Maṇi walls known as Maṇi Dangrim (མ་ཎི་གདང་རིངམ་) are found across Bhutan, forming some of the religious monuments that are built at strategic natural spots such as mountain passes, river confluences, ridges, cliffs, thick forests, and crossroads in order to suppress malevolent forces and offer protection and solace. These religious structures dot Bhutan’s landscape as a visual symbol of the subjugation of the wild terrain.
A number of maṇi walls are attributed to the campaign and rule of Minjur Tenpa (r. 16767-1679), Bhutan’s third Druk Desi. Minjur Tenpa was a Tibetan monk and disciple of Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel (1595-1651), the founder of Bhutan. When Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel left Tibet for Bhutan in 1616, Minjur Tenpa accompanied him and served faithfully in his court. As Zhapdrung unified Bhutanese valleys through nation building activities, Minjur Tenpa was appointed as the ponlop (དཔོན་སློབ་), or governor, of the Trongsa region. Holding this office, he was mostly responsible to oversee the annexation of those districts east of Pelela pass, known collectively as the Sharcho Khorlo Tsibgye (ཤར་ཕྱོགས་འཁོར་ལོ་རྩིབས་བརྒྱད་) so that they would be formally put under Zhapdrung's rule based in Punakha. Minjur Tenpa therefore led the military campaigns that overthrew the chieftains of the eastern valleys and brought them under Zhapdrung's control.
Some maṇi walls, such as one in Ura valley, were built during that campaign in order to celebrate the victories of Minjur Tenpa’s forces and also to expiate any negative actions committed in the process of the expeditions. He is said to have carried out the projects primarily to make amends for the violence committed during the military conquests and his mistreatment of the local deities and spirits that arose during those efforts. As religious monuments, it is commonly believed that constructing maṇi walls can help negate negative actions and dispel obstacles caused by harmful spirits.
Maṇi walls are long rectangular structures made from stone and mud. First, stones are tightly stacked in a rectangular shape about a metre in width, about a dozen metres in length and over two metres in height. Sacred and powerful substances are included within the structure to give them spiritual power, just as many holy and important substances are inserted inside a stupa as the zung (གཟུངས་) relic. The spaces between the stones walls are filled with a mud mixture. The structure, which is generally white washed, has a band of red colour encircling it, just as is found on the walls of temple architecture. The long wall is then covered and protected by a stone slab roof.
Additional stone slabs carved with various Buddhist mantras are erected along the red belt on the sides of the rectangular structure. Mantras are series of syllables, and particular arrangements are associated with a particular deity. They are considered to be potent and powerful components of tantric Buddhist practice; so much so that they are believed to be manifestations of enlightened beings in the forms of speech and word. One of the most ubiquitous mantras in the Himalayas is Oṃ maṇi padme huṃ, the mantra of Chenrézik, or Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of Compassion. Most, though not all, maṇi walls have stone slabs with this mantra carved on them. Thus, the walls are generally known as maṇi dangrim (མ་ཎི་གདང་རིངམ་) or maṇi lines, although other mantras might appear.
In addition to mantras, Buddhas figures may also be carved into stone slabs and placed on the walls. The figures and the mantra syllables are frequently painted in gold or with different colours. As people believe that building and circumambulating these structures accrues merit, they help to bring about happiness, and may also provide an opportunity to eventually reach liberation and enlightenment. Therefore, people voluntarily construct maṇi walls to accumulate merit, or offset negative karma. It is common to see people circumambulate the maṇi structures although the tradition of stone carving has declined in the recent past. Moreover, many of the old maṇi walls today also remain in a state of neglect as modern motor roads do not always follow traditional footpath along which these structures are located.