Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
The Space of Sera (Se ra’i khor yug)
by José Ignacio Cabezón
January 30, 2006
Section 4 of 6

Principles of Enclosure and the Division of the Interior Space of the Monastery

Of the major structures at SeraSe ra, there is one that we have not yet discussed in this section. It is the perimeter wall of the monastery. Enclosure walls are a ubiquitous feature of traditional Tibetan architecture, and they serve a variety of practical functions. For example, they serve to enforce real-property rights, and they function to provide security – e.g., protection from thieves.

But in Tibetan monasteries, perimeter walls also function in more symbolic ways. Clearly, they serve symbolically to separate the monastery from the outside world: the sacred from the profane. They also symbolically serve to include people (the monks who keep the discipline), and to exclude people (those who break their vows). Waddell describes what used to happen to monks when they broke one of the major monastic vows (for example, the vow against stealing):

... the accused is taken outside the temple and his feet are fastened by ropes, and two men, standing on his right and left, beat him to the number of about a thousand times, after which he is drawn by a rope outside the boundary wall (lchags ri) and there abandoned.53

A monk is expelled from the monastery (literally, from the “roles,” kyigünéskyid sgud nas) by physically and ritually taking him outside of the monastery – that is, outside the perimeter wall. The perimeter wall also allows monks and lay people to know in a very precise way when they are within the monastery, and when they are outside of it. Why is this important? During the rainy season, for example, monks take vows to remain “within the bounds of the monastery.” To leave the monastery – to go beyond the outer perimeter without undergoing the proper “release ritual” – is to break the rainy season retreat discipline. Additionally, although women could visit the monastery by day, before 1959 no woman was allowed to remain within the monastery – that is, within the perimeter walls – overnight.54 Thus, setting and maintaining boundaries or perimeters was important to keeping the monastic discipline, or Vinaya. Over and above the mundane reasons for enclosures, therefore, there were also religious reasons for conceiving of the monastery as a fixed and precisely determined enclosed space.

A portion of the monastery perimeter wall at the NW corner of the monastery. A small clay-tablet repository can be seen on the right.
A view of SeraSe ra from above, where the internal subdivision of the monastery into compounds is evident.
A regional house compound as seen from above.

Just as a perimeter wall was used to separate the monastery from the outside world, perimeter walls around the monastery’s various compounds served to divide the institution up internally. The Great Seats of Learning (Densagdan sa) were scholastic institutions, and scholastics revel in orderliness – everything in its place.55 Because of the sheer size of SeraSe ra, such orderliness was not only an ideological or aesthetic desideratum, it was also a practical imperative. Knowing what belonged to whom was necessary to maintaining the peace. Once the limits of SeraSe ra had been set, the monastery could not easily expand. Space being at a premium, one can imagine that monks would want to prevent other monks from encroaching on their turf. Thus, creating clear boundaries between the various compounds – the regional houses (khangtsenkhang tshan), their affiliated apartment buildings (chikhangspyi khang), and the independent lamabla ma residences (labrangbla brang) – was probably something that evolved over time out of sheer necessity. It prevented squabbles over land. Having enclosed compounds was also a way of maintaining security and discipline. The main door to a compound that housed monks’ living quarters could be locked at night, ensuring not only that intruders could not get in, but also that monks (especially younger monks!) could not get out. A perimeter wall thus encloses almost every structure at SeraSe ra that contains monks’ living quarters.56

In SeraSe ra-India, an elder monk performs the rainy season release ritual to allow two of his students to exit the monastery.
The Great Assembly Hall, and its open anterior courtyard.
Southern view from SeraSe ra, with the PotalaPo ta la in the distance.

Practically the only major structures that are not enclosed by a perimeter wall at SeraSe ra are the large temple complexes – the assembly halls of the colleges, and the Great Assembly Hall. First, as the locus of power within the monastery, the colleges and the central SeraSe ra administration (before 1959, housed in the Great Assembly Hall) did not have to worry as much about protecting their land. Second, perimeter walls would have somewhat impeded lay worshipper’s access to the temples. Third, very few (and mostly elder) monks – abbots, administrators, and their staffs – lived in the assembly halls, and there was obviously less need to restrict their movements. Finally, and probably most important, perimeter walls around the main temples would have worked against the aesthetic of grandeur that the architects of these monumental structures were attempting to achieve.

The south-facing rooms atop the Jé College, where the abbot’s residence and the Dalai Lama’s guest rooms were located.

A detailed discussion of the interior layout of the various kinds of compounds is planned for the future. But there is one aspect of the interior layout of compounds that is worth mentioning here: the direction of temples. In the Tibetan spatial imaginary, the temples of SeraSe ra are its very heart. This is evident from paintings examined in the section on Tibetan Perspectives. Temples are the abodes of deities. They are the sites where monastic and other forms of ritual are enacted. Temples are the chief places visited by lay worshippers when they come to the monastery. When Tibetan historians write about SeraSe ra, they devote what may seem to us like a disproportionately large portion of their works discussing temples – their founding, history, and especially their contents. Temples were, and still are, important.

Now in almost every instance, the temples of SeraSe ra – both the large temples and those found in the regional houses, close to forty of them before 1959 – face almost exactly south. This cannot be explained simply in terms of the need to capture interior light in the temple meeting hall, or by the need to provide the temples with heat. On the one hand, temples usually have no windows in their main halls, and the south-facing door, situated on a portico behind an awning, provides little light, let alone heat. Light comes instead mostly from upper-floor clerestory (or skylights). There is no doubt that south is the preferred direction in Tibetan architecture,57 especially in the case when a monastery is built – as SeraSe ra is – in the foothills of a south-facing mountain. Generally speaking, it is the direction of most light, it is the direction with the best view, and in the case of SeraSe ra, it is the direction that faces LhasaLha sa, and the PotalaPo ta la. As the preferred direction, it is fitting to orient temples – the holiest places in the monastery – southward. As the residence of deities, temples would be oriented south as an act of homage to the supernatural inhabitants of the temple abode. We must also remember that the upper stories of temples served as the residential quarters for monks, and not just any monks. Hierarchs (lamabla mas, abbots, senior teachers) and senior administrators (of the monastery, colleges, or regional houses) lived on the upper floors of temples, and it was principally there that they worked. So perhaps it was also in deference to the senior monks of the monastery that temples were built facing south.

Obviously, a great deal more could be said about the architecture of SeraSe ra, and the logic at work there in partitioning and organizing space. For the time being, however, this will suffice. If you want to explore the principals of architecture and their relationship to Tibetan scholastic philosophy, you can go to one of my previously published essay entitled Tibetan Gothic, Panofsky’s Thesis in the Tibetan Cultural Milieu.


[53] Waddell, Lhasa and Its Mysteries, 192. It is unclear whether Waddell actually saw this, or whether it is a second-hand account. In any case, it rings true.
[54] This is no longer the case in either SeraSe ra-Tibet or SeraSe ra-India. In SeraSe ra-Tibet lay women construction workers, for example, live for extended periods of time within the monastery. In SeraSe ra-India, women visitors to the monastery, and relatives of the monks, frequently remain overnight.
[55] See José Ignacio Cabezón, ed., Scholasticism: Cross Cultural and Comparative Perspectives (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998).
[56] As already mentioned, there are a few apartment buildings that today have no perimeter walls. Some of these may have been enclosed before 1959. In any case, completely freestanding buildings are rare at SeraSe ra.
[57] See Larsen and Sinding-Larsen, The Lhasa Atlas, 43.
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The Space of Sera (se ra'i khor yug), by José Ignacio Cabezón