Tashi Gomang

The Tashi Gomang (བཀྲ་ཤིས་སྒོ་མང་) is a miniature temple and a three dimensional portable shrine, which travelling priests carried around the country for people to see. Tashi Gomang, which literally means one with many auspicious doors, perhaps first referred to the third type of stūpa out of the eight stūpas associated with the life of the Buddha. The third stūpa commemorates the Buddha’s teachings, which are presented as myriad auspicious doors leading to enlightenment. Many Tashi Gomang chorten structures and large temples built in the shape of Tashi Gomang such as the Gyantse Kubum are found across the Buddhist Himalayas.

The Tashi Gomang miniature shrines which are popular in Bhutan, however, are different from the general Tashi Gomang chortens. The miniature shrines known in Bhutan as Tashi Gomang are both special portable shrines and examples of outstanding engineering and architectural feat. The structures which are roughly 2-3 feet tall and 1.5 feet wide can contain as many as 108 compartments containing miniature Buddha statues some of which also open using smart hydraulic pressure or lever. They are commissioned by holy saints and built by highly talented carpenter, silver smiths and sculptors. There are accounts of how Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of Bhutan, commissioned one to be built by the famous carpenter Zowo Balingpa from Punakha, to be kept in Punakha dzong. The original may have been lost to the successive fires of Punakha and the Tashi Gomang which is preserved today is perhaps the one commissioned later by Zhabdrung Jigme Drakpa in the 19th century.

The culture of miniaturized portable shrines were known in many parts of the world and it is still alive in some countries. Contrary to some claims that Tashi Gomang is unique to Bhutan, there were practices of travelling monks carrying portable Tashi Gomang shrines in Tibet and other parts of the Buddhist Himalayas. Bhutan certainly had a vibrant tradition of making Tashi Gomang shrines and of religious bards carrying them from place to place to meet devotees. Most Bhutanese Tashi Gomang shrines depicted the Zangdog Pelri (ཟངས་མདོག་དཔལ་རི་) or Copper Coloured  Mountain, the realm of Padmasambhava. Some are said to be depictions of Sukhāvatī (བདེ་བ་ཅན་), the realm of Amitabha, Potala (རི་བོ་གྲུ་འཛིན་), the realm of Avalokiteśvara, and Abhirati (མངོན་པར་དགའ་བ་), the realm of Vajrasattva or Akśobhya. However, the distinction is mainly one of the placement of images and figures than the actual architecture of the Tashi Gomang.

The popularity of the Tashi Gomang shrine in the past was perhaps due to the absence of proper temples in many remote parts of Bhutan. The portable temples were brought to the people for viewing so that people got an opportunity to show their devotion, and worship the shrine. Moreover, travelling religious bards who carried the shrine in a box and exhibited it were also exempted from labour tax and earned a decent living from the rounds they did with the Tashi Gomang. They would sing mantras in long melodious tunes interspersed with hymns and praises of the Buddhas while gradually unfolding the shrine. As the most common mantra they chant is the maṇi mantra of Avalokiteśvara, they are also commonly known as manip (མ་ཎི་) or the persons chanting maṇi.

The manips were either gomchen (སྒོམ་ཆེན་) priests or monks. Sometimes, the job was passed down through family line but one did not need much training to take up the role. They got help from the villagers as part of the labour tax to carry it from village to village. The manips often exhibited the Tashi Gomang during religious festivals when there are large gatherings. When they travel from village to village, they would base themselves in the house of the administrative coordinator and then blow a conch to herald their arrival. Families in the villages would flock to the house where the Tashi Gomang is exhibited for viewing and worship, and make offerings of grains, textiles and cash. The people made prayers and offerings for the welfare of the living or as a part of the funerary rite for the dead. The manips, dressed in red robes and ceremonial boots, would open the box and gradually reveal the many layers of shrines and images while singing the mantras, with left hand placed near the left ear as gesture of singing moving hymns and the right one turning a prayer wheel.

The Tashi Gomang shrines were owned by important temples and family establishments. They are either taken by their members or hired to a manip to be taken on tours and a bulk of what the manips receive as a offering is brought as income for the temple. There is said to be some 30-40  Tashi Gomangs in Bhutan but the exact figure is unknown. From the dozens of manips, there are only a few surviving manips and the culture of both creating and exhibiting Tashi Gomang has nearly stopped.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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