Top 10 Most Amazing Monasteries in Bhutan

 

Bhutan, a mysterious Buddhist country situated along the foothills of the Himalayan ranges, is one of the most enchanting tourist destinations in the world. A world where myth and reality coexist, where GDP is measured in happiness, where preservation of environment and cultural heritage is considered a crucial social responsibility and where Buddhism dictates the very existence of the general population.

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The Last Shangri-La, a large portion of which still remains untouched and unexplored, is a kingdom blessed with countless sacred sites and structures.

These religious establishments best express the country’s mysterious and ancient heritage and defines the calm and serene nature of the Bhutanese people, disciplined over decades by the true essence of Buddha’s teachings.

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Here is MyBhutan’s countdown of the Top 10 Most Amazing Monasteries to visit in Bhutan.

10. Gangtey Goemba, Wangduephodrang

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Gangtey Goemba sits on the crest of a hill, overlooking majestic views of the Phobjikha Valley. Quite appropriately, its name means simply “the temple on the hilltop.”

Pema Thinley, the grandson of the great terton (treasure revealer) Pema Lingpa, founded this temple in 1613. In the Buddhist tradition of Bhutan, a terton is a gifted practitioner who discovers ancient teachings and reintroduces them to the world.

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The monastery, one of the largest in Bhutan, contains a monastic school and houses the ninth reincarnation of the Gangtey Tulku.

9. Jangsa Dumtseg Lhakhang, Paro

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With its golden umbrella-shaped peak gleaming against a backdrop of brown hills, Jangtsa Dumtseg Lhakhang is one of the region's most unusual lhakhangs. Built in the fifteenth-century by the Iron Bridge Lama, Thangtong Gyalpo, the lhakhang is built in the shape of a Tibetan-style chorten against a hill overlooking the confluence of the Paro Chhu and Do Chhu, over a bridge from Paro itself.

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Thangtong Gyalpo is believed to have built the lhakhang in this shape to better pin down either a troublesome demoness or a powerful naga spirit - sources are divided as to which it was. More certain however, is this small lhakhang's importance as a repository of iconography from the Drukpa Kagyu school, with peaceful and wrathful deities dancing on the walls of all three floors, which themselves represent heaven, earth and hell.

8. Kila Goemba, Paro

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Kila Goemba in Paro stands true to its Sanskrit translation, ‘the spiritual dagger that subdues all negativity’ as it stands very calmly on a sheer dizzy cliff face waiting to eliminate any negative elements coming its way.

Located below the Chelela Pass and standing at an altitude of about 3,500m, Kila Goemba is one of the oldest nunneries in Bhutan dating back to the 9th century. The seven small temples are surrounded by several retreat huts that provide the perfect sanctuary to profound Buddhist practitioners who have chosen to live in self imposed isolation. The monastery houses many sacred statues including the ancient statue of Chenresig (Avalokiteshwara).

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The shy and ever smiling nuns skittering around minding their day to day dharma activities on their journey of renouncement adds to the sanctity of this serene monastery, situated one and a half hours drive from Paro and less than an hour from Haa.

7. Phajoding Monastery, Thimphu

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Worshippers breathe heavily in the thin air as they leave snowy footprints in clockwise circles around each chorten. Rooks caw from the eaves and Thimphu's suburbs - tiny at this distance - sit far below, separated by steep and silent slopes covered in pines.

Ever since a Buddhist saint stopped here to meditate in the thirteenth century, Phajoding has been a place of refuge. A three-hour hike from the nearest road, high in the hills west of the capital, the monastery contains an unwalled collection of lhakhangs and meditation halls. The monastery houses sixty monks, many of whom first came here as orphaned children or from impoverished families.

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The monastery is worth seeing not only for the beautiful hike to get here (the route is the last day of the Druk Path Trek in reverse) and the stunning views, but also to enjoy the atmosphere of peace that permeates this sacred spot.

6. Cheri Monastery, Thimphu

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At the northern end of Wang Chhu Valley the hills close in, getting steeper and higher as you drive north. At the end of the road there's another hour-long climb to Cheri Monastery, perched on a hillside criss-crossed with goral (mountain goat) tracks.

Also known as Chagri Dorjeden Monastery, Cheri Monastery was the first monastery established by Bhutan's great leader, the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, in 1620 when he was just 27 years old. The Zhabdrung spent three years in retreat here and returned regularly throughout his life. Generations of monks have subsequently come to meditate on these forested slopes and rocky hillsides, spending a ritual three years, three months and three days here, deep in contemplation.

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Those with enough breath left after the walk up can continue uphill to an upper chapel built into a cliff, which commemorates the Zhabdrung's defeat of local demons later in the seventeenth century.

5. Kyichu Lhakhang, Paro

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Legend tells that beneath the dramatic landscape of the Tibetan Plateau there lies the body of a demoness. When it was divined that she was preventing the spread of Buddhism, the great seventh-century Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo pinned her in place with 108 magically constructed temples -- allowing Buddhism to flourish above her restrained body. One of Bhutan's two ancient demoness-pinning temples, Paro's Kyichu Lhakhang is believed to hold the demoness's left foot in place.

With its tiered roof and luminous white walls, the lhakhang's age is not immediately apparent. It is only inside the monastery's ancient heart, the Jowo Lhakhang, that the sanctuary's long history is palpable. Golden murals shine faintly from smoke-darkened walls, and the floor has been polished smooth by the feet of countless faithful practitioners.

