Samyekyi Salang: A Song of Western Bhutan

“Samyekyi Salang” (བསམ་ཡས་ཀྱི་ས་བླང་) is a song belonging to the zhungdra (གཞུང་སྒྲ་) genre of Bhutanese music, and is traditionally sung in the Talo community of Punakha district in western Bhutan. It is believed to have been originally composed to celebrate the construction of the Talo temple, which is regarded as a replica of Samyé, the first Buddhist monastery of Tibet built in the 8th century.

Talo Sa-nga Chöling is a well-known religious centre of western Bhutan. The site was founded by Jikme Senggé, the fourth Thritrul incarnation of Tendzin Rapgyé (1638-1696), the fourth Desi ruler of Bhutan. However, Talo Sa-nga Chöling became famous after Jikme Drakpa II (1791-1830), the third incarnation of Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel (1594-1651), the founder of Bhutan, made it his seat. Jikme Drakpa II also adopted the tutelary deity Pehar as the main protector deity of Talo. The subsequent Zhabdrung incarnations, Jikme Norbu (1831-1861), Jikme Chögyel (1862-1904) and Jikme Dorjé (1905-1931) also used Talo Sa-nga Chöling as their main seat, making Talo not only one of the most important religious establishments in the country but also a political centre from where the Zhapdrung incarnations used their power to rule Bhutan.

After constructing the temple of Talo Sa-nga Chöling, Jikme Drakpa II instituted the tshechu (ཚེས་བཅུ་) festival of Talo for which he also introduced its mask dances. According to the local oral accounts, it was during the time of his successor Zhapdrung Jikme Norbu that the repertoire of songs, which are now well known in Talo, were introduced during the religious ceremony of the festival. Zhapdrung Jikme Norbu’s brother, Sönam Dhendup, who came with him to Talo from Drametse in eastern Bhutan, was an eminent statesman. Also known as Kusho Drametse, Sönam Dhendup was a leading public figure in his time. He is credited with dictating the Talo songs and with the formal introduction and arrangement of songs for Talo’s festival proceedings. Among some fifty songs which are recorded in Talo’s historical festival document, three songs known as “Manisum” (མ་ཎི་གསུམ་) or three manis of Talo are considered special for their spiritual significance: “Samyekyi Salang”, “Drukpai Dungjud” (འབྲུག་པའི་གདུང་བརྒྱུད་), and “Thowa Gangitse” (མཐོ་བ་གངས་ཀྱི་རྩེ་). These three songs are sung in the presence of the remains of Jikme Drakpa II and his successors as the last songs during the respective religious ceremonies on the first, second, and third day of the festival.

On the first day, the singing ends with the auspicious verses of “Samyekyi Salang”. In the past, the songs were allowed to be formally performed only during the festival and strictly in the traditional style. The singers are admitted to the temple, made to drink the water for purification, and also instructed to visualize themselves as female offering deities. The performance of these songs was thus considered a sacred spiritual practice.

“Samyekyi Salang” describes the construction of Tibet’s Samyé temple, which was the hub of Himalayan Buddhist activity in the 8th century and the venue for introduction of Buddhist monasticism in Tibet, training young Tibetans in Buddhism, and translating the bulk of Buddhist teachings from Indian languages into Tibetan. It is also the site where Padmasambhava, Śāntarakṣita, and many other Indian and Tibetan masters are said to have given many Buddhist teachings, including those on highly esoteric topics. Thus, Samye is among the most important sites of the Buddhist Himalayas.

Given this stature, it is understandable that Jigme Drakpa II associated his new temple of Talo with Samyé. He is said to have brought a statue from Samyé to serve as Talo’s main relic, in addition to adopting Samyé’s deity Pehar as Talo’s main tutelary deity. Although we cannot ascertain if the song refers to the Samyé in Tibet or to the monastery in Talo, it is clear that a strong association between the two was established in the public consciousness and perhaps a deliberate effort was made to conflate the two. Thus, the song, which is ostensibly about the construction of Talo by local residence, makes explicit reference to Samyé. It gives a rough chronology of the work as recorded in folk narratives. The following is a rough sample translation of the first two verses with the chorus:

