9 December 2013

The Tibetan Gompas of Old Tachienlu

Part V

“The morning of the 10th [August 1924] broke fine; and about 9 o’clock we joined the happy throng that wandered leisurely out of town and up alongside the mountain torrent to Dorje Drag. The level sward in front of the lamasery was already covered with tents, the Tibetans being quite unable to resist the idea of a picnic; and the brightly striped canvas and gaily coloured clothes of men and women made a pretty picture against the rows of sombre poplars in the background. As we made our way through the crowd, now and then one more polite than his neighbours would stand aside, bow with out-stretched hands, and protrude a tongue of monstrous size and usually healthy colour, the polite form of salutation in Tibet. […] Passing through the vestibule with its great Mani drums, revolved by devotees as they go by, and entering the courtyard, we saw stretched opposite us, concealing the entrance to the main temple, an enormous painting on cloth of Dedma Sambhava.” (G. A. Combe, H.B.M. Consul at Chengtu).

Almost 86 years to the day, on August 7th 2010, I walked through the vestibule described above into the same Gompa – Dorje Drak in དར་རྩེ་མདོ། Dartsendo (Tachienlu, or Kangding 康定 , as it is presently known in Chinese). Except I wasn’t greeted by anyone poking their tongue out at me, nor by the sight of a huge thangka painting unfurled from the roof of the main temple building to the courtyard floor, instead the Gompa was rather quiet with just a few monks and local people lolling about or sitting on the grass. It was all very calm and relaxed. I wandered round, exploring all the temple halls. The place was filled with prayer wheels, and, in the main hall in front of the image of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) I saw a man performing a full set of devotions – pressing his palms together first over his head, then in front of his forehead, then in front of his chest before kneeling, and then, leaning forward with his palms placed on two small squares of cloth which, pushing forward, he would then use to make himself lie completely flat upon the floor by sliding forward, his face then flat to the floor, forehead touching the floorboards. He’d then reverse the procedure to stand up again, before repeating the whole process. I’ve no idea how many prostrations he made in total, but it was clear that it was likely to have been many.

Visiting the Tibetan Gompas at Dartsendo/Kangding was one of the main research objectives of my trip. I’d managed to thoroughly confuse myself with a range of old and modern photographs found in Louis King’s private papers as well as those of some of his contemporaries, along with a multitude of other more up-to-date images, mostly published on the internet. It was clear that there are three main Gompas in the town, with other lesser shrines and religious buildings (Taoist and Confucian too) dotted around the surrounding hillsides. Of these three main Gompas, in Louis King’s time, there was one situated in the centre of the town – Ngachu Gompa (Anjue Si) – with two outside the south gate, Dorje Drak Gompa (Jingang Si) and Lhamotse Gompa (Nanwu Si), which have since been absorbed into the expanded town (the three town gates are now all long gone).

Ngachu Gompa (Anjue Si), which was under-going massive architectural alterations, 2010

Dorje Drak Gompa (Jingang Si), 2010

Lhamotse Gompa (Nanwu Si), 2010

These last two Gompas are both situated fairly close to one another, and have apparently been confused and conflated by commentators from the early 20th century right up to this very day. Several of the accounts of early Western travellers through the town wisely remain rather vague, whereas more modern books (even English language books by Chinese publishers), and an array of websites mix the two up with bold and confident frequency! (N.B. – Naturally, not wanting to throw stones too readily, I’d welcome any comments or corrections on anything I might have inadvertently skewed or got plain wrong in any of the posts here which make up the glass house of my own blog!)

And so, having long pored over this issue with a crossword puzzler’s determination to crack the clues and definitively complete the conundrum I’m now about to boldly venture my own theory as to how these mistakes may have arisen! … The root of the problem is possibly a photograph taken by Joseph Rock published in the National Geographic Magazine in October 1930, or rather – it’s not Rock’s fault (he gets it right), it’s someone’s misinterpretation of his photo which has gained currency and run like silent, slow burning wildfire. This is the photograph:

 Its original caption reads: Plate XVI – “Prayer flags adorn a shrine of the yellow sect.”

Joseph Rock’s description of this Gompa as belonging to the “Yellow Sect” (Gelugpa) indicates that it is most likely Lhamotse Gompa (Nanwu Si), yet Rock’s photo is frequently reproduced with the confident assertion that it is Dorje Drak Gompa (Jinggang Si), yet Dorje Drak in fact belongs to the “Red Sect” (Nyingma). A photograph of the exterior of Dorje Drak features on the same page with the caption: “Thunderbolt Monastery, a stronghold of the Red Lamas near Tatsienlu”, hence perhaps the possible origins of this misattribution.

