Rongphuk Monastery and the Everest Region

1922  J.B. Noel

1981 (Galen Rowell - Mountains of the Middle Kingdom)

*Go to bottom of this page for link to Quicktime VR's of the Rongphuk monastery.*

     Founded in 1902, the Rongphuk (also spelled Rongbuk, Rongphu, or Dzarongpu) monastery is the largest monastery of the Everest Region, once housing over 500 monks and nuns.  The monastery is located near the 16,500' Base Camp of Mt. Everest's north face, at the foot of the Rongphuk Glacier.   In the centuries before the monastery was built, the area was the location of meditation huts and caves used by a community of Buddhist nuns and hermits.  Then, in the 1902, a man named Ngawang Tenzin Norbu, also known as Zatrul Rimpoche, began the real growth of the Nyingmapa Rongphuk monastery.  Zatrul Rimpoche was only 35 years old when he established his own residence there, and he began to draw together both male and female disciples.  He began fund raising, in both the immediate D'ing'ri vicinity and in the Solu/Khumbu areas of Nepal in order to establish the monastery.  The monastery grew very rapidly, and by the time the first Everest reconnaissance expedition passed through in 1921, there were 20 permanent lamas living there, and some 300 other associated lamas that came in periodically.  

      Zatrul Rimpoche also went to the Solu/Khumbu region of Nepal, south of Everest, and founded the Sherpa monasteries of Thame, Tengboche, Takshindo, and Chiwong.  By his death in 1940, he had established seven chapels at the Rongphuk complex, the four monasteries in the Khumbu, and five nunneries near Dingri.   Zatrul Rimpoche was known to be a man of remarkable character and intelligence that the Tibetans revered deeply.   He was described as a man of incredible energy and enterprising ability, and it was widely agreed by many that he expressed several qualities of the historical Buddha.  Thus, he also became known as Dzarongpu Sangye -- the Buddha of Rongphu.   When Mallory and other early Everest explorers passed through the Rongphuk valley on their expedition to climb Mt. Everest from the north in the 1920s, Zatrul Rimpoche gave them protection at the monastery.  He supplied them with meat and tea and also prayed for them on their journey up Mt. Everest, a mountain which they held very sacred at the monastery.   

     The Rongphu monastery was the central monastery for the annual Mani Rimdu festival, founded by Zatrul Rimpoche.  Occurring around the full moon of each November, the dances were designed to be performed by monks in order to describe the story of the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet.   At the Rongphuk monastery, hundreds of Tibetans from the Everest region would gather in the floors and balconies surrounding the main courtyard of the monastery to watch the monks perform the Mani Rimdu dances.   The monks would wear ornate, colorful costumes of Buddhist gods and dance to the rhythms of clashing cymbals, beating drums, and blasts of long Tibetan horns.  It was a time for the Tibetan people to wear their finest clothes and to enjoy each other's company while watching the dances.  

rongphuk4.jpg (40231 bytes)   1922, J.B. Noel

Mani Rimdu was also a time for receiving special rilbu pills that have been prayed over by monks and given special powers for healing and insuring long life.  The ritual was also performed at the many satellite monasteries of the Everest region that Zatrul Rimpoche founded, and it is still presently performed each year at the Tengboche, Thame, and Chiwong monasteries in Nepal.    

             1922 J.B. Noel      1933  Source: Downs               

[Two thumbnail pictures of Tenzin Norbu (Zatrul Rimpoche)  c.a.1866-1940]

About Trulshig Rimpoche XI:

      Spiritual heir to Abbot Ngawang Tenzing Norbu, the Dzatrul Rinpoche of Rongphu Monastery, Trulzig Rinpoche was born in 1921 in Tibet in Lo Talung.  He was recognized as the reincarnation of Dzatrul Rinpoche's teacher.  Dzatrul Rinpoche had built (or rebuilt) Rongphuk monastery in 1902 and by 1950, it had grown to about 500 monks and nuns in 13 nearby communities.  One of his thirty reincarnations in India was Ananda the disciple of the Buddha who persuaded him to allow women to take ordination.  In Tibet he had been Lhalungpa Pelgyi Dorge who assassinated King Langdarma in 842 while performing the Black Hat dance.  He escaped and hid in the cave Lhalungpa Puk at Drak Yerpa.  He had also been reincarnated as the yogi (Rechungpa 1083-1161), one of the main disciples of Milarepa.  He had met Milarepa when he was 11 years old, in 1094, and spent many years studying under him.  He traveled twice to India and studied with Indian teachers.  Rechung Puk was one of the places where he spent time meditating. 

