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Khardo Hermitage (Khardo RitröMkhar rdo ri khrod)
by José Ignacio Cabezón
April 27, 2006

Location and Layout 1

The ruins of Khardo Hermitage.

Khardo Hermitage is located northeast of LhasaLha sa (and of SeraSe ra) on the side of a mountain north of the ḍodé Valley . The hermitage is also located across the road leading from LhasaLha sa to Penpo’Phan po on the side of a mountain facing Purchok Hermitage (Purchok RitröPhur lcog ri khrod). It is possible to walk directly up the mountain to KhardoMkhar rdo from this road, but it is more common to take the footpath from the NegodongGnas sgo gdong nunnery instead. From the nunnery it takes a little over one hour to walk to KhardoMkhar rdo.

It may be that the hermitage derives its name from the local site deity (nedakgnas bdag), whose name is Khardo SongtsenMkhar rdo srong btsan.

As is the case with most of the hermitages, certain features of the landscape – and especially of the mountains – around KhardoMkhar rdo are seen as signs of the holiness of the site. One group of peaks behind the monastery is called the Soul Mountain of the Buddhas of the Five Families (Gyelwé Riknga LariRgyal ba’i rigs lnga bla ri). To the left of these is a mountain called the Birth Deity Peak (Trungwé Lhari’Khrungs ba’i lha ri or Trung Utsé’Khrungs dbu rtse).2 In the middle of this mountain there used to be a ledge that housed a small chapel to the protector deities of the regions of Tibet from which the various Khardo LamaMkhar rdo bla mas hailed, hence the name “Birth Deity Peak.” Another prominent peak (to the east) is called the Soul Mountain of Cakrasaṃvara (Demchok LariBde mchog bla ri). Tradition has it that various hand-implements and bone-ornaments of the deity have been discovered as treasure on this mountain by different KhardoMkhar rdo incarnations. On one side of this mountain there is a cave called the “Offering Place Cave” (Drak ChösaBrag mchod sa),3 in which an entire copy of the Scriptures (KangyurBka’ ’gyur) was discovered as treasure during the time of the third Khardo incarnation Chökyi Dorjé (Khardo Kutreng Sumpa Chökyi DorjéMkhar rdo sku phreng gsum pa chos kyi rdo rje).4 The monastery itself is said to have been built on the site of the Haha Göpé DurtröHa ha rgod pa’i dur khrod, one of the classical charnel grounds of the Indian tantras. For these various reasons, the site is considered extremely holy.

The various holy mountains behind the hermitage.

But the location was also made holy by virtue of having been the abode of saints. Above the various buildings there is a cave called Great Heap of Light (Özer Pungpoché’Od zer phung po che). The site-deity, called Khardo SongtsenMkhar rdo srong btsan, is said to have shown the founder of the monastery, Zöpa GyatsoBzod pa rgya mtsho, this cave and told him that he was to reside here. On one particular holy day KhardowaMkhar rdo ba, while living in this cave, found that he had nothing to offer except for a single butter-lamp. His prayers were so pure, however, that when he lit the lamp the entire mountain glowed, “as if thousands of butter lamps were burning.” This is how the cave got its name. KhardowaMkhar rdo ba lived in this cave, and in another nearby one called Cave of Mila (Milé DrakMi la’i brag), during his early and mid twenties, before the first buildings were erected at the site.

The hermitage had three major compounds, located one above the other on the side of the mountain. Lowest on the hill was the main compound (usually referred to simply as “the hermitage”). Above that was the so-called “Upper Residence” (Zimkhang GongmaGzims khang gong ma), and above that the Temple of the Sixteen Arhats (Nechu LhakhangGnas bcu lha khang). Today all of these compounds lie in ruins. From an informant’s report, however, we have a good sense of what the hermitage looked like before 1959.

Main compound: This was by far the largest group of buildings in the monastery, housing various important temples, a library, and the residential quarters of the Khardo LamaMkhar rdo bla mas. At the front (lowest on the mountain), the compound was three stories tall; at the rear it was two stories in height. As one went in the main door (zhunggogzhung sgo), located at the front of the compound at the bottom-most level, one first came to a room that is said to have been built on top of the uppermost part of the Haha Göpé DurtröHa ha rgod pa’i dur khrod. This was a large (eight-pillar) room that was in almost total darkness. It housed many self-arisen images, but apparently was not for any specific purpose.

