The Songzanlin Monastery (less than 100 miles from the border with Tibet) is the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery that can be found in China’s Yunnan Province. Many also consider it to be the most important monastery of its type that can be found in all of southwest China. The monastery is more specifically situated at the foot of Foping Mountain in the Shangri La County region. Only three miles separate it from the town of Zhongdian.
There are several names that are used for the Songzanlin Monastery. It is also known as the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, the Guihua Monastery, and the Little Potala Palace. The last name relates to the fact that this renowned monastery in Shangri La was built in a traditional Tibetan architectural style and is rather similar in appearance to the Potala Palace in Lhasa. As for when the Songzanlin was built, work started in 1679 and was surprisingly completed within a couple of years. Inspiring its creation was the visionary zeal of the Fifth Dalai Lama–Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso–who lived from 1617 to 1682. Unfortunately, much of the original temple was damaged during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and had to be largely rebuilt in the 1980's.
The Songzanlin Monastery is more of a complex than a single structure. The complex is built on a hill, and when the sun is shining, the monastery’s gilded copper roofs can be seem gleaming from miles away. Calling the Songzanlin Monastery home are hundreds of monks. These monks reside in approximately 200 associated houses. In other words, this is very much a working monastery. As you might suspect, this famed monastery in Shangri La is also a popular China tourist attraction. Among other things, it is known for having the largest prayer wheel in the world. Also of particular interest are the colorful frescoes that can be found in the Songzanlin Monastery interior, and visitors are bound to be impressed by all the other remarkable features.