The Evolution of the Monlam Pavilion

4 February, 2016 —  Bodhgaya, Bihar

Six years ago, a simple stage of brick and sand was constructed for a performance of the Life of Milarepa, a drama with music written by the 17th Karmapa especially for the Karmapa 900 commemoration at the 27th Kagyu Monlam in January 2010. That performance took place on a chilly evening in a wind-swept field behind Tergar Monastery.    At that time, the Kagyu Monlam Chenmo was held at the Mahabodhi Stupa and  the Marme Monlam was a simple affair: groups from different countries stood on the steps which lead down to the Bodhi Tree and presented a song or a prayer.  The Karmapa used a loudspeaker, everyone recited the lamp prayer, candles were lit, and then the Mahabodhi complex was magically transformed by flickering lights as several thousand people proclaiming Karmapa Khyenno completed a circumambulation of the outer kora.

Because of the way that the Tibetan lunar calendar falls, in 2010 there were two Monlams

and no Monlam in 2011.  For Monlam in December 2010, a simple tent of bamboo and cloth was constructed on the site of the stage for a showing of the film of The Life of Milarepa.

In 2012 the 29th Kagyu Monlam had to be held in March, when temperatures in Bodhgaya can reach 100F.  The logistics of providing shade for everyone at the Mahabodhi Temple site proved impossible to resolve, so it was decided to erect a huge cloth tent on a bamboo frame in the field next to Tergar Monastery and hold the Monlam there.

After the Monlam finished, plans were drawn up for a stronger structure to be built, and by December 2012, when the 30th Kagyu Monlam began, the Monlam Pavillion of iron columns and girders with a corrugated iron roof was ready.  Its construction coincided with a move to reinstate the tradition of the Karma Garchen—the Great Encampment— and a village of tents were erected to accommodate the monks and nuns.

Three years later, during the Amitayus empowerment of the Chiksey Kundrol in December 2015 at the 32ndKagyu Monlam, it was obvious to all that the Monlam Pavillion had reached capacity. Approximately 12,000 people squeezed into the space to receive the blessing s of the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who bestowed the vase empowerment individually on everyone.

Because of the confined space, the only possible expansion of the pavillion was sideways. The architect and engineer, the Ven. Choekyi Gyamtso, drew up plans to enlarge the stage area width wise and work began on the renovation on April 1st 2015 supervised by Karma Lhundrup Neyratsang. By February 2016 the work had been completed in time for the 33rd Kagyu Monlam.

The new stage itself is much larger and has expanded forwards as well as sideways, with tiered wings, and will seat up to 1000 Rinpoches, Khenpos, and fully-ordained monks and nuns, creating space on the floor area of the auditorium for up to 12,000 nuns, monks and laypeople.   In addition, the extension of the stage has created more meeting rooms and office space on the second floor of the administration block, and new rooms below the wings. The suite of rooms to the left hosted the International Kagyupa Monlam’s Animal Medical Camp in December 2015; the room on the right provided a classroom for the torma makers’ training in January 2016.

To accommodate the enlarged stage, the roof had to be raised, making space for two huge, high definition monitors. Hanging either side of the stage, they provide everyone in the vast auditorium with a view of what’s happening.  A new backdrop has replaced the previous view of Mount Kailash.  Now the sun rises in a blue sky, with stylised clouds which reflect the growing light. The eight foot high Buddha statue, which was suddenly out of proportion to its new background, has also been replaced by one seventeen-foot high, mounted on a three-foot base, and, along the two walls which top the tiered wings, a complete set of thirty five Buddha statues stands, each three-foot high. Finally, in exquisite attention to detail, the sides of the wings and the lintels above doors and windows have been colourfully decorated in traditional Tibetan style.

The spaciousness of the new pavillion was obvious during the first few days of the 33rd Monlam, when more than 10,500 people fitted comfortably into the space. However, on the final day, when additional people arrived to join in the Lama Choepa commemoration for HE Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche and Kyabje Chatrel Sangye Dorje Rinpoche in the morning, and others came to celebrate the life and achievement of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche in the afternoon, the crowd spilled outside.  If the International Kagyu Monlam continues to grow, who knows what the future will hold for the Monlam Pavillion?


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Recorded during the 37th Kagyu Monlam, Bodhgaya, India. January 28-30, 2020.