There is a secret that takes the Dragon Kingdom of Bhutan close to the heaven. It is neither the world’s tallest Buddha statue at Kuenselphodrang, nor the unique Drametse Ngacham (dance of the drummers from Drametse) of Mongar. It is a mound, mere piles of earth and stones. It is the chortens or the stupas – the white jewels of the Dragon Kingdom – jewels that have miraculous origins and with various types with great significance in the life of the Bhutanese people.
Stupa is a Sanskrit word meaning “to heap” or “to pile” and refers to the mound-like shape of the earliest stupas. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra tells us that it was Buddha himself who outlined the basic design of a stupa. The story begins at Buddha’s deathbed where he gave instructions about the disposition of his body. He said that his body should be cremated and the relics divided up and enclosed in four different monuments. These were to be erected at:
Lumbini, the place of Buddha’s birth Bodhgaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree Sarnath, where he gave his first teachings Kushinagar, where he passed into parinivana. His disciples asked what form this monument should take. The Buddha did not reply but instead gave a practical demonstration. He took his outer yellow robe and folded it in half and in half again until it formed a rough cubic square. Then he took his begging bowl, which was round, turned it upside down, and placed it on top of the robes. “Make a stupa like this,” he said. So these original instructions, directly from the Buddha, have remained the basic form for all stupas throughout the world.
However, it is difficult to trace back the precise origin of the stupas. Some scholars presume that it originated much before the Gautama Buddha or the Buddha Shakyamuni. For instance, stupas like Riwo Langchen and Jewo Dampa chortens at Swayambunath in Nepal are believed to have appeared during the aeon of Ushnisha Buddha.
Others say that one of the early stupas was built on the remains of Buddha’s bones at Namo Buddha (Tagmo Lujin) in Nepal. Tagmo Lujin is the legendary tale of one of the previous lives of the Buddha, when he offered his own body with much satisfaction to a starving tigress as a form of alms giving. Such legends talk volumes to prove that chortens first emerged simply as a burial mound.
Looking to the more recent legend, Prince Siddharta undertook a milestone decision and deed in his life of cutting his hair to abjure his life in the palace. This, according to the twelve noble deeds prayers of the Buddha, happened under the chorten called Namdag. Such knowledge is indeed the testimony to the existence of chortens much before Gautama Buddha.
The next notable chorten is Jarung khashor at Kathmandu in Nepal. Several stupas were also constructed during the aeon of Buddha Shakyamuni. Thus, chortens are the oldest Buddhist religious monuments and originally appeared only as simple mounds of mud or clay to cover relics of the important Buddhist figures.
The origin of chortens in Bhutan is not really clear, but the time might be much later than its first emergence. Buddhism first emerged from India and started to flourish in Tibet and then came to Bhutan. Chortens are mere appendages of Buddhism and we can generalise that there is less possibility of appearance of chortens in Bhutan before the arrival of Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche came to Bhutan in 746 AD and brought the Vajrayana teachings to Bhutan.
Some texts explain that it was only in the 15th century, during the time of Great Tertoen (treasure discoverer) Pemalingpa, that chortens like Mani Dangrim (mani wall) started to emerge on the Bhutanese soil. Later, the 17th century temporal ruler of Bhutan, Gyelsay Tenzin Rabgay, inspired the Bhutanese to build Mani Dangrim in many parts of the country. Mani Dangrim is considered a typical Bhutanese style chorten.
The traditional eight types of chortens which are generally referred to as the classical chortens are very common in the Himalayas. They spread from India to the Himalayan countries including Bhutan. Each one of these classical chortens signifies the major events of the life of the Buddha.
The first of the eight types is Desheg Chorten. Desheg Chorten signifies the birth of the Buddha. At birth, the Buddha took seven steps in each of the four directions – East, South, West and North. In each direction lotus sprang, symbolising the four immeasurable: love, compassion, joy and calmness. Desheg Chortens are bejewelled with lotus-petal designs along with seven heaped lotus steps.
