Dumtseg Monastery: A Project, A Memory

By Kesang Choden T., Thimphu, Bhutan

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Dumtseg Monastery - this unusual stupa monastery stands stoically against the soft landscape of Paro valley’s golden rice fields that ripple gently in the autumn breeze. This is how I shall always remember this 15th century structure.

It is a place I associate with my great grandmother and my grandmother, because this is one of their favourite monasteries in Bhutan. From across the river, every time my eyes meet its cream white dome-like shape silhouetted against the red hillock, I am reminded of all that I love about them- their grace, magnanimity, and courage in the face of change.

This three-storied structure was built by the Tibetan Saint Thangtong Gyalpo during his search for iron ore to build bridges,-a feat he accomplished three centuries before metal bridges were built in the West.

Dumtseg Monastery embodies the beauty of traditional Himalayan architecture, and yet it also characterizes originality and an enlightened sense of innovation in its design and layout, a predecessor to the great Kumbum (stupa) monastery he built in Gyantse in Tibet.

It is home to one of the most beautiful and comprehensive Tibetan Buddhist murals in the world today. It showcases the largest mural of the Buddha of Compassion Avalokiteshvara in Bhutan, one of the only known mural paintings of the complete lineage of Thangtong Gyalpo (of the Chakzampa Sect) with the Drukpa Kagyu sect of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, spanning from the 15th to 18th centuries. It has as well as one of the most exquisite murals of the 84 Mahasiddhas of India.

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The preservation and restoration of Dumtseg Monastery began as early as 2013, though the actual work only commenced in 2017 and was completed in 2019. It was my very first structural conservation project, and it was supposed to be Her Majesty Royal Grandmother’s last one. At the time, she was soon turning 90 and felt she would not be able to take on any more of the large-scale conservation works that she so thoroughly enjoyed throughout her life. In retrospect, I am somewhat amused to say that Howman Wong was right when he laughed in response and said it was far from the last! I now have three more projects lined up for our team, each of the same scale, all under Her Majesty’s patronage.

We experienced both struggles and miracles, but as is always expected by those of us who are familiar with Her Majesty’s projects and is true for every one of her initiatives; the people we needed, the things we required and the support we didn’t even imagine finding, all manifested out of thin air, exactly at the moment when we thought it could go no further. The late Lodroe Gyari (known also as Lodroe Gyare in Bhutan), a mutual Rinpoche friend of both How Man’s and Her Majesty’s, played a pivotal role in the successful completion of the Royal Dumtseg Restoration Project. In what is now his last letter to Her Majesty, he had promised that he would do everything he could to help with the project. Her Majesty keeps this letter by her beside. After the consecration, as Her Majesty circumambulated the inner sanctum, she spoke to us of how contented Lodi Gyari would have been if he was able to see the fully restored monastery.

It was through the late Lodi Gyari that Her Majesty found support and help in the form of CERS, How Man’s organization, Gilbert Wong and his beautiful wife Queenie Wong.

Life may be like the flicker of a butterlamp, it may pass quickly, but it burns brightly to dispel the darkness that otherwise surrounds us. I have learnt that it is vital to burn brightly and well, fiercely yet compassionately. For in the end, we all just become stories for others to tell to be inspired and to inspire those left behind to carry on the flame that continues to burn just as brightly within all of us. For this lesson that I have learnt from those I love and care about, especially for those that have left us behind, I am forever indebted and grateful.

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