Bhutan is the last Himalayan Buddhist nation. We have over 2,000 monasteries filled with national treasures. These treasure troves make up a large part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage so each of them is not only unique but of great importance to the nation.

One such treasure trove is Simtokha Dzong which has countless historical stories on its origin and its artifacts. Of course, some stories are more prevalent than others but each one is important to the history and culture of our country.

Sometimes, these stories are hidden in plain sight as this one was. During a visit to the ancient dzong, I stumbled across some unusual statues on display in the altar of the temple. Being curious about the bronze statues, I asked some questions to the caretaker and learnt a little more about the statues. As I became more intrigued by the statues, I also did some background research and found out more about the statues as well as the history of Bhutan.

The caretaker said that the two bronze statues had disappeared from Simtokha Dzong in 1968. These sacred statues were extremely valuable not just because of their cultural importance but also because of their monetary value. For example, in 2017, a bronze statue of Desi Tenzin Rabgye (1638/1696) that disappeared from Bhutan was auctioned in Sotheby’s in New York for 300,000 USD.

I learnt that the two bronze statues that disappeared from the Dzong were from a set of Guru Tshengay (Eight Manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava). After the mysterious disappearance, the other six statues were sealed and kept in goenkhang or in the inner temple of the Guardian Deity. Surprisingly, many people are not aware of the existence or the story of the missing statues despite their rich history.

In 1616, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1595-1651) helped unify Bhutan and build multiple dzongs in the country. He built his first dzong (Battle Fortress) in 1629. The name of the Dzong is Simtokha. Sim meaning demoness and tokha meaning on top. It got this name because it was believed that there was a demoness that stayed under a nearby rock.

Simtokha Dzong was attacked two times. The first was by the “five lams,” working with a Tibetan army. Fortunately, Zhabdrung came up with a cunning plan to win against them. The second time was in 1630 when they actually succeeded. Unfortunately for them, a lot of their people died when part of the dzong caught on fire and the roof collapsed. The first renovation of the dzong was finished in 1670 by Minjur Tempa, the third Druk Desi.

Zhabdrung had a distant cousin named Tsewang Tenzin. Tsewang Tenzin helped Zhabdrung unify the Drukpa Kagyu School in the West by giving him power over the Tango site overlooking  Thimphu Valley.

Tango monastery was built by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo who Tsewang Tenzin is said to be the reincarnation of. Later, Zhabdrung offered his first wife to Tsewang Tenzin. Together, they had three children; Tenzin Rabgye (1638-1696), Drubtob Jinpa Gyeltsen, and Jetsun Tenzin.

As Zhabdrung’s son was not well, he trained Tenzin Rabgye to be the Druk Desi (temporal ruler). In 1680, he became the fourth Druk Desi. The ceremony was held in Punakha where he got the title Gyaltsab (Regent) of the Zhabdrung. This gave him both religious and political power.

Desi Tenzin Rabgye carried out Zhabdrung’s vision for a unified sovereign nation. He introduced festivals such as Tshechu by sending one of his subordinates to Tibet in 1688 so that the subordinate could witness the festivals and report back to him. In his lifetime he had no son to carry out his lineage since all of them died at infancy. He only had a daughter who became a nun and took over Tango monastery.


Guru Tshengay

It is believed that before his death, he made the set of Guru Tshengay statues (Eight manifestations of Guru) and brought them to Simtokha Dzong. Some people believe that the Guru Tshengay are  not the different forms of Guru but a demonstration of his ability to appear according to people’s different needs and show a person’s nature of mind.

The bronze statues in Simtokha Dzong were all at least eight inches tall. These bronze statues are important to Bhutan because of the history of the person who created them. Desi Tenzin Rabgye not only helped govern Bhutan but also founded the 16 dakini dances and codified the 13 traditional arts and crafts (Zorig Chusum) which Bhutan is known for.

The statues are also a cultural heritage of the nation and many people don’t look at artifacts as just objects but as embodiments of higher sentient beings.

The name of these statues are:

Guru Tsokye Dorje (Birth)

Guru Shakya Senge (Ordination)

Guru Nyima Ozer (Subjugator of demonic spirits)

Guru Padmasambhava (Establisher of Buddhism in The Himalayas)

Guru Loden Chokse (Master of the Teachings)

Guru Pema Gyalpo (Kingship)

Guru Senge Dradrok (Subjugator of non-buddhism)

Guru Dorje Drolo (Concealer of Terma)

The statues that disappeared from Simtokha Dzong in 1968 were Guru Shakya Senge and Guru Nyima Ozer. Unfortunately, the caretaker did not know how the statues disappeared since there were no cameras in the dzong in 1968. It was after the statues went missing that the government immediately sealed the rest of the six statues in the goenkhang. They were kept there for 50 years until the two missing statues were found.

In 2018, the wife of an art collector kindly offered the two missing statues in memory of her husband. Since then, the complete set has been on public display.

I am yet to unravel the complete story of how the statues disappeared and reappeared but I am grateful to the ones who contributed in finding the sacred  statues and to the donor for returning them. These national treasures are of great cultural and historical importance and should be treated with the respect they deserve. Many stories such as these are just waiting to be discovered and told. We just need to be observant enough to look at the right places and curious enough to ask the right questions.


Contributed by

Dupthob Jampa Goenpo Wangdi