Dorje Drak (left) and Lhamotse (right) Gompas by Ernest Henry Wilson, 1908.

Similar view of Dorje Drak and Lhamotse Gompas, 2010.

Both Gompas have been heavily altered since Rock’s time, but a bit of time spent comparing Rock’s image with those of Ernest Henry Wilson (1908) and Louis Magrath King’s photographs (c.1920-1922) make the distinction quite clear for me (looking at the roofs of the side buildings), and even when compared to these two modern views of the same part of the Gompa in Rock’s photo which I took during my visits to each (the relative position of the slope of the hillside in the background is one key indication).

Dorje Drak Gompa

 Lhamotse Gompa

“Prayer flags adorn a shrine of the yellow sect.” (Lhamotse Gompa) by Joseph F. Rock, 1930

Lhamotse Gompa by Ernest Henry Wilson, 1908

Dorje Drak Gompa by Ernest Henry Wilson, 1908


George Combe’s description quoted at the start of this post is possibly one of the most well known descriptions of a religious dancing festival held at Dartsendo. Rinchen Lhamo, who was Louis King’s wife, calls it the ‘Ya-chiu’ or ‘Summer Prayer’ – Combe, however, euphemistically calls it ‘The Devil Dance.’ Rinchen gently takes issue with this description: “I do not know why they should call it so, for it has nothing to do with devils, but is a service of worship of Heaven, of intercession with Heaven on behalf of the whole people. It is our equivalent of your Christmas and Easter festivals.
            Everybody goes to the Ya-chiu. It is the principal fête of the whole year, and lasts three days in succession, taking four or five hours each day from morning to afternoon. It is held in the court-yard of the Gompa. Awnings are erected on each side of the entrance to the church-hall. Under them, on each side of the entrance, sit the priests clad in full sacerdotal robes, amongst them those who with trumpet, clarionette, cymbal, drum and bell, take the place with us of your organs and orchestras. The chief officiating priest, the Living Buddha if there is one in the Gompa, sits on a raised dais under a canopy. The people occupy points of vantage, such as the balconies, the flat roofs, and the courtyard itself, in which latter they form a circle linking up the rows of priests. This circle is the arena where the dancing takes place.”

Louis and Rinchen’s first daughter, who was born at Dartsendo (Kangding) in 1921, was given the Tibetan name “Sheradrema (She(s)-rab (s)Gröl-ma)” by Runtsen Chimbu, the Living Buddha of Dorje Drak. And according to a note made by Louis this name means ‘transcendent wisdom’ combined with the Tibetan name of the Goddess of Mercy – Drolma; Tara in Sanskrit, or Kuan Yin in Chinese. Rinchen was certainly a devout Buddhist, but whether this means she was a follower of Nyingma Buddhism I’m not entirely sure. I suspect she was, as there is a picture of a Tibetan priest, a “Ge-she or Doctor of Divinity”, in Rinchen’s book We Tibetans (1926), to whom she was related and whom the monks at Dorje Drak seemed to recognise when I showed them his photograph. But at present it’s hard to know for sure.

Lhamotse Gompa by Louis Magrath King - Then & Now (c.1920 & 2010)
There are a number of photographs taken by Louis of some kind of festival at Lhamotse Gompa (some look religious in nature, possibly connected to the 'Ya-Chiu', others appear to be traditional Tibetan opera). I’ve seen a similar set of photographs, presumably of the same events, taken by another of Louis’s consular colleagues several years later, taken from quite a reserved distance whereas Louis’s were for the most part taken very much in the thick of it all (... I suspect he’d have made quite an affable anthropologist had he been so inclined!). It was remarkable to wander into Lhamotse and spend some time matching his views from the 1920s with the present day. I was extremely lucky as I discovered from one of the Lamas, Lobsang Yeshe, that the building works I had encountered surrounding the Gompa were being undertaken to enlarge the monks’ living quarters – had I arrived a month later he said, the old living quarters (which feature so prominently in Louis’s old photographs) would have all been gone! Involuntarily I couldn’t help expressing my sadness at this fact, but the young Lama smiled at me and said very simply: “Nothing lasts forever, everything changes.” I have to admit I was struck by his words quite deeply, and, with a little amusement, I thought to myself that if I had climbed these mountains in search of an epiphany – this was certainly it. Perhaps the ardent pursuit of history (even if it is one’s own extended family history) is an ultimately futile exercise? … Why cling to the past?


