Thupten Rinpoche, a teacher in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, has spent the last 10 years overseeing the construction of the Thupsung Dhargyeling Monastery in Dirang, India.

Local volunteers help monks assemble and place flags around Thupsung Dhargyeling monastery. | Courtnay Robbins

Dirang is a small village in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a disputed area that China also claims. Tucked away in the Himalayas, it’s not easy to get to. The closest airport is in Guwahati, a 15-hour journey by car over treacherous mountain roads. (It takes longer if there is snow, heavy rain, or fog, and there often is.)

Lay women sweep the veranda of the Thupsung Dhargyeling temple to prepare for the Dalai Lama’s consecration ceremony and visit. | Courtnay Robbins

Thupten Rinpoche considers the monastery the biggest accomplishment of his life. The lama meticulously planned it, from the placement of 1,000 Buddha statues to the Wheel of Life mural on the back wall of the monastery, which is laid out as a landscape rather than a traditional circle.

Volunteers put the last layer of colorful paint on the monastery’s walls the day before the Dalai Lama arrives. | Courtnay Robbins

The monastery is perched on a hill above Dirang. Since the construction began, Dirang has prospered, providing jobs as well as a place of learning and worship, and the town’s population has increased. Unlike typical monasteries, Thupsung Dhargyeling places its focus on educating lay people in Buddhist scripture and practice.

Volunteers make tormas, ritual cakes made from barley flour and butter. These tormas were dyed red using the root of a local plant. The red tormas are used in a tsok ceremony, a day when practitioners gather, make offerings, and say prayers to reaffirm their connection to their Buddhist practice. | Courtnay Robbins

On April 5, 2017, the monastery was completed, and the Dalai Lama came to give his blessing.

The Dalai Lama is escorted to his seat by his attendant, Tenzin Penjor (right), and Thupten Rinpoche (left), before addressing a crowd of 20,000 people. | Courtnay Robbins

In the days leading up to his visit, monks and volunteers scrambled to put the finishing touches on the monastery. Walls received a final coat of paint, ornate temple doors were assembled, and engineers worked around the clock on an elevator that would take the Dalai Lama to his room at the top of the temple (every Tibetan monastery has a special guest room at the top that is reserved for His Holiness).

The Dalai Lama holds up a prayer book during his teaching. | Courtnay Robbins

More than 20,000 people attended the monastery’s consecration ceremony and to hear the Dalai Lama teach.

An estimated 20,000 people came to hear and see the Dalai Lama. | Courtnay Robbins

Security was tight, given the region’s disputed status.

Every Tibetan Buddhist monastery has a special room reserved for the Dalai Lama when he visits. This is the Dalai Lama’s bedroom at Thupsung Dhargyeling, where everything is kept exactly as the Dalai Lama left it. | Courtnay Robbins

The Dalai Lama’s security team quickly moved him through crowds, not allowing anyone without permission to approach the Buddhist leader. Despite his bodyguards’ best efforts, however, the Dalai Lama picked people out of the crowd to connect with, as he nearly always does. He seems to most enjoy interactions with everyday people and foreigners who are unaware of the proper etiquette and interact with him on a more casual level.

Thupten Rinpoche meets with a group of pilgrims who have traveled from Merak, in eastern Bhutan, a village very close to the his birthplace. They brought offerings of rice, butter, and money. | Courtnay Robbins

After the Dalai Lama left the monastery, so did the massive crowds and security team.

Thupten Rinpoche blesses an elderly woman from Merak who traveled to see the new monastery. | Courtnay Robbins

But a steady stream of pilgrims continued to arrive to make offerings to the new monastery and to Thupten Rinpoche, with one group traveling three days from their teacher’s birthplace in Bhutan. They brought offerings of butter, rice, and money, and performed traditional songs and dances for Thupten Rinpoche and the other monks into the late hours of the night, with the temple lights shining brightly and the melodies of Bhutanese folk songs floating over the Dirang valley.

Bhutanese pilgrims leave the temple after making their offerings to Thupten Rinpoche.

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