Ta'er (Kumbum, in Tibetan) Monastery is located in the village of Huangzhong, some 25 kilometers, or about a half-hour's drive, from the captial city of Xining. The city of Xining lies at the floor of Huangshui River Valley, on the banks of the Huangshui River, about 100 kilometers east of Lake Qinghai, while Ta'er Monastery lies on the rim of the mountain range just above and slightly south of the city of Xining (most of the monastery's 25 kilometer distance from the city of Xining represents vertical, not lateral distance). The monastery was erected beginning in CE 1577, in memory of the monk who founded the Yellow Hat (Gelugpa) Sect of Tibetan Buddhism (aka Lamaism), Tsong Khapa (CE 1357-1419), albeit, about 150 years after the monk's death.
The origin of the monastery's name is owing to a legend with at least two variants and two subvariants, wherein the blood of Tsong Khapa came to give birth to a banyan tree (aka sandalwood tree). In one version of the legend, at Tsong Khapa's birth, the father buried the placenta here; in another, drops of blood from Tsong Khapa's umbilical cord is to have spilled on the ground here. The banyan tree in question, known as the "Tree of Great Merit", according to one subvariant legend produced 100,000 leaves, while another subvariant legend says that the bark of this remarkably complex tree (or perhaps cluster of trees) produced 100,000 impressions of Buddha. Kumbum means "100,000" in Tibetan.
Ta'er Monastery is a very large complex that spreads out over about 14.4 hectares/ 35.5 acres, and consists of numerous structures, some built in a Tibetan architectural style and others built in a Han Chinese architectural style, and includes Buddha halls, scripture ripositories, pagodas, and lama residences, as well as several colleges, since the monastery also serves as a sort of Buddhism university for Lamaist monks. The monastery is supposed to have originated as a simple temple with stupa (a Tibetan for "mound", or "heap", a place where Lamaist relics, including the remains of revered monks, are kept) to mark the birthplace of the famous monk, on which grounds was later built a monastery that was expanded over the centuries, as the following condensed history explains.
A Condensed History
To begin with the Yellow Hat Sect and its founder, no one knows exactly when the sect was founded, though it is believed to have been founded during the final years of the 14th century or the opening years of the 15th century. What is known for a fact is that Tsong Khapa founded Ganden Monastery on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region (aka Tibet), in 1409, only 10 years before his death. We also know that it was the custom for a monk who originated a new sect to spend several years travelling in a region, or sometimes throughout several regions, teaching, and eventually establishing a following of devotees before officially founding the new sect. Since one can appreciate that the sect would have been founded before the first monastery to practice its precepts was built, the suggested date for the founding of the Yellow Hat Sect accords with what one would expect in this regard.
The story of the simple temple and stupa, supposedly erected on the spot where Ta'er Monastery would later be built, cannot be verified. The first verifiable edifice to be erected on the location of present-day Ta'er Monastery was a simple monastery, Gonpalung Monastery, erected in 1560 by a meditating monk by the name of Rinchen Tsondru-Gyeltsen. It was a gathering place for a small flock of meditating monks. In 1576, the future Third "Ocean of (Buddhist) Knowledge" (the future Third Dalai Lama - dalai being Mongolian for the Tibetan word, gyatso, or "ocean"), Sonam-Gyatso, received an invitation from the ruler of the Tumet Mongols, a collection of Mongol tribes that occupied western Mongolia, urging Sonam-Gyatso to bring Buddhism to Mongolia (Mongolia is curiously divided into Right and Left Banners, a banner being an administrative division, as in county, etc., and in earlier times Mongolia was divided into two main polities, a Right Wing and a Left Wing, with the Right Wing being what we today would call western Mongolia).
On his way to western Mongolia to meet the leader of the Tumet Mongols, i.e., Altan Khan (1507-1583), the future Third Dalai Lama stopped off at Gonpalung Monastery to spend some time in meditation. Before leaving, Sonam-Gyatso empowered Rinchen Tsondru-Gyeltsen, the founder of Gonpalung Monastery, to build a new and larger monastery on the same site, to be named Kumbum Monastery in commemoration of Tsong Khapa, with Rinchen Tsondru-Gyeltsen as its head lama. Kumbum Monastery was completed in 1583 - the same year as the death of Altan Khan - incorporating the legendary "Tree of Great Merit" whose origin, according to the aforementioned legend, was connected to Tsong Khapa.