As one went up the central staircase, one came first to the (four-pillar) temple that is said to date to the time of Khardo Zöpa GyatsoMkhar rdo bzod pa rgya mtsho. This small temple had seating for about 20 monks. It contained statues of the sixteen arhats as well as the large silver funerary stūpa of Zöpa GyatsoBzod pa rgya mtsho built by his student, the Seventh Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso (Dalai Lama Kutreng Dünpa Kelzang GyatsoDa lai bla ma sku phreng bdun pa skal bzang rgya mtsho). The mummified corpse (mardungdmar gdung) of KhardowaMkhar rdo ba was contained within this stūpa. In the rear portion of the temple there was a chapel to Maitreya (JampaByams pa). Tradition has it that the two-story statue of Maitreya in this temple was created by a deity. Inside the heart of this statue there was a tooth-relic of the Buddha Kaśyapa, and there was a small window on the body of the Maitreya statue where this tooth could actually be seen.

Inside the ruins of the main compound.

On this same level of the compound there was also a round room that contained the monastery’s collection of wood-blocks and texts. This library contained many special works, such as the texts discovered as “treasure” (tergter) by the third Khardo incarnation Rikdzin Chökyi Dorjé (Khardo Kutreng Sumpa Rikdzin Chökyi DorjéMkhar rdo sku phreng gsum pa rigs ’dzin chos kyi rdo rje): the Cycle for Gathering Power (Wangdü KhorloDbang ’dus ’khor lo), the Cycle on Gaṇeśa (Tsokdak Lakna KhorloTshogs bdag lag na ’khor lo), etc. Important blockprints of artwork and of the monastery’s ritual texts (yikchayig cha) were also kept there. The collection included texts of all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Most of these texts and blockprints were confiscated when the monastery came under the receivership of the government after the RadrengRwa sgreng (d. 1947) affair (see below).

If one turned left as one exited the library, one came to the protector deity chapel (gönkhangmgon khang). This room contained statues of the four traditional deities propitiated in most GelukDge lugs institutions (GönpoMgon po, ChögyelChos rgyal, LhamoLha mo, and NamséRnam sras) as well as a statue of the protector deity of the monastery, Terdak SongtsenGter bdag srong btsan. In the rear of the protector deity chapel, there was another smaller chapel that was only open for one day each year (during the New Year festivities). It contained a large self-arisen image of the deity Wangchuk ChenpoDbang phyug chen po.

Coming out of the protector deity chapel, one arrived at the central courtyard where the side door of the main compound was located. From that courtyard one had access to a variety of rooms which included the tenkhangrten khang,5 a large (eight-pillar) storage room, the lama’s estate’s (labrangbla brang) (two-pillar) kitchen, a (two-pillar) manager’s room (nyertsanggnyer tshang) that served as the office and living quarters for the hermitage’s manager (nyerpagnyer pa), and a variety of other small rooms where fuel (wood, straw and dung) were kept. Around this courtyard there was also a three-pillar guest room, as well as a room for frying and storing dough cookies.

If one went up one level, to the third floor, one came first to the two-pillar quarters for the Dalai LamaDa lai bla ma, called the Palace of Great Bliss (Dechen PodrangBde chen pho brang). The Thirteenth Dalai Lama Tupten Gyatso (Dalai Lama Kutreng Chuksumpa Tupten GyatsoDa lai bla ma sku phreng bcu gsum pa thub bstan rgya mtsho) stayed here, as perhaps did other of his predecessors. The principal image in the Dalai LamaDa lai bla ma’s rooms was a very special image of Maitreya that is said to have originally belonged to a monastery in Penpo’Phan po. It is said that the statue levitated, flew to KhardoMkhar rdo and proclaimed that KhardoMkhar rdo was its true home. There were also metal statues of the Twenty-One Tārās (DrölmaSgrol ma) in the Dalai LamaDa lai bla ma’s rooms. The central Tārā image was of solid silver. There were also statues of the Sixteen Arhats, and various tangkathang kas. Going down the hall from the Dalai LamaDa lai bla ma’s quarters, one came to the Khardo Assembly Hall (Khardo TsomchenMkhar rdo tshoms chen), a temple that could house over 100 monks. This temple was also called the Gyaré TsomchenRgya res tshoms chen, because the deity GyaréRgya res was supposed to have built the large Maitreya statue found here. The temple had ten “short pillar” (katungka thung), and two “long pillar” (karingka ring); it also had three doors. This temple contained:

