Situated between Zhikatsé (gzhis ka rtse) to the northwest and Gyantsé (rgyal rtse) to the southeast, Zhalu Monastery (zhwa lu dgon) has played an important role in the cultural life of Tsang (gtsang) since at least the fourteenth century. Renowned for both its artistic and literary achievements, it was home to Nepalese artisans painting murals, teams of scribes creating fine volumes of Buddhist canonical literature, and a lively community of scholars, monks, and yogic practitioners from throughout Tibet.
Most sources agree that Zhalu Monastery was established in the early decades of the eleventh century, when Chetsün Sherap Jungné (lce btsun shes rab ’byung gnas) built the original Serkhang Tramo (gser khang khra mo) temple. Though sources differ regarding the exact date, the Serkhang Tramo was most likely begun in 1027, and by 1045 there were a number of temples surrounding it. During the 1030s Chetsün Sherap Jungné traveled to Bodhgayā, where he met his Indian master. Along the way he traveled through the Kathmandu Valley, where he secured patronage from Nepalese royalty for further building at Zhalu.
The institution underwent periodic expansion for the next several centuries, including a substantial renovation by Drakpa Gyeltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan) of the Kuzhang (sku zhang) noble lineage, a family with close relations to the Sakyapa (sa skya pa). These renovations were completed in the 1330s under Zhalu’s most famous abbot, Butön Rinchendrup (bu ston rin chen grub, 1290-1364). Butön arrived at Zhalu in 1322 at the invitation of the Kuzhang rulers, and served as abbot until his death. His tenure marks the golden age of Zhalu – a period of great cultural activity that secured the institution’s reputation even in centuries of relative inactivity. History remembers few figures after Butön, although Zhalu Lotsawa Chökyong Zangpo (zhwa lu lo tsā wa chos skyong bzang po, 1441-1528) is remembered for his important contributions to the study of Indian language arts in Tibet.
Today Zhalu remains one of only a handful of central Tibetan monasteries containing original art dating from the fourteenth century, though only thirty or so monks reside there, and the library is all but gone.
For a detailed art-historical study of Zhalu, see Roberto Vitali, Early Temples of Central Tibet (London: Serindia, 1990).