Dechenphug Lhakhang (13th century onward, present buildings 1340s onward)
Dechenphug Lhakhang is a fortified monastery located on the western slope of the Thimphu valley. The site straddles a natural drainage channel that runs perpendicular to two mountain ridges and is set in a vast forested area with no other nearby development. It was founded in the 12th century by Dampa, a son (or possibly, grandson) of Phajo Drugom Shigpo (1184-1251), who popularized the Drukpa school of Buddhism throughout Bhutan.
Phajo Drugom Shigpo originally hailed from Tibet. He studied the mysteries of the Drukpa school under Onre Darma Senge (1177-1237), the nephew of the eminent Tibetan master Tsangpa Gyare, at the remote monastery of Ralung in west-central Tibet. Phajo’s children were all born after he arrived in Bhutan. Their descendants became prominent members of noted Buddhist lineages, such as the Changangkha Shelgno family, who founded the Changangkha Lhakhang. One of Phajo’s other descendants, Dampa, also resided in the Thimphu valley, where he is reported to have lived for about 100 years. He founded the Dechenphug monastery at a location that had been associated since ancient times with Geynyen, a warrior deity.
Later in life, Dampa had an “illegitimate” son named Kuenzang Dorji, who subsequently served as the second abbot of Dechenphug. He, in turn, had a son named Damtrul Loden Gyalpo, who provided evidence at the age of three that he was the reincarnation of his grandfather, Dampa. According to the authors Dorji and Ura, the young abbot could not receive the full teachings of the Drukpa sect given Kuenzang Dorji’s advanced age. He instead was sent to Ralung monastery in Tibet to continue his immersion in the esoteric teachings of the Drukpa Kagyu. While there, he came under the tutelage of the 7th abbot of Ralung monastery, Kuenga Sengye (1314-47). After some years of study, they returned together to Dechenphug in 1345, where Kuenga Sengye was “enthroned” (per Sangye Dorji).
Kuenga Sengye was only to live for another two years, but in that short span he established the goenkhang, the fortified tower that still survives today as the heart of Dechenphug Lhakhang. Goenkhangs are usually built to house fierce protective deities—in this instance, the guardian spirit Geynyen, who was the tutelary deity of the Thimphu valley. Kuenga Sangay appointed him as the official protector of the Drukpa Kagyu teachings. Again according to Dorji and Ura, the placement of the tower was such that it “was built lying below the house where Dampa and Damtrul Loden Gyalpo lived and above the drubdeys [retreats for meditation]” (p. 6.) None of these ancillary buildings were built to the same standard as the fortified tower; hence, only traces of their foundations remain.
The co-option of Geynyen into the protector of the Drukpa was not a straightforward matter. Legend asserts that Kuenga Sangay had to subdue the entity and convert the god into a protector deity. According to Tsering, the spirit of Jagpa Melen (another name for Geynyen, meaning “Fire Fetching Brigand and Supreme Warlord” withdrew into a large stone known as the Thimphu, which means “Disappeared into the Stone.” It is said that when Bhutan faces its hour of greatest need, the warlord “will come back from the stone and save the country” (Tsering, p. 112). This tale is somewhat similar to the legends associated with the irreverent monk Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529), who subdued a demoness and bottled up her spirit beneath a chorten at the Chime Lhakhang temple. Another similar story is told of the Simtokha Dzong, where the first Zhabdrung Rinpoche (Ngawang Namgyal; 1594-1651) restrained a deity that was terrorizing travelers on the crucial Thimphu-Punakha highway.
In times past, a ceremony held was held in Geynyen’s honor twice a year: on the summer solstice and on the 18th day of the 8th month, attended by thirty-one monks. They were led in procession from the Tashichho Dzong by the Depai Zimpon Nangma, the king’s chamberlain. While that ritual no longer takes place, the monastery is frequented by pilgrims who wish to enlist the deity’s protection when beginning any new endeavor, or more generally, to seek Geynyen’s blessing for their newborns.
The core of the monastery is the fortified goenkhang, which may be thought of as a type of utse (fortified tower) such as those found at the heart of the country’s various dzongs. Its dimensions are roughly 19.4 meters to the top of the ridgeline and about 10 meters on each side at ground level. The goenkhang has thick, battered walls and only one entrance at its base to reduce the chance of attackers gaining entry in times of crisis. Unlike other similar monuments, the structure is painted entirely orange, with the usual red-colored khemar band near the top painted gray instead.
The goenkhang’s interior is divided into four floors. The ground-level room houses a prayer wheel that pilgrims may turn at their leisure. The 2nd floor was initially used as a lobur (meeting room) but is now used as an ad-hoc storeroom for offerings and objects of worship. The third level is a worship hall honoring various protective deities, including Mahakala (Yeshe Gongpo), the guardian deity of the Drukpas. Within this large, well-lit room, the walls are covered with numerous weapons seized from Tibetan invaders over the course of several centuries. Above this room is the highest chamber in the goenkhang, housing a shrine to the Buddha. Its walls are decorated with mural paintings instead of weapons, as the latter belong to guardian deities but are not the province of the Buddha himself. Both the third and fourth floors are illuminated by large, spacious windows called goma-rabseys (window galleries) which face south and east.
In front of the goenkhang is a small shrine that houses the actual Thimphu stone, which serves as Geynyen’s abode until he is called to return.
The Dechenphug Lhakhang was most recently restored from 1996-1998. The restoration included the construction of a two-story residence in traditional style for the resident monks, along with additional landscaping to accommodate the greater numbers of pilgrims who visit the site daily. One controversial aspect of the restoration is that it involved the demolition of the original courtyard surrounding the goenkhang. Although the demolished buildings dated from the early to mid 20th century, their placement was emblematic of the original design. The current layout allows for a much larger courtyard space in keeping with the increasing number of pilgrims visiting the monastery. It should be noted that despite the larger number of visitors, all visitors are Bhutanese citizens as foreign tourists are not permitted to set foot within this sacred site.
Section of the Goenkhang tower at Dechenphug Lhakhang
All photos copyright 2021 Asian Historical Architecture. Photographed May 2021.
Bernier, Ronald. Himalayan Architecture. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.
Blake, Laura. Bhutan’s Buddhist Architecture. San Francisco: CreateSpace, 2015.
Dorji, Sangay. Historical Profile of Dechenphu Geynyen Neykhang. Thimphu: Center for Bhutan Studies, 2003.
Gersdorff, Ralph V, and Françoise Pommaret. Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods. London: Serindia Pub, 1997.
Pichard, Pierre. “Dechenphug: Destin D’un Monastère Bhoutanais.” Arts Asiatiques, vol. 55, 2000, pp. 21–31. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43471525
Sangay Dorji, Dungchen. “A Brief Account of Hungrel Drung Drung”. In: The Spider and the Piglet: Proceedings of the First Seminar on Bhutan Studies. Centre for Bhutan Studies, Thimphu 2004, pp. 21-50 .http://crossasia-repository.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/2613/
Tsering, Dawa. Introduction to the Traditional Architecture of Bhutan. Thimphu: Department of Works, Housing and Roads, 1993.