Rumtek Monastery

From its perch on a hilltop facing the city of Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, the monastery complex at Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre embodies the vision and aspiration of the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, to establish his seat-in-exile to help spread the teachings of the Buddha throughout the world.

The monastery, the largest in Sikkim, is home to the monks community, the place where they perform the sacred rituals and practices of the Karma Kagyu lineage.

Many sacred objects are housed within the complex, and one of the most magnificent is the Golden Stupa, which contains the precious relics of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa. Opposite that building is the shedra, or college, Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies. Members of the lay sangha practice in the community lhakhang just outside the walls of the monastery complex.

Surrounding Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre is the stupa walkway, where monks, pilgrims, and visitors alike perform kora.


A Brief History of His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Founder of the Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre

His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, holder of the sacred treasure of Vajradhara, founded Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre in Sikkim as his main seat-in-exile outside Tibet. As the supreme head of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karmapa embodies, represents, and guides its accumulated spiritual energy. Karma means 'activity', and the Gyalwa Karmapa embodies the activity of all the buddhas of the ten directions.

The Karma Kagyu lineage was begun by the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (b. 1110), in the twelfth century. Prophesied by Buddha Shakyamuni in the Samadhirajasutra, the accomplishments of Dusum Khyenpa were so great that he was declared to be the "Knower of Three Times." He established Tsurphu Monastery in central Tibet as the seat of all the Gyalwa Karmapas in 1185. Each Karmapa incarnation possesses the unique ability to predict detailed circumstances of his next rebirth, usually revealed in a letter to be opened after his death. Dusum Khyenpa was the first Karmapa to predict the time and place of his rebirth, and his reincarnation, Karma Pakshi (b. 1204), was the first tulku (reincarnate lama) ever recognized in Tibet.

The profound wisdom of the Kagyu lineage has been passed down from incarnation to incarnation and like his predecessors, the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa was primarily a spiritual figure who propagated the causes of buddhadharma, humanity, and world peace. Born in eastern Tibet in 1924 to a noble family, he was recognized as the Karmapa incarnation in accord with a prediction letter written by the previous Karmapa, and enthroned when he was eight years old. The recognition of the Sixteenth Karmapa was officially confirmed by His Holiness the Thirteenth Dalai Lama.

When the Communists began to occupy Tibet during the 1950s, the Karmapa realized he would have to leave the country to preserve the accumulated spiritual legacy of the Karma Kagyu. During the 1959 uprising, he left Tsurphu Monastery with a group of 150 tulkus, lamas, monks, and lay followers. Carrying spiritual treasures, relics, and texts that had been collected at Tsurphu for 700 years, they made the long and difficult journey to India through Bhutan. On reaching the Indian border town of Buxa Duar, the Karmapa received an invitation from His Majesty Chogyal Tashi Namgyal, the king of Sikkim, to establish a new seat in that country. The Karmapa accepted, continuing a very long religious and spiritual relationship between the Gyalwa Karmapas and the kingdom of Sikkim.

Centuries earlier, the fourth Sikkimese Chogyal asked the Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje (b. 1556), to build monasteries in Sikkim, long considered an exceptionally holy place by Tibetan Buddhists and now home to many ancient Kagyu monasteries. Three of these--Ralang, Phodang, and Rumtek--were founded under the auspices of the Ninth Karmapa. It was at the old Rumtek Monastery, then in disrepair, where the Sixteenth Karmapa stayed before establishing Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre.

The ancient Phodang Monastery in North SikkimThe new Palchen Chloing Monastery at Ralang in East Sikkim

Work on the new monastic complex began in 1961 and was completed in 1966. The Karmapa worked tirelessly from his international headquarters at Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre to disseminate the dharma, and undertook two world tours in the 1970s to spread the teachings.

He passed into parinirvana in 1981, leaving a prediction letter found by one of his regents, His Eminence the Twelfth Situ Rinpoche. The Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, was found in Tibet according to the letter, and his recognition was confirmed by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. The Karmapa was enthroned at Tsurphu Monastery on September 27, 1992 and began his formal studies and training. Devotees travelled to Tsurphu from throughout Tibet and all over the world to receive his blessings.

Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje made a daring escape from Tsurphu to Dharamsala, India in late December 1999 that captured the attention of the world. He was warmly received in Dharamsala by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom a strong bond has developed. The Karmapa remains in temporary residence at Gyuto Ramoche Tantric University near Dharamsala, receiving teachings and transmissions from eminent Kagyu masters while the Indian government considers his request for asylum. Followers from around the world now travel to India to receive his blessings. 

One of His Holiness's regents, His Eminence the Twelfth Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche, is overseeing activities at Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre until His Holiness Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje returns.

Construction of the New Monastery

Since his arrival in India in 1959 and subsequent move to temporary living quarters at the old Rumtek Monastery, the Gyalwa Karmapa had devoted his energy to helping all people develop peace and compassion by following the path of Buddha's teachings. He also began plans to build his seat-in-exile, a place from which the dharma would spread. Here, under his supervision, tulkus and monks would live and work to perpetuate their traditions of Buddhist practice and study for the benefit of all sentient beings. By bestowing the complete Karma Kagyu initiations and reading transmissions to numerous Rinpoches and lamas, continuing an unbroken oral tradition passed on from teacher to student, the Karmapa could insure the survival of the great practice lineage.

His Majesty Chogyal Tashi Namgyal generously donated land for the construction of the Dharma Chakra Centre monastery complex. Perched on a foothill of the great Himalayas, the site possessed many natural attributes considered auspicious for the placement of a monastery: seven streams flowing toward it, seven hills facing it, a mountain behind it, snow mountains in front of it, and a river spiralling in the shape of a conch shell below. The location is remote and peaceful, twenty-four kilometers from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, and close to the old Rumtek Monastery.

Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre was designed by the Sixteenth Karmapa and his general secretary, Damchoe Yongdu, who would oversee the construction under the Karmapa's direction. The design was drawn solely from the Karmapa's inspiration and memory. Some of the features were modelled after Tsurphu Monastery, the seat of the Karmapas in Tibet. The new, four-story monastery was planned to embody the ancient artistic tradition of Tibetan architecture while incorporating modern building materials like steel and concrete. The traditional techniques of carving and painting would be employed to decorate the building.

Funding for the construction came mainly from the personal resources of the Sixteenth Karmapa with additional generous help from the Sikkimese chogyal and individual donors. In 1961, after the Karmapa met with His Excellency the Prime Minister of India, Shri Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, to discuss the monastery plans, the Indian government pledged its financial and legal assistance.



Clearing the land by hand

Before the foundation stone was laid, special pujas were held for almost one month. At the end of all the ceremonies, the Karmapa explained that he had consecrated the surrounding area as the mandala of Chakrasamvara, one of the highest deities of tantric Buddhism. 

In 1961, General Secretary Yongdu, along with a volunteer crew of over 100 monks and lay followers (including those who had escaped from Tibet with the Karmapa), started work on the formidable task of clearing the jungle-like, mountain terrain so building could begin. His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa and Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal laid the foundation stone for Rumtek Monastery at a ceremony in 1962, which many dignitaries attended. 

Construction on the complex then began in earnest, though hardships were many. The remote area had no trained builders, craftsmen, or masons. Housing was non-existent. Until a road was built, supplies were carried up steep paths on the backs of the workers and their animals. Delivery of equipment was arduous; ordering building supplies complex. During the rainy season, working conditions were dangerous.

Construction of the Main Temple

Despite these obstacles, the crew, augmented by disciples from all over Sikkim and around the world, worked hard for six years to build the monastery. Once the building was finished, special attention was given to its decoration and painting. In 1966, Rumtek Monastery was completed and the relics brought from Tsurphu were installed. At a grand ceremony on Losar, the Tibetan New Year, the Gyalwa Karmapa officially opened his new seat, Pal-Karmapa-Densa-Shed-Drup-Chos-Khor-Ling, 'The Seat of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa: a Centre for the Teaching and Practice of the Dharma'. His Holiness Karmapa has said that everyone involved in building the monastery benefitted tremendously through the accumulation of great merit.

Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre, the mandala of His Holiness, became a sacred destination for Buddhist pilgrims as scores of visitors sought the blessing of the Karmapa. From his new seat, the Karmapa continued his unceasing activity to preserve the Buddhadharma and spread the teachings throughout the world. He reinstituted the monastic practices, prayers, and rituals at Rumtek Monastery according to the Tsurphu calendar, ordained thousands of monks, recognized many tulkus, and gave initiations to thousands of practitioners. He commissioned the printing of 500 full sets of the Kangyur (the complete teachings of the Buddha that comprise 103 volumes) and the Tengyur (200 volumes of the translated Indian commentaries on the teachings), and presented 170 sets as gifts to institutions of all five sects of Tibetan Buddhism, including Bon.

During this time, the Karmapa also established many Kagyu centers worldwide to give people of all cultures the opportunity to benefit from the wisdom and insight of the teachings through study and practice, and to keep the Karma Kagyu tradition intact throughout the Tibetan diaspora and the rest of the world. 

An aerial view of Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre in the late 1980s


Expansion at Rumtek

 The intention of the Karmapa was that Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre would serve to train succeeding generations of monks and tulkus in the ritual practices and theoretical study of Tibetan Buddhism. To fulfill that goal, the center began an expansion in the 1970s that would continue for almost a decade. The projects included: 

Karma Manjushri House (now called Karma Jamyang Khang), established to provide a primary education for young monks;

the International Karma Kagyu Headquarters, founded to coordinate and supervise the activities of Kagyu centers around the world;

the first Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies, a traditional shedra whose graduates would receive the acharya, or masters degree;

a new, larger building to house the Nalanda Institute; and

a renovation of the monks' quarters, kitchen, and dining hall.


 {Filip Foto} The monastery of Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre today

Though His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa set the plan for Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre in motion, he did not live to see it completed. The Karmapa passed into parinirvana in 1981 in the United States. His body was returned to Rumtek and cremated in an elaborate religious ceremony attended by eminent Rinpoches of the lineage, representatives of the governments of Sikkim, India, and Bhutan, and devoted followers from around the world.

Today, the monastic complex at Rumtek is part of the legacy of the Sixteenth Karmapa and the Karma Kagyu lineage, and serves as a living example of the Karmapa's vision and lifelong dedication to the dharma.

The Main Temple

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.

The Golden Stupa

Standing at the center of a new shrine room in the original building of the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute is the Golden Stupa (Lhabab Chodten), a magnificent reliquary that contains the precious relics and holy remains of His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. Tsurphu labrang, the main administrator of Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre, had the shrine specially constructed to serve as the receptacle for these objects of worship and deep veneration.

Bejewelled with ancient turquoise and coral, and decorated with filigree and fine metalwork, the thirteen-foot-high Golden Stupa is a fitting monument to the great guru of the Kagyu lineage. An elaborate ceremony to enshrine the relics of His Holiness in this and a smaller stupa, the Jangchup Chöten (Stupa of Awakening), was begun on November 7, 1982, the anniversary of Lhabab Duechen, Lord Buddha's descent from the heavenly realm.

The lhabab chodten, after that which appeared when Buddha descended from the god realm

Lhabab Duechen, one of the four great events of the Buddha's life, figured prominently in the dharma activity of the Sixteenth Karmapa and in the construction of the Lhabab Chodten, as the following account provided by Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre explains.

The Stupas at Rumtek

In order to preserve as an object of veneration for all beings the precious remains of the unequalled protector of the teachings and all beings in the world, the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, a thirteen-foot stupa in the style of that which appeared when the Buddha descended from the realm of the gods, made of gold and copper, has been created. A two-foot stupa in the style of that which appeared upon the Buddha's awakening, made entirely of gold, has been created to contain His Holiness's heart, tongue, and eyes which he left for his followers out of great kindness.

Together with these are a five-foot image of Vajradhara; three-foot images of Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, the sixteen Karmapas, and Tai Situ Pema Wangchok Gyalpo; and two-foot images of Mahakala, Mahakali, and Vajrasadhu.

The consecration of these was begun on the twenty-second day of the ninth month of the Iron Dog Year, 1982, the occasion of the Buddha's descent from the realm of the gods, and was performed for a week, accompanied by extensive offerings, by His Holiness's principal disciples assisted by many tulkus, lamas, and the sangha.

Although all the actions of our teacher Buddha Shakyamuni were pure and appropriate means of taming his various disciples, among these four are considered supreme: his display of miracles; his awakening; his first turning of the Dharmachakra; and his descent from the realm of the gods which came about as follows.

Maya, the Buddha's mother, was reborn after her death in the realm of the thirty-three gods. In order to repay her kindness the Buddha spent the three summer months of that year teaching her in that realm. Having ripened his mother and others, he returned to the human realm on the twenty-second day of the ninth month. The gods created a stairway made of beryl, gold, and silver which the Buddha descended, attended by Brahma and Indra. He arrived in the town of Kashi [the modern-day Benares], in the midst of many sravakas and other people. Commemorating this occasion, this style of stupa, decorated with steps, was first erected at Kashi.