  The building works at Lhamotse Gompa, 2010

Well, maybe not entirely futile as my trip was certainly more than a mere fact-finding mission, it was in many ways also an exercise of self-fulfilment in itself. I found a lot more than just history during this trip. I think the most abiding thing I took away with me was in fact the kindness of all the people I met. There’s no denying that my stack of old black and white photos helped prompt smiles and a sense of connection. Indeed, I spent quite a bit of time over several visits at both Dorje Drak and Lhamotse, where I was very much welcomed in by the Lamas who were fascinated by the old photos I’d brought with me. Some of the Lamas spoke a little English, and, with many of the others who didn’t, we managed to converse with the aid of some well-thumbed copies of rather antiquated-looking Tibetan-English dictionaries, which I understood had originally come by way of India (and which contained some quaintly old fashioned English colloquialisms). In turn they taught me a few phrases of Tibetan. One monk, named Sonam Topden, very kindly invited me into his tiny room and introduced me to that famous Tibetan staple tsamba which I’d often read about but never before tasted. I made a marvellous mess making it! We chatted away for quite some time with the help of his old dictionary and he wrote the name of Lhamotse Gompa in Tibetan for me. He was also quite an accomplished draughtsman as I saw several beautiful drawings he’d sketched of a seated bodhisattva – much like one I’d seen carved on a mani stone in another part of the town.




By the time I left Lhamotse that evening the gates had been closed and the monks were all loudly reciting texts in the courtyard. I wondered if they were chanting sutras but was told that this was something more like ‘philosophy’ disputation (?). The monks all smiled warmly as I passed by, and, as one young monk drew nearby he grinned and whilst looking at me quietly slipped the word “Demo” (hello) in amongst his recitations.

As I’ve said, the Gompas have all been architecturally altered or elaborated and expanded over time. Looking at them it was hard to tell how old some parts were. The living quarters of Lhamotse clearly matched Louis’s old photos as did the large flagstones of the paved courtyard, yet the balcony lattice-work had been replaced and the staircases, as Lobsang Yeshe observed, were no longer quite so steep. I read in a recently published travel guide that Dorje Drak had been completely destroyed in 1959 (no reason given as to why) and so later rebuilt. A final happy discovery I made at Dorje Drak related to two old photos of the Gompa’s exterior, one taken by Louis King and the other by Joseph Rock (as well as another of Ernest Wilson’s too, if you have a very keen eye) – which was that there had once been two large chortens or stupas standing in the open fields just outside the Gompa. They are now both gone, and the Gompa is today surrounded by houses with little gardens, but when lining up a modern view of one of Louis’s old photos I noticed a number of mani stones piled along a garden wall. It was clearly evident that these had been dug up with the vegetables! They lined the top of the overgrown wall and yet more were propped alongside a nearby hut. A trace of the old chortens it seemed remains. I wondered how many of these old mani stones might have been there and witnessed Louis taking the very same photograph as me some 90 or so years before?

Dorje Drak by Louis Magrath King, c.1920

Dorje Drak, 2010

“Thunderbolt Monastery, a stronghold of the Red Lamas near Tatsienlu”
Dorje Drak, by Joseph Rock (published 1930)

  To be continued … Part VI


“The Devil Dance at Tachienlu (Dartsendo)” by G. A. Combe in ‘The Journal of the West China Border Research Society, Vol. II, 1924-1925’ a more commonly available version of this article can be found in: "A Tibetan on Tibet" by Paul Sherap & George Combe (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1926)

“We Tibetans” by Rinchen Lhamo (London: Seeley Service Co., 1926)

“The Glories of Minya Konka” by Joseph F. Rock in ‘The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. LVIII, No. 4, October 1930’

“Mapping the Tibetan World” edited by Gavin Allright & Atsushi Kanamaru (Tokyo: Kotan Publishing Inc., 2004)

Edge  of Empires by Tim Chamberlain in 'The British Museum Magazine, No. 66 (Spring/Summer, 2010)'


  1. Thanks you so much for these wonderful stories - my grandparents lived here in the 1930s and '40s!

  2. Dear Tim,

    It's a few years since I had another look on the internet for material on the gompas of Dhartsendo and today I have just discovered this wonderful account of your visit.

