Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries
by Dondrup Lhagyal, Phuntso Tsering Sharyul, Tsering Thar, Charles Ramble and Marietta Kind
Edited by Samten G. Karmay and Yasuhiko Nagano
National Museum of Ethnology and THL
Reproduced with permission from the authors
under the THL Digital Text License.


Surveying of the monasteries

This is the first time such a work of surveying of the Bonpo monasteries has ever been carried out. It was intended to cover as wide an area as possible, but given the vast geographic extent of Tibet’s cultural boundaries the idea sounded very daunting indeed. Nevertheless, well supplied with the financial means, our colleague, Professor Yasuhiko Nagano was determined to carry it out in the programme of the Bon Culture Research Project at the National Museum of Ethnology and the four authors, who conducted the survey, spared no efforts in getting the intended work done. Moreover, the three Tibetan scholars, who mainly did the surveying in Tibet and Tibetan inhabited areas in China proper, are all acquainted with the cultural history of the Bon tradition and that helped them enormously in doing their fieldwork.

We have thus Dondrup Lhagyal who surveyed the monasteries in the provinces of dBus and gTsang. Phuntso Tsering covered mainly the northern plateau, but also Chab mdo as well as the mNga’ ris regions; Tsering Thar on the other hand took the survey in Amdo, parts of Khams and rGyal rong. Charles Ramble later joined by Marietta Kind attended to the monasteries in Nepal and India effectively covering the Himalayan region. Thus 233 religious establishments mainly monasteries, but also hermitages and temples were all briefly examined. However, this does not mean that every surviving or rebuilt monastery in Tibet was surveyed. Certain places such as Tsha ba rong in Khams have been left out. It is possible that still other places were not covered.

One of the biggest difficulties that the surveyors faced was that only a few of the places were within easy reach. The majority of monasteries were found in totally isolated places. To reach them required enormous physical exertion often in unfavorable weather, because many of them were located in places where there were no roads. If there were roads no transport was readily available. So the surveyors were often obliged to either ride on horseback or walk for days to see just one monastery or a hermitage at a time. It often happened that when a place was reached, no one was present and so the same journey had to be made twice.

There was another difficulty much more serious than the problem of inaccessibility. It was the scanty or simply non-existent information due to the systematic destruction of the religious establishments and national monuments carried out during the so-called Cultural Revolution that spanned over ten years from 1966 to 1976. The criticism leveled against monuments such as fortresses were that they represented feudal society whereas monasteries were the basis of “superstition” (rmong dad).

The sporadic looting and burning committed by the Jungars seemed so insignificant when one compares their action to what the Chinese and their Tibetan collaborators did. This was purely robbery, carefully thought out and well organized with the intention of eradicating Tibet’s cultural identity in its own land. The mere word destruction does not seem sufficient to convey what kind of process the action involved, because the manner in which it was executed was so thorough and effective that in many cases not even traces were left. It is known that more than six thousand monasteries of both Buddhist and Bonpo perished during the period. Only a fraction of this number have survived.

It is therefore perhaps necessary to mention in a few words how the expropriation of property and demolition of the monastic buildings were orchestrated by armed hordes of the Red Guards with terror, threat, humiliation, public criticism and imprisonment for those who dared to resist.

As most of the monasteries and temples were centuries old, many were well equipped with what they needed and their religious tradition required them to possess. Much of the equipment was not actually all destroyed. It was simply expropriated. In a monastery of modest size the assembly hall usually possessed common effects such as archives, manuscripts, texts, thangka paintings, statues in both gilt-bronze and clay, woodblocks for printing, musical instruments made of various metals, tombs of abbots made of silver and gold with insets of precious stones, mural paintings, draperies made of silk and embroidered, masks and costumes for the ’cham dance, ritual objects made of silver, gold and brass, ritual implements such as dagger and culinary utensils. Besides these effects of the assembly hall, the residence of the head of the monastery and the individual monks also normally possessed as private property, books, musical instruments and ritual objects.

The process of dismantling was carried out methodically stage by stage. First there was the removal of metal objects, followed by the wood work, books and other items. When the building was entirely emptied of its contents, it was often then detonated. However, in many cases, recorded documents that contained local histories and annual events of the monasteries and above all books were privileged targets of destruction. They were often brought out into the open air where they were either torn or chopped into pieces or simply burned with the public made to look on, but in certain cases some books were saved by being concealed in unsuspected places. This was possible only when two copies of a book existed. In such a case, when a book was ordered to be brought out for destruction, the other copy was hidden away. Most of the expropriated property was secretly transported to China. Metal objects could either be used by melting them down or just kept for their intrinsic value in the future.

The events mentioned explain in part why written information on any given monastery had become so pitifully rare or practically non-existent in most cases. The surveyors therefore had to turn to other sources of information for their surveying work, but here too they faced incredible difficulties for the following reasons.

There were in fact two periods of monastic persecutions. In Amdo and parts of Khams a number of monasteries perished in fact during the period of 1957 and 1958, but the destruction of the majority of monasteries took place during the Cultural Revolution. The events of the 1957-58 period is not officially admitted by the Chinese authorities whereas the responsibility for the destruction during the Cultural Revolution was later put on the shoulders of the “Gang of Four”. In the 1960s and 1970s the monks, who witnessed and survived the onslaught of these events, were roughly aged between twenty and thirty years. When the survey of monasteries began to be conducted at the beginning of 1998 only few of these were still alive. However, most of these were in no position to give any detailed oral information in a coherent manner due to their old age. Nevertheless, some of these had written down historical accounts of their own monasteries from their memories some of which the surveyors were able to use.

Another destructive effect was the degradation of the Tibetan language in the same period that had the effect on it being nearly extinguished as a medium for the expression of Tibetan culture. Even in the aftermath of the revolution, only a few Tibetans were capable or would take the risk of putting to use their own language.

At the beginning of the 1980s, however, there was a radical shift in Chinese policies regarding the religious question. Tibetans, for the first time around 1980, were allowed to rebuild some of the destroyed monasteries. In many cases, the Chinese government even began to provide funds for this purpose particularly for those monasteries strategically located. The restriction of the use of religious texts was also lifted and the Chinese authorities even went on to encourage the publication of Tibetan classical texts on a scale unknown in the pre-1959 era in Tibet. A number of monasteries, it is true, have been rebuilt, but many of them only partially. The primary motive for this reconstruction is obvious. It is to promote tourism. They remain at best as deserted empty shells without the life of a real monastic tradition.


Note Citation for Page

Dondrup Lhagyal, Phuntso Tsering Sharyul, Tsering Thar, Charles Ramble, and Marietta Kind, A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibet and the Himalaya (Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2003), .

Bibliographic Citation

Dondrup Lhagyal, Phuntso Tsering Sharyul, Tsering Thar, Charles Ramble, and Marietta Kind. A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibet and the Himalaya. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, 2003.