Pema Lingpa’s stamping grounds

Bumthang district is associated with the founding stories of the Bhutanese state and religion. The first kings arose around the Trongsa region, and defeated the Tibetan kings in the White Bird’s Castle. Padmasambhava is said to have come to mKurje Lhakhang to meditate, and left many treasures which are said to have been found later by Pema Lingpa.

View of Kurje Lhakhang, Tang, Bhutan

We arrived at the massive complex of Kurje Lhakhang late in the day. In the photo above you can see this complex, and in the background you have a view of the nearby Jambey Lhakhang. The two massive buildings you see on the right were built in the 20th century CE. The older, low, building on the left is called Guru Lhakhang, and dates from 1652. Apparently the local king, called Sindhu Raja, called Padmasambhava to help him when he fell ill. On arriving, the Guru meditated inside a cave (now inside the Guru Lhakhang), and realized that the illness was due to a local demon. An imprint of the Guru’s body is said to be found on the stone of the cave. A carving of a Garuda fighting a white lion in the building is said to depict the story of the Guru subduing the deity. The king recovered, converted to Buddhism, and the deity is now supposed to guard the religion. Unfortunately the building was closed when we arrived.

Mist in the Tang valley from Kurje Lhakhang, Bhutan

We had a lovely view of the surrounding valley from the Lhakhang. It was evening and mist was settling into the valley. There were occasional gusts of rain. We walked around the complex and met a young monk who could speak Hindi well. He told us the story of the place. He told us that we could walk either to Jambey Lhakhang or to Tazhing Lhakhang. We’d not read about Tazhing Lhakhang. When he realized this, he told us a little about the place, and about Pema Lingpa.

The Bhutanese name Pema is a cognate of the
Sanskrit word Padma, meaning lotus. Men and
women can have this name.

Pema Lingpa is one of the biggest names in Bhutanese Buddhism, next only to Padmasambhava, who brought Buddha’s teachings to the Himalayas. He was born in the Tang valley of today’s Bumthang district in the year 1450 CE. I learnt that he practised as a blacksmith till he was in his mid-twenties, and then turned to discovering religious scriptures. He is now known as a terton, a treasure hunter, because of such discoveries. Numerous sites in Bumthang district are connected to him. We’d already visited the Mebar Tsho the day before.

View of Tamzhing Lhakhang, Bhutan

Tamzhing Lhakhang was built between 1501 and 1505 CE at the behest of Pema Lingpa, who lived and taught there until his death in 1520. Following the monk’s advice, we crossed the river and walked to this Lhakhang. This was also closed, and we did not see the paintings which are now, a decade later, apparently in dire need of restoration. Our two days in Bumthang resulted in three hits and four misses. I thought that was not very good. But The Family looked at our bird list and declared that it more than made up for the art work that we missed. Not so bad, I guess. This gives us a reason to go back.

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The Burning Lake and other Stories

The day we visited the enigmatic village in Ura, we collected a few local stories. One of them was of Mebar Tsho, a name which translates as Burning Lake.View of Mebar Tsho, Bhutan From the name I imagined something quite different from what it is: a widening in the river Tang, as you can see in the photo here.

Dinesh knew that there were caves around here, and took us off the highway at the correct place. The last bit is a little climb. One thing I like about Himalayan Buddhism is that you have to walk to these holy places, so they retain their air of calm and peace. We were the only people at the “lake”.

The road led up, and we followed. It was an easy climb, but soon we had a lovely view down into the gorge which the Tang Chhu had cut for itself. View of Tang Chhu ner Mebar Tsho, Bhutan We reached a little clearing at the end of the road, where there was a cave. This was full of offerings left by visitors, which you can see in the featured photo.

The story of this place is famous in Bhutan. In the 15th century the holy man Pema Lingpa dreamt of hidden treasures in the lake, as Padmasambhava had prophesied before. The Tang king did not believe this. So Pema Lingpa took a burning lamp in his hand and dived into the dark water. He searched the waters with his lamp, and emerged holding a scroll and a chest of treasure, with the lamp still burning. Pema Lingpa is known as a terton, loosely translated as a treasure finder.Prayer flags at Mebar Tsho, Bhutan He is believed to be a reincarnation of Padmasambhava.

The “lake” was festooned with colourful prayer flags. I’ve talked about this before. They are made of flimsy cloth and have prayers and other holy writing on them. There is a magical belief that as the flags fray and disappear in the rain and wind, the prayers and good wishes are released into the flowing water and wind and are carried into the land. The belief is enough to keep Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness high.

View of Ura valley, Bhutan

The other story from this region was something we heard from the women who gave us lunch in Ura. The Ura temple dance, Yakchoe, carries a little relic around the valley. It is not owned by the Dzong, but by a family there. Once an old woman was at home when a beggar came asking for water. She asked him to sit and went into her house to fetch water. When she came back, the man was gone, and there was a little sack left in his place. She opened the sack and found a little figurine of a yak. This holy relic is the centerpiece of the temple dance.

Memories of a far valley

It is now exactly the middle of April. The heat and humidity is killing. I began to search the web for Bhutan where we took refuge from the heat of Mumbai in two successive years almost a decade ago. Flipping through photos of monasteries in remote valleys I came to a stop at photos which looked familiar, yet not.

The name rang a bell: Phobjika valley. In May 2008, six of us had driven away from the tourist triangle of west Bhutan towards the east and north. One afternoon we took a detour into the Phobjika valley. I’d read about black-necked cranes wintering here, and a goemba worth visiting. We spent a wonderful day there and drove back the next day.

I was on the lookout for the Gangtey Goemba. Pema Lingpa, the historical monk who is almost as famous in Bhutan as the founder of Bhutanese Buddhism, Padmasambhava, is said to have predicted this monastery. His son caused the goemba to be built in 1618. The main gate of the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanIn fact, the head of this monastery is supposed to be a reincarnation of Pema Lingpa; the current one is the ninth.

One of our travelling companions was not very keen on "wasting time" on monasteries. So, when I asked our driver to turn the car off the main road towards the Goemba, I was hoping for it to be spectacular enough to captivate everyone. Unfortunately, it was not. The main gate (which you see in the photo above) looked beautiful but badly in need of repairs.

The inside was no better. External details on the Gangtey Goempa, Phobjika valley, BhutanThe three-story high central hall was being refurbished. I next saw a similar high atrium (featured photo) in a monastery many years later in Tawang. This kind of construction is not very common. However, the general air of devastation dampened our spirits. The Family can tell very easily when I’m down in the dumps, and she pointed out some beautiful details on the unpainted external walls (photo here). But it was clear that something was very wrong.

The mystery remained with me for years. Why would one of the major Gompas of Bhutan be in such disrepair. Nine years later I am reassured by what I just read: "Much of the interior and exterior woodwork of the 450-year-old goemba was replaced between 2001 and 2008 due to a beetle-larvae infestation." Now I must go back there to see what the place looks like after it has been redone.