Bhutanese architecture has evolved through many centuries by adapting to the local surrounding and also integrating various elements from the architectural traditions of neighbouring areas. Bhutan’s architectural practices, thus, combine structural stability, functionality, cultural and natural coherence, and spiritual significance. The sertok (གསེར་ཏོག་) turret, or more literally, the golden pinnacle, is the uppermost element of certain types of Bhutanese architecture.
Although there is no clear-cut rule about which buildings can possess a sertok, they are generally built on the top of temples and dzongs; buildings that have an eminent religious significance such as housing the Kanjur canon, which contains the words of the Buddha. Temples that cannot afford a proper sertok have as its pinnacle a gyeltsen (རྒྱལ་མཚན་) or victory banner made from metal such as copper or bronze. Today, most temples have sertok and even non-religious dzong structures and some palaces have a sertok.
A temple, in general, represents a mansion of enlightened deities, and a mandala embodying the enlightened qualities of the Buddha. From its foundation to its pinnacle, the temple is imbued with spiritual significance and religious meanings. As such, a temple from the traditional Bhutanese religious and architectural perspective is not complete without a proper sertok, as it symbolises the ultimate point of wisdom that penetrates dharmadhatu, the state of reality that is analogous to space.
The sertok, as its name suggests, is a copper turret gilded in gold. Its shape carries deeper symbolic meaning and is usually of a size proportionate to the building. The lower part is a square shape in the form of a miniature mansion, and is normally made of wood. It has many layers of designs including norbu bagam, or stack of jewels, a pema or lotus, a chötse or stack of books, and many other motifs. The roof, which is slanting and corrugated, has animal faces on the four corners among other forms. The pinnacle rises up in a cone shape with several designs including a lotus and vase, surmounted by a jewel.
Once finished, many religious and precious objects are installed in the sertok so as to infuse it with spiritual power and magnificence. A sokshing (སྲོག་ཤིང་) pillar, generally made from juniper, is inserted vertically in the centre, painted red with many mantras on it. Also known as ganjira (གན་ཇི་ར་) the installation of sertok is considered a major achievement in traditional Bhutan. Elaborate religious ceremonies, which are conducted during the consecration of a temple, are carried out to install a sertok. Thus, in the biographies of many of Bhutan’s past rulers and religious figures, the installations of sertok on major temples are listed among their achievements. The sertok crowns temple and dzong structures marking the building on Bhutan’s landscape as sites of important religious activities.