  • One-story tall metal statues of the Buddhas of the Three Times
  • A one-story metal statue of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa (1357-1419)
  • The throne of the Dalai LamaDa lai bla ma
  • A life-size statue of the fifth Khardo incarnation Jamyang Chökyi Wangchuk (Khardo Kutreng Ngapa Jamyang Chökyi WangchukMkhar rdo sku phreng lnga pa jam dbyangs chos kyi dbang phyug)
  • A life-size statue of Padmasambhava (Pema JungnéPadma ’byung gnas)
  • A one-story “speaking-statue” (sungjönmagsung byon ma) of Tārā
  • On one side of the temple there was a complete copy of a printed edition of the Scriptures (KangyurBka’ ’gyur), and on the other, a manuscript version of the same. The manuscript version is apparently dated to the time of Khardo Kutreng Zhipa Pema Gawé DorjéMkhar rdo sku phreng bzhi pa padma dga’ ba’i rdo rje. This lamabla ma’s steward began a custom of having the monks do at least one yearly ritual reading of the KangyurBka’ ’gyur, a tradition that was kept alive up to 1959.
  • The murals on the walls of the assembly hall were of the Thousand Buddhas of the Fortunate Age.

As one exited the temple, one immediately encountered the four-pillar Palace of the Rays of the Sun (Nyiwö PodrangNyi ’od pho brang). This chapel held the funerary stūpa of the third Khardo incarnation Rikdzin Chökyi Dorjé (Khardo Kutreng Sumpa Rikdzin Chökyi DorjéMkhar rdo sku phreng gsum pa rigs ’dzin chos kyi rdo rje). It also contained self-arisen images of the sixteen arhats, statues of the twenty-one Tārās, a statue of Tangtong GyelpoThang stong rgyal po, of Penden LhamoDpal ldan lha mo, a statue of the fourth Khardo incarnation Pema Gawé Dorjé (Khardo Kutreng Zhipa Pema Gawé DorjéMkhar rdo sku phreng bzhi pa padma dga’ ba’i rdo rje), a statue of Padmasambhava (Pema JungnéPadma ’byung gnas) and other lesser images.

Exiting the Palace of the Rays of the Sun, one next came to the series of rooms that constituted the lama’s estate proper – that is, the living quarters of the lamabla ma and his immediate family and steward. The first of these rooms was a two-pillar chapel called the Siddha Chapel (Druptop LhakhangGrub thob lha khang) that housed clay statues of the eighty-four mahāsiddhas of India. They are said to have been made by the third Khardo LamaMkhar rdo bla ma himself. There were also images of the Five Visions of the Lord (Tsongkhapa) (Jé Zikpa Ngadenrje gzigs pa lnga ldan). The next room was the private residence of the mothers of the Khardo LamaMkhar rdo bla ma incarnations. Adjacent to that was a balcony or sun room (rapselrab gsal), on the other side of which were the quarters of the administrator administrative head (chandzöphyag mdzod) of the lama’s estate. Beyond the steward’s quarters were the private rooms of the Khardo LamaMkhar rdo bla ma. The lamabla ma’s reception room contained various metal statues, including statues of Padmasambhava (Pema JungnéPadma ’byung gnas) in eight forms, a statue of Hayagrīva (TamdrinRta mgrin), statues of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa and the two disciples, and others as well.

