Resplendent in the vibrant colors of the sacred art that adorns it, the monastery of Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre, the largest in Sikkim, sits 5,500 feet above sea level, set into a hill facing the city of Gangtok. The temple is surrounded by monks' quarters that also enclose a spacious stone courtyard, the setting for ritual lama dances that commemorate significant dates in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar.

Virupaksha, Guardian King of the West, helps protect the Main Temple entrance

Crowning the roof peak of the four-storied temple is a golden sculpture, the ghanzira. Five distinct shapes comprise this roof ornament, symbolizing the five Tathagata (Buddha) families. From bottom to top, the lotus symbolizes Amithaba; the wheel, Vairochana; the bell, Amoghasiddhi; the vase, Akshobya; and the jewel, Ratnasambhava.

One floor below is the ridhag chokhor. Legend holds that after the Buddha attained enlightenment, he retired to an isolated place. While sitting there in meditation, he was approached by the great gods Brahma, holding a golden wheel with a thousand spokes, and Indra, bearing a white, right-turning conch shell. They offered these objects, requesting teachings on the holy dharma. Buddha said he would turn the wheel of the dharma in three stages. Just then two deer emerged from the nearby forest and gazed directly at the wheel. To commemorate this first turning of the wheel, a dharma wheel and a pair of deer, male and female, sit atop every Buddhist temple and monastery. The wheel symbolizes the Buddha's teachings, and the deer, representing Brahma and Indra, students. The stance of the deer is also significant: their up-turned faces symbolize listening, their attentive gaze reflection, and their reclining posture, meditation.

Six metal, golden gyaltsen (victory banners), symbolizing victory over negative forces of all directions, complete the roof decoration.

The painting of Lord Ganesh inspired by the 16th Karmapa's vision

Richly colored murals in the traditional, Tibetan monastic painting style grace the entrance of the main temple. Here, on each side of the door, stand life-size images of the Four Guardians of the universe: Virudaka, Virupaksha, Dritarashtra, and Vaishravana, protecting the east, west, south, and north cardinal directions, respectively. The Guardian Kings are depicted at the entryway because after the Buddha's enlightenment, the four approached him and promised to protect all his monasteries and temples in the future. An uncommon, though significant, detail of the mural is a painting of Lord Ganesh, placed there because His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa had a vision of the elephant-headed Hindu deity assisting in the construction of Rumtek Monastery.

Inside, the spacious, intricately decorated Main Shrine Hall is supported by robust red pillars. Long, round silk banners and ancient thangkas hang from these columns. Paintings of the Kagyu lineage, the Eight Great Bodhisattvas, the Sixteen Arhats (the saints to whom Buddha Shakyamuni entrusted his doctrine), and the Genduk Chogngi (Shakyamuni Buddha and the eight greatest scholars of Buddhist India: Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga, Dharmakirti, Gunaprabha, and Sakyaprabha) fill the walls.

The assembly of monks prays before the Karmapa's throne in the Main Shrine Room

Housed in the hall on either side of the main shrine is a complete set of the religious texts of the Kangyur and Tengyur. The Kangyur is a collection of the Buddha's teachings, translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan, composed of the tantrayana and sutrayana. The Tengyur, the commentarial canon, is a collection of Tibetan translations of early Indian commentaries on the teachings, which comprises 225 volumes with slight variations between different editions.

When the Main Shrine Room was expanded in 1989, a large painting of the Buddha on the back wall had to be removed. Because His Holiness Karmapa had performed the eye-opening ceremony and applied the final gold paint to the face, His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche wanted to preserve it. The solution was to cut out part of the back wall, and the Buddha painting (with face and body) was moved to a hill overlooking the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute debating courtyard. Umdze Tupten Zangpo sponsored the building of the pagoda that protects the painting.

Now a ten-foot-tall Shakyamuni Buddha statue, flanked by Shariputra and Mangalputra, sits aloft at the back of the hall. On either side of the rupa are one thousand small buddha statues, made of clay and painted gold, reminding us of the arrival of one thousand buddhas during this era.

In front of the statue is the focal point of the room, the ornate, holy throne of the Gyalwa Karmapa, together with thrones for his regents and other high incarnate tulkus. During prayers the vajra master, chant master, and resident monks sit on red-carpeted benches, lined up in rows, while the disciplinary master presides over the conduct inside the hall. Seven offerings, including tormas, are always made in front of the Buddha statue for the accumulation of merit.

Tormas in the Main Shrine Room

There are two types of tormas, one for the object of a particular visualization practice, and the other for an offering to the deity being visualized. Tormas are sometimes made from barley, wheat flour, or cooked rice. Soft butter or margarine colored with powdered dyes creates the beautiful finish.

To the right and rear of the Main Shrine Hall are the Mahakala and Mahakali Shrine Rooms, where a puja (prayer ceremony) is held every morning and evening. Mahakala is the special protector of the Kagyu lineage, and people visit his shrine to pray for the removal of obstacles in their lives. On the left side of the hall are the two gonkhangs (protector chapels) of Tsering Che Nga, female protector of the Kagyu lineage, and Dorje Drolo, the wrathful emanation of Guru Padmasambava.