A national cultural heritage fades into disrepair

 The iron links are stolen to be made into amulets, rings and phurpas.

The iron links are stolen to be made into amulets, rings and phurpas.

Phub Dem | Paro

The only iron chain bridge in the country, a national cultural heritage symbol on the popular Thimphu-Paro highway, is covered in thick undergrowth and rusting from lack of maintenance or disuse.

It has remained shut to the public for more than five years for its safety but every year, it loses a part of it to frequent thefts.

The iron chain bridge built by Thangthong Gyalpo, revered as Drupthob Chagzampa or the ‘Great Iron Bridge Builder’ connects Tachog Lhakhang to the highway.  The important historical site was restored with iron chains from across the country.

The descendants of the Tachog family, who look after lhakhang, reported seven cases of theft, stealing the iron chain links, from the bridge, but most of the time the culprits were never found.

Kencho Tshering, a member of the family, said that the cables holding the bridge had come apart and a meter long chain-link was also missing from the middle of the bridge.

A man was arrested two times, the latest in January this year, for cutting the chains. The case is still in Paro court.

Sources said that the iron pieces are cast into smaller phurpas (ritual dagger) and sold in the black market for as high as Nu 50,000 a piece. They attribute the repeated theft of the chain links of the bridge to the high demand for the phurpas as people consider them sacred.

Locals believe that if a religious item has been stolen the thief suffers nightmares and even fall ill until the item is returned to the place.

  A small iron phurpa has been placed behind the choeten above the bridge.

According to the dzongkhag, as of April, there were three incidences of theft.

For instance, on March 26 this year, one and a half meter chain link was stolen. Kuensel found that as early as 2013, there were two theft incidences.

According to Pema Tshering, a caretaker of Tachog Lhakhang, the popularity of the sacred iron chains could have attracted people to steal it. “I don’t know what they do with these irons.”

Although it was difficult to look after the bridge apart from their daily chores and work at the temple, he said that the family often do rounds along the bridge when some vehicles halt near the bridge.

He said that he spent a month in a cave above the temple to look after the bridge after an iron chain was stolen. “We never found the thief.”

Although the historical site is a blessing for every passerby and visitors, if the chain-links keep on missing, locals suggested to lift the iron chains and send to its place of origin.

“If the reconstruction doesn’t start at the earliest, there should be someone to guard the chain links or else we are going to lose all the chains.”

Local leaders said that authorities were informed about the issue.

Concerned with the deteriorating state of the bridge, Paro dzongkhag administration wrote to the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) and the Department of Culture (DOC) to explore an alternative to safeguard the historical iron chains.

Paro Dzongdag Tenzin Thinley said that the dzongkhag administration also suggested lifting the iron chains and placing them in the National Museum of Bhutan, which would help safeguard and preserve the iron chains.

The dzongkhag also proposed TCB to fund Nu 1.3 million to replace the bridge if the iron chains make it place to the museum.

However, Tenzin Thinley said that after consultation with the DOC, lifting of the iron chains was not found appropriate as the bridge holds significant historical significance.

Although there was no plan of reconstruction, he said that the structure has to be conserved.

Observers said that installing CCTV cameras and floodlights could ensure the safety of the bridge.

The significance of the bridge

The bridge was rebuilt using the iron chains belonging to the famous yogi from around the country after the original bridge was washed away in 1968.

In February 2004, a 23-feet long iron link chain recovered by project DANTAK from the Pachhu. The important relic was recovered on the command of Her Majesty The Queen Mother, who commanded to restore the relic to its rightful importance.

The link chain used to suspend the Chhaze zam, about three kilometers from Chuzom to Paro and connecting the three villages of Tencheykha, Chippu, and Bja Toed to Paro and Thimphu laid submerged in the Pachu for more than three decades after the 1968 flood ripped the bridge apart.

According to oral history, drupthob Chagzampa built the bridge using supernatural power about five hundred years ago, (Chagzampa came to Bhutan in 1433).

On his visit to Wang Dhalukha in Thimphu, Chagzampa found the village rich in iron ore and asked for iron when the villagers offered him presents after a ritual. Chagzampa asked for iron instead to build the bridge.

The people of Wang offered all the iron thinking that he would be in no position to transport it to Paro. Chagzampa threw the iron into the sky and it landed in Chagse, a small flat plot above the lhakhang. “He used his leg as an anvil and cast the iron into link chains to built two bridges, one to connect the lhakhang and the other to connect the three villages in one day,” he said.

In his lifetime, the adept is said to have built at least 50 bridges in Tibet and about 10 in Bhutan.  The 10 chazams in Bhutan are in Tachog, Doksum, Dangme, Khoma, Trashigang, Chaze, Changchi, Wangdi, Chuzom and in Chukha.

 With Tshering Palden

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