3 famous monasteries in Darjeeling you should visit

Darjeeling, the Queen of Himalayas, is not only famous for the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, undulating lush green tea gardens, and snowy mountain peaks. The town is also the abode of several Buddhists monasteries, mostly Tibetan. They exhibit the rich religious heritage of Tibetan Buddhism and are must-visit destinations for the inquisitive traveller.

Darjeeling and its neighbourhoods are home to a large number of Buddhist people. Most of them are Tibetan refugees who fled to India after the Chinese annexation of Tibet. Buddhists are the second largest religious community in Darjeeling after the Hindu Nepali and Bengali people, who are living harmoniously in the Darjeeling hills since colonial times. Before the advent of the British, Darjeeling was a small village of the Lepcha tribe under the Namgyal or Chogyal monarchy of Sikkim. They were predominantly Buddhist. Later many Nepali Buddhist people also started living in Darjeeling when Darjeeling was handed over to the King of Nepal by Namgyal as part of a peace treaty, and again Nepal had to hand it over to the British government as part of another peace treaty. Without going into historical details, we can say that Buddhism is practised in Darjeeling and the surrounding regions for several hundred years, and the expansion of Buddhism has been done in several phases. As a result, the town is the abode of several Buddhist monasteries rich in history and heritage. They are interesting tourist destinations for both the history buff and people with a religious bent of mind. Here is a list of 3 famous monasteries in Darjeeling (or gompa or ling in the local language) which you must include in your Darjeeling itinerary, along with the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the museums, the tea gardens, and the food joints of Darjeeling.

1. Yiga Choeling Monastery, Ghoom, Darjeeling

This is locally and popularly known as the Old Ghoom monastery. It is located at an elevation of 8000 feet, at a distance of 8 kilometres from the proper Darjeeling town. It belongs to the Geluk Pa or Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The word 'Pa' means 'sect' in the Tibetan language. The monastery was constructed in 1850 by a famous Mongolian scholar monk named Sokpo Sherab Gyatso. The monastery is, therefore, one of the oldest monasteries of Darjeeling. Sokpo Sherab Gyatso was also the chief of this monastery from 1850 to 1905, before moving to Tibet in his birthplace where he breathed his last. This monastery is particularly famous for a 15-feet tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha, or Gyalwa Shampa as the Tibetans say, who is the next Buddha to be born in future. In front of the statue, there are two huge lamps that burn throughout the day, all around the year. However, this old monastery is nowadays facing severe financial crisis and the grants-in-aid entitled to the monastery are still pending. It is now entirely dependent on the contributions of the local devotees and the donations of the tourists. Photography is allowed inside the monastery, but in lieu of a small fee collected by the authorities, which is understandable given the financial crunch the monastery is facing.

2. Samten Choeling Monastery, Ghoom, Darjeeling

Samten Choeling monastery is also located at Ghoom and this is also often referred to as the Ghoom Monastery. Sometimes, to differentiate from the Yiga Choeling about which we have already discussed, the Samten Choeling is referred to as the New Ghoom Monastery. It is situated at Ghoom (also spelt Ghum) right on the main arterial road called the Hill Cart Road that goes all the way up to Darjeeling from Siliguri. Usually, the tour planners or the taxi drivers club this with the Tiger Hill tour which is a sunrise observatory point near Ghoom. So tourists are taken to Tiger Hill at late night, to watch the sunrise over the majestic snowy peaks of the Mount Kanchenjunga, then they are taken to the famous Batasia Loop on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway which now has a park and a war memorial and also offers amazing views of snow peaks. The tourists usually have their breakfast here. Then they often proceed to see the DHR Museum at Ghoom, and finally to the Ghum Monastery which is Samten Choeling. Unless you specifically mention, you would not be taken to the Old Ghoom Monastery or Yiga Choeling because that is another one kilometre and the approach road is a steep, narrow one. Yiga Choeling is usually not included in the packages either, but you can always pay some extra money to see it if you want to, or get down at Ghoom and walk.