Jangchub Chorten or the chorten of enlightenment commemorates the Buddha’s enlightenment. Buddha attended enlightenment at the age of 35 at Bodhgaya under the Bodhi tree. It is said that the chorten of enlightenment was built by the beings of all realms to mark the enlightenment of the Buddha.
Lhabab Chorten commemorates the return of Buddha to the earth from the heaven. At the age of 42, the Buddha visited the heaven to teach his mother and returned to earth following respectful request from his disciples. Hence, some refer to this chorten as the chorten of descent from the God Realm. This chorten is said to be modelled after building at Samkasya in India, on the very spot where Buddha descended from heaven. Steps on all four sides up to the dome make it distinctive from other chortens.
Choekhor Korwai Chorten is to honour the first sermon of Buddha. Lord Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment at Deer Park in Sarnath in India, which is known as Varanasi these days. He ‘turned the wheel of dharma’ to show all sentient beings the path to enlightenment. This chorten is characterised by various entrances to signify various paths to enlightenment.
Chotrul Chorten was built to observe Buddha’s deed of subjugation of Mutikpa or the heretics. The Buddha subjugated the heretics of Sravasti at Uttar Pradesh in India by showing miracles. Thus, the chorten is also called Miracle Chorten.
Yendum Chorten was built to celebrate the victory of the Buddha over the evil Devadatta. Devadatta was by tradition a Buddhist monk, cousin and brother-in-law to Gautama Buddha. However, he grew jealous of the Buddha and given much threat to the life and teachings of the Buddha.
Namgyal Chorten was built to rejoice the prolonged life of Buddha. It also symbolises the victory over all evils, including the mystery of death itself. Despite the pressure from the king of the evil, the Buddha decided to attain the state of Parinirvana only after prolonging his life by three months.
The last, Netendey Chorten or the chorten of nirvana is to remember the day when the Buddha passed into Parinirvana. It symbolises the Buddha’s complete absorption into the highest state of mind. The characteristic feature of the chorten of nirvana is its bell shape and it is usually not ornamented. This symbolises the expression of mourning over the death of the Enlightened One.
The other chortens are Chorten Kangnyim (stupas two legs), Mani Chukhor (Prayer wheel), Tashi Gomang (Glorious Chorten of Many Doors), and Mani Dangrim. Chorten Kangnyim and Tashi Gomang chortens are rather rare in Bhutan. However, Tashi Gomang exists as a mere miniaturised monument.
There is an aphorism that “if you save a worm from the army of violent ants, the merits are equivalent to that of building a chorten.” Such expression only means that there is nothing greater way of accumulating merits than constructing a chorten.
Chortens for Bhutanese are the source and symbol of peace and harmony. For instance, the legendary Chorten Kora in Trashiyangtse was built in the 18th century by Lama Ngawang Lodroe to subdue a harmful demon. People started to enjoy boundless peace and harmony after the completion of the peerless relic of the kingdom.
The chortens for Bhutanese are also shrines. The presence of chortens in abundance shows the faith people have in Buddhism. Even the mere sight of chorten brings immensurable faith and devotion in the minds of the Bhutanese people. This is the reason why people build chortens in public places.
Druk Wangyel Chorten at Dochula is the masterpiece of the modern Bhutanese art and architecture. But it has more spiritual value beyond the outer aesthetic beauty. It is a heartfelt expression of the royal family and the people of Bhutan to His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King, and his reign. It is a symbol of gratitude, victory and peace frozen in the form of sacred stupas.
As chortens are considered the Gyelwai Thug or the mind manifestation of the Buddha, people seek refuge in it. There is not a single mountain pass in Bhutan without a chorten. For some, it may be the ornament to the woods and mountains but it also brings a sense of presence of gods. Travellers pray for their safe journey with deep devotion every time they come across the chortens.It is common to see the Bhutanese people circumambulating a chorten. Circumambulating a chorten enables a positive reincarnation and spends positive energies. Circumambulating the representation of mind of the enlightened one is a judicious means to accumulate merits.
Chortens are the eternal representations of the enlightened ones. If something remains for eternity, it would be chortens. It is a wish-fulfilling jewel of our country. It is the peerless relic, radiance of which will bestow us with peace, harmony and tranquillity.