Song Zanling Lamasery, a collection of monastic buildings that cover a mountain slope, is located about 5 kilometers from the town of Shangri-la (aka Zhongdian), the seat of Shangri-la County. Song Zanlin Lamasery has been granted official protection as a Yunnan Province cultural site. The monastery, or lamasery (after the Tibetan name for monk: "lama"), one of the 13 famous monasteries of Tibetan Kham (Kham refers to the Tibetan dialect native to the geographical area spanning the eastern part of Tibet Autonomous Region and parts of Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces), was founded in CE 1679 under the religious rule of the renowned Fifth Dalai Lama, during the reign (CE 1661-1722) of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty.
Praised as the "Small Potala Palace" (the original Potala Palace is located in Lhasa, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region), Song Zanlin Lamasery is not only the largest Tibetan-Buddhism monastic complex in Yunnan Province, it is also the center for the Gelug ("Yellow") sect of Tibetan Buddhism – initiated by the reformist monk Zongkapa in CE 1409 – in both Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces. Faced with increasing decadence among Tibetan-Buddhist lamas, especially among the upper-class lamas, Zongkapa and his Gelug sect (Gelug means "commandments") called for a return to the strict adherence to Buddhist tenets. Gelug sect members wore yellow robes, hence the sect's later nickname. Like the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the "Small Potala Palace" hosts many precious cultural and religious treasures.
The lamasery, which is quite large (it occupies an area of some 33 hectares), is constructed across the side of a mountain whose shape was said to be reminiscent of a castle. The two main lamaseries, Jikang and Zhacang, command the highest vantage points in the overall architectural design of the monastic complex. They are built in an archtypical Tibetan watchtower style. Surrounding each of these main lamaseries are a series of sub-lamaseries, dormitories, and associated structures.
Even from a great distance, one can easily spot the two main lamaseries with their – to the eye of a Westerner in any case – almost crown-like superstructures. This is of course partly owing to the elevation of the buildings, given their placement on the mountainside, but is also owing to the contrasting colors of the walls and roofs of the buildings, and to the contrast between the bright-colored buildings and the darker mountain against which they are set.
Every year on the 29th day of the 11th month of the lunar calendar, the Tibetan residents of Shangri-la hold their Gedong Festival, whose major activity is a dance (a mask dance) to worship Buddhist deities. The Gedong Festival is permeated with an atmosphere both of religious piousness and earthy cheerfulness. Visitors to the lamasery's main prayer hall may be lucky enough to receive a blessing from the resident High Lama, who sometimes bestows a Tibetan blessing scarf – a Khada – on random visitors as well as on Buddhist pilgrims.