The sacred national treasure, Tashigomang is largely indigenous to Bhutan. It stands out as one of the symbols of the country’s national heritage. The three dimensional miniature portable temples represent the genius of Bhutanese craftsmanship. The craft epitomises the Zorig Chusum or the ancient 13 traditional arts and crafts of the Himalayan kingdom.
In the past, the Central Monastic Body selected strong but talented quasi monks commonly known as Lam Manips to look after these national heritages. According to a recent survey conducted by the Thangka Conservation Centre, there are 34 Tashigomangs in the country. However, only two are actively used. The rest are either sealed or remain locked up in temples for most of the year.
Similarly, from the scores of the Lam Manips that were once widely visible, today there are only two professionals left. Both of them are old and frail. Kinley (born 1932) is 84 years old and his colleague Kunza Tenzi (born 1944) is 72 years old. This facet of our rich intangible cultural heritage is facing the grave threat of being wiped out not only from the sacred cultural landscape of Bhutan but also from the face of the planet.
The Tashigomang is one of eight types of choetens or stupas. The three popular ones in Tibet connected to the Drukpa school of Buddhism are the 15th century Gyantse Kumbum, Kumbum stupa of Ralung which no longer exists and the 12th century choeten in Densatil monastery.
It will be interesting to note that the fourth Desi, Gyalsey Tenzin Rabgye (1638-1696) tried to build a replica of the great Kumbum of Gyantse near Punakha Dzong. Credited for formalising the Zorig Chusum, it is said that the Desi sent some Nyingmapa agents to Tibet in 1691 in order to prepare sketches and measurements. However, he could not start the grandiose project. The idea of miniaturising the Tashigomang choeten and making it mobile now only exists in Bhutan.
The idea of mobile shrines, miniature altars and travelling monks exists in other cultures and countries. For example, in Ladakh and Tibet, similar quasi-monks but known as Manips walk from village to village. The only difference is that instead of Tashigomangs they carry thangkas or painted scrolls and explain the images to the devotees.
Similarly in the desert of Rajasthan, the Kaavadiya Bhat or story-tellers walk the expanse singing devotional hymns while displaying their portable altars. The Kaavad of Rajasthan bears the closest resemblance to the Tashigomangs of Bhutan. Few miniature shrines exist in Bhutan. The most sacred one was built by Kuenga Gyeltshen (1874-1940) also known as Tsham Go Seb and is kept in his altar at Kuengacholing monastery in Paro.
Like most traditions based on the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism, the tradition of Tashigomang is also based on ‘whisper’ (snyan) transmission. There have been some papers written on the subject but two were written as catalogues for exhibitions held outside the country. In October, the Royal Textile Academy will publish the most detailed one.
Tashigomang literally means auspicious multiple doors. The salient feature of the box of prayers is the multiple doors. The Lam Manips open each door with the recital of the mani. Each door is richly decorated with carvings and holds a surprise behind it. Some of the intricate ones have as many as 108 doors. Depending on the style of the craft each side will have many miniature doors. Behind each door there is a miniature clay tsa tsa or moulded image of a Buddhist figure fixed against the back panel. It is said that the multiple doors signify that the teachings of the Buddha will spread far and wide.
While detailed study is still underway, preliminary study suggests that the structures are generally built in the mandala style. Irrespective of the type, all of them are multi-tiered and have a lotus on the top with a miniature statue of Guru in the middle of the flower.
Most have four distinct and projected sides with a compartment in the centre. The main structure is almost always built out of wood, cypress being the preferred choice. Like in traditional architecture, no nails can be found. Master carpenters build the frame without any blueprints, architectural or structural drawings. The portable temple epitomises the 13 traditional arts and crafts of the country. Out of the seven religious arts and crafts, it involves five. It involves four of the six secular crafts.
Each structure comes with a wooden box that is multi-functional. The box not only protects the structure but also makes it portable. On top of the box there is a short metal rod fixed to a wooden base. The Tashigomang is fitted onto this and the box is used as an altar table. The miniature temples weighs upwards of 20kgs.
When the Manip packs up the Tashigomang after use, he spins it round on this base while wrapping it in layers of silk and woven cloth and then securing it tightly with many woven belts.
The Tashigomang is considered sacred. The local populace believe that each contains images and statues equivalent to those of one hundred temples. For example, the Tashigomang of Simphu Goenpa is believed to contain all the statues that are in the 25 lhakhangs of the Trongsa Dzong. The mobile temples are scaled down versions of the grand choetens with miniature Buddhist statues and frescos. It gives comprehensive but interesting views of the development of Buddhism. For example, miniature statues of the 16 Arahts are also commonly found. Statues of the seventh century Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo with his Chinese and Nepali wives are also often stuck to the walls of the doors of the Tashigomang.
The Tashigomang of the Lami Goenpa palace has some unique statues and is like a goenkhang. For example, the two principal statues are of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel and Palden Lhamo. In another one, there is a statue of the famous Tibetan siddha Thangthong Gyalpo (1385-1464), Also known as the “Leonardo da Vinci” of the Himalayas, he is depicted holding a vase in his hand but without the customary iron-link chain. This is a bit unusual as all of his other images in Bhutan show him with the chain.
In addition to the miniature statues, there are frescos of various Buddhist masters painted on the wall of the main panel of the doors. The common ones are of the Drukpa Kagyu masters such as Tilopa (988-1069), Naropa (1016-1041), and Milarepa (1040-1123). Frescos of the four guardians of the universe rgyal chen sde bzhi who guard the four cardinal directions are often depicted.
The only reference to the Tashigomang in the biography of Zhabdrung is: “On the third night he was in the heavenly abode of Zando Pelri, there he visualised all the designs of the Tashi Gomang.” However, there are several oral accounts, but most of these are re-tellings and shrouded more in mythology. But all oral accounts credit Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651) as its creator. As Zhabdrung was the 18th abbot of Ralung, the oral story suggests that the Tashigomang could have been fashioned after the one in Ralung. While the Lam Manips are well versed with the origin, they cannot pin a date to the construction of the Tashigomangs. Yoshiro Imaeda stated in his 1982 exhibition brochure, Tashi Gomang of Bhutan that the Tashigomang was introduced in Bhutan sometime around 1637.
With only two old professional Lam Manips left in the country, Bhutan faces the risk of losing altogether this element of a rich intangible cultural heritage. Fortunately, efforts are underway to save the 379-year-old tradition. A “Tashigomang Project” has been started under the patronage of Her Majesty the Royal Grand Mother Kesang Choden Wangchuck. Bhutanologist Dr Thierry Mathou has taken the imitative and is working in close collaboration with the government. The primary goal of the project is to preserve, revive and promote the tradition.
Proceeds from the sale of the book “The Bodhisattva King,” which was published under Her Majesty’s patronage has been used to create a Trust Fund. Last month, the project with the help of Lam Manip Kuenza started the training of gomchens from Simphu Goenpa in Central Bhutan as the new Lam Manips. Monk restorers from the Thangka Conservation and Restoration Centre will start the restoration works on the Tashigomangs.
Last year, the government with the blessing of His Majesty commissioned a new Tashigomang. This was presented to His Majesty The Fourth King on his 60th birth anniversary.
In October, for the first time in our history, the Royal Textile Academy with collaboration with the Central Monastic Body will exhibit most of these priceless portable temples.