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The holiest part of the chapel surrounds the revered seventh-century statue of Jowo Sakyamuni, visible through a gilded door. The neighboring Guru Lhakhang was built in 1968 under the sponsorship of the Third King's wife, Ashi Kesang Wangchuck, and holds an impressive statue of Guru Rinpoche surrounded by elegantly restrained paintings of Buddhist saints and fearsome dharmapalas.

4. Jambay Lhakhang, Bumthang

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In the atmospheric darkness of Jampa Lhakhang's inner kora, the golden outlines of a thousand finely painted Buddhas glimmer in the light of yak butter lamps. The kora's wooden floorboards have been worn smooth by generations of devotees treading their way around the lhakhang's ancient heart. Inside the central chapel, Jampa, the gentle-faced future Buddha, sits flanked by eight bodhisattvas, his feet resting upon an elephant as dragons swirl about him. This single thick-walled room - filled with a wealth of gorgeous statuary, its door bound with divinely forged chainmail - is the oldest part of the oldest lhakhang in Bhutan.

From the gently creaking prayer wheels outside, through peaceful courtyards filled with cooing pigeons to the candlelit statues of the central chapel, an air of calm and antiquity pervades Jampa Lhakhang. The temple is believed to be one of 108 built on a single day by the seventh-century Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, to pin down a demoness who was obstructing the spread of Buddhism in Tibet.

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While crowds flock to here for the annual Jampa Lhakhang Drup festival, visit at any other time of year and you will discover the low-lying complex manned by a handful of monks and a group of elderly devotees who keep Jampa's huge prayer wheels in constant motion.

3. Kurjey Lhakhang, Bumthang

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Flights of white-washed stone steps deliver visitors, breathless, to Kurjey's most important chapels and to views that run the length of the Chokhor Valley. The oldest chapel, the Guru Lhakhang, contains a shallow meditation cave once used by Guru Rinpoche. Here, he left an imprint of his body that gives the lhakhang its name - kur, meaning "body," and jey, "print." The cave is flanked by statues of Guru Rinpoche holding brass-bound kapala - ritual bowls made of human skulls - and surrounded by rank upon rank of miniature brass statues. The venerable cypress tree that looms over the Guru Lhakhang is said to have sprouted from the sage's staff, planted there to seal a bargain struck between the Guru and a local deity, thus marking the deity's eighth-century conversion to Buddhism.

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It also remains one of the country's most important religious sites - thanks to its intimate connection with the revered tantric saint, Guru Rinpoche. The story of Guru Rinpoche's spiritual work in Bumthang is retold each summer in Kurjey's annual tsechu, which draws crowds from Bumthang and beyond.

2. Chimi Lhakhang, Punakha

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After the monsoon rains, the terraced fields around Chimi Lhakhang turn a vivid shade of green as rice grows and ripens in the warmth of the Punakha Valley. A short walk through the fields takes visitors from the roadside at Sopsokha through two tiny villages and up the stony path to Chimi Lhakhang, which stands beside an ancient banyan tree on a hilltop overlooking the valley.

Built in 1499, Chimi Lhakhang is dedicated to the "Divine Madman," Drukpa Kunley, a sage revered in Bhutan for his unorthodox teachings and his use of a "flaming thunderbolt" to fight evil.

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While Chimi Lhakhang marks the spot where Drukpa Kunley defeated and buried a much-feared demoness, today the hilltop lhakhang is visited by expectant mothers and families with newborns to pray for their children's health. A blessing from the lhakhang's wooden phallus is also believed to help childless couples conceive; the number of Bhutanese children named Chimi may be testament to this method's success rate!

1. TIGER’S NEST MONASTERY, Paro

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From a distance, Bhutan's most iconic building seems to float, weightless, halfway up a sheer cliff-face, 900 meters (3,000 feet) above the floor of the Paro Valley. As you wind your way breathlessly up the long, steep path towards Taktsang Lhakhang, the monastery periodically reveals itself, rising out of the forest, closer and more solid with each reappearance.

While modern visitors approach Taktsang Lhakhang on foot or astride one of the sure-footed ponies guided by local villagers, the first person to recognize the holiness of this inaccessible spot, Guru Rinpoche, arrived here with considerably greater ease - on the back of a flying tigress. After defeating a troublesome local demon here in the eighth century, the Guru spent months in meditation, and the lhakhang - its name meaning "Tiger's Nest" - has been a place of pilgrimage ever since.

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The Bhutanese believe that the original construction of Taktsang in 1692 was assisted by dakinis - angels - who transported building materials up the cliff on their backs and lent their hair to hold the structure in place. Sadly the dakini were unable to help when Taktsang was razed in a major fire in April 1998, and the temple took five years to reconstruct with the help of a rudimentary cableway that has since been removed.

Inside the lhakhang, the Dubkhang - the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated, now sealed behind a shining golden door - sits at the heart of the main shrine, surrounded by richly decorated chapels and side chapels that fill every inch of the narrow ledge, and offer phenomenal views of the forested valleys far below.

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Visitors should note that the final approach to the lhakhang must be made on foot - horses must turn around at the busy canteen roughly halfway up the mountain.

STORY BY KARMA YONTEN

PHOTOGRAPHY BY VINCENT ROAZZI JR., MICHAEL MARQUAND, JESSE MONTES, GLEN THOMSON, MATTHEW DESANTIS, WANGCHUK DEMA,

 
StoryKarma Yonten