Samyeki Salang: A Zhungdra Song from Talo

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

 

Talo Sa-nga Choling is a well known religious centre in western Bhutan. The site was founded by Jigme Sengay, the fourth Trhitrul incarnation of Tenzin Rabgay, the fourth Desi ruler of Bhutan. However, Talo Sa-nga Choling became famous after Jigme Drakpa II, the third incarnation of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of Bhutan, made it his seat. He also adopted the tutelary deity Pehar as the main protector deity of Talo. The subsequent Zhabdrung incarnations, Jigme Norbu, Jigme Chogyal and Jigme Dorji also used Talo Sa-nga Choling 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 Zhabdrung incarnations used their power to rule Bhutan.

 

After constructing the temple of Talo Sa-nga Choling, Jigme Drakpa II also started the tshechu (ཚེས་བཅུ་) festival of Talo in which he introduced sacred mask dances. According to the local oral accounts, it was during the time of his successor Zhabdrung Jigme Norbu that the repertoire of songs, which are now well known in Talo, were introduced during the religious ceremony of the festival. Zhabdrung Jigme Norbu’s brother, Sonam Dhendup, who came with him to Talo from Drametse in eastern Bhutan, was an eminent statesman. Also known as Kusho Drametse as he came from Drametse, he was a leading public figure in his time. He is credited with the dictation of the songs of Talo and the formal introduction and arrangement of songs in Talo’s festival proceedings. Among some fifty songs which are recorded in a 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. Samyeki Salang is one of the three, the other two being 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 Jigme Drakpa II and his successors during the festival as the last songs during the religious ceremonies respectively on the first, second and third day of the festival.

 

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

 

The song Samyeki Salang describes the construction of Tibet’s Samye temple, the first Buddhist monastic establishment in Tibet. This centre was the hub of Buddhist activity in the 8th century and the venue for introduction of Buddhist monasticism in Tibet, training of young Tibetans in Buddhism and the translation of the major 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 highly esoteric ones. Thus, Samye is one of the holiest sites in the Buddhist Himalayas.

 

Given this stature, it is understandable that Jigme Drakpa II associated his new temple of Talo with Samye. He is said to have brought a statue from Samye as Talo’s main relic in addition to adopting Samye’s deity Pehar as Talo’s main tutelary deity. Although we cannot ascertain if the song refers to the original Samye in Tibet or to the new Talo monastery, which is considered a local version of Samye, 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 claimed to be about the construction of Talo by the locals, makes explicit reference to Samye. It gives a rough chronology of the work of building Samye as recorded in the 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 Samye,

Which year was it appropriated?

The appropriation of the land of Samye,

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 Samye,

Which year was it laid?

The foundation stone of Samye,

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 Samye temple construction from obtaining the land, clearing the earth to lay foundation, erecting pillars, doors, winders, ceiling, roof and the 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 would not have exactly taken a year. However, the song gives us clear evidence of the Bhutanese folk awareness of the Samye temple and its construction, which is considered as a deeply sacred project and also their tendency to replicate the process in local instances.

 

The song, along with the other two songs of zhungdra or dangrim (གདངས་རིངམོ་) category, is today a special intangible cultural and artistic heritage of Talo community. After its introduction during the festival during Jigme Norbu’s time, his successor and grandnephew Jigme Chogyal, strengthened the legacy of his precursors by promoting the songs and making it an official element of the tshechu programme. A lead singer is also selected to carry on the tradition. Rinchen Pelzom, Changlom, Sangay Budar, Nagley Gyalmo, Sangay Kunley, Wangmoli, Jampal and Bagam, according to the local memory has passed down the song successively 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 was a researcher in Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research.

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Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
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Author Karma Phuntsho
Year published 2018
Language English
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