Zilukha Lhakhang - Gem of a Sacred Temple in Thimphu

by Dorji Wangchuk (PhD), The Buddhist Channel, 31 May 2023

Thimphu, Bhutan -- Bhutan is a land filled with temples, known as lhakhangs, and monasteries (goemba or gonpa), most of which are located on high spectacular mountain ridges, such as Taktshang, the Tiger’s Nest. While not grand as Dzongs (traditional Bhutanese fortresses, which now serves as administrative centres and monasteries), lhakhangs and goembas functions not only as religious centres, they also play an important role as community centres as almost all village social and cultural functions events are held there.

There are close to 2,000 lhakhangs and goembas in Bhutan. The lhakhang is usually a simple hall with an entrance foyer and a main hall holding the main altar of the temple. Besides the main temple building, simple buildings with rooms for the monastics are constructed.

Since many famous lhakhangs require some mountain trekking to reach them, those who do not fancy such climbs can visit one located in a famous nunnery right in the city of Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The Thangtong Dewachen Nunnery, popularly known as Zilukha Lhakhang, is as sacred as any of the more well-known ones, and one can actually visit without too much formality.

Thangtong Dewachen Nunnery

This temple is the heart of the Thangtong Dewachen Nunnery, named after Thangtong Gyalpo (1361-1485), the yogi, physician, blacksmith, architect and a pioneering civil engineer famous for building iron chain suspension bridges across Tibet and Bhutan. The nunnery was constructed in 1983 by Drubthob Rikhey Jadrel Rinpoche (1901-1984), who was recognised as the 16th reincarnation of Thangtong Gyalpo.

The resident nuns here are trained in the ritual arts, formally educated in grammar and philosophy, and take English language classes. The nunnery serves the spiritual and liturgical needs of Bhutanese society, delicately seeking balance between a rich tradition and the new trends of modernity. As an institute of Buddhist practice, it brings a sacred spiritual aura to a valley bustling with political, social, and economic activity.

View of Thimphu Valley, from Zilukha Lhakhang

A unique feature of the nunnery is its organic growth. Rikhey Jadrel Rinpoche was adamant in being independent and hence did not seek government support for its development or any single donor. The institution he built now sustains through its services to the community and to Buddha dharma.

Temple's Clay Statues Built by the Best Craftsman

Back to the Zilukha lhakhang, the central statue of the temple is of Thangtong Gyalpo. To its left is an mesmerisingly beautiful statue of White Tara (Drol-kar), and to the right is Angiraja (Neten Yenla Jung) – one of the Sixteen Arhats who were the first disciples of Buddha.

<< Statue of Thangtong Gyalpo sits centrally inside the Zilukha lhakhang

All the clay statues were crafted by the best mud-artist (jinzob) in all of Bhutan, a famed craftsman who is none other than Lopen Omtong from the village of Bidung, in Trashigang district. And the inner relics (nang-zung) for the statues were offered by Lama Sonam Zangpo (1888-1982).

Guru Padmasambhava's Ritual Vajra (dorje)

It is also believed that the Thangtong statue has a Ritual Vajra (dorje) buried inside, which belonged to Guru Padmasambhava himself. Story goes that all the sacred inner relics (nang-zung) for the statues were offered by Lama Sonam Zangpo (1888-1982), who was also supervising the statue construction.

As the most sacred relic (yeshey sempa), Lama Sonam Zangpo requested Drubthob Rikhey to put the Guru’s dorje, which the Drubthob was in possession of. Drubthob Rikhey refused at first, but when Lama Sonam Zangpo threatened to walk away, he relented, according to a reliable source.

The dorje is believed to be the same one that Guru Padmasambhava, who is considered as the Second Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism. Hence while the temple may be relatively new, the inner relics offered by Lama Sonam Zangpo and the Guru’s dorje and the presence of all the great yogis such as His Holiness Kalu Rimpoche make this temple a very special place. It is believed that any wish you make at Zilukha temple would be fulfilled.

Supporting the temple

As the temple and nunnery is independently managed and sustained, there are less formalities involved when visiting it. Generous offerings by devotees for prayers and rituals are mainly used to help maintain this amazing gem in Thimphu. Visitors can make requests to the nuns to recite Obstacle-Removing mantras (barchel lamsel) and Wish-Fulfilling prayers (Sampa lhendrup) and make some offerings.

More on Thangtong Gyalpo

  1. Thangtong Gyalpo is believed to be the mind emanation (thug-truel) of Guru Padmasambhava. It is believed that Guru considered revering Thangtong as revering him.
  2. Thangtong Gyalpo, whose real name is Tsundru Zangpo, was an engineer, artiste, yogi, and an adept. He is considered to be the deity of people who take up professions such as engineering and art.
  3. The world’s first opera was not Italian but Tibetan. It is called Achey Lhamo, and it was authored by Thangtong Gyalpo. Today Achey Lhamo opens all major Tibetan functions and festivals.
  4. Thangtong Gyalpo means King of the Empty Plain. While he was meditating in the Gyede Plain in Tsang, five dakinis appeared to him and sang verses of praise:

“On the great spreading plain;
The yogin who understands emptiness;
Sits like a fearless king;
Thus we name him King of the Empty Plain.“

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