Himalayan Art | Exhibits

Chortens in Amdo: A Photographic Album

Architectural reliquaries housing relics are known in Tibetan as chortens, and in Sanskrit as either stupas or chaityas. In the region of northeast ethnographic Tibet known as Amdo, there are chortens in a variety of sizes, shapes and styles. Some are monumental and have a huge presence in the landscape. Some are confined within the walls of a monastery, and house the relics of famous lamas. Other small ones are within personal shrines, or are painted on walls or ceilings. In the Buddhist culture of Amdo, chortens are particularly prominent. Here is a selection of chortens photographed between January and March 2002 by Rob Linrothe, mainly in and around Rongwo (Chinese: Tongren) in the region of Amdo known as Rebgong (Chinese: Huangnan), with Dr. Linrothe's comments. Click on each photograph to see a large version.

This chorten is at the head of a valley. It announces the presence of a monastery of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism nearby. Farther up the same valley are two other monasteries of both the pre-Buddhist Bon religion and the Nyingma or "old" school of Tibetan Buddhism. The name of the valley is Marser, and it is just south of Rongwo. Click for details of the niche on the anda (the large domed part of the chorten that is likened to an upturned bowl).

Two monks from Rongwo Gompa in front of the Dinkur Chorten at Guomar monastery near Rongwo (Tongren) in Rebgong. Enshrined inside the topmost cella (shrine chamber) are robes worn by the previous Panchen Lama.

This is a large chorten situated above the village of Zeku, a trading post and administrative center for the nomads in the region south west of Rebgong. A photographic image of the late Panchen Lama is in the niche. Click for a detail of kora (circumambulation) in the early morning.

This chorten was painted onto the ceiling of the Sanzen Lhakang in Nyentok, north of Rongwo. It dates from the ca. 16-17th century.

The "gateway chorten" leads into Xiachong monastery north of Rebgong (Huangnan), a monastery associated with one of the teachers of the great Tibetan Buddhist scholar and reformer, Tsongkapa. This was built (or rebuilt) after 1980.

This chorten was built in 1984 at the Gonlong Gompa (Youning Si), the monastery in the Hu region of northern Amdo, well to the north of Rebgong (Huangnan). It was the home monastery of the Zhangjia Hutuktus, the most famous one of whom was Rolpai Dorje, the 18th century scholar who advised the Qianlong Emperor in Beijing. Local monks told me this chorten doesn't have sharira (bodily relics) in it, but generally commemorates Buddhism. The long-life deity Ushnishavijaya is placed inside the niche.

Southwest of Rongwo is the Nyingma monastery named Hor Terton Yaegar. It is most famous for the piled wall of slate on which was carved all the texts of the Tibetan Buddhist canon: the Kangyur and Tengyur. At the head of the valley, announcing the monastery is this imposing chorten.

At Hor Terton Yaegar there is a line of eight chortens. In Buddhism, there is a convention of eight stupas which each commemorate a different miraculous episode in the Buddha's life (birth, enlightenment, first teaching, replication, descent from heaven, taming the elephant, the gift of honey and parinirvana). Click on the thumbnail at left for four of the eight chortens.

Click on the thumbnail at left for the other four chortens at Hor Terton Yaegar. Each of the eight has a slightly different shape and represents a different place in India or Nepal.The eight chortens are affiliated with the eight miracles that took place in the following locations: The Buddha's birth is associated with Lumbini; the enlightenment with Bodh Gaya; the first sermon with Sarnath; the miracle of replication with Shravasti; the descent from heaven with Sankasya; taming the wild elephant with Rajagriha (Rajgir); the monkey's offering of honey with Vaishali; and the Mahaparinirvana with Kushinagar.

This is a detail of a painting by two artists who are brothers and living in Rongwo. The brothers are Dondrup Tsetan (b. 1974) and Lujia Tsering (b. 1982). It shows a chorten beneath prayer flags. For an image of the entire painting, click here.

Local people consider this the Swayambu chorten, the same as the famous one in Kathmandu. Making a pilgimage to this chorten, northeast of Rongwo, at the Yamatashi kyil Gompa, is equivalent to going to Kathmandu. Yamatashi kyil, set atop a hill, is associated with the famous 18th century Amdo poet and mystic Shabkar. It is also near the village of Gendun Chopel, the 20th century iconoclast who also lived at the Gompa for several years. Click here for another view of the chorten.

This is a view of the chortens, including the Swayambu chorten, at Yamatashi kyil Gompa, northeast of Rongwo. Yamatashi kyil Gompa is a Nyingma monastery. A beautiful assembly hall built of stone was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Only parts of the walls remain, though the roof has collapsed.

This chorten stands outside the walls of the Wutun Xia (Sengge Shong Mango) monastery north of Rongwo. Villagers are circumambulating the monastery on the annual day of the large applique tangka unrolling, which in 2002 took place on 19 February. The chorten appears to be a restoration post 1980. Click here for another view against blue sky.

A chorten standing below Xiachong monastery north of Rebgong. This monastery is associated with one of Tsongkapa's teachers. Like the gateway chorten included above, this one was also built (or rebuilt) after 1980. It is near the residence of a very kindly incarnate lama named Alak Dempen Trulku.

The original significance of the chorten was as a reliquary. That function is still operative, in large chortens and in small ones like this one which is in someone's private home outside Rongwo in Rebgong. Although there are different kinds of relics (of body, of association, and symbolic ones), this one contains the bodily relics of a highly respected Nyingma yoga practitioner who died in 1959 immediately after having been released from jail by the Communist Chinese. It is inlaid with gems many semi-precious stones, and in the niche, has an image of the great Indian teacher Padmasambhava, credited with bringing Esoteric Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. Click here for a detail.

Stupas: Painting & Sculpture

Images © 2003 Rob Linrothe
Copyright © 2003 Shelly and Donald Rubin Foundation