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First established in 1167, Drigung Til Monastery(直贡梯寺) is the head monastery of the Drigongpa school of the Kagyupa order and the most famous sky burial site in central Tibet. By 1250 it was already vying with Sakya for political power – as it happened, not a particularly good move as the Sakya forces joined with the Mongol army to sack Drigong Til in 1290. Thus chastened, Drigung Til Monastery subsequently devoted itself to the instruction of contemplative meditation. There are around 200 monks at Drigung Til Monastery these days.

Drigung Til Monastery sprouts from a high, steep ridge overlooking the Zhorong-chu Valley. A steep thread of a path makes its way up into the monastic complex, although there is also vehicle access from the eastern end of the valley. The 180-degree views from the main courtyard are impressive and a serene stillness pervades the site. It’s a joy just to hang out in the courtyard by the monastery to take in the view with the monks after their morning prayer.

The main assembly hall is probably the most impressive of the buildings. The central figure inside is Jigten Sumgon, the founder of Drigung Til Monastery. Guru Rinpoche (in the corner) and Sakyamuni are to the left. Upstairs on the 1st-floor Serkhang (golden room or chapel) you can see statues of Jigten Sumgon and his two successors, all wearing red hats. Jigten’s footprint is set in a slab of rock at the foot of the statue. From the 1st floor you can go upstairs to a balcony and a circuit of prayer wheels. Steps lead up from here to the chortens of two previous abbots.

Drigung Til Monastery kora heads up the hill to the main durtro. This is the holiest sky burial site in the Lhasa region – people travel hundreds of kilometers to bring their deceased relatives here. But tourists are not allowed to view the sky burials, though it’s fine to hike up to the site when no sky burials are taking place. It’s possible to see the circular platform of stones where the bodies are cut up and the adjacent buildings where the shaved hair of the dead is stored (the site is purified once a year in the sixth lunar month and the hair is disposed of). If the birds are circling, don’t go up to the site.

Back in the courtyard, look right to the reconstructed protector chapel, the Abchi Lhakhang, which houses an impressive bronze statue of the protector Abchi Chudu. In the rear chapel of this building is a photo of Bachung Rinpoche, a hermit who lived in the caves above Drigung Til Monastery for 65 years. The monks of Drigung Til Monastery still praise Bachung Rinpoche for his efforts in helping to rebuild the monastery. Also lookout for the pair of yak horns on the left wall of the chapel, after which Drigung Til Monastery is said to be named (a dri is a female yak and gung means camp). the name may also derive from the hillside, which is said to be in the shape of a yak.

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