Yungdrung Tharpaling (g.yung drung thar pa gling), known today as Lamayuru, is the most ancient monastery of Ladakh. Legend has it that the region where Yungdrung Tharpaling is situated today, approximately 127 km to the west of Leh, the capital of Ladakh, at the time of Buddha Shakyamuni was under a big lake, which was home to many Nagas. Rising prominently from the eastern part of the lake was a little dry hill which was locally called Skambur. It is said that the Arahat Madhyantika, when he visited the lake at Lamayuru and made water offerings to the Nagas, made a crack into the ground of the lake with his walking staff to leak out the water. He also pronounced the prophecy that in the future, the teachings of Sutra and Tantra unified will flourish in this place.
Thereafter, Mahasiddha Naropa (1016–1100) visited the place coming from Zanskar. He spent a long time in strict retreat in a cave there and turned the place into a sacred land. The cave still exists, well preserved and forms part of the main shrine of Lamayuru Monastery. In 1038 the great translator Rinchen Zangpo (958–1055) built five temples at Lamayuru. These were among the 108 temples and stupas he erected in Spiti and Ladakh. One of the five temples at Lamayuru is still in perfect condition.
During the 16th century, when Denma Kunga Drakpa came to Ladakh upon invitation of King Tashi Namgyal, he was offered a little palace the king owned at Lamayuru, together with the whole surrounding land. When Denma Kunga Drakpa first visited Lamayuru, he saw the cave of Naropa and the grains of barley Madhyantika had used in his water offering, now sprout into the shape of a swastika (g.yung drung). Considering such blessings the land had received, he established a monastery and named it Yungdrung. The king of Ladakh and the ruler of Balti put down the law that even the cruelest criminal will escape execution if he personally visited or sent his hat to Yungdrung Tharpaling before the judgment day.
Therefore, this monastery was also named “Tharpaling”, the land of liberation, thus Yungdrung Tharpaling, commonly known as Lamayuru. This ruling regarding the criminals was obeyed by not only the kings of Ladakh and Balti but also by the rulers in Kashmir. The kings’ ruling was inscribed on a mirror in the Urudu and Pharsi scripts and kept in the Kingdom of Kashmir. Soon, a large number of monks congregated and the Drikung Kagyu lineage started flourishing all over Ladakh.
Even when the Kashimiri Tambi Malik invaded with his three hundred soldiers Ladakh, he ruled that Lamayuru was tax exempted and no sound of bullet was allowed in this sacred land. Thus, Lamayuru became a holy place for not only the Buddhist and Muslims of Ladakh and Baltistan but also the Muslims of Kashmir. Whenever the Kings of Ladakh and Balti had differences of opinion they came to Lamayuru for negotiation and reconciliation, and the monks had to be the witnesses. Both kings unanimously freed Lamayuru of all kinds of taxes. Thus, Lamayuru enjoyed a special autonomy no other monastery in Ladakh had.
In the early days Lamayuru Monastery had more than 500 resident monks. They studied, contemplated on and practiced the teachings of Buddha in general and the teachings of the whispered lineage of the Mahasiddhas Tilopa and Naropa in particular. There were outstanding scholars of the sublime text Gongchig (dgongs gcig,The Same Intention) by Lord Jigten Sumgon and other Indian and Tibetan commentaries. Through them the teachings of the Kagyu Lineage spread far and wide.
In 1834 Ladakh was invaded by Zorawar Singh who was the general of the army of King Gulab Singh of Jammu. During the invasion many of the monks of Lamayuru monastery were massacred and only few managed to escape to the mountains. The monastery was completely ruined and the main shrine was turned into a herd for horses. The doors and windows were used as firewood the texts torn into pieces. All valuables were looted except for a statue of the 4th Chetsang Tenzin Peme Gyaltsen (1770-1826) and a pair of cymbals. This violent destruction was done to revenge of the devastation of a Hindu temple in the town of Leh. When Zorawar Sing left Lamayuru, the monks hiding in the mountains returned. There were only six of them left.
They were completely shattered to find nothing at the site of their monastery except for carcasses and ruins. They tried very hard to resume the spiritual activities of the monastery but it was next to impossible. Having nothing left, they had to use a set of clay cups as offering bowls. They bought one bell without the handle from someone in the village and played it during their rituals.
During those days Kyabje Bakula Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche was in Rangjung Monastery in the village of Dhomkhar in western Ladakh. The people of Lamayuru sent some representatives to inform him of what had happened. They beseeched him to lead them in reconstructing the monastery. Rinpoche was very sad to hear the tragic news but was astonished to find the lay people so concerned and courageous for the sake of the Buddha Dharma. He generously donated his own wealth for the project and went all around Ladakh to find contributions. Within two years, the monastery was rebuilt. Statues and texts were brought in and the monastery resumed its traditional Dharma activities.
Thereafter, a succession of Choje’s (Dharma Masters) took care of Lamayuru Monastery for some generations, and in 1904 the 31st Choje Togden Konchok Tenzin Damcho Gyurme built the present five-floor monastery. Presently, together with the more than 30 branch monasteries in and outside Ladakh, Lamayru Monastery is home to 350 monks, all under the spiritual guidance of H.E. Choje Togden Rinpoche.
Lamayuru also has a well established retreat center, started in year 1970’s by the great Yogi Kyunga Rinpoche. His Holiness Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche had started his three year retreat at Lamayuru under Kyunga Rinpoche upon his return from the USA in 1978. At present, there are a dozen of monks in strict retreat under the spiritual guidance of Drubpon Sonam Jorphel Rinpoche, the foremost disciple of Kyunga Rinpoche.