Kumbum Monastery cum Ta'er Monastery has since enjoyed a rich heritage, as the monastery was expanded during successive centuries. The Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso (1589-1616), paid a visit to Ta'er Monastery while on the way from Lhasa to his native Mongolia, and there proposed an elargement of the monastery, with the creation of separate facilities for study, which was Ta'er Monastery's first step toward becoming a place of Lamaist learning, or a training center for monks. The Pelden Shaydrubling Dratsang, or Debate College, was opened at Ta'er Monastery, thanks to the efforts of the Fourth Dalai Lama. A Tantric College (Sangngag Dechenling Datsang), modelled after the Gyumay Lower Tantric College in Lhasa, was added in 1649, and in 1711, a new Tantric College, Ngagpa Dratsang, was added to the monastery, which had come to play a major role in the teaching of Lamaist monks outside Tibet.
Due to the ravages of war shortly thereafter, the newly built Tantric College of Ta'er Monastery was badly damaged. After the hostilities had died down, a completely new type of college - perhaps fittingly, a medical college - Menpa Dratsang, was built on the site of the badly damaged and eventually torn down, new Tantric College of 1711. Menpa Dratsang was completed in 1725. A fourth college, Dükhor Dratsang, devoted to astrology and named in honor of the Tantric deity, Kalachakra (i.e., named Kalachakra College), was completed in 1820. By the mid-1900s, Ta'er Monastery boasted 30 temples and over a thousand other structures, including Panchen Palace, Tsongkhapa Hall, Sutra Hall and Manjusri Bodhisattva Hall, not to forget the monastery's four colleges.
Other famous Dalai Lamas have visited Ta'er Monastery down through the years. For example, Kelsang Gyatso, a Mongolian, visited Ta'er Monastery enroute to Lhasa to take up his role as the Seventh Dalai Lama (1708–1757), and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876–1933), Thubten Gyatso, paid many visits to Ta'er Monastery. Finally - and quite interestingly - Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (1935-present), who would spend 18 months at Ta'er Monastery before assuming the role of Dalai Lama, was born not in Tibet nor in Mongolia, but in the small Qinghai Province village of Taktser, some 65 kilometers from Ta'er Monastery, though in ancient times, the area in question was under Tibetan rule, specifically, under the rule of the state of Amdo.
To understand this better, it should be noted that the monks, or lamas, of Ta'er Monastery have traditionally principally come from the area of Amdo in Tibet (Amdo is one of three historical states of Tibet, the other two being Ü-Tsang and Kham) and from various parts of present-day Inner and Outer Mongolia, though a few stem from Mongol enclaves in Tibet, and some are in fact Uyghurs, or Yellow Uyghurs - aka Yugurs - from enclaves in present-day Gansu Province. It is fascinating to note that there are several Uyghur tribes and enclaves that remain Buddhist to this day, while certain Uyghur tribes, such as those that inhabit present-day Xinjiang Auonomous Region, eventually converted to Islam. Some Uyghur tribes converted to Islam as early as the 10th century while others converted to Islam as late as the 15th century. The dispersion, or migration, of the Uyghurs was a direct result of the fall of the Uyghur Khaganate (742-848), which was an immensely large khaganate that comprised all of present-day Mongolia (both Inner and Outer), as well as present-day Kyrgyzstan and parts of the present-day countries of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia.
Present-Day Ta'er Monastery
Ta'er Monastery is a treasure trove of Lamaism. Firstly, it contains the ancient relics belonging to the Yellow Hat Sect and the many tributes to the sect's founder, Tsong Khapa, including a tower made of pure gold located in Tsongkhapa Hall and which supposedly contains the ashes of Tsong Khapa, and a silver tower studded with precious gems and wrapped with ten layers of pure white silk, either of which towers would have been worthy of a visit from Indiana Jones, if not from Colonel Dietrich, Arnold Ernst Toht or Rene Belloq (Raiders of the Lost Ark)!
In addition, Ta'er Monastery is known for its many impressive murals, its barbola embroidery and its famous yak-butter sculptures called Suyouhua. Regarding the latter, it must naturally be exhibited during the coldest period of winter, in order to prevent melting, and is accordingly presented in conjunction with Chinese Lunar New Year festivities, though Suyouhua - which range from sculptures of Buddha to sculpted flowers and animals, and varying in size from that of a thimble to 2 meter high specimens - are often made in specially refrigerated rooms as early as three months prior to their exhibition, given the time-consuming nature of the intricate work involved. After the Lunar New Year celebrations end, the Suyouhua are kept for a time in refrigerated glass displays, for the continued enjoyment of visitors.