If one traveled one flight of stairs up from the lamabla ma’s private rooms, one would arrive at another small (two-pillar) protector deity chapel called the Chapel of the Four Statues (Kuzhi KhangSku bzhi khang), so called because it contained four statues of mgon po. This is the location of the famous “Khardo (Hermitage’s) Lord of Death Machine” (Khardo Shinjé Trülkhormkhar rdo gshin rje ’khrul ’khor), a mechanical device for conjuring wrathful magical powers (drakchokkyi lédrag phyogs kyi las). This “wheel of weapons” (tsönché khorlomtshon cha’i ’khor lo) had been utilized at different points in Tibetan history to magically defeat invading forces.6 The machine had the ability to conjure up the powers of different sets of deities (gods, nāgas, etc.) depending upon the direction in which it was turned. Various “trophies” from the defeated parties hung from the beams of the ceiling of this room, including the desiccated hand of the leader of the Dogra troops (defeated, it is said, chiefly as a result of using this form of magic at the time of the third Khardo LamaMkhar rdo bla ma in 1856). The hands of famous bandits and other criminals had, throughout the years, been added to the collection of human limbs suspended form the ceiling. Next to this chapel, there was a room called the Treasure-House of Vaiśravaṇa (Namsé BangdzöRnam sras bang mdzod). It contained eight “wealth-box” (yanggamyang gam) where the ritual wealth-vases for the monastery were kept. This room was opened only once a year on New Year’s day; otherwise it was kept locked.

Exiting from the protector chapel and going down the hall one came to the Kadam Chapel (Kadam LhakhangBka’ gdams lha khang), a four pillar temple. It contained a one-story statue of the Buddha, as well as statues of the sixteen arhats, statues of 138 lamabla mas of the KadampaBka’ gdams pa tradition, and the funerary stūpa and image of the fourth Khardo LamaMkhar rdo bla ma. Next to this chapel, there was the small (one-pillar) “Three Roots” Chapel (Tsasum LhakhangRtsa gsum lha khang), which contained a statue of the Thirteen-Deity Vajrabhairava (Jikjé Lha Chuksum’Jigs byed lha bcu gsum) as well as important statues of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa and of Acala (MiyowaMi g.yo ba). The name of the chapel (“three roots”) derives from the fact that the main statue of Yamāntaka in this room was made from clay over which the three root teachers of this tradition – DrupkhangpaSgrub khang pa, Purchok Ngawang JampaPhur lcog ngag dbang byams pa (1682-1762) and Khardo Zöpa GyatsoMkhar rdo bzod pa rgya mtsho – had recited 100,000 repetitions of the “Yamarāja” mantra of Yamāntaka.

The ruins of the Upper Residence.

The Upper Residence. Just uphill from the main compound is the so-called “Upper Residence” (Zimkhang GongmaGzims khang gong ma).7 This compound was not, strictly speaking, under the aegis of the hermitage, but rather was administered by Tibetan government. It had two floors. On the first floor it contained a protector deity chapel. The Tibetan government would send monks from the Tantric College (Ngakpa DratsangSngags pa grwa tshang) once a year (in the summer) to conduct rituals in this chapel. The second floor contained the private quarters of the Seventh Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso (Dalai Lama Kutreng Dünpa Kelzang GyatsoDa lai bla ma sku phreng bdun pa bskal bzang rgya mtsho), and of Khardo Zöpa GyatsoMkhar rdo bzod pa rgya mtsho. It may be that this compound was originally constructed to serve as the residence of the Seventh Dalai Lama when he visited his teacher, Zöpa GyatsoBzod pa rgya mtsho. If this is the case, then this small compound predates the main compound.

The Temple of the Sixteen Arhats.

The Sixteen Arhat Temple. Farther north up the mountain from the Upper Residence is the Temple of the Sixteen Arhats (Nechu LhakhangGnas bcu lha khang), the first structure built by Khardo Zöpa GyatsoMkhar rdo bzod pa rgya mtsho at the site. It originally contained only the temple and a small room that served as the first residence that Zöpa GyatsoBzod pa rgya mtsho occupied at KhardoMkhar rdo. Later it was expanded, and at a certain point in history the compound was converted into monks’ living quarters, though it is not clear when precisely this occurred.

