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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.