“It is a small block-print, only four fingers wide and a hand length long, made of apparently blank, light colored fiber paper without writing. Only when the pages are held under water do faint red letters appear.”
During one of their visits to Bhutan, three European scientists learn about a secret biography of Thangtong Gyalpo and mention it in their book, Himalayas.The authors, Blanche C. Olschak, Augusto Gansser and Emil M. Buhrer could not access the manuscript as it was the most sacred treasure of the Tachogang monastery and closely guarded by generation of caretakers.
The early caretakers of the seat of the Thangtong Gyalpo had told the European visitors that the pechaconsisted of loose sheets of plant-fiber paper. An interesting thing about it was that not a single letter could be seen as it was written in the so-called ‘water script’ which only becomes visible when the paper is immersed in water.
Few years ago, we stumbled over the secret biography. The manuscript is four fingers wide and about 12 inches in length but has letters on it. The 494folio manuscript is handwritten and not block print. Considered a treasure it was closely guarded and kept away from the public for many years. The manuscript contains information on leprosy prevalent at that time. The site where Dumtseg Lhakhang was built was then known as chu pharkay, or on the other side of the river. The biography states that lepers were kept in the area. Back in the days, lepers were driven to the mountains and also seemingly to “islands.” The manuscript mentions that the scribe of the biography was Khor Darsang and he wrote it based on Aku Lam’s dictation.
In 1984, the National Library of Bhutan published one of the biographies. Cyrus Stearns, author of “King of the Empty Plains,” the biography of Thangtong Gyalpo believes that the National Library publication could be hand-copied from the manuscript or another that is identical.
Drupthob Thangtong Gyalpo first came to Bhutan in 1433 to look for iron ore deposits and to propagate his teachings. Back then, Bhutan was known as Lho-kha Shi or the “Land of the Four Approaches in the South.” Revered as a Mahasiddha, the saint entered Paro after crossing Ralung and the Tibetan frontier town of Phari.
The great adept was born in Tibet and the year of birth cited are 1361 and 1385. The Mahasidha’s father was Dorje Gyaltshen and his mother was Jagar Lhamo.
In his youth, the Mahasidha bought musk oil from trading centers in southern Tibet and exported it to India. Later, the adept took his religious vows from Choje Nyima Sengge and was given the name Tsondru Zangpo. Soon he became proficient in his studies as a disciple of Choje Samdrup Gyaltshen and others. While receiving the teachings of Nigu Chodrug and Gonpo Chagdrugpa from Drupchen Zangpo Pelwa, he had a vision in which the deities advised him to always devote his time to the Dharma and said that they would always accompany him like the shadow of his own body.
Tsondru Zangpo is considered the Leonardo da Vinci of the Himalayas. Like the Italian renaissance polymath, he had a wide range of interests, including writing, painting, composing operas, bronze sculpting, civil engineering, architecture, medicine and blacksmith. Also known for revealing treasures, the Renaissance man has a strong presence in Bhutan and is reverently known as Drubchen Chagzampa Thangtong Gyalpo, or “the Great Iron Bridge Builder.”
Drubchen Chagzampa is also regarded as the united incarnation of the Indian Mahasiddha Kukkuripa and Kunkhyen Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltshen (1292–1361). The Drupchen has been immortalized as an emanation of Guru Padmasambhava in the united form of Chenrezig and his wrathful form Tandrin. In addition he is considered one of the three great Drupthobs.
In the Western World, the Drupthob is popularly known as “The King of the Empty Plains.” The King is considered to have mastered the highest Vajrayana teachings, and to have cultivated longevity through practices that others can also attain through dedicated supplications and prayers.
In addition to being one of the most well-travelled Tibetans of his era, the great adept earned a wide range of nick names. He was popularly known as Crazy Tsondru, Chakzampa, Lungtong Nyonpa and the Madman of the Empty Valley.
Drubchen Chagzampa’s death was kept a secret. Fixing a date has posed problem. There are many theories. One such theory says that he lived for 124 years; from 1361 to 1485. Another theory says that he was born in 1385 and died in 1464 at the age of 78. There are also legends claiming he lived 60 years in his mother’s womb before he was born.
Inspired by the scholarship of the late E. Gene Smith (1936-2010), Tashi Tsering conducted an extensive study on the adept’s lifespan. In his article, “On the Dates of Thang stong rgyal po”, the Tibetologist narrows the date of birth as 1385 and the date of death as either 1446 or 1458.
Going by Tsering’s dates and assuming that Thangtong Gyalpo’s first trip to Bhutan was in 1433, he would have been 48 years old. If we use 1361 as his year of birth then he would have been 72 years old: perhaps too old and frail to negotiate his way through the high mountains and tough terrain to Bhutan.
Thangtong Gyalpois usually portrayed as an old man with a paunch, and with brown or red skin colour and bulging eyes. He wears his hair highly bound up in a big knot, like many of the Mahasiddhas.
Chagzampa is shown sitting in the lotus position on a double-lotus throne. He wears a white cotton garment and a red cloak, meditation belt, chain, earrings and arm band with flaming jewels. In his left hand he holds a skull-cup with a long life vase in it with a yellow liquid overflowing it. His right hand touches the earth and lies on top of his knees along with a five-linked piece of chain. In some bronzes, he is shown holding a potent medicinal pill along with the longevity vase, but in all his depictions there is majestic radiance.
The Great Iron Bridge Builder, visited Bhutan at least three times: in 1433, 1437 and then later, in 1445. All the three trips were successful. He built at least five structures in Bhutan and took back to Tibet large number of iron chains forged in Bhutan.
Drubchen Chagzampa is venerated as wonder working saint and gained immortality as the builder of iron-chain bridges. His incarnation legacy in Bhutan continues unbroken to this day. Since his death there have been at least 17 Chagzampa Trulkus. The master’s legend continues through the Ache Lhamo opera, long life blessings and the unique architecture. The renaissance man is not only a historical figure but due to his outstanding achievements in multiple fields is often given a mythical status and considered the Leonardo da Vinci of the Himalayas.
Contributed by Tshering Tashi