     Trulshig Rinpoche studied at Rongphu with Ngawang Tenzing and took novice vows at the age of 10.  When he was 19, Ngawang Tenzing died, and Trulshig Rinpoche took his place as Khenpo (abbot) of Dza-Rong-Phu.  Trulshig Rinpoche also studied at Mindroling and Lhasa.  In 1959, Trulshig Rinpoche fled from Chinese occupation of Tibet and stayed at Thame for one year; later he established a gompa at Sengge Phukk, moved to Pungmoche, and eventually founded the monastery of Tubten Choeling.  

sangepuk1.jpg (56704 bytes)   sangepuk2.jpg (49279 bytes)   sangepuk3.jpg (41297 bytes)  2000, Kim Malville

[3 pictures of Sengge Phukk]                      

tubtencholing.jpg (48373 bytes) 2000, Kim Malville

[Tubten Choeling]                       

    Mindroling Monastery, the major Nyingma center in central Tibet, was the source of the Mani Rimdu rituals, which are based on teachings associated with the Lord of the Dance, a form of Avalokiteshvara.  Mindroling was known for the impressive scale of its dances, one of which had over 100 roles with costumes and masks for each dancer (Nebesky-Wojkowitz 1976: 12).  The hidden texts that were the source of the teachings of the Lord of the Dance were discovered by Terdak Lingpa, the founder of Mindroling Monastery, on August 23, 1690.  The Lord of the Dance tradition was brought to Rongphu by Ngawang Tenzing Norbu, who then edited them and combined with other 'cham dances to create Mani Rimdu.

    The Lord of the Dance was effectively saved from annihilation in the process.  Mindroling was particularly secretive about its rituals, which is unfortunate.  Because of the depravations of the Chinese invasions, the monastery is no longer functioning as a teaching center.  

Kohn p 24: "Since he (the Lord of the Dance) is a Mindroling deity, one would expect to find the Lord of the Dance at the refugee resettlement of Mindroling in India at Dehra Dun. ...According to Trulshig Rinpoche, Dingo Khyentse Rinpoche at Dehra Dun gives the Lord of the Dance initiation, but does not teach its practice.  Thus, unless a tradition flourishes in Sikkhim (e.g. at Pemayangtseor) elsewhere, Trulshig Rinpoche is at present its sole exponent."

    From Rongphu, the Mani Rimdu tradition was initially carried by Ngawang Tenzin Norbu over the Nangpa La into the Solu Kumbhu region of Nepal.  Its monasteries of Tengboche, Thami, Chiwong, and Tubten Choling are some of the few places where the Mindroling teachings and rituals of the Lord of the Dance traditions are maintained in the form of Mani Rimdu.  The first performance of the dance at Rongphu occurred sometime between 1907-1910.  It was first performed in Tengpoche around 1938, soon before the death of Ngawang Tenzin Norbu.  At Rongphu, Mani Rimdu was performed in the fourth month, and it may have been watched by the British parties attempting Mt. Everest in the spring months of 1921-1933.

    Some fo the British impressions of the Ngawang Tenzin Norbu have been recorded:  General Bruce, who reached Rongphu on 30 April 1922 wrote: "He was a large, well-made man of about sixty, full of dignity, with a most intelligent and wise face and an extraordinarily attractive smile."  In his audience with the Dzatrul Rinpoche, Bruce explained his interest in Mt. Everest by claiming the the climbers were pilgrims to Chomolungma (Mt. Everest).  Bruce avoided Tibetan tea proffered by Ngawang Tenzin Norbu by claiming he had sworn not to touch butter until his pilgrimage was over.

    The 1924 Everest expedition had another story about their visit to Rongphu, as told by Noel (1927): "We found ourselves trudging up a narrow dark stairway to a shrine in the upper part of the monastery buildings...  We came to a small, simply furnished room.  Before us we saw two lamas holding a screen of cloth.  We waited silently for a moment.  Then the two lamas slowly lowered their screen...  The figure sat absolutely motionless and silently... He looked at us, but did not speak or move.  There was something vastly observant and yet impersonal in his gaze.  The screen of cloth was raised and our audience was at an end and we filed out.  I felt absolutely hypnotized..."

     The British returned to Rongphu for the fourth time, in 16 April 1933, and there was another meeting with Dzatrul Rinpoche, this time described by Ruttledge in 1934:  "Our moment of arrival was fortunate.  Till recently the old lama had been in retreat, engaged in meditation and therefore unapproachable.  He was now free again and, though sorrowing for the death of a beloved sister, was prepared to bless the men whom a strange madness had brought for the fourth time to Everest. ...The Lama was upstairs, in a curious little shed with real glass windows... He has a most attractive smile, and an air of great authority.  He told me to be very careful and to allow no killing of animals or birds in the Rongbuk valley, and to treat his people well... After this, presents were exchanged, his consisting of various foods, and the blessing ceremony began.  Each of us advanced in turn, put his head in at a glass window and was touched with the dorje and blessed.  The old gentleman asked us Europeans to recite the mystic words "Om mani padme hum), and chuckled with delight when Smyth's pronunciation failed him.  We fell completely under his charm... Afterwards the Lama consented pleasantly to come out into the open and be photographed.  For all his dignity, he is a very human and a good friend."

