Lhakhang (ལྷ་ཁང་) are religious structures found throughout the Himalayas that house sacred objects and in which religious activities take place. Lhakhang literally means the house of gods, and in the Bhutanese Buddhist context ‘gods’ refer to enlightened beings such as the Buddha, his followers, and other deities. In a more formal sense, the term tsuglakhang is also used to refer to lhakhang. Tsuglakhang means the house of tsugla, and the term tsugla refers to the Buddhist scriptures, particularly the two canons of Kanjur and Tanjur.
Almost all Bhutanese villages have a local lhakhang located on a strategic and elevated spot in or around the village, usually built on a spot that is geographically striking and has some geomantic and spiritual significance. Construction of lhakhangs is often undertaken by the community members as an act of religious piety. Bhutanese Buddhists believe that contribution of labour to build a lhakhang will help one accrue merit, which will eventually lead to happy rebirth and ideally, enlightenment. Thus, villagers often build a village lhakhang through voluntary labour and generous contributions provided by the members of the community. Occasionally, a community may hold a fundraising campaign to raise the required resources for the construction of a lhakhang.
Most lhakhang have two or more floors although the earliest lhakhangs, claimed to have been built in the seventh and the eighth centuries, are mostly single storeyed. The main body of the lhakhang is made of stone or rammed mud walls with wooden window structures. The physical edifice of a lhakhang is commonly marked by a red horizontal stripe called kemar running along the top half of the whitewashed walls. A lhakhang is often modeled on a maṇḍala, or representation of Buddhist cosmology. The red kemar symbolizes the celestial paths of the sun and moon that circle the cosmic maṇḍala, and the yellow/gold and white discs on the red stripe symbolize the sun and moon respectively. A decorative golden turret or a ceremonial victory banner cast in bronze is erected on the pinnacle of the lhakhang roof. The lhakhang often has a large flag known as a lhadar hoisted in the front at the entrance, and the temple may be surrounded by any number of hand-driven prayer wheels installed on the outer walls. A circumambulatory footpath is also made alongside the prayer wheels. The lhakhang approach may also have a gate and often chorten or stupa monuments are found near the lhakhang.
The lhakhang houses a great number of sacred objects including supports for the enlightened body, speech and mind. At one end of the main shrineroom of a lhakhang is the throne for a lama. During rituals and ceremonies, the lama or other officiant sits here flanked by other priests/ritual specialists. Opposite the lama’s throne is the main shrine, which can consist of Buddha statues, stacks of texts, images of other masters, and/or small stupas. The shrine in front of the statues and books is decorated with carvings, paintings, and gilded objects, and filled with offering bowls, flower vases, incense censers, and other offerings. The walls of the lhakhang are normally painted with various compositions. Wall paintings may be executed on canvas or directly on the plaster and the imagery can include figures of hierarchs, various Buddhas, biographic scenes, maṇḍalas, key practices, heavenly realms, and even historical events.
Large lhakhang can contain several smaller lhakhangs in them. In addition to the large hall, smaller rooms dedicated to specific Buddhas, deities, or purposes are also created, sometimes sponsored by a particular family or individual. In this way, a large lhakhang can contain several shrine rooms. It is common to find a restricted chamber in a lhakhang for the protector deities, called the goenkhang or ‘place of protectors’. The local territorial deity is often believed to reside here, so people who have had recent contact with dead bodies, recently given birth, and/or are menstruating are restricted from entering this space. The wall paintings in goenkhangs depict the wrathful and fierce forms of the protector deities, though statues of these deities are seldom displayed. The temple caretaker(s) responsible for the timely propitiation of these protector deities perform the supplication and rituals in this chamber.
The lhakhang is the main space for the community’s religious activities. Thus, most lhakhang in the villages see a great deal of activity in a given year although some smaller or more remote lhakhangs may see very little activity. In addition to seasonal events including festivals and community rituals, the lhakhang is also used as a venue for funerary services and any such religious gathering. In many communities, it is also the space for public meetings and discussions, celebrations, and receptions. Lhakhang thus are central venues for public functions and community businesses. Sacred dances are normally performed in the courtyard or the main halls of the lhakhang.
People approach lhakhang with much respect and devotion. Thus, they wear formal clothes, take off their shoes, and adopt a respectful manner when they enter a lhakhang. Once inside the lhakhang, they first make three prostrations towards the lama’s throne and then three more to the main shrine. Then, they approach the main shrine and place a token offering of cash in the offering bowl or make an offering of food, fruit, or light a butter lamp or some incense. The caretaker then pours a few drops of sacred water called thruechu on the visitor’s right hand palm. The visitor sips the water and then pats their hand on his/her head. For visitors, the caretaker may offer a short introduction to the place, its history, its relics and their significance.
It is common practice in Bhutan for people to visit lhakhangs on holy days or as part of pilgrimage.