Gonchen, which means “grand” in Tibetan, was originally a Nyingma monastery. It was converted to the Sakya Pa and expanded by the 7th generation ruler of Derge, Laqing·Xiangba Pungtso, and renamed “Lhundrubteng Gonpa,” commonly known as “Gonchen Monastery,” meaning “great temple.”
The main hall, scripture hall, and scripture hall of Gonchen Monastery cover an area of 8,460 square meters. Located at the eastern end of the Wenhua Street , at the entrance of Opulong Gully, next to Dege Printing House.
In the year 1448 AD, a renowned monk of the Shangba Kagyu of Tibetan Buddhism – Tangdong Gyebo together with the 36th generation of “Bota · Thashi Senggen” established the scripture hall located at “Si-gen-Long” and named “Thanggyal Lhakhang”
During the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, the 6th generation ruler of Derge, Gama Basong, spared great effort and resources to build Gonchen Monastery. It was not until the reign of the 7th ruler of Dege, Xiangba Pungtso, and the 8th ruler, Genga Pungtso, that the construction of Gonchen Monastery was basically completed.
During 1723 AD – 1736 AD (the Yongzheng period of the Qing Dynasty), the 12th generation ruler of Derge, Dengba Tserin, invested decades in constructing the magnificent Derge Printing House on the west side of the main hall of Gonchen Monastery, which was then handed over to the monks of Gonchen Monastery for management. This formed a large complex of buildings along the O-qu River, including the main temple, monks’ quarters, printing house, and Thanggyal Lhakhang, covering hundreds of acres.
Like many other monasteries, Gonchen Monastery suffered significant damage during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, with only the Printing House and Thanggyal Lhakhang surviving.
After 1981, Thanggyal Lhakhang was approved to be reopened, and the monks of Gonchen Monastery resumed religious activities in the well-preserved Thanggyal Lhakhang.
In 1986, a new main hall for Gonchen Monastery was rebuilt at a location personally chosen by the 10th Panchen Lama.
In March 1988, the grand and magnificent new main hall of Gonchen Monastery, covering an area of approximately 30 acres, was completed.
Political and Religious Relationship
Since 1448 AD, Gonchen Monastery has served as the ancestral temple of the Derge ruler family, and in political and religious matters, it is directly controlled by the Derge rulers, playing a crucial supporting role in the political and religious rule of the Derge family.
As the family temple of the Derge rulers, according to the family rules, Gonchen Monastery does not have a living Buddha. The leadership of the monastery is hereditary within the Derge Tusi family. The eldest son of the ruler becomes the head of Gonchen Monastery and holds religious authority, while the second son inherits the position of ruler and holds political power. If there is only one son, he inherits the position of ruler and concurrently becomes the head of Gonchen Monastery.
The monastery’s administrative body, the “Genben” (also known as “Banjiu”), consists of one Genben, one Geku, two Khenpos, and one East and West Lama (during the Republic of China, a Jangtsun Lama was also appointed above the East and West Lamas).
The “Genben office” is chaired by the ruler as the highest decision-maker, and the daily affairs of the office are presided over by the Genben. It is responsible for convening meetings, making decisions on major religious and political matters, and recommending candidates for the promotion of monks in the printing house and for various positions in the monastery to the ruler.
It seeks to control and influence Gonchen Monastery to serve the purpose of political rule by controlling and using other sects’ temples within its jurisdiction.
During the reign of the 12th ruler, Dengba Tseren, Gonchen Monastery was honored as the family temple and continued to be supported, allowing the monastery to enjoy the highest privileges in land, commerce, usury, weapons, and politics.
There are also seven branch monasteries, namely: Gongya Monastery, Galun Monastery, Yinnan Monastery, Zama Monastery, Menza Monastery, Keluo Monastery, and Rendeng Monastery in Jiangda County, Tibet. Additionally, there are dozens of semi-autonomous branch monasteries in places such as Baiyu County, Sershul County, and Jiangda County.
Gonchen Monastery holds multiple Puja dance every year, which have a long history and play a crucial role in the music, dance, and storytelling arts of the Derge. Influenced by the founder of Tibetan opera, Tangdong Gyebo, the Derge Tibetan opera, represented by the Monastery, formally took shape in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. Through continuous evolution and development, the traditional Tibetan opera performed at this Monastery in the 1st half of the 7th month of the Tibetan calendar every year has become a typical representative of the unique style and characteristics of Derge Tibetan opera.
The traditional Tibetan opera at Gonchen Monastery is mostly based on the “Jataka tales”, characterized by simplicity, ruggedness, and the incorporation of singing, dancing, chanting, and dialogue. There are specific rules for the costumes, masks, appearance, dance postures, movements, props, performance timing, entrances and exits, music, intonation, and singing styles. Towards the end of the Qing Dynasty (1616 AD – 1912 AD), Khenpo Sangden Lhodru of Gonchen Monastery first adapted “Sha-re-ba” and “Norbu Wangzi,” forming the long-term performances of five traditional Tibetan opera plays: “Sha-reba,” “Norbu Wangzi,” “Kemai Gengdeng,” “Liu Changmai,” and “Jiaqiang.”
From the early Qing Dynasty to the Republican era, this Monastery attracted a large number of domestic and foreign religious scholars, promoting the development of Tibetan art, music, Tibetan opera, sculpture, woodcuts, architecture, printing, and Tibetan medicine. It played an important and undeniable role in promoting the development of Tibetan culture in the Derge region and shaping the stylistic characteristics of religious culture in the area.
During the Qing Dynasty, the great lama and scholar Lode Wangbo, as well as Khenpo Sangden Lhozha, left many writings for the monastery. The lama, also known as Trichen Renchen, made significant contributions to the carving and proofreading of the “Danjue” edition.