Mugulung Place Essay

Tibetan Renaissance Seminar


Mugulung (myu gu lung) is a branch valley running east-west within the Mangkhar Valley (mang dkhar) in the western part of the Tsang (gtsang ) region of Tibet. The valley is situated at approximately 14,000 ft (4000m). Mugulung also refers to the translation center established in the eponymous valley by Drokmi in the 11th century.

Mugulung valley is just south of the city of Lhatse (lha rtse). The Mangkhar area was likely an administrative center in imperial times, due to Lhatse’s position on both east-west and north-south trade routes. In the 11th century Mugulung valley emerged as an area of fresh importance: a center of the explosion of translations during this period and as the emerging birthplace of the Sakya sect (sa skya).

Translation Center

In the 11th century, Drokmi Shakya Yeshe (brog mi shakya ye shes), the translator extraordinaire, took residence in the Mugulung valley and founded a monastic center of sorts. Drokmi was the primary translator of the Hevajra tantra systems and a master of literary classical Tibetan.

Mugulung was somewhat near Drokmi’s home temple, Drompa Gyang, which had been an imperial. Drokmi’s selection of Mugulung is exemplary of a larger trend in 11th century Tibet: the selection of locations for translation or monastic communities based on a place’s imperial heritage. A place with imperial history gave a certain prestige to these communities. Ronald Davison suggests Drokmi’s choice of Mugulung was also an astute choice in that it was near the trade center of Lhatse, but not too near - he was far enough away to avoid clan feuds and other urban squabbles. Drokmi’s translation center consisted of several caves in which persons, usually monastics, lived and translated.

Mugulung became renowned as an important center of translation activity due to the prolific efforts of Drokmi and his Indian side-kick, Gayadhara. Drokmi is often cited as an example of the quintessential greedy lama of the time period. He generously paid – or bribed – Gayadhara into giving him the exclusive rites to the Lamdre (lam bras) or "Path and the Fruit" teachings. Drokmi zealously guarded his proprietary relationship to the Lamdre teachings when he taught disciples; he gave either the method of instruction (upadesanaya) or the exegetical method (vyakhyanaya) to his disciples, but never gave both teachings to one disciple.

Drokmi was also known to translate with other Indian panditas at Mugulung, such as Ratnavajra.

An example of Drokmi’s avarice comes in Blue Annals Chapter 1, when Drokmi has apparently run a little short on the exorbitant amount of gold he has promised to Gayadhara in exchange for the exclusive reception of the Lamdre teachings. Zur Shakya Jungne, a Drokmi disciple, is called away from a retreat to bring Drokmi enough gold for Drokmi to pay Gayadhara.

Marpa (mar pa, 1012-96) is numbered among Drokmi’s many famous disciples. He studied Sanskrit and learned to translate under Drokmi, at Mugulung (see Chapter 8 of Blue Annals). From Marpa’s lineage of disciples, the Kagyü sect later emerged.

Khön Shakya Lotro from Mugulung was a priestly opponent of the transgressive behavior of Ralotsawa Dorje Drak and was killed in a battle (reportedly endorsed by Avalokiteśvara) by Ralo in the 11th century.

Clan Connections and Sakya Emergence

It was in Mugulung that seeds for the emergence of the Sakya sect were planted. Members of Khön clan came to Mugulung to study with Drokmi, and their descendents became the “eight groups” of Khön in that area.

Drokmi's disciple Könchok Gyelpo (dkon mchog rgyal po, 1034-1102) of the Khön clan studied with Drokmi at Mugulung and later founded Sakya monastery in 1073 to the northeast of Mugulung. Könchok’s son, Sachen Künga Nyingpo (sa chen kun dga' snying po, 1092-1158) and grandsons, Drakpa Gyeltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1147-1216) and Sonam Tsemo (1142-82), are credited with the clear development of the Sakya tradition. The grandsons played an especially significant role with their domestication of the Lamdre.

Mugulung’s glory days seem to have been short-lived. Once Sakya monastery was established, Drokmi’s Khön-associated lineage preferred to encamp at Sakya and to locate Sakya as a locus of pilgrimage, rather than keeping a center of learning at Mugulung. It is unclear whether or not Mugulung was entirely abandoned at this point in time, or if the translation going on there ceased gradually over time. It’s clear that by the 15th century Mugulung was no longer a center of translation or other activity; yet by then it had become a site of pilgrimage marking a important place in the sacred geography of the Khön clan.

Mugulung is a quintessential example of several trends in Tibet in the 11th century: it is an imperial historical site re-made into a new translator’s center for his work and residence, it’s a sudden - and sometimes short-lived - growth of a community based on one charismatic person, and it’s an example of the strong connection between Tibetan clans and their geographical location.

Pilgrimage Site

Mugulung later became a pilgrimage site, witnessed by the descriptions from a pilgrimage guide written in 1479 by Jampa Dorje Gyeltsen and related in Ronald Davidson’s Tibetan Renaissance. This guide tells us that the name ‘Mugulung’ came from a nearby mountain, Mount Muk-chung, and that Mugulung also means ‘liberation,’ from the Sanksrit ‘mukti.’ The valley is described as being full of auspicious associations, including 108 of everything good. Mugulung has 13 caves including one ‘white residential cave’ which consists of two caves, with Gayadhara living in the upper one and Drokmi in the lower. The premises also included a translation cave (sgra sgyur lo tsa phung) where they worked and a consecration cave (dbang bskur byin brlabs phug).

The guidebook states that a special life-size, talking statue of Drokmi could be found in the lower cave (presumably at the time of the guidebook’s writing), which had in its heart a tiny statue of Gayadhara. It notes that the valley was the scene of military incursions from Central Tibet and from the south in the centuries after its beginnings.

Mugulung Today

Mugulung seems to have fallen into disregard today. Modern references to it are not to be found. An extensive Tibet travel guide does not even mention the Mugulung valley in a section about what to do if one find oneself in Lhatse with a lot of time on one’s hands. Lhatse itself situated on Friendship Highway and easily accessible; one can even book hotel online.


Ronald Davison’s Tibetan Renaissance, p. 174-176.

Blue Annals Chapters 1, 4, 8, and 14

external link: THDL Encyclopedia of Religions and Sects