19 June, 2016

Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang Chortens

Few paragraphs have been borrowed from "Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan"

Chortens are minute in size as compared to dzongs, but they are far more potent in terms of their religious symbolism. Their simple exterior is in sharp contrast to the riches that are concealed within. A chorten is a manifestation of deep faith, and a humble act of devotion on the part of the person who has built it.

Basically, chortens are built to ward off adversities and eliminate evil forces and also to allow people to gain merit by circumambulation of chortens. Chortens, as an expression of religious significance, represent the enlightened mind. Buddhist pilgrims and travellers circumambulate chortens as meritorious action of reverence. Movement around the chorten is clockwise, so that the right shoulder is always towards the chorten. By circumambulating the chorten, it is believed that one's demerit or delusions will all be washed away. In Bhutan, one will often come across people, irrespective of age, circumambulating the chorten. On certain auspicious days, one will see a lot of people going to the monasteries and chortens to light butter lamps.

For nearly a centry and half Bhutan had not faced any external enemy - the last time the country had gone to war was in 1864-65, when the father of the first king, Tongsa Penlop Jigme Namgyel, had routed the British in the Duar War. Since then, the country had perhaps become complacent, and taken for granted the peaceful stable lives.

But in 2003, war clouds were gathering. Militant groups from India's north-eastern region had established their guerilla camps in the dense jungles of Southern Bhutan, from where they would launch terrorist attacks across the border. For many years Bhutan Government and the King had held talks with these militant groups, trying to persuade them to leave Bhutan, and to stop using Bhutan's territory to attack a country that was Bhutan's staunch friend. After 6 years of these futile negotiations, it became clear that the militants were not going to leave, that they posed a real threat to Bhutan's own security, and that armed action was unavoidable to expel them from Bhutan. Public opinion in support of this action had gradually been building up through discussion in the National Assembly and public meetings in all part of the country.

Sharing the anxiety of every Bhutanese at this time, the Queen mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck started building a chorten at the Dochula Pass, as a visible symbol of fervent prayers to the deities to protect the country at difficult time. On 4th December 2003, the King and his son Jigyel left Punakha for the battlefront. As Jigyel got into the car with his father, he said to his mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck "the war must not be lost by those who are left behind". His parting words to his mother were that she should be prepared not to see him again, for if the worst were to happen to his father, he too would not come back alive from the battlefield.

The king travelled towards the South, addressing public gatherings on the way, ensuring that the armed forces were adequately equipped and trained, meticulously planning every detail of the logistics and strategy for the battle to come. He had no intention of issuing orders from Thimphu - his place was on the battlefield, beside his soldiers, he told them, for he regarded them and every Bhutanese citizen as his own children. They knew that these words came from his heart.

The day the King and Jigyel left Punakha, Queen mother returned to Thimphu and went straight to Cheri Monastery, high on a mountain at the northern end of the Thimphu valley. She climbed as fast as she could, to reach the cave above the monastery where the Zhabdrung, the founder of Bhutan, had meditated for 3 years. In the silence of the cave, she felt the Zhabdrung's blessings and reassurance that all would be well, and left Cheri with a lighter heart, and a clearer idea of what contribution she could make, at a time when the future seemed so uncertain.

She lost no time in galvanizing the Tarayana Foundation, which she had set up in May 2003, to take the lead in coordinating civilian efforts. Within hours, thousands of volunteers had joined in the efforts to help organize blood donations, set up a blood bank database and make plans for the rehabilitation of villagers who might be displaced from their homes near the battlefield. Cash donations came pouring in.

With the relief under way, she set off to the Dochula Pass on 6th December to fulfil another vow she had taken at Cheri Monastery. She climbed the snow-covered hillock to the chorten she had built and there she pledged to build 108 chortens around it, as symbols of her prayers for the safe return of the King and soldiers. 108 is an auspicious number for Buddhists, representing the number of prayers that make up a complete cycle.

The 108 chortens at Dochula called gYul Las rNampar Gyal wai ' Chorten or the chorten of victory, at an elevation of 3,100m about 16Kms away from the capital city Thimphu in the lap of nature with snowy Himalayan ranges looming in the backgroundjust is an example of red-band or Khangzang chorten. Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, commissioned the monument after King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was victorious in the struggle to dislodge the rebels who were using Bhutan as a base to raid India.

Chortens can broadly be categorized into 3 types: the Bhutanese style chorten or Khangzang chorten, the Nepali style and the Tibetan style or the Jangchub chorten. All 3 types of chorten can be found in Bhutan. The common one is the Khangzang chorten, which has a red band just below the eaves. The red band is a distinctive architectural feature of a Bhutanese chorten. This type of chorten has a broad square base, elongated middle structure, crowned with a crescent moon and a sun on the top or sometimes with only a pinnacle.

The 108 chortens at Dochula are built in three layers, the first lowest level layer has forty five chortens, the second has thirty six and the top layer has twenty seven built around the main chorten. Before any chorten is built the ground has to be purified, and so on 8th Dec, the Je Khenpo came to perform this ritual, called the Senem Kurim. At various stages in the construction of chorten, certain prescribed rituals and prayers must be held for it to serve its purpose effectively, and so it was with each of the 108 chortens that simultaneously began to take shape. Once a chorten reaches the height of 1m, an opening is made in the ground and symbolic offerings, such as grains and a bronze vessel filled with butter, are put in. The construction then proceeds until the next stage, when clay images of deities, their hollow insides filled with handwritten prayers, are interred.

