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Chortens in Bhutan

Chortens or stupas are the most visible sites on the Bhutanese landscape. We find these religious structures on mountains, hillocks, passes, cross-roads and river banks. Often known as burial mounds, chortens are built in memories of eminent lamas, kings or to pin down evil spirits. They are also built to protect a place or a region against evil spirits which are potentially dangerous; such as crossroads and high passes as well as landslide and accident prone areas.

The term chorten literally means ‘receptacle’ of worship or offering.

The origin of the chorten is not very clear, but it had already developed into a good symbol of worship before the emergence of Buddhism.

We notice three basic styles of chortens, generally characterized as Bhutanese, Tibetan and Nepali. Chorten Kora in Trashiyangtse is an example of the Nepali style while the Memorial chorten in Thimphu is the classic Tibetan chorten. The Bhutanese chorten is a square stone pillar with a khemar or red band near the spiral, and sometimes a representation of the sun and moon by a ball and a crescent is visible on the top.

The basic architectural characteristics of most chortens are based on the five symbolic elements. The square or rectangular base symbolizes the earth; the half-spherical dome symbolizes water. Fire is represented by the conical or pyramidal spire. The 13 step-like segments present in many chortens are symbolic of the 13 steps leading to Buddha-hood. The crescent moon and the sun on top symbolize air, and a vertical spike symbolizes the sacred light of the Buddha. The life-spirit of the chorten is a carved wooden pole called the sokshing, which is placed inside the belly of the chorten.

Chortens are sometimes also built in memory of an individual, and other times to commemorate the visit of an enlightened sage, or to house sacred books and often the relics and bodies of great lamas and saints.

1. Dewa Shedpai Chorten Gyed: The most popular stupas that we see are the “Dewa shedpai chorten gyed”, the eight types of chortens associated with the eight major events in the life of the Buddha. They are:
Dewa Shedpai Chorten GyedDewa Shedpai Chorten Gyed

  • Desheg chorten: Built at the command of Buddha’s father to celebrate his birth at Lumbini.
  • Jangchub chorten: Built by the King of the region to commemorate the enlightenment of Lord Buddha at Bodh Gaya.
  • Choekhor chorten: Built by his first five disciples to commemorate the First Sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath near Varanasi.
  • Choetrul chorten: Built by the King of the region to celebrate Buddha’s victory over non-Buddhist masters at Sarvasti.
  • Lhabab chorten: Built by the King of the region to commemorate the return of Buddha from the heaven of Thirty Three Gods where he went to preach the doctrine. This day is celebrated as the Descending Day of Lord Buddha (Lhabab Duchen).
  • Yundum chorten: Built after the reconciliation by a king to celebrate Buddha’s victory at Rajagriya over his wicked cousin who had sown discord among the Sangha of monks.
  • Namgyal chorten: Built by gods to commemorate Buddha’s voluntary prolongation of his life at Vaisali.
  • Nyende chorten: Built by the people of the region to commemorate Buddha’s Maha-Parinirvana at Kusinagara.

Ja Rung Kha ShorJa Rung Kha Shor2. Ja Rung Kha shor: This is another type of chorten that we see in few pockets of Bhutan. The special feature of this massive white structure is the eyes painted a little below its pinnacle. There are good examples of this type of chorten in Chorten Kora, Kuri Zampa, Chendenbji and Boedgana.

A version of a legend has it that a certain King in Nepal had a lady birdwatcher. She wished to construct a chorten but had no land. She therefore requested the king to give her a plot of land the size of an elephant skin. After the king consented she cut the skin into thread and tied it to one another to make it long. Then she claimed the land within the area covered by the elephant skin thread. The king was surprised but had to live up to his words. On this plot of land the lady began the construction of a chorten. The lady died and the construction was completed by her three sons who were later born as Guru Rinpoche, King Thrisong Deotsen and Khenpo Bodhisattva. The chorten was named as Ja Rung Kha shor which means ‘Words lost to the Birdwatcher”.

3. Chorten Kang Nyim: It is a peculiar chorten through which one can walk. It was designed by Gyalwa Lhanangpa. He advised people to build a chorten with two legs with the interior part showing the paintings of the Buddha and that of a Mandala on the ceiling. This type of chorten is not to be circumambulated but is rather walked through to receive blessings and ward off misfortune. The Mandala depicts heaven while the two doors represent the entrance and exit points of heaven.

Mani Dang RingMani Dang Ring4. Mani Dang Ring: This is a long structure with carving of deities and prayers placed on it. Its origin is uncertain. The name of this type of chorten means “a long line of mantras”. We find Mani Dang ring along the main footpaths serving as highway passages in the past.