Farther up the mountainside still are the caves originally used by Khardo Zöpa GyatsoMkhar rdo bzod pa rgya mtsho before he built the first structures at the site. Before 1959, women were not allowed inside these caves. Today, nuns use these as retreat places. The nuns also serve as caretakers.

One of the caves occupied by Khardo Zöpa GyatsoMkhar rdo bzod pa rgya mtsho when he first arrived at the site. Today it serves as a nun’s meditation cell.

The one former monk from the hermitage who served as our informant in 2004 (and who, as far as we know, is the only member of this hermitage still alive today) told us that he contemplated refurbishing the monastery when liberalization took place in the 1980s. He decided not to pursue this because, on the one hand, he was unsuccessful at receiving permission from the relevant offices of the LhasaLha sa municipal government, and, on the other, because he received a letter from the present Khardo RinpochéMkhar rdo rin po che (who lives in the United States) who discouraged him from proceeding with the renovations.


[1] Most of the account of Khardo Hermitage (Khardo RitröMkhar rdo ri khrod) is based on an extensive interview with a former monk of the monastery conducted in LhasaLha sa in 2004. This informant states that there exists a catalogue (karchakdkar chag) for the hermitage (ritröri khrod) written by its founder, Khardo Zöpa GyatsoMkhar rdo bzod pa rgya mtsho (1672-1749), but this text was not available to me; neither is it mentioned in the TBRC database entry that lists Zöpa GyatsoBzod pa rgya mtsho (1672-1749)’s texts.
[2] Or it may be that the informant said Khrungs ba’i bla ri, in which case it would be “Birth Soul Mountain.”
[3] The spelling of this name is conjectural. If it is accurate, it means The Cave That Is a Place of Worship.
[4] When the Khardo LamaMkhar rdo bla ma found the texts, he asked for 100 monks to be sent from the Lhopa Regional House (Lhopa KhangtsenLho pa khang tshan) of SeraSe ra to help carry them away, but the regional house (khangtsenkhang tshan) only sent one monk. As a result, only the volume of the Sūtra of Good Fortune (Do KelzangMdo skal bzang) was recovered from the cave (the rest presumably disappeared because they were not disinterred in time). This special volume of the Sūtra of Good Fortune apparently still exists, being kept at SeraSe ra Byes.
[5] Both the spelling and the meaning of this term are unclear.
[6] Réne de Nebesky-Wojkowitz has described this machine in his Oracles and Demons of Tibet (Taipei: SMC Publishing, nd), 493, where he calls it “the Mill of the Shinjé” (Shinjé Rangtakgshin rje’i rang thag): “It consists of two millstones. The lower is firmly fixed, the upper one can be turned with the help of a handle. Into the surface of the upper stone has been chiseled a number of powerful mantras. The gShin rje rang thag serves as an instrument to kill the leader of a hostile party, and it may be turned only by a learned, high-ranking priest specially nominated by the authorities. In the initial stages of this action the priest has to concentrate his thoughts upon a few seeds of white mustard, into which he tries to transfer the ‘life-essence’ (srog snying) of the enemies. As soon as certain secret signs indicate that this process has been successfully accomplished, he has to place the seeds between the millstones and grind them under the chanting of mantras. Tradition alleges that turning the gShin rje rang thag is a process dangerous even to the person who handles the mill, and several priests who have carried out this task are said to have died soon afterwards.”
[7] The word gong ma can mean “upper/higher,” but it can also refer to the emperor (in this case, the Dalai LamaDa lai bla ma). Either interpretation makes sense, given that this building (a) is higher on the mountain than the main compound, and (b) was constructed as a residence for the Seventh Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso (Dalai Lama Kutreng Dünpa Kelzang GyatsoDa lai bla ma sku phreng bdun pa bskal bzang rgya mtsho) when he came to visit his teacher Zöpa GyatsoBzod pa rgya mtsho.
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Khardo Hermitage , by José Ignacio Cabezón

Table of Contents

  1. Location and Layout
  2. History
  3. Ritual Cycle
  4. Glossary
  5. Notes
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