Tashi Gomang: Many-doored Auspicious Shrines

In Bhutan, Tashi Gomang (བཀྲ་ཤིས་སྒོ་མང་) are three-dimensional portable shrines traditionally carried across the country on the backs of travelling priests, though they can also refer to fully built architectural forms. Among the most commonly known of these temples is the Gyantsé Kumbum, built in the form of numerous individual shrines. Tashi Gomang, which literally means one with many auspicious doors, perhaps first referred to the third of the eight types of chöten, or stūpa, associated with the life of the Buddha that commemorate the Buddha’s teachings, and which are presented as myriad auspicious doors leading to enlightenment.

The miniature Tashi Gomang shrines popular in Bhutan, however, are different from the larger-scale Tashi Gomang chöten. The smaller Tashi Gomang are both special portable shrines and are examples of outstanding engineering and craftsmanship. The structures are roughly two to three feet tall, less than two feet wide, and can contain as many as 108 compartments containing miniature images of important Buddhist figures. Some of the compartments also open using hydraulic pressure or levers. The shrines were generally commissioned by important patrons and built by a team of highly skilled craftspeople, including carpenters, silversmiths, painters, and sculptors. There are accounts of how Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel (1592-1650), the founder of Bhutan, commissioned the famous carpenter Zowo Balingpa to build a Tashi Gomang to be kept in Punakha Dzong. The original may have been lost to successive fires and floods suffered at Punakha, and the Tashi Gomang which is preserved today is perhaps the one commissioned later by Zhapdrung Jikmé Drakpa in the 19th century.

A culture of miniaturized portable shrines has been known in many parts of the world and is still cultivated in some countries. Contrary to some claims that Tashi Gomang are unique to Bhutan, there were practices of travelling monks carrying portable Tashi Gomang shrines in Tibet and other parts of the Buddhist Himalayas. Bhutan certainly upheld a vibrant tradition of making Tashi Gomang and of religious bards carrying them from place to place to meet devotees and recite religious tales to them. Most Bhutanese Tashi Gomang shrines seem to depict the Zangdok Pelri (ཟངས་མདོག་དཔལ་རི་) or Copper Coloured Mountain, the realm of Guru Rinpoche. Others are said to be depictions of Sukhāvatī (བདེ་བ་ཅན་), the realm of Amitabha; Potala (རི་བོ་གྲུ་འཛིན་), the realm of Avalokiteśvara; and Abhirati (མངོན་པར་དགའ་བ་), the realm of Vajrasattva or Akśobhya. Distinctions are primarily made through iconographical programmes rather than the actual architecture of the Tashi Gomang.

The past popularity of Tashi Gomang shrines was perhaps due to the absence of proper temples in many remote parts of Bhutan. The portable temples were brought to the people for viewing so that people got an opportunity to show their devotion, and worship the shrine. Moreover, travelling religious bards who carried the shrine in a box and exhibited it were also exempted from labour tax and thereby earned a decent living from the rounds they did with the Tashi Gomang. They would sing mantras in long melodious tunes interspersed with hymns and praises of the Buddhas while gradually unfolding the shrine. As the most common mantra they chant is the maṇi mantra of Avalokiteśvara, they are also commonly known as manip (མ་ཎིཔ་) or the people chanting maṇi.

The manip-s were either gomchen (སྒོམ་ཆེན་), priests, or monks. Sometimes, the job was passed down through family lines but one did not need much training to take up the role. They got help from the villagers as part of the labour tax to carry the shrine from village to village. The manips often exhibited the Tashi Gomang during religious festivals when there are large gatherings. When they travel from village to village, they would base themselves in the house of the administrative coordinator and then blow a conch to herald their arrival. Families in the villages would flock to the house where the Tashi Gomang was exhibited for viewing and worship, and to make offerings of grains, textiles and cash. The people made prayers and offerings for the welfare of the living or as a part of the funerary rite for the dead. The manip-s, dressed in red robes and ceremonial boots, would open the box and begin their chants, gradually reveal the successive layers of images within the shrine, often keeping their left hand placed near their left ear as gesture of singing, and using the right one to turn a prayer wheel.

The Tashi Gomang shrines were owned by important temples and family establishments. They were either taken by their members or hired to a manip to bring the shrine on tour. In any case, a large percentage of what the manip-s received as offerings was income for the shrine’s home temple. There is said to be some thirty to forty Tashi Gomangs in Bhutan but the exact figure is unknown. From the dozens of manip-s who used to traverse the landscape, at present there are only a few surviving, and the culture of both creating and exhibiting Tashi Gomang has nearly stopped. However, recently the Royal Family instituted the Tashi Gomang Project, which seeks to document the extant shrines in Bhutan, and draw upon the expertise of the surviving manip-s to train a new generation.

 

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.

Bhutan Cultural Library Account of a Mobile Temple or Stupa Bhutan

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The functions and structures of miniature shrines known as Tashi Gomang, and their status in modern Bhutan.

Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)
Author Karma Phuntsho
Editor Ariana Maki
Year published 2017
Subjects
Places