 

བསམ་ཡས་ཀྱི་ས་བླང་སྨོ། །གང་གི་ལོ་ལ་བླང་ཡོད་པའི། །བསམ་ཡས་ཀྱི་ས་བླང་སྨོ།།

བྱི་བའི་ལོ་ལ་བླང་ཡོད་པའི། ས་བསལ་བ་བྱི་བའི་ལོ་ལ་སྨོ། །བྱི་བའི་ལོ་ལ་སེལ་ཡོད།།

ཨོཾ་སངས་ལ་མ་ཎི་པངྨེ་ཧཱུ་ཞེས་པའི། །

བདག་ལ་ཨོཾ་སངས་མ་ཎི་མ་ཎི་པངྨེ་ཧཱུ། །

 

བསམ་ཡས་ཀྱི་གྱམ་ལ་སྨོ། །གང་གི་ལོ་ལ་བཙུགས་ཡོད་པའི། །བསམ་ཡས་ཀྱི་གྱམ་ལོ་སྨོ། །

གྱམ་བཙུག་པ་གླང་གི་ལོ་ལ་སྨོ། །གྱམ་བཙུགས་པ་གླང་གི་ལོ་ལ་སྨོ། །གླང་གི་ལོ་ལ་བཙུགས་ཡོད།།

ཨོཾ་སངས་ལ་མ་ཎི་པངྨེ་ཧཱུ་ཞེས་པའི། །

བདག་ལ་ཨོཾ་སངས་མ་ཎི་མ་ཎི་པངྨེ་ཧཱུ། །

 

The appropriation of the land of Samyé,

Which year was it appropriated?

The appropriation of the land of Samyé,

The appropriation took place in the Mouse year.

The land has been cleared in the Mouse year.

Oṃ sangla maṇi padme huṃ

For me, oṃ sangla maṇi maṇi padme huṃ

 

The foundation stone of Samyé,

Which year was it laid?

The foundation stone of Samyé,

The foundation stone was laid in the Ox year.

Oṃ sangla maṇi padme huṃ

For me, oṃ sangla maṇi maṇi padme huṃ

 

The song enumerates the phases of temple construction from obtaining the land, clearing the earth to lay a foundation, erecting the pillars, doors, winders, ceiling, roof, and turret of the temple. Each major phase corresponds to a year with associated animal sign. Thus, it is more of a literary composition than a record of the actual work as the various phases of work may not have exactly taken a year. However, the song provides us clear evidence of the Bhutanese folk awareness of the Samyé temple and its construction, which was considered as a sacred project, as well as an interest in replicating the process on a local scale.

“Samyekyi Salang”, along with the other two songs from the zhungdra or dangrim (གདངས་རིངམོ་) category, is today considered part of Talo’s intangible cultural and artistic heritage. After its incorporation into the festival during Jikme Norbu’s time, his successor and grandnephew Jikme Chogyal strengthened the legacy by promoting the songs and making them official elements of the tshechu programme. A lead singer is selected to carry on the tradition. According to local memory, the song has passed successively from Rinchen Pelzom through to Changlom, Sanggyé Budar, Nagley Gyalmo, Sanggyé Kunlé, Wangmoli, Jampal, and Bagam, to Rinchen Dolma, who is the lead singer today. Today, the songs have also spread from Talo to other parts of Bhutan and is commonly sung on mass media and during state functions.

 

Karma Phuntsho with notes from Sonam Chophel. 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. Sonam Chophel served as a researcher in Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research.

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An introduction to the functions of the song "Samyekyi Salang" and a brief exposition on some of its lyrics.

Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users
Author Karma Phuntsho, Sonam Chophel
Year published 2017
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Rights ཤེས་རིག་དང་ལམ་སྲོལ་གྱི་དོན་ལུ་ཕབ་བཟུང་ཞུས། ཤེས་རྒྱུན་ལས་སྡེ་ལས་གནང་བ་མེད་པར་བསྒྱུར་སྤེལ་འབད་མི་ཆོག། For educational and cultural use only. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without permission from Shejun.
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