5 reasons for Gyuto Monastery to be on your list of Dharamshala sightseeing

posted in: Asia, Culture, Heritage, Himachal Pradesh, India | 18

It wasn’t my first time in a Buddhist monastery and yet there was something different about this one in Dharamshala. This was not the main Dalai Lama temple either. So then, what made the Gyuto monastery special? As I reflected on my visit, I gathered 5 reasons why this monastery appealed to me. Hopefully, they will be good enough for you to include Gyuto Monastery in your list of Dharamshala sightseeing.

One of the must-visit Dharamshala sightseeing place - Gyuto Monastery

Dharamshala and specifically, McCleodganj is called Little Lhasa. This is because the place is the base of the Tibetan Government in exile. When the Tibetans moved here, they brought in a lot of their legacy. The Gyuto Monastery is one such significant aspect. It is the main center for Tantric Buddhists after the original temple had to be left behind. And that, my dear readers, is your very first reason to get to Gyuto Monastery – its history.

History of Gyuto Monastery

In the good old times of Tibet, around 655 AD, the then Dharma King Songtsen Gampo built two important temples. Of these, the Ramoche temple became significant for the Tantric Buddhists post an interesting incident in 1470s. A renowned Tantric guru –Jetsun Kunga Dhondup was called upon to stop a flood with his tantric knowledge. With a major disaster averted, he and his disciples were offered Ramoche Temple with its belongings. Over time, it became the key center for this branch of Buddhism. This form of tradition came to be called Gelug and the college of tantric studies became Gyuto.

With the Chinese invasion in 1950, many monks followed Dalai Lama into India. They first set up a base in Dalhousie but later, made Dharamshala their center. When Dalai Lama got the Nobel Peace Award, he got a few financial grants. One of the things it was used was to set up the founding stone of the Gyuto monastery in the present-day location. The Ramoche temple is said to have shifted here by the monks and the tradition of Tantric Buddhism studies continues here.

Tantric Buddhism - a part of Vajrayana branch of the religion

So, what is this Tantric branch of Buddhism? There are two main branches – Mahayana and Vajrayana. The Tantric practices come under the Vajrayana. They simply believe that rituals and meditations are what lead one to enlightenment. In some ways, it is related to the first Hindu yogi – Lord Shiva. I first came across it at the Lamayuru monastery in Ladakh and later found it at the Alchi monastery and many more. It puzzled me as to how a religion so peaceful had such fierce renditions of deities. However, it was at one of these monasteries, a monk explained the real practices and beliefs of Buddhism. Ultimately, they all lead to divine enlightenment 😉

They say that Alchi Monastery in Ladakh is one of the oldest in the Himalayas. Even before the Gyuto monastery. Dating back to the 12th century, the monastery has quite a few relics from Tantric Buddhism. Not only that, you will discover the ancient wooden structure, a library and some stunning views of River Indus. Check out my own experience by clicking through this link.

Anyway, with such a significant history, I am pretty sure that you would want to see the Gyuto monastery. After all, it is said to be the replica of the university of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet!

The breathtaking location of Gyuto Monastery

The stunning location of Gyuto monastery

As our car drove through the gates of Gyuto monastery, all I could say is WOW. When we parked, the WOW just became a gasp. There it was, the vibrant center of Buddhism against the snow-peaked Dhauladhars. The bright yellow building with the red staircase seemed even more cheerful with the backdrop of white and blue. If that were not enough, the colorful street painting added to its brilliance. The best part is that the view from the top of the stairs of the monastery was equally lovely!

The residences and classes of the students at the Gyuto monastery

Majestic Interiors of Gyuto Monastery

The interiors of Gyuto Monastery, Dharamshala

Ornate is the word that I think describes the interiors of Gyuto Monastery. Red, Gold and yellow were the prominent colors. The cheerful tones of the monastery were accompanied by the calm emanating from the central statue of Buddha. The seat of the Dalai Lama is right in front of this Buddha. If he is not able to make it for a ceremony, his picture on the seat is taken as his presence.

The seat of Dalai Lama with the Buddha Padmasambhava in the background

Here and there along the line of low tables for the monks, I saw a lot of musical instruments. Gigantic gongs, bells and drums – all that was required for the singing and ceremonies of the monks. There is this one festival when all the monks – from far and near – come together for a massive ceremony. Sadly I misplaced the name in my notes but here is what I recall. The festival involves a lot of singing and chanting almost for one entire day.