    Back in 1991 I published the life story of a Dhardo Tulku, a so-called 're-incarnate' lama who was originally from Dhartsendo - hence his name DHAR(tsen)DO Tulku (sometimes also called Dhando Tulku, another alternate abbreviation of Dhartsendo). While researching the life story of this Tibetan lama I found that his predecessor had been the main 'incarnate lama' of Dorje Drak in Dhartsendo but while on pilgrimage to Lhasa (probably the 1850s) converted from Nyingmapa to a Gelugpa. In his later life he became one of the most senior of all the Gelugpa Lamas in Tibet, working closely with the 13th Dalai Lama. Upon his death in 1916 there was a search for the boy who was to be the 'tulku' whose story I was working on. The search was conducted by the Gelugpas and they again recognised a boy in Dhartsendo. Interesting that it was not the Nyingmapas of Dorje Drak who searched for their lama who had previously been lost to the Gelugpas! The new boy was taken on by Nga Chu Gelugpa Gompa and tho that boy left Dhartsendo in 1927 for Lhasa and never returned those monks of Nga Chu still regarded that tulku as their Lama; and though that lama died in 1990 in Kalimpong, North India, they still feel that the following recognised lama is still theirs. When you visited in 2010 a big photo of the new Dhardo Tulku would have been on the main throne of the monastery - a photo that I took some years before!

    What I have been trying to research is the history of this line of tulkus from the 1800's backwards. They were a line of Nyingmapa tulkus but much of the history will have been lost. I hoped one day to go to Dhartsendo to try and chase up this information. I probably will get there on day but I doubt I will have any success.

    Dorje Drak in Dhartsendo was founded as a sort of branch of the main Dorje Drak in Central Tibet, but both the branch and the main gompas have been been destroyed and rebuilt in the since the 1950s. It is highly unlikely that anything remains to give any clues! What do you think?

    Did you know that Alexandra David-Neel, the French woman lama and traveller-cum-adventurer, who made it all the way to Central Tibet last century, was trapped in Dhartsendo for the years of World War2? She could neither go back into Tibet, nor out through China. So, I think for 7 years she was stuck in Dhartsendo. Her archive has a wonderful picture of Dorje Drak Gompa from that time which I have and which I used in my published biography of Dhardo Tulku. I wonder of you have seen the photograph. It shows the very line of stupas you mention that seem to have been demolished by the time you got there!

    Have you any plans to revisit?



    1. Dear Suvajra,

      Many thanks for your comment. Fascinating to read about your research on the Tulku of Dorje Drak. I hope I can look up your article/book on the subject, what are the publication details?

      I very much wish I could find out more about Runtsen Chimbu. I'd love to know if he's the "Ge-she" pictured above - the caption given in Rinchen Lhamo's "We Tibetans" doesn't give him a name, but it does say this lama went on to hold "high ecclesiastical office in Mongolia." I suspect it's not him as I'm sure Rinchen would have said if he was a Tulku. Clearly he was someone important though, and was still remembered by today's lamas at Dorje Drak.

      I would love to go back to Dartsendo/Tachienlu/Kangding, and certainly hope to do so one day. I can't believe it's been seven years already since my last trip. It really was a high point of my life getting there, having spent so much time reading about it and staring endlessly at old photos, trying to map out its geography in my head. If I do get back there I hope I might be able to find out if there's anything left of the French Catholic Cemetery. There is an old walled cemetery close to Dorje Drak but unfortunately it was locked all the time when I was there so I was never able to take a look inside. I know George Pereira, the British traveller, was buried there and I'd be interested to know if his grave survives. Pereira knew both Louis King and Alexandra David-Neel. She didn't much like Louis! I knew she passed through Dartsendo on several occasions but I didn't realise she was stuck there quite so long during World War 2!

      It's very hard to tell how much of the old Gompas survive. As you can see from the piece above I've tried to work out to some extent what survives from old photos from various sources, but it is tricky. Even the monks' living quarters of Lhamotse weren't entirely the same as evidenced by the different angle of incline of the staircases either side of the main entrance. That said though, I suspect the wooden elements would have been periodically renewed even if they hadn't been deliberately damaged post-1950. I have read in one book that Dorje Drak was entirely 'raised to the ground' but who knows if that's not an exaggeration? I'm sure there are some among the older folk living there who might well remember, but (as I think I mentioned in one of my pieces here on the blog about my trip) some of the old folk I spoke to were a bit vague and I wasn't sure if this is because they were recalling hazy childhood memories or perhaps memories that were a little too sensitive or painful. I wasn't able to tell and so I definitely don't want to risk projecting any of my unconscious assumptions on such points. As I don't speak Chinese I could only rely on the person translating for me and asking his opinion afterwards he too was unsure and didn't want to hazard guessing either. The whole of Kangding is slowly/rapidly being remade, I suspect many of the old buildings I saw there have already and will continue to disappear over time.

      Best wishes,



Thanks for reading. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment.