Rongbuk Monastery and its great Chorten precede the Abode of Snows.
by Jeanne-Marie Gilbert
On the north side of the Himalaya sits the partially reconstructed Tibetan
Buddhist monastery of Rongbuk, once the largest monastic center in the
region. Rongbuk is the power place through which all seeking the highest
peak via the North Face must pass. It is the sacred threshold to Mount
Everest, with the most dramatic views in the world. One of the first British
explorers to see it, John Noel, described it: "Some colossal architect, who
built with peaks and valleys, seemed here to have wrought a dramatic
prodigy—a hall of grandeur that led to the mountain." Often shrouded in
clouds and mist, the great peak was alternately described as "a
preposterous triangular lump" (by Mallory) and "a glittering spire of rock
fluted with snow" (by Odell), with "an imposing head of granite and ice,"
(Noel) and it looms large over the Rongbuk glacier, shining white at its
The Rongbuk monastery, situated half-way up the mile-wide, 20-mile long
valley at 16,500 feet, is accessible today by vehicle over an obscure,
rough track that crosses frozen streams and deep dry washes. In the days of
Mallory and Irvine, it took a five-week walk from Darjeeling, in the Indian
foothills of the Himalaya, to arrive at this spot. One gradually gains
altitude on the high Tibetan plain and, on crossing the last pass, one's
entire view is filled with a panorama of the mythically charged horizon:
Shishipangma, Mount Everest, and Cho Oyu are among the great peaks that lie
Rongbuk Monastery was founded in 1902 in an area of meditation huts that
had been in use by nuns and hermits for over 400 years. Hermitage meditation
caves dot the cliff walls all around the monastery complex and up and down
the valley. Mani walls and stones, carved with sacred syllables and prayers,
line the paths. The founding Rongbuk Lama, also known as the Zatul Rinpoche,
had a reputation of being a remarkable individual, very wise and intelligent
and much respected by the Tibetans. Even though the Rongbuk Lama viewed the
early climbers as "heretics," he gave them his protection and supplied them
with meat and tea while also praying for their conversion.
Ruins of the Lhakhang of Rongbuk
At Rongbuk, there is a beautiful, large, round chorten, a reliquary with
religious significance embedded in its terraced structure and crown of
emblems of the sun and moon, symbolizing the light of Buddha's teaching. The
chorten dramatically marks this last human dwelling place before one heads
up the stark valley to Base Camp. In previous times, the Rongbuk Monastery
became very active with the teachings at certain times of the year. It was a
site of special pilgrimage during the annual ceremonies with masked dancers.
Throngs of the faithful would come from far and wide—some from Nepal and
Mongolia—and sit on every level of all the many-tiered flat roofs of the
monastery to watch the masked dancers in the great open courtyard. Cymbals
clanged amid the ceaselessly overlapping thunder of the long Tibetan
trumpets played in relay to accompany the monk dancers in their ritual.
These ceremonies were shared with the satellite monasteries across the
Himalaya also founded by the Rongbuk Lama. The ceremonies survive to this
day, notably at the Sherpa monastery at Tengboche. Rongbuk's vast treasury
of books and costumes, which had been taken for safekeeping to Tengboche,
were tragically lost in a 1989 fire.
Love of adventure and expression of the dauntless human spirit was less
intelligible to the Rongbuk Lama than pilgrimage, so the early explorers
told him they were on pilgrimage, couching the term to themselves as on a
pilgrimage of adventure. But pilgrimage it becomes, up on this old glacial
moraine so far from the norm of modern life. After receiving the blessing
of the lama, your mind becomes more focused, perhaps channeled by the gods
who dwell in the Abode of Snows. By the time Base Camp is reached, the land
has become progressively more sterile, more elemental: rock, sky, ice, wind.
Everest looms above, a sacred space with its own draw, its own inexorable
pull on the human spirit.
Life reduced to the bare elements near the terminus of the Rongbuk glacier.
Photos: (1, 2) Peter Tyson; (3) Liesl Clark.
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