Chöten (མཆོད་རྟེན་) are likely among the most ubiquitous religious structures in Bhutan. They dot the landscape, providing believers with spiritual solace and imbuing the natural environment with a special cultural and spiritual presence. As the representation of the Buddha’s mind (statues represent his body and books represent his speech), the chöten is also one of the most important shrines in the Buddhist tradition. Chöten literally means an object or support (རྟེན་) of worship or offering (མཆོད་) and is a translation of the Sanskrit terms stūpa and caitya. The term refers to a wide range of religious monuments with different shapes, sizes and purposes.
The earliest Buddhist chöten are said to have been built during the life of the Buddha as monuments containing the remains of the enlightened beings who passed into nirvāṇā. In the centuries after the Buddha, the culture of building and worshipping chöten expanded. The remains of the Buddha are said to have initially been divided into eight portions and enshrined in eight chöten in different parts of north India. The eight main events in the Buddha’s life from birth to his death are also memorialized through eight different kinds of chöten which are today known as deshé chöten gyé (བདེ་གཤེགས་མཆོད་རྟེན་བརྒྱད་), or Eight Stūpas of the Buddha.
Specifically, these eight are: the stūpa of heaped lotus (མཆོད་རྟེན་པདྨ་སྤུངས་པ་) initially built in Lumbini to commemorate the Buddha’s birth and symbolize the lotus which sprung during his birth; the stūpa of enlightenment (བྱང་ཆུབ་མཆོད་རྟེན་) built on the shores of Narañjanā to celebrate his enlightenment and defeat of inner demons; the stūpa of many doors (མཆོད་རྟེན་བཀྲ་ཤིས་སྒོ་མང་) built in Varanasi to honour his first sermon and symbolic of the many doors on the path to enlightenment; the stūpa of miracles (ཆོ་འཕྲུལ་མཆོད་རྟེན་) in Śrāvastī to indicate the Buddha’s victory over other contemporary teachers using his miraculous power; the stūpa of the descent from heaven (ལྷ་བབ་མཆོད་རྟེན་) built at Sāṅkyāśya, which commemorates the Buddha’s return from the celestial world after teaching his mother and other beings; the stūpa of reconciliation (དབྱེན་ཟླུམ་མཆོད་རྟེན་) of his congregation built in Rājagṛha to celebrate his success in bringing together his followers after Devadatta tried to split them into factions; the stūpa of victory (རྣམ་རྒྱལ་མཆོད་རྟེན་) over evil forces, built at Vaiśālī to symbolize his victory over the evil forces and the extension of his life; and lastly, the stūpa of parinirvāṇa or passing into nirvāṇa (མྱང་འདས་མཆོད་རྟེན་) built in Kuśinagara to symbolize his final passing away.
The eight chöten of the Buddha are a common sight in Bhutan. There are many areas where all eight chöten stand together as a complete set. However, when not built as a set, the chöten of enlightenment is the most popular. These chöten, in spite of the architectural differences, generally share the shape of having a square base roughly four tiers in height, a bulging vase shape in the middle, and a pinnacle that rises up with many layers of rings culminating in the moon crescent surmounted by a sun disc. The square khangzang chöten (ཁང་བཟང་) or mansion stūpa is also very common in Bhutan. As Bhutanese chöten are mostly made of stone, this type of square structure is the easiest and most stable to build, with stone slab roofs topped by a small stone turret. There are also a few cases of the dome shaped Nepali chorten found in Bhutan. The chöten are built following the guidelines and measurements found in the Buddhist texts including the vinaya, the teachings of Drime Namnyi and the manuals for building stūpas that are found in the Tanjur. The sources were further refined and elaborated by Himalayan masters and it is common to find today in Bhutan several variations in the design, scale and proportion of the chöten.
As religious objects of worship and tools for merit making, chöten are voluntarily built. Some are built to subjugate evil forces, others as supports for wellbeing, and yet others as part of funerary rites. To imbue the structure with spiritual power, many symbolic items such as grains to avoid famine, weapons to suppress war, lamp to dispel darkness of ignorance, and medicine to overcome illness are installed in the chöten alongside many religious artefacts such as relics. At the centre of the chöten is a wooden pole called srogshing (སྲོག་ཤིང་), or life tree. It is generally made from juniper or cypress, and cut to have four sides with broad base and narrow tip, painted red, inscribed with different mantras, and covered with further rolls of mantras on paper. Building a chöten and filling it with items of spiritual significance is a complex process, however some are filled with tshatshas (ཚ་ཚ་), miniature stūpas made from clay using a mould, when the patron lacks sufficient resources.
Chöten were traditionally built at power spots and areas considered dangerous or haunted, such as the conference of rivers, crossroads, entry to the village, mountain passes, and the ends of ridges. They are believed to give protection to travellers and also keep harmful spirits at bay. For instance, a landscape resembling a serpent is often suppressed by building a chöten at the point which resembles the serpent’s head. Some chöten, especially those built with copper or bronze and gilded in gold, are monuments for storing the remains of a great master and are found in a temple. However, most chöten in Bhutan are not built as monuments to house the remains of a great person.
Astrologers do not recommend building chöten to the east of a house, village or establishment. Pious Bhutanese, especially in old age, circumambulate chortens as a spiritual exercise. Some chöten are attributed special power, such as healing a specific disease, and thus attract people for such reasons. It is very common to find prominent chöten such as the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu crowded with hundreds of people who circumambulate it regularly as their spiritual practice.