Thangtong Gyalpo is more than just a legendary iron bridge builder of Bhutan

Email

He is most notably known for being the first to construct a suspension bridge with iron chains. On top of that, he also founded Tibetan opera, amongst other things.

(Source: Himalayan Mart)

Statues depict him as stocky, shirtless, and with a beard. In the portrayals, he has curly hair and a top knot. A link of chain sits limply in his hands.

This man is both a legend and a historic figure. His name is Thangtong Gyalpo, which means the ‘King of the Empty Plains’, a Tibetan saint, civil engineer, blacksmith, architect, artist, opera writer, and dispeller of epidemics.

Thangtong Gyalpo was born in Tibet in 1385. Some sources claim he instantly became 60 years old as soon as he was born. Yet other sources note that he achieved the secret of longevity through prayer and lived till the ripe old age of 125. 

Bhutanese lama Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche even said during a teaching that Thangtong Gyalpo lived till the age of 900.

“Visualise in front of you a vajra made of meteoric iron. At its centre is Thangtong Gyalpo, 900 years old, very beautiful, with red rosy cheeks, dark red, healthy, with a big belly and muscles. But to symbolise the nonduality of youth and age, he should have white hair, moustache and beard, a long white beard. He is the one who built Tibet’s bridges...”

Although we might be hesitant to claim absolute knowledge about his age, we do know that Thangtong Gyalpo was an eccentric character. He would ride horses into shrine rooms. He feasted on rotting horse meat, enjoying it like a delicacy. Over time, he earned the nickname “the madman of the empty land”.

Due to his madman-ness, a ferryman denied him a ride when he wished to cross a river to a holy site. From that incident, he envisioned an iron-chain suspension bridge for pilgrims to travel on. To achieve his vision, he studied metallurgy, learning to create durable links. He learned engineering to build structures that could span rivers and gorges.

To create the chain links, he developed his own method of smelting iron. He became the first to construct suspension bridges with iron chains. He went on to build a total of 58 bridges in Tibet and Bhutan, including the Chakzam Bridge across Yarlung Tsangpo. The bridge is 150 yards (approximately 140 metres) long, the longest unsupported bridge in the world at that time.

 

Photo source: Wikipedia

The feat earned him the nickname Lama Chakzampa, which means “Iron Bridge Lama.” 

In 1433, Thangtong Gyalpo first arrived in Bhutan in search of iron ore. While he was meditating along Paro Chhu (Paro River), he had a vision. A spiritual horse had compelled him to build a temple, Tachog Lhakhang, which means “temple of the hill of the excellent horse”. To this day, his descendants run Tachog Lhakhang as a private monastery.

For easy access to the monastery, Thangtong Gyalpo built the famous iron bridge that spans across Paro Chhu. The bridge links the highway to Tachog Lkhakhang.

Eight suspension bridges in Bhutan have been credited to him. You can see the original iron links he used to construct the bridges at the National Museum of Bhutan in Paro.

In fact, according to reports, Thangthong Gyalpo’s bridges were said to have influenced the construction of suspension bridges in Europe and Asia. 

“The bridges introduced by Thangtong Gyalpo in the beginning of 15th century with 80 to 130 metres of length in Tibet with all materials were achieved in Europe and America only after 400 after years in the 19th century” - Manfred Gerner, author of Chakzampa Thangtong Gyalpo, Architect, Philosopher and Iron Chain Bridge Builder

Thangtong Gyalpo is also said to have introduced blacksmithing to Bhutan. Blacksmithing (Garzo) is one of the 13 traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts.

Thangtong Gyalpo’s other achievements

Thangtong Gyalpo is a man of many talents and his skills go beyond bridge-building. Here are some of his other achievements that have gone down in the annals of history.

He founded the Gonchen Monastery, a Sakya monastery in Derge. 

He also composed many folk songs, some of which are still sung today by the Bhutanese. 

On top of that, he was an important terton (treasure revealer). He attained the title Drubthob, which means Great Magician.

Furthermore, his résumé includes the designing and construction of many large and unusual stupas in Tibet and Bhutan, including the chorten-shaped Dumtse Lhakhang in Paro and the great Kumbum Chorten at Chung Riwoche.

One of his most significant achievements is creating the Acme Lhamo, Tibetan opera, a means through which he raised money for the iron bridges. He founded Tibet's first dharma theatre troupe. They performed operas and recited mantras. Their storytelling was usually on the theme of subduing demons and enlightening sentient beings. 

Present-day, we still see performances that celebrate Thangtong Gyalpo’s defeat of an epidemic-causing demon by trapping the demon in a stone. He had carried the stone to the marketplace and split it open with a ritual dagger.

Speaking of epidemic-causing demons, the ability to eradicate sickness is also part of Thangtong Gyalpo’s legacy. According to Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Thangtong Gyalpo’s Refuge Prayer is one of the most powerful prayers for all kinds of circumstances, “The Outer, Inner, and Secret Refuge Practice of the Mahasiddha Thangtong Gyalpo prayer is very helpful. I do it all the time, day and night, whenever there’s a need.”

After Thangtong Gyalpo passed away, his lineage was established. The saint’s current tulku (reincarnation) is in his 20s. He has undergone intensive studying under Rinpoche’s watchful eye. Currently, he oversees a nunnery in Thimphu.



Related Posts

Travel to Bhutan: experience the charm of Paro district

Paro district receives the highest volume of travellers annually. It's also easily one of tourists favourite places in...

Jul 14, 2021 11:20

What are the 13 traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts?

“Were I to epitomise Bhutanese art with one word, that word would be colour... The attention to detail, the symmetry of...

Jun 09, 2021 11:17

A French's connection and deep love for Bhutan

We talked to Dr Francoise Pommaret about French Friends of Bhutan and the France-Bhutan relationship.

Jul 12, 2022 20:36

7 interesting facts about the roads in Bhutan

Did you know that there are no traffic lights in the Kingdom?

Jun 15, 2022 21:52

The three most popular flowers in Bhutan

One of these flowers can only be found above 3,700m above sea level.

May 29, 2022 22:23

If you love vibrