Kumbum Monastery is one of the six great Gelukpa sect monasteries in Tibet. The others are Ganden (70 minutes outside Lhasa), Sera (Lhasa), Drepung (Lhasa), Tashilhunpo (Shigatse) and Labrang (Xiahe). Kumbum monastery is located 26km / 16 miles from Xining (known as Silang in Tibetan) in northeast Amdo. Though it is now known as being one of the biggest Chinese tourist attractions in the area, Kumbum has been a very important monastery in Tibetan history.
Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelukpa sect, was born in 1357 where Kumbum monastery now stands. Tsongkhapa was responsible for bringing a major reformation to Tibetan buddhism in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. The Gelukpa sect eventually gained political power in Tibet and rules Tibet (in exile) to this day. When Tsongkhapa was born, a drop of blood from his cut umbilical cord fell to the ground. From this drop of blood a huge sandalwood tree grew with 100,000 leaves. Each leaf supposedly had an image of buddha on it (Kumbum means "100,000 images" in Tibetan). In 1379, Tsongkhapa's mother built a small temple with a chorten (Sanskrit: stupa) around the tree. In 1481, local nomads from the area added other buildings to the temple. In 1577 Sonam Gyatso, the 3rd Dalai Lama, was invited to Mongolia by Altan Khan. Enroute to Mongolia, he stopped at the area where Tsongkhapa was born. He ordered that a large monastery be built and appointed a head lama. The monastery was finished in 1583.
Several other Dalai Lama's visited or lived at Kumbum. In 1603, the 4th Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso, stopped at Kumbum monastery on his way to Lhasa. The 7th Dalai Lama, Kelsang Gyatso, was also taken to Kumbum before going to Lhasa. The 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, visited the monastery several times during his reign. The 14th and current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was born in the small village of Takster about 65km / 41 miles from Kumbum. When he was recognized as the Dalai Lama, he was taken to Kumbum where he lived for 18 months before moving to Lhasa. Pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama are found in several of the halls of Kumbum. His picture is illegal to have in Tibet, but many monasteries and families outside of the Lhasa-Shigatse area keep his picture up despite the law.
In the 1950's there were around 3500 monks at Kumbum. Today there are around 700. Kumbum is famous across Tibet for its yak butter sculptures. These elaborate creations are made by hand and are made completely of butter. Monk dancing (Tibetan: Cham) takes place on several occasions each year. The current abbot of Kumbum monastery is Arjia Lobsang Thubten Rinpoche. He was born to a Mongolian family in eastern Amdo. He fled Tibet in 1998 and lives in exile in California.
Kumbum monastery can be easily reached from Xining. On Kunlun Zhong Lu (near Xi Men) there are taxi's that will take you the 26km to the monastery for Y20. This price is per car and not per person. You can also take a bus to the town of Huangzhong (the small town where Kumbum is) for Y4 per person. The entrance fee to the monastery is Y80 (it was raised from Y35 to Y80 in 2006). The best time to go to the monastery is around Losar (Tibetan New Year). Many Tibetans from Amdo come to the monastery during this time. Try and avoid going to the monastery during the summer. Loads of Chinese tourists are there everyday.