Because it is taught throughout the Buddha's teachings and their commentaries that the effects of virtue and wrongdoing are billions of times more powerful on the four great occasions connected with the Buddha's life, His Holiness performed most of his dharma activities on these four occasions. Therefore, his final action, the placing of his remains and his heart, tongue, and eyes in their stupas, has been performed on the occasion of the Buddha's descent from the realm of the gods.

Translated from the Tibetan by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso.

The Benefits of Veneration at Rumtek Monastery

Namo Mahagurave (Homage to the great guru)

The land of Sikkim, at the border of India and Tibet, was consecrated as a hidden sanctuary for the Buddha's teachings during the present epoch by the second Buddha, the great master Padmasambhava, who blessed it with the vajra wisdom of his body, speech, and mind. Through the infallible power of his aspiration and through our great effort, the monastery Shaydrup Kunkhyap Otong Khyilway Tsuklakhang (the Temple of Pervasive Teaching and Practice Blazing with a Thousand Lights), has been established for the preservation of the precious doctrine of the Buddha, which is the source of all benefit and happiness in existence and tranquility, and for the sake of all beings in the world.

Before the building's foundation was begun, I performed the customary removal of impediments and, using a sand mandala, the ritual of Chakrasamvara, blessing the location so that it is his wisdom mandala. In that and similar ways, the site has been consecrated many times.

In the midst of this unsurpassable place of enlightened activity are representations of the Buddha according to the traditions of sutra and tantra as well as many other images which bring liberation through contact. Because of the presence of these in the monastery and because of the infallible results of actions, veneration of the monastery through circumambulation and prostration will accumulate a tremendous amount of merit and dispel obscurations. This will dispel sickness and other problems, and increase longevity, prosperity, and meditative realization. These acts of virtue will plant the seeds of liberation and close the door to unfortunate rebirth. In the future, one will be reborn in the retinue of the sixth Buddha, Senge, and enjoying the ambrosia of his teachings attain a state beyond reversal. As the Buddha's statements are infallible, one need have no doubt of this.

The 16th Karmapa applied gold paint to the Buddha's face, now in an outdoor shrine next to KSNI

It has been taught that virtuous actions are especially powerful on the eighth, tenth, fifteenth, twenty-fifth, and thirtieth days of the lunar month; and during the month of miracles (the month in which the Buddha displayed miracles); the month Saga (in which the Buddha was born, awakened, and passed away); the fourth day of the sixth month (the occasion of the Buddha's first teaching); and the twenty-second day of the ninth month (the occasion of the Buddha's descent from the realm of the gods).

Therefore, in order to make the best use of their freedom and resources, if at those times lay people engage in faithful prostration, offering, and circumambulation at the monastery; meditators practice generation and completion there; and monastics residing there diligently meditate and study, there is no doubt that the results of these virtuous actions will be as stated above. That is my earnest aspiration, which is witnessed by the omniscient wisdom of all buddhas and bodhisattvas.


This was written by Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa, in the Fire Horse Year (1966). It was translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso in 1999.


His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa has written about the benefits of veneration at Rumtek Monastery. One of these is a method of accumulating merit with one's body, which leads both visitors and residents alike to perform kora, the circumambulation of the Dharma Chakra Centre complex along the stupa walkway.

The stupa overlooks Gangtok, the Sikkim capital

Behind the south wall of the monastery is the path leading to the consecrated stupa. In only twenty minutes followers can complete the kora, circling nearly the entire complex. At the beginning of the walkway is a steep stone footpath, lined with prayer flags whose colors symbolize the five elements: blue for iron; white, water; red, fire; yellow, earth; and green, wood. Some are printed with prayers to accumulate merit for deceased people, others with general prayers to increase prosperity and well-being for all sentient beings. The flags lend a festive air to the entire hill, and every Losar prayers and pujas are held for the deities and old prayer flags are replaced. At the top of the hill is the tenkhar, a small home built for the dharma protectors and local deities.

Facing the tenkhar is a beautiful meadow that provides a place to sit and contemplate amongst the fluttering flags. Then, the path descends down the hill, reaching the stupa which, like the monastery, has been built in the ancient tradition that protects against bad geomancy in the area. Standing thirty-five feet tall, the stupa was built to remove obstacles for the reincarnation of His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa. Inside are ancient scripts and substances, and the image of the deity Raksha Tötreng, whose mantra is carved on the front.