Although the details are still a bit murky to me, holy people (monks, nuns) in Bhutanese Buddhism are organized into a hierarchy – just like in a lot of other religions. The highest ranking monk holds the title of Je Khenpo, which is the spiritual leader of Bhutan and the second most influential person in the country (after the King). Many of Bhutan’s high-ranking religious officials, including the Je Khenpo, are educated at the same monastic university: Tango Goemba.
Tango is perched on a steep mountainside a few kilometers north of Thimphu. Getting there requires a 30 minute drive to the trailhead, plus an hour’s steady climb through a mixed forest of pine trees and rhododendrons. The trail leads past several religious sites, a large chorten, and a few farm houses that help support the monks.
We were able to beat the rain to the monastery (we weren’t so lucky on the way down), and my friend Matt started chatting with a monk who was standing outside. He invited us inside for a tour, which not all visitors are lucky enough to get. Not that we had any competition; we were the only people in sight not wearing crimson robes.
Photography isn’t allowed inside any temple or monastery in Bhutan, so I’ll try to describe it for you. Inside the door (in the picture above) is a courtyard surrounded by various living quarters and storage rooms. In the middle is a multi-story temple building. After removing our shoes, jackets, and packs, the monk invited us into the main temple building.
The main floor is mostly one large room for prayer and religious ceremonies; adjacent to it is a small sanctuary with a large statue of Buddha surrounded by other statues, artifacts, and offerings (mostly cash, packaged food, and even some Fanta). A rickety wooden ladder accessed the second and third floor, where there were a variety of smaller rooms dedicated to other deities and important figures. Some of these were in use, but a few were open for us to see.
The walls in the temple building are almost entirely covered with murals and tapestries; scenes from the lives of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, and various other important figures. Vibrantly-colored flags and banners covered in geometric patterns hang from the ceiling, most of them low enough that my head was constantly hitting them (I’m somewhat taller than your average Bhutanese monk). The entire place smells strongly of incense, and is lit by a few small windows, electric lights and butter lamps (large candles that burn yak butter instead of wax). The wooden floors are creaky, rutted, and, during our visit, cold under bare feet.
The combination of the low ceilings, strong smell, and vibrant decoration made the place feel very striking and exotic. The temple felt was old and warn, but earnest and dignified. It’s much more humble than the Buddhist temples I’d visited in Bangkok just a few days earlier; less glitzy but with no less character. I’ve been in plenty of churches, temples, and holy sites during my years of traveling, but this was my first one in Bhutan – and a very memorable at that.
After a while touring the temple, the monk asked if we’d like to go meet “the Rinpoche.” Guru Rinpoche, the Second Buddha, was the man who first brought Buddhism to the Himalayas in the 870s AD. Nowadays, the title “Rinpoche,” which literally means “precious one,” is given to high-ranking monks and teachers who are the reincarnated versions of other important religious figures. It’s sometimes translated as “Abbot,” and to me the position seems a bit analogous to a Cardinal in the Catholic church (fully acknowledging that Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism have very little in common). In this case, the Rinpoche at Tango is believed to be the 7th reincarnation of the Bhutanese ruler that built the monastery in 1688.
Our monk guide brought us on a quick 5 minute walk uphill of the monastery to the Rinpoche’s house:
He then gave us instructions: go inside the house to the audience chamber, pay respect to the Rinpoche with our hands held flat together, then approach the Rinpoche and bow. We did so one by one, and while each of us was bowing the Rinpoche, sitting cross-legged and (honestly) looking fairly nonplussed by our group, sprinkled a few drops of “holy water” (eucalyptus-scented oil) on our heads. After standing, the Rinpoche’s assistant gave us each a small seed-like object to eat; the strong taste of incense was a little overwhelming. He also gave us a plain piece of yellow string to tie into a necklace. Our guide monk instructed us to wear the necklace until it falls off; as long as we don’t remove it we’ll have health and good fortune.
On the hike down, the friends I was visiting in Bhutan said that the whole thing was a rare occurrence, one that most tourists in Bhutan don’t get to have. Right place at the right time, I guess. It makes for a great, and unique, travel story. Even though I’m not a Buddhist, the rest of the trip did go off without any major problems… and last I checked, everyone in our group was still wearing their necklaces.
All our pictures from Tango Goemba are on Flickr.