In the next stage, which is considered the "vital stage", in erecting a chorten was the fixing of the sokshing meaning "the life tree of the chorten". The sokshing, which is believed to provide a link between heaven and earth within a chorten, is in the form of a long square wooden pole made from a juniper tree made by an individual who has appropriate qualities from an astrological point of view. The pole was painted in red colour and inscribed with sacred hymns and banded with religious paraphernalia such as gilded images of gods, prayer bells, small clay stupas, and also precious stones and jewellery. The sokshing was then wrapped around by silk cloth and then fixed in the partly built chorten on an auspicious day

18 June, 2016

Pungthang Dechen Phodrang - The Palace of Bliss

Dzongs reflect the dynamism of Bhutanese history and culture since the unification of the country. Dzongs are built at strategic locations such as on hill tops, overlooking the valley or at the confluence of rivers providing military vantage. They basically consist of Shabkhor that are buildings rectangular in plan enclosing flat stone paved courtyard, and a most prominent towering structure called Utse standing at the inner courtyard containing the shrines of guardian deities and Buddhist masters.

They were later altered and extended in order to accommodate the functions under the dual government system. This has presumably led to development of two very distinct façades of the Dzongs; the outer façades formed by high and massive battered stone masonry fortification walls of Shabkhor and the inner façades consisting of sophisticated wooden structure often finished with elaborate carvings and paintings, creating ambience suitable for space for civil and state affairs. Dzongs illustrate the peak of collective architectural achievements of the people of Bhutan.

Dzongs serve as principal seat of Buddhist school. Most of the Dzongs were built for gaining influence of particular Buddhist schools and controlling over the region under the power of the schools. It is said to be the medieval period in the 12th century when Dzongs were started to be built in "the southern land (Bhutan)" by clergies of different Buddhist schools established in Tibet.

It was in 1616 when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the linage holder of Drukpa-Kagyud Buddhist School arrived at the southern land escaping the conflict over recognition of the principal abbot of the School in Ralung, Tibet.

He, later becoming the unifier of Bhutan, started constructing several Dzongs in the process of gaining control over the country, which was at that time dominated by clergies and leaders of different Buddhist schools. Strategic location of the Dzongs is one of the main factors that have led the successful unification of the country. It is much elaborated in old literatures describing the prophecies of ancient saints and auspicious events how the location of the Dzongs was determined.

The nation’s most revered and important temple was built in 1637 at the confluence of two mighty rivers, named the Mo Chhu (mother river) and Pho Chhu (father river) by the charismatic leader Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel who is believed as the re-birth of Tsangpa Gyaray, the founder of Drukpa-Kagyud School and also an emanation of Avalokitesvara has great spiritual significance to the people of Bhutan.

In the 8th century, Guru Rinpoche had prophesied that a young man named Namgyel would come to a mountain that appeared like a sleeping elephant and build a dzong upon the elephant’s trunk. The Zhabdrung visited Punakha and chose the tip of the trunk of the sleeping elephant a the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu as the place to build a DzOng. It's not obvious, but with a bit of imagination you may be able to visualise the hill as a elephant.

As early as 1326 a smaller building called Dzong Chug (small Dzong) housed a statue of Buddha here. Zhabdrung ordered Palep to sleep in front of the statue. While Palep was sleepoing, the Zhabdrung took him in his dreams to Zangto Pelri and showed him the palace of Guru Rinpoche. From his vision, the architect conceived the design for the new Dzong, which, in keeping with tradition was never committed to paper.

Construction began in 1637 and was completed the following year, when the building was christened Pungthang Dechen Phodrang (Palace of great happiness). Later embellishments included the construction of a chapel to commemorate the victory over the Tibetans in 1639. The arms captured during the battle are preserved in the Dzong.

Inside the mammoth complex are three courtyards separating the major structures. The first features a white-washed stupa and a spectacular Bodhi tree that gives shade and represents a strength of nature within the confines of the mighty man-made walls.

Monks live in residence in the second courtyard and give the space a distinct reverence, but it's the third where the beauty of the dzong is at its most lavish. Murals depict the life of Buddha, and gilded statues and treasures from Bhutan are all kept here. It’s also said that with years of looting and pillaging, there may be more treasures from Tibet safely preserved here than in Tibet itself

The utse is 6 storeys high. The gold dome on the utse was built in 1676 by the dzongpen (lord of the dzong), Gyaltsen Tenzin Rabgye. Many of the dzong's features were added between 1744 and 1763 during the reign of the 13th desi, Sherab Wangchuk. One item he donated was the chenmo (great) thondrol, a large thangka depicting the Zhabdrung that is exhibited to the public once a year during the tsechu festival. A brass roof for the dzong was a gift of the 7th dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso.

The Machen Lhakhang, a temple inside the Dzong enshrines the mummified body of the Zhabdrung who passed away in retreat here in 1651. Dzongchung (or the little Dzong), built in 1328 by saint Ngagi Rinchen can still be seen opposite the main Dzong. The spectacular Kuenrey (assembly hall) in Punakha Dzong is open to the tourists.

Beautiful Punakha has been inextricably linked with momentous occasions in Bhutanese history. On 17 December, 1907, the first king of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned here. Most recently, Punakha Dzong held the royal wedding of the wildly popular Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Druk Gyaltsuen (Queen Consort) Jetsun Pema in 2011. It served as the capital of the country from 1637 to 1907 and the first national assembly was hosted here in 1953.

Shifting the government to Thimphu has enabled the Punakha region to retain the most authentic charm in the country, where terraced rice fields surround the riverbanks, farmers and their herds live in the hills, and monks practice archery in the forest.

Frequent fires (five between 1750 and 1849) damaged the dzong, as did the severe 1897 earthquake. A glacial lake burst on the Pho Chhu in 1960 and again in 1994, causing damage to the dzong that has since been repaired. Outside the dzong is a memorial to the 23 people killed in that flood.