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Chorten

Chorten () are likely among the most ubiquitous religious


structures in Bhutan. They dot the landscape, providing believers with
spiritual solace and imbuing the natural environment with a special
cultural and spiritual presence. As the representation of the Buddhas
mind (statues represent his body and books represent his speech), the
chorten is also one of the most important shrines in the Buddhist
tradition. Chorten literally means an object or support () of worship or
offering () and is a translation of the Sanskrit terms stpa and
caitya. The term refers to a wide range of religious monuments with
different shapes, sizes and purposes.

The earliest Buddhist chortens are said to have been built during the
life of the Buddha as monuments containing the remains of the
enlightened beings who passed into nirv. In the centuries after the
Buddha, the culture of building and worshipping chortens expanded.
The remains of the Buddha are said to have initially been divided into
eight portions and enshrined in eight chortens in different parts of
north India. The eight main events in the Buddhas life from birth to his
death are also memorialized through eight different kinds of chortens
which are today known as desheg chorten gye (), or Eight
Stpas of the Buddha.

Specifically, these eight are: the stpa of heaped lotus ()


initially built in Lumbini to commemorate the Buddhas birth and
symbolize the lotus which sprung during his birth; the stpa of
enlightenment () built on the shores of Narajan to celebrate
his enlightenment and defeat of inner demons; the stpa of many
doors () built in Varanasi to honour his first sermon and
symbolic of the many doors on the path to enlightenment; the stpa of
miracles () in rvast to indicate the Buddhas victory over
other contemporary teachers using his miraculous power; the stpa of
the descent from heaven () built at Skyya, which
commemorates the Buddhas return from the celestial world after
teaching his mother and other beings; the stpa of reconciliation (
) of his congregation built in Rjagha to celebrate his success in
bringing together his followers after Devadatta tried to split them into
factions; the stpa of victory () over evil forces, built at Vail
to symbolize his victory over the evil forces and the extension of his
life; and lastly, the stpa of parinirva or passing into nirva (
) built in Kuinagara to symbolize his final passing away.

The eight chortens of the Buddha are a common sight in Bhutan. There
are many areas where all eight chortens stand together as a complete
set. However, when not built as a set, the chorten of enlightenment is
the most popular. These chortens, in spite of the architectural
differences, generally share the shape of having a square base roughly
four tiers in height, a bulging vase shape in the middle, and a pinnacle
that rises up with many layers of rings culminating in the moon
crescent surmounted by a sun disc. The square khangzang chorten (
) or mansion stpa is also very common in Bhutan. As Bhutanese
chortens are mostly made of stone, this type of square structure is the
easiest and most stable to build, with stone slab roofs topped by a
small stone turret. There are also a few cases of the dome shaped
Nepali chorten found in Bhutan. The chortens are built following the
guidelines and measurements found in the Buddhist texts including the
vinaya, the teachings of Drime Namnyi and the manuals for building
stpas that are found in the Tanjur. The sources were further refined
and elaborated by Himalayan masters and it is common to find today
in Bhutan several variations in the design, scale and proportion of the
chortens.

As religious objects of worship and tools for merit making, the chortens
are voluntarily built by the people. Some are built to subjugate evil
forces, others as supports for wellbeing, and yet others as part of
funerary rites. To imbue the structure with spiritual power, many
symbolic items such as grains to avoid famine, weapons to suppress
war, lamp to dispel darkness of ignorance, and medicine to overcome
illness are installed in the chorten alongside many religious artefacts
such as relics. At the centre of the chorten is a wooden pole called
srogshing (), or life tree. It is generally made from juniper or
cypress, and cut to have four sides with broad base and narrow tip,
painted red, inscribed with different mantras, and covered with further
rolls of mantras on paper. Building a chorten and filling it with items of
spiritual significance is a complex process, however some are filled
with tshatshas (), miniature stpas made from clay using a mould,
when the patron lacks sufficient resources.

Chortens were traditionally built at power spots and areas considered


dangerous or haunted, such as the conference of rivers, crossroads,
entry to the village, mountain passes, and the ends of ridges. They are
believed to give protection to travellers and also keep harmful spirits at
bay. For instance, a landscape resembling a serpent is often
suppressed by building a chorten at the point which resembles the
serpents head. Some chortens, especially those built with copper or
bronze and gilded in gold, are monuments for storing the remains of a
great master and are found in a temple. However, most chortens in
Bhutan are not built as monuments to house the remains of a great
person.

Astrologers do not recommend building chorten to the east of a house,


village or establishment. Pious Bhutanese, especially in old age,
circumambulate chortens as a spiritual exercise. Some chortens are
attributed special power, such as healing a specific disease, and thus
attract people for such reasons. It is very common to find prominent
chortens such as the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu crowded with
hundreds of people who circumambulate it regularly as their spiritual
practice.

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden
Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History
of Bhutan.