The Samten Choeling (also spelt Choling) is probably the most known and the most visited Buddhist monastery in Darjeeling. It belongs to the Gelukpa or Gandenpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism and takes pride in housing a vast collection of Buddhist books and sacred religious texts, including the Kangyur, which is a closely defined canon of sacred Tibetan Buddhist texts. The monastery is open from morning till evening throughout the week. If you are coming from Tiger Hill, Batasia Loop, and Ghoom Museum, this is where you can drop off, visit the monastery, have some tea, and then take a reserved or shared taxi to Darjeeling which will just take 15-20 minutes.

3. Druk Sangag Choeling (Dali Monastery), Darjeeling

The Druk Sangag Choling, locally known as the Dali Monastery in Darjeeling, is located about 5 kilometres from the main town. It is situated on a steep hill by the side of the Hill Cart Road, and the view of it from the road is just mesmerizing. It is a famous monastery of the Kagyupa or Kargyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism which means 'oral lineage'. It was built by Tibetan religious guru Kyabje Thuksey Rinpoche in 1971. Today the monastery is also the seat and residence of the head of the Kargyupa sect, who is Drukchen Rinpoche the XII. Over two hundred monks stay here at present, and it is probably the biggest Buddhist monastery in the Darjeeling area. There is also a café here which is called the Kunga Paljor Coffee Shop. However, there are many dogs that are kept as pets by the monks. Although they rarely attack visitors, sometimes they can be a real nuisance so it is better to exercise caution if you visit the Dali Monastery.

Why are Bhutia Basti and the Aloobari Monasteries not in the list?

The Karma Dorje Choeling, locally known as the Bhutia Basti Monastery, which was originally located in the observatory hill near the Mahakal temple close to the Chowrasta Mall, has now been relocated. It is now situated in a locality called the Bhutia Basti, hence the name. Considering the original location of this monastery, it is the oldest Buddhist monastery of Darjeeling. It was built as early as in 1761 by Lama Dorje Rinzing and for several years it was the only monastery in the neighbourhood when Darjeeling was a small tribal village under the Namgyal monarchy of Sikkim. In 1815 when the Nepali soldiers (Gorkha) invaded Darjeeling, the original monastery was severely looted, plundered, and damaged. It was rebuilt in the year 1861, but the series of misfortunes continued. There were several disturbances, and the monastery again shifted to a new location in the late nineteenth century. Again, in the year 1934, there was a severe earthquake and the monastery was completely destroyed. Finally, the monastery was rebuilt at its present location, with the help of the Chogyal King of Sikkim.

So, why did not I include the Karma Dorjee Choling or the Bhutia Basti monastery in the list of must-visit monasteries of Darjeeling? The answer is the remote location. Although it is not very far from the Chowrasta Mall (less than 2 kilometres), the road is a steep downhill path which passes by the Step Aside (Deshbandhu museum). Taxis rarely go that way (probably they are not allowed on that road but I am not sure) so you need to walk downhill for 30-35 minutes. The problem is while coming up it is going to be a steep uphill walk for more than one hour which can be very problematic for many people who are not used to walking long distances uphill. Since it is quite strenuous I decided to exclude this monastery from my list. I have heard that you can take the same road downhill to go up to Lebong and then take a taxi from there, but I have never explored that route myself.

I have also not included the Alubari monastery (Mag-Dhog Yolmowa Monastery) in my list which was built in the time of the First World War, by Sangay Lama, the religious guru of the Hyolmo people. The name 'Mag-Dhog' means 'doing away with warfare' and the monastery was dedicated to world peace. There are two reasons why I excluded this from my list of famous monasteries of Darjeeling that tourists should visit. Firstly, it is a relatively smaller one and if you are not particularly interested in Tibetan Buddhism, you may not find anything new or interesting after visiting all the three monasteries listed above. Secondly, it has become a little dilapidated and shabby for want of proper maintenance. However, if you still visit the Aloobari monastery you will be rewarded with some spectacular view on the left side of the building. You will also be warmly greeted by several local kids who often come to play in the monastery premises and sometimes they will even pose with you for a photograph!

Do you know about any other important Buddhist monastery in Darjeeling that the tourists should visit? Post a comment below!


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