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Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar) at night.

Why you should visit the Sertar Buddhist Institute, and fast

Earlier on I wrote about how I sneaked into the Sertar Buddhist Institute, or Larung Gar. Was it worth all the effort? I dare say it was one of the best decisions ever. Sertar Buddhist Institute is not like any other religious institutes. It is the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute, set 4,000m above sea level within the mountains. Ever since it was established, everyone who was passionate to learn about Tibetan Buddhism made the pilgrimage to Sertar Buddhist Institute despite the extremely harsh winters. Sertar, or Larung Gar, is one of the holiest Tibetan Buddhism sites.

Nuns walking around the main temple hall for females at Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar).

Yet, much of what we can see today will soon disappear forever. This is why you should visit the Sertar Buddhist Institute fast, before its present state vanishes. The reason why this is happening is debatable depending on whose perspective you side with (Tibetan or the Chinese government). For the remainder of this article, I try to put into perspective the thoughts of many Tibetans.

View of the many tiny red houses from one of the streets at Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar).

From its beginnings in the 1980s, Sertar Buddhist Institute, or Larung Gar, has grown to a population of more than 15,000 students, monks and nuns. Everyone who came to Sertar would build their own little home along the slopes of the mountains. These homes were not big, but sufficient to live simply. After all, these students have set their minds to study Buddhism wholeheartedly, and a simple shelter was all they need.

Bird's eye view of the Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar), famous for its red houses.

These homes were all painted in maroon, the colour of their robes. As Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar) grew in population, the number of homes began to increase. At its peak, there could be 20,000 of such small little red houses all clustered around the main temple halls.

View of razed homes at Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar).

In 2001, the Chinese government began razing some of these homes, citing safety as the reason. Many students, monks and nuns were forced to leave the institute as they had no place to live. Over the years, many monks protested against the move through extreme means such as self-immolation. In 2014, a large fire broke out and razed hundreds of these little red houses. This fire then became the supporting reason for the government to intensify its house-razing efforts.

View of the entire section of little red houses that have been razed to make way for a road at Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar).

Since then, more than 5,000 little red houses have been razed and no new ones could be built. This forced even more students out of the Buddhist institute and back to their hometowns. These students only had one simple desire: to learn more about Buddhism and stay close to their faith. However, their little wish was denied for broader political concerns.

View of razed homes at Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar).

Such a move could be to prevent Tibetans from all over the country to congregate in one space. As a result of foreign interference, many Tibetans have become more vocal in expressing their wish for independence. This has encouraged greater instability in the Tibetan regions. People are the biggest threat to stability, and it was political suicide to allow Tibetans from all over China to live in one place. As such, the only way to maintain control was to disperse these communities. Razing their houses was a pretty clever way.

By the end of 2017, the government plans to raze 10,000 of the little red houses and to keep the population at 5,000. In their masterplan, they eventually hope to destroy all of the little red houses and resettle the people in proper housing. While this sounds great, it also means that two-thirds of the population will not have the chance to learn at the institute.

View of the tent area just outside the main prayer halls of the Sertar Buddhist Institute. Many monks and Tibetans set up tents here so that they can pray at the main halls.

As such, you have to visit Sertar Buddhist Institute as soon as you can! The Sertar as of now has very strong religious vibes and you can feel the devotion that the students have for Buddhism. As no new houses can be built, tents have filled up a huge area in the centre of the institute. These students fight the freezing cold nights everyday just to pray close to the temple halls.

Tibetans kowtowing in front of a Buddhist temple at Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar).

While you walk around the institute, you will definitely notice many Tibetan villagers sitting by the roads and chanting. These Tibetans religiously do it everyday for hours until the monks leave the prayer halls. Others walk thousands of rounds around the temples or even complete their rounds by kowtowing. This immense dedication towards their religion was something I have never seen in my life. It was indeed a touching sight to witness.

View of the preaching title at the Larung Gar Hotel in Sertar Buddhist Institute

If you are lucky, you could also witness a mass preaching session by a famous Buddhist Venerable, in a hall packed like sardines. The interesting thing about these sessions is that they are always held in a hotel. Apparently the government did not like the idea of a preaching hall, and the building was converted into a hotel. While it does have a few rooms, its main function is still to host these large-scale preaching sessions.

Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar) at night.

Ignoring the political battles surrounding the institute, Sertar is still a place full of religious vibes and people passionate about Buddhism. Moreover, the area is incredibly beautiful. In the day, you will see thousands of monks and nuns walking around the area and hurrying to their temple halls. At night, every little red house lights up and the entire institute is lit by thousands of such lights. Words cannot describe how beautiful the place is. You have to see it for yourself to believe it.

Have you been to Sertar Buddhist Institute (Larung Gar)? I would love to hear your opinions about this place. Also, do share this article if you enjoyed it!

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