Lapchi, a Remote Tibetan Holy Place in Nepal

By Katia Buffetrille (EPHE, Paris and Associate Researcher with CERS)

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ibet is famous for its many holy places but some of them have a particular resonance in the Tibetan world. Lapchi is generally associated with two other famous pilgrimage sites, Mount Tise (also known as Kailash) in the West of Tibet and Tsari in the South-East. Lapchi is thus one of these sacred places that every Tibetan dreams of visiting one day. As an anthropologist working on Tibetan pilgrimages for more than thirty years, I always had the desire to visit Lapchi, a valley so remote from everything that it continues, somehow, to keep a certain mystery. This dream came true in October 2021 when thanks to the help of CERS, I was able to travel there in the company of biodiversity specialists. Their aim was to install camera-traps at various places in the landscape to study the fauna, including the famous Snow Leopard, as part of a study supported also by CERS.

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Situated astride the present-day political border between Nepal and Tibet, due north of the eastern township of Lamabaghar, in Dolakha District, Lapchi is nowadays in Nepal thanks to the signature of the 1960 Sino-Nepal Boundary Agreement by the Nepali Prime Minister Prasad Koirala and China’s Zhou En-Lai, which led to the demarcation of the borders by erecting concrete pillars. This was followed by another agreement signed in 1962 which allowed the inhabitants of these northern areas to choose their nationality. To this, was added a 2002 agreement which gave to the border citizens living within thirty kilometers of the border, an identity document, the “border citizen card”, allowing them to cross over without a passport and a visa and even to work in both of the two countries.


Chinese side of Pillar n° 56 marking the border between the Tibet Autonomous Region and Nepal

The fame of Lapchi in the Tibetan world, however, is related to the presence of the Tibetan saint and hermit Milarepa (1040-1123) who spent several years in meditation there on the orders of Marpa (1012?-1097), his spiritual master. Milarepa is credited with the “opening” of the sacred place and its pilgrimage after having subdued the local deities and negative forces that were opposed to the introduction of Buddhism. Thereafter, many other masters came to meditate there for periods of various lengths, those belonging to the Drikung-Kagyü school of Tibetan Buddhism having been particularly active.


Statues in Rechenphug. Top row: Milarepa and Shakyamuni. Bottow row: The main figures of the Drikung Kagyü lignage Gampopa: Phagmodrupa ; Jigten Sumgön.

The difficulties in reaching Lapchi made me acutely aware of the remoteness of this holy place from any center of human activity, be it secular or religious. We took three and a half days of arduous walking along the Tama Kosi River, through a thick and beautiful forest, overlooked by white snowy peaks, before emerging into a valley at 3700 meters that struck me with its wild natural beauty.


A difficult passage at the beginning of the way


The forest aling the way


First glance on Lapchi

The valley is surrounded by several mountains, hence its full name, “The Snowy Enclave of Nomadic Lapchi”. Facing South, the largest rocky cliff, which houses caves, meditation cells and small temples, is said to be the palace of the great deity Chakrasamvara. Three other rocky mountains are considered to be the palaces of Avalokiteshvara in the South-East, of Vajrapani in the South-West and of Manjusri in the West. To the South, an elegant snow-capped mountain rises to 5927 meters above sea level, Dorje Bhamari. The central part of Lapchi is said to have the appearance of a “triple triangle:” the triangle of the sky; that of the earth and that of the rivers, a configuration possible to observe from the trail leading to the highest meditation cave.


Dorje Bhamari (5927m)


The triple triangle seen from the trail.

The present religious population of Lapchi is composed of thirty yogis originating from various Tibetan cultural areas of Nepal or India but also from Tibet itself. They lead a meditative life under the guidance of Dordzin Rinpoche and Nubpa Rinpoche, and live in small retreat houses scattered on the main rocky cliff and also below the monastery. Five monks, all from Lapchi, live in the enclosure of the monastery. The lay community is composed of about forty persons living in thirteen households, and all practice both pastoral and agricultural activities.



In Lapchi itself, they grow only potatoes, no wheat or barley. In summer, they drive their animals up to their traditional pastures located in what is presently part of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). In November, when the cold becomes too intense, they go down with their animals to Numnang, their winter village, situated at 2700 meters

Until 2019, it was common for the people of Lapchi to go several times a year to Nyalam, in the TAR, accompanied by their yaks, in order to buy all that was necessary for their daily life - a walk of about one day for them. But the COVID 19 pandemic led to the closure of the border and therefore to difficulties for them to get supplies. One of my interlocutors expressed it by telling me: “Before the arrival of the pandemic, we were as prosperous as in Kathmandu!”.

Four caves in Lapchi related to the spiritual activities of Milarepa are particularly important. “The Cave of the Subjugation of Mara” (Düdül phug) is where he subdued a lot of demons. It is there that, following a huge snowfall that lasted eighteen days, he was blocked for more than six months, in total isolation and survived by eating only a spoonful of tsampa (roasted barley flour) per day. The main statue in the cave is a stone one of Milarepa said to have been brought from Tibet seven years ago. The cave of “The Revelation of All Secrets (Béphug Künsel) and the Prophesied Cave of great resplendence [of blessings] (Lungten tselchen phug) are among the main caves.  The “Crest Cave”, (Zephug) is the highest one, located at an altitude of about 4500 meters. On the west of this cave flows a sacred spring and to the east, one can see another footprint of Milarepa.


Another cave-temple, where Milarepa stayed in meditation, is also said to be of great importance, Ras chen phug. The main relic there is a footprint of Milarepa which is still clearly visible.


The small Lapchi monastery, Chöra Gepeling, was built at the upper limit of the forest, by Zhabkar (1781-1851), a famous yogi from Amdo (in present-day Chinese Qinghai Province). It was not destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and consists of a small temple surrounded by walls and cells for the monks. Thanks to their hospitality, we were accommodated in unoccupied cells. No pictures were allowed inside the monastery since several items have already been stolen. The central statue of the temple is one of Milarepa. The veranda is decorated with paintings on wood that unfortunately the years have damaged considerably.


A stupa erected by Zhabkar dominates the monastery. According to his biography, the master asked every disciple to bring one stone for its construction but they were so numerous that the stupa was completed in one day. Nowadays, its exterior is new but has preserved the old structure inside.


While the 2015 earthquake did little damage to the monastery, sadly the same was not true of other secular and religious buildings. Everything has been rebuilt but does not match the traditional style, and the traditional shingled roofs have been replaced by modern corrugated roofing: red sheets for the religious buildings, blue or green for the secular houses. This is a phenomenon that can be observed in many parts of Nepal, especially the eastern area which was the most affected by the earthquake.

In the course of its history, Lapchi has undergone various changes in fortune. Since 1995, the holy place has known a revival. The work to build a road connecting Lapchi to Lamabaghar has just started and will certainly last several years. The challenge will be to provide the necessary amenities to a population that needs them while respecting the sacredness of the place and the meditative life of the religious community.

December 2021: Katmandu and Paris