Rinchenling gompa in Halji – the oldest monastery in the Nepal Himalayas?

It has recently been confirmed by C-14 tests that the Vairocana (rNam par snang mdzad) temple in the Rinchenling monastery in Halji can be dated back to the early eleventh century. This makes the temple one of the oldest in the Nepal Himalayas. The result is quite significant and one more argument why it is so important to protect this monastery from the flood.

After having been through a period of decline, Buddhism was reintroduced to Tibet around the turn of the millennium. This revival,  the so-called second dissemination (bstan pa phyi dar),  was initiated from the western Tibetan Guge kingdom and entailed invitation of some of the most learned Buddhist scholars from India, extensive translation work, and the founding of a number of temples and monasteries throughout Guge, Purang and Ladakh.

One of the most important figures from this revival movement was the translator Rinchen Zangpo (Lo tswa ba Rin chen bZang po, 958-1055). He translated more than 150 Buddhist texts, and is credited with the foundation of 108 temples and monasteries. Local tradition claims that the temple in Halji was one of them, and it is also from Rinchen Zangpo that the Rinchenling monastery got its name.

But could the Vairocana temple in Halji actually have been founded by Rinchen Zangpo? Limi (or Halji) does not figure on the list of temples constructed by him in his biographies. And even if Limi is mentioned on the list of early temples connected with Rinchen Zangpo in two scriptures from neighbouring Khochar monastery (the 16th century Jo bo dngul sku mched gsum dkar chag and the 19th century Kho char dkar chag) Roberto Vitali  (1996a – 1996b) is skeptical to its accuracy. However, the lists of temples in the different versions of his biographies are not consistent, and probably not complete.

In fact, there are quite a few indicators suggesting that Rinchen Zangpo might have been involved. First, Rinchen Zangpo is named as the founder of the first temple in Rinchenling monastery’s own inventory (the current version was copied from an older original in 1870). Moreover, there are two statues of Rinchen Zangpo in the monastery claimed in the inventory to have been made during his life time (see photo above) and just after he passed away respectively. These have not been dated.

The four-fold Vairocana is a large statue (3,5 x 5 meters) crafted in Kashmiri style. The 2 other remaining four-fold Vairocana statues from this period are also in Kashmiri style and both are located in temples associated with the translator in Spiti. There also used to be one in Tholing (see the article by Church and Wiebenga on Asianart.com). Another point to be mentioned is that Halji is located only one long day’s walk from Zher, where Rinchen Zangpo had an estate and one short day’s walk from what was reportedly his meditation cave high up in the mountains above the confluence of the Limi and Karnali rivers (Lhi mi yi ca se brag phug is mentioned in one of the biographies). Finally, the Lading cave near Halji in Limi has recently been identified by Kyabgön Rinpoche as the place where the translator might have passed away (it should be mentioned, though, that the scriptures are vague on this point).

All these indicators combined suggest that the temple in Halji might very well have been founded by Rinchen Zangpo. This is further supported by the result of the carbon dating, which testifies to the antiquity of the temple. To the best of my knowledge, no other monastery in the Nepal Himalayas have so far been confirmed to be older.

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