Here is a short history of 3 structures built in the early 20th century under the patronage of the local chief, Dzongpon Kunzang Thinley. Two of these structures were built in the courtyard of the Tashichhodzong, and one in its proximity. While one of them has been demolished, two are still standing.
The first structure is the Guru Lhakhang, commonly known as Lhakhang Sarp or the new monastery.
“…a very new magnificent Gompa, which has been lately erected by the Thimphu Jongpon, the real, ‘Lord of the Castle.’ ” Captain Henry Hyslop wrote in his diary, written while accompanying the British Mission to Bhutan 1907 – 1908.
This record of the British officer is the only known written source of the monastery.
The Captain, who travelled with his father-in-law John Claude White in 1907, describes the Lhakhang Sarp in detail, and records that, at his time of travel to Thimphu, the construction had just been completed.
In his diary, the Captain noted that the monastery stood out from the other monasteries in the Dzong. He was stunned by the energy, and amazed by the amount of resources that a structure like that would require. Hyslop was also awed by the contents of the monastery, and made special mention of the central statue. He estimated the height of the statue of the sitting Guru Rinpoche, which he mistook for Buddha, to be about 20 feet. He describes the altar room and its surroundings, “The image itself is well executed and is richly studded with precious stones and turquoise. On either sides are attendant female figures; while in double rows on each side are more than life-sized figures of other Bhutanese Gods. Richly embroidered flags of other brocaded scrolls are hung about, while the walls are covered with the usual paintings. In front of the central figure is the altar, with its butter lamps and various shaped vases and bowls and its ubiquitous elephant tusks.” The monastery gets its name from the Guru gild.
The second structure built inside the Tashichhodzong by the Dzongpon is no longer standing. The structure was known as the Maja Chorten or the Peacock stupa. The only evidence of it is a photo by John Claude White taken in 1905. This record indicates that it was built before the Guru Lhakhang.
The stupa contained a mani dungkhor or a prayer wheel, which were removed when the Chorten was itself demolished during the reconstruction of the Dzong in the 1960s. It is possible that the prayer wheel was installed in the third structure the Hejo Dungkhor Chorten built in the vicinity of the Dzong.
The salient feature of this landmark is that, while the facade is that of the Chorten, it has certain features of a Lhakhang. For example, Chortens do not have rooms inside. But the Hejo Chorten has a room with murals on the wall like that of a Lhakhang. But unlike a Lhakhang it has a prayer wheel installed inside the room.
The Dungkhor Chorten in Hejo
According to Ugyen Wangdi, a descendant of the Dzongpon, “all three structures have two layers of slate carving and are unique.” The cornices have intricate designs. This style is also the salient feature of the Gangtay Goenpa Monastery.
Ugyen Wangdi surmises that because the Dzongpon’s son was the Gangtay Trulku and lived in the monastery, it is possible carpenters from that region were employed and influenced these three structures.
Another architectural feature the Guru Lakhang shares with the Gangtay monastery is that it also has wooden carvings of animals and humans under the rabsal, which gives the impression that they are supporting the two floors of the monastery. The new Gangtay monastery still has carvings of humans below the windows.
Studying the genealogy of the patron of these sacred structures, it is apparent that the zopon was from Gangtay and had strong influence on its architecture. Like most of the architectural heritage, none of the carpenters have been acknowledged.
Bhutan today has 29 Dzongs, 2,000 Lhakhangs and Goenpas and more than 10,000 Chortens.
Tshering Tashi is the co-author of “Bold Bhutan Beckons”.