Giant Gongs or Cymbals

On either side of the main Buddha are several statues of other deities and monks. If you are facing the Buddha, then on the right, you will find the fierce deities of Tantric Buddhism. These are depicted as destroying evil in the form of demons. Finding them transported me back to my Bhutan trip – the country is full of legends of Buddhist monks overcoming demons. Check out some of the stories like the Tiger Nest Monastery, the fertility temple – Chimi Lhakhang and the Gangtey monastery.

You will see a lot of offerings kept around the deities including plain water. I recall one of the monks at Bhutan telling me that “You don’t have to be rich to offer anything. Water is a basic necessity and even if you offer that, it is as good as gold”. Such is the humility that you encounter at monasteries – including this one.

The mandala made from a single wood piece
Ornate decor of the monastery

I highly recommend walking around the monastery. Observe the pretty Thangkas and golden goblets and look out for the Mandala art made of a single wood piece. There is quite a bit if you are an art connoisseur. And that brings us to Reason No.4 to get to Gyuto Monastery.

The rare Tibetan Butter Sculptures

Torma or the Tibetan butter sculptures

The Tibetan monks are adept at making butter sculptures and there are some of these creations kept at Gyuto Monastery. It is not as if you won’t see them elsewhere but the whole heritage of Lhasa is what makes the ones at Gyuto special. These creations are called Torma or Tsepdro. It is believed that the traditional butter sculptures were made from Yak butter. The practice came into play when a Tibetan princess got a statue of Buddha and the monks wanted to deck it with flowers. Given the time of the year, there were no flowers available. So, they made some with butter. 😉

It is from then that the practice of these butter sculptures continues. It is not an easy skill. In the cold weather, the monks dip their hands in ice water and then mould the butter. This is to ensure that the butter does not melt! And boy! Does all that labour pay off – look for yourself!

The lovely butter sculptures displayed at Gyuto Monastery

The Tibetans celebrate a Butter Lantern festival on the full moon day. This is a part of their New Year Celebrations. These sculptures are lit in the night and I believe, the whole picture is quite divine. The light they believe makes all that is dark go away. These celebrations continue with the presence of Dalai Lama in Dharamshala now – not just on New Year but also, on other festivals.

The resident monks

One of the residential buildings at the monastery

And finally, you have to get to the Gyuto Monastery for the cute monks who reside here. Remember the monastery is not just a place of worship. It is a residential school that has monks of all ages enrolled. You are bound to stumble upon the small ones who are happy to play a game of cricket with you. If you happen to get here during their break, the older ones are happy to chat with you and share a tale or two from their lives and well, even their heritage. Trust me, it is quite an enlightening experience.

Bowl me an over - the little monk beckoned me

I hope you are convinced about adding this to your Dharamshala sightseeing list. So go on, add this reminder pin to your board and share the love around!

How to get to Gyuto Monastery?

  • Kangra airport is well connected to Delhi and rest of India. This will be one of your options to get to Dharamshala. Road and Railway are the other alternatives for you to get to Dharamshala.
  • Once in Dharamshala, you can hop onto one of the local buses for your trip to Gyuto Monastery.
  • Hiring a cab is a suggested option. In fact, get one for half a day so that it can wait with you when you visit the Gyuto monastery. Once you are done there, you should head over to the Norbulingka institute before getting back to your hotel.

Travel Tips

  • There are no entrance fees to visit the Gyuto Monastery.
  • The Gyuto Monastery timings are from 7 am to 7 pm.
  • You will find that there are no guides or boards at the monastery. Only if you have taken one of the guided tours of Dharamshala, you will be treated to one. There are a few of these tours available online. You can check the section below for it.

Booking resources for Dharamshala

  • Book a tour of Dharamshala through GetyourGuide. The tour takes you through the Tibetan and Hindu attractions at Dharamshala including Gyuto Monastery. It also includes a free pick-up from your hotel.
  • If you are looking for hotels in Dharamshala, you could click through this link.  Booking.com has plenty of options for hotels in Dharamshala. 
  • Tripadvisor.com is another option for reviews and hotel bookings.

All of the above are affiliate links from this website. They do not cost you anything additional.  If anything, they help me earn a commission to keep this website going.

Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.


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