest Base Camp. Many first-time visitors to Nepal have a hard time deciding between the two. They do offer very different experiences, in terms of landscape, culture, accommodation, logistics, and accessibility. Plus, each has distinct advantages—as well as a few disadvantages. So, which one should you choose? Read on to weigh your options.