    The'cham dances of Tibet, which formed the original basis of Mani Rimdu, may be described as publicly staged versions of regular temple rituals in which tantric power is summoned and used to destroy hostile and malevolent spirits, which are present in the environment.  The creation of a mandala containing deities and the offering of the vanquished spirits to them is a major them of the ritual 'cham dances.  They were preformed once or twice a year by most major monasteries in Tibet.  It is likely that the earliest performance of a 'chams was that of the lay tantric Lhalung Pelki Dorje in 842, during which he hid a bow in the wide sleeves of his gown.  King Langdarma was watching the performance of the Black Hat dance and was assassinated by the dancer.

    The "mani-pills" that are distributed at the Mani Rimdu festivals in the Solu-Khumbu were built into the festival by Dzatrul Rinpoche at Rongphu, and there is no mention of them having been used at Mindroling (Kohn: 194).  The pills at Chiwong come in two sizes ranging from perhaps .2 to 1 cm and have a red hue.  They are made of rice flower and several secret, magic compounds.  A skull bowl filled with the pills is placed on a tripod in the center of the mandala.

mandala1.jpg (48250 bytes)     mandala2.jpg (33554 bytes)     artist.jpg (37305 bytes) 2000, Kim Malville

[Thumbnails of the sand mandala and the artist, Konchha Lama, who made it (Chiwong Monastery)]


                      Source: Hugh Downs                                     Source: Hugh Downs         

[Trulshig  Rimpoche in Kathmandu in the late 1950s]                    [Trulshig Rimpoche in 1980s]           

Kim Malville

[Trulshig Rimpoche in Fall, 2000 at Tubten Chholing Monastery]

    Though it is unclear just exactly how long the Rongphuk monastery lasted before its eventual destruction, it is guessed that it was finally destroyed by 1974.  Since then the monastery has been left to ruin and disregard.  In his book, Mountains of the Middle Kingdom, a noted photo journalist Galen Rowell related his feelings from one of his jounals about the monastery ruins on an expedition up the Rongphuk valley towards Mt. Everest:

"This is a depressing place.  Spots of snow form distant dots in gullies, surrounded by barren rock slopes.  There are occasional black dots - junipers, the highest timberline scrub - in between boulders.  Otherwise this is as desolate a place as man could imagine.  Next to our camp here is the Rongbuk Monastery without a single ceiling; just broken walls stretching a hundred yards up a hillside devoid of life, where hundreds of lamas and pilgrims once worshiped.

"To my left is Chomolungma, the Goddess Mother, this huge mountain rising above desolation unlike any I have seen.  I cannot recall being in such a rain shadow, in such a barren area so high.  Questions come to mind.  How did people live here?  It would be interesting to try to reconstruct the life of a lama.  Where did his food come from?  His heat?  His butter for the lamps?  The paint for the walls?  Who carried them up?  Why?  And how?  I'm awed.

"All the ease and all the quietness of spirit that I felt is suddenly erased in the presence of this desecrated monastery and this great mountain, a mountain that I might attempt to climb.   It would give me a supreme test.  Do I want that test?  I can still wonder, but this monastery is beyond any test, beyond any help.  Gone.  Among these walls, where the wind blasts fading paintings and carved stone, expeditions have performed a sacrilege that turns my stomach.  What I have seen here is irretrievably horrible and grotesque.  I had to sit down and regain my composure after I looked into the first of dozens of rooms filled with trash.  Tears came to my eyes, and I rarely cry.  Cans.  Thousands of cans.  None of them very rusted.  All from expeditions since 1975.  Chinese labels.  Japanese labels.  German labels.  Boxes, paper, decaying food, metal, and just plain junk.  And Rongbuk is accessible by truck! The Chinese could have simply carried it all out!

"The essence of this place is contained in a wall painting that I just photographed.  The elements have obliterated all but a pair of mournful eyes staring from a featureless face."

  rongphuk5.jpg (70339 bytes)  rongphuk6.jpg (69329 bytes)  rongphuk8.jpg (63093 bytes)

[Photos by Galen Rowell -  Mountains of the Middle Kingdom]

Quick Time VR Tour of the Rongbuk Monastery


Mt. Kailash

Lake Manasarovar


Other Landscapes
Mt. Everest Lhasa

Monastery Inventory