On May 11th, Wangchuck, our Dzongkha teacher, led our group into Thimphu, where we hailed two more taxis in addition to Wangchuck’s car. In this way we headed northward up the valley, past the Thimphu Dzong and the royal palace in a direction that we had never been before! The valley north of Thimphu is lush and full of beautiful old pine trees. We crossed the Wang Chu, the river that flows through Thimphu, about two miles above the city and entered a compound called Pangrizampa, which operates as a monastic school for astrology.
In the 16th century Shabdrung, the unifier of Bhutan, had a dream that he flew as a black raven to the place where Pangri zampa is located and alighted upon a cypress tree. He interpreted this as a sign that he should go to Bhutan and spread Buddhism. Pangrizampa was the first place he visited when he got to Thimphu.
When we reached Pangrizampa, the most obvious feature of the monastery was the cypress tree that Shabdrung had envisioned. It was obvious that the tree had been growing for the past four centuries, because it was absolutely massive! We would estimate that the base of the tree was at least twenty feet in diameter.
Moving past the tree on the walkway into Pangrizampa we noticed that a fire had been lit using juniper branches in a censor, outside of the walls of the monastery. This symbolized that royalty was also visiting the monastery. We, however, saw no further sign of the royal family (apart from their cars). It was raining at this point, and Wangchuk lead us on a direct path through the entry gate into a big courtyard and up to the tower that served as the lhakhang for the monastery.
After climbing up the equivalent of two flights, we arrived at the temple room that served the monastery. The temple room was large and beautiful with an antechamber opposite the entrance that housed ornately carved deities. There was a statue of a mermaid, and Wangchuk explained that Pangrizampa was the name of the mermaid consort of the protective deity of Thimphu, who accompanied the deity to greet Shabdrung when he entered Bhutan. We noticed large antlers that were long and thick in a way that was unlike any that we had seen before. Wangchuk identified the antlers as belonging to some sort of reindeer. Also in the temple was a pair of carved red and blue masks that represented protective deities. We were greeted by a monk who was wielding dice. Wangchuck and Carrie tried their luck with the dice and both rolled eight, which was said to be lucky!
We left the temple room and returned back to the courtyard. Wangchuck explained that the adjacent building served as a place for the monks to learn and practice astrology. We looked around and noticed that at least a few of the monks were not in class, and were busying themselves with daily chores in the long housing that encircled the courtyard. At this point Ben realized that the rest of the group had already left in the direction of our taxi caravan, and that he and Carrie were left in the courtyard fantasizing about enrolling in the school.
Next we visited Dechenphu, the shrine for the protective deity of Thimphu. In the thirteenth century, a demon named Jagpa Melan terrorized the area around Thimphu, riding a red horse and killing people to drink their blood. A monk named Jamyang Kuenga Singye, who had been the head of the Druk Ralung Monastery in Tibet since the tender age of thirteen, came to Bhutan and subjugated Jagpa Melan. This is a running theme in Bhutanese folklore and history – evil demons can be subjugated by powerful religious leaders to turn them into forces of good. In this case, Jagpa Melan became the wrathful protective deity of Thimphu, and it was to him we were going to make offerings.
Our first stop when we arrived was at a little store at the base of the hill to buy ara and ghee (for the deity, not for ourselves), and on our way up to the temple we saw a spectacular tree: not a cypress tree like the one in front of Pangrizampa, so tall that it brushes the sky, but a tree draped with thousands of colorful knotted cords, protective necklaces, and kadas (ceremonial scarves). We’ve often received these knotted strings at temples before; they’re blessed by the monks during certain rituals, and the custom is to wear them tied around your neck for at least three days to receive the full blessing. After that, you can remove the string but you can’t throw it in the garbage or put it in a dirty place; you must dispose of it cleanly, either by burning or by leaving in nature somewhere, like in a tree. This particular tree, auspiciously located outside one of the most important temples in the Thimphu area, had apparently been chosen by the locals as a blessed string disposal site, and it’s amazing that its branches didn’t buckle from the weight of so many strands.
Outside the temple was a water spigot from a water-powered prayer wheel in the shape of a penis. Wangchuk demonstrated how we should take the water in our hand like holy water, drinking a mouthful and anointing our head with the rest. The name “Thimphu” literally means “sinking cave” (“thim” – sinking, “phu” – cave) because Jamyang Kuenga Singye subdued Jagpa Melan by forcing (sinking) him into a large rock, unable to escape unless he was called upon for help. A shrine was built around the rock, and it was this shrine which stood outside the entrance to the temple.
After he was subdued, Jagpa Melan began to help others and to make submissions to spiritual leaders such as Guru Rinpoche (who conferred the honored religious status of “Genyen” on him and chose him to be a protector of Bhutan) and Shabdrung (whom he greeted when Shabdrung first arrived in Bhutan and accompanied to Pangrizampa).
We entered the temple to be greeted by the effigy of a red horse (symbolizing the red horse of Jagpa Melan) and several steep flights of stairs. When we say steep, we mean that the steps were so tall it felt more like climbing a ladder than a staircase, and there was a very real danger of being kicked in the head by someone’s heel if you went too quickly. It was so dark that we could barely see the person in front of us, let alone the individual steps, but we resolutely tucked the liquor bottles under our arms, hiked up our kiras and ghos, and illuminated the path in front of us with our cell phone flashlights. The temple was at the very top of the building, and it housed an enormous arsenal of modern weapons. At one point, Dechenphu was actually the military armory of Thimphu. It no longer serves that purpose, but it still houses weapons as a symbolic display.
One by one, we stepped up to the head monk of the temple to offer our bottles of alcohol and ghee. Having already learned how to present kadas when we visited the trulkul — but certainly not experts in the flourishing technique with our limited time to practice — we handed the scarves to one of the monks, symbolizing the fact that we were offering the kada to the protective deity. We received holy water, and wandered around the cramped space admiring the statues, the butter lamps, the decorative fabrics, and the monks who were engaged in a ritual. Overall, it was similar to the inside of the temples we’d visited so far – with the exception of the seriously dangerous arsenal on the walls. We’ve seen Buddhist temples with modern weapons before, but this was more AK-47’s than we’d ever seen in one place.
– Catherine Perkins and Ben Kragen