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Buddhist practice and scholarship
There are 8 major monasteries and approximately 200 smaller monasteries and nunneries, where over 12,000 monks and 5,000 nuns in training meditate, chant, study, and work under the guidance and tutelage of ordained monks and nuns, and lay monks called gomchen.
Located in the Chokhor Valley in central Bhutan, Thangbi Lhakhang is a Buddhist monastery founded in the late 15th century. Most monasteries in Bhutan are off the beaten path, and this is no exception. It was not until 2013 that a road passable by cars reached the site. Despite its size and location, it is known throughout the country for the annual Thangbi Mani festival. Lamas perform the fire blessing ceremony. Lay-monks leap over a fire to purify themselves.
The main structure at Thangbi Lhakhang is traditional, with a central building, or chorten, housing sanctuaries, temple, study hall, and offices. Monks’ or nuns’ accommodations are arranged around an enclosed courtyard.
Along with their studies, monks and nuns in monasteries throughout Bhutan usually engage in work. The main occupation is farming. Currently at Thangbi Lhakhang, there are only a handful of lay monks in residence, and food is donated by householders in the surrounding village.
Chokhor Valley, or Bumthang Valley as it is often called locally, runs north-south through the Bumthang district in central Bhutan. A road leading up the western side of the valley connects 8 monasteries and several other sites popular with tourists.
Bhutanese Temple Architecture
Thangbi Lhakhang, like most of the dzongs (fortresses), temples, and monasteries in Bhutan, is ancient in origin and was built without formal plans. Construction, directed by a lama, made use of traditional materials—rocks, bricks, mud, and timber—and followed traditional forms.
In the 18th century, these forms were codified in the Driglam Namzha. Based on the teachings of Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan lama who is credited with unifying the state of Bhutan, the Driglam Namzha is a set of guidelines for almost all aspects of life.
The chorten, (main building) has a whitewashed brick first story topped with a timber-frame second story. The wood framing of the second story, and the small arched windows, are decreed by the state. The style of the broadly flaring roofs, with their shallow slope and deep overhang, was adopted from China. Roofs are separated from the wall below by a wide space to allow for ventilation.
Note that the smaller structures beyond the walls of the chorten, are houses and farm building belonging to villagers.
In appearance, Thangbi Lhakhang is fairly simple, but the customary Bhutanese decoration is certainly present. Take a close look at the carved pillars and cornices and the painted panels just below the roofs.
The courtyard is raised above the surrounding land and paved with flagstones. Enclosed courtyards are a common and important feature in Bhutanese architecture. They serve as meeting (and eating) places, functional spaces for work, and ceremonial spaces.
Nuns Gather for Lunch
Monks and nuns in training follow roughly the same daily schedule all across Bhutan. Morning prayer and meditation from 5 - 6 A.M., followed by lessons and work, punctuated by morning tea. After lunch, there are more lessons and study until dinner at 5:00 P.M.
Evening prayer and meditation is followed by a study period that ends with bedtime at 10:00 P.M. Weekends are for washing clothes and cleaning rooms, playing sports such as badminton or football (soccer), and soaking in hot baths.
In Bhutan, monks and nuns alike shave their heads and wear red and maroon robes and simple sandals. Along with the regular monastic course of studies, nuns may receive life skills education related specifically to women’s lives. Note: the nuns in this picture do not live at Thangbi Lhakhang, but were invited to spend the day reading sutras and participating in the daily service called puja.
Lay monks, or gomchen, do not wear monastic robes but can be identified by their red sashes. There are about 15,000 gomchen in Bhutan. Most don’t live in monastic communities, but follow a lay profession. Unlike ordained monks, many are married. Fully trained in Buddhist philosophy and practice, gomchen play an important role, bridging the religious body of the country and the people.
While rice is the main staple across Bhutan, an important crop in Bumthang District where Thangbi Lhakhang is located is buckwheat. Lunch at the monastery might be buckwheat noodles with broth and boiled or steamed vegetables.
The chorten at Thangbi Lhakhang has two sanctuaries, one on each floor. This is main temple, or gonkhang, lined with sacred statues. Rites and services are performed in all three spaces. Monks in particular are trained in ritual forms and in the prayers, chants, and songs that accompany them.
The altar is decorated with plants. Bowls sit in a line ready for offerings. Typical of Buddhist altars across schools and cultures, this altar also holds candles and incense.
On the ceiling above the altar hangs an embroidered canopy. Bhutan is known for its woven wool and silk textiles and also for its needlecrafts. Decorative embroidery like this is created by highly skilled craftspeople and employs traditional motifs that often feature flowers and plant forms.
These statues, which date from the late 15th century, represent the Buddhas of Past, Present and Future. They were sculpted in clay (jinzob) using a method unique to Bhutan. As with all sacred art in the kingdom, the forms are traditional and carefully conserved.
These scary looking sculptures represent dakinis, wrathful female deities common to Vajrayana Buddhism. In fact, they are enlightened beings who have only taken on fierce forms in order to lead others to enlightenment.
Nuns in the Main Hall
Monastic education is highly traditional and includes study of Buddhist philosophy, monastic discipline, and monastic arts such as liturgy, music, dances, sculpture, and painting. In Bhutan, the liturgy in common use is from the Vajrayana sect of Buddhism. It came to the country from India and Tibet in the 7th century. An important role of Bhutan’s monasteries is preserving and passing on these ancient texts and practices.
These nuns are engaged in studying liturgical texts presented in handwritten manuscripts. Buddhist liturgy includes chants, prayers, mantras, and sutras—verses expressing the wisdom and teachings of the Buddha—that are recited during services and rituals. It's a very large body of work, and much of it must be memorized.
In recent years, many monasteries have added modern, secular subjects—primarily mathematics and English—to the course of studies.
Puja are acts of worship such as bowing, chanting, and praying. Puja are expressions of devotion, and for many Buddhists puja are performed each day in a ritualized way. At the monastery, puja are incorporated in daily prayer services held each morning and evening. Other religious rituals occur regularly; some take place in the temple. Here, in another form of puja, lay monks are playing sacred songs.
Musical instruments include bells and cymbals, and the dungchen, or long horn. The dungchen comes from Tibet and is a ceremonial instrument usually played in pairs. It makes a deep wailing sound, often compared to the sound of elephants.
Much of the religious music of Bhutan is chanted by a monk or monks or by the entire group taking part in a service or ritual. Often the chant tells the story of the spiritual awakening and enlightenment of a saint. In some rituals, these stories, called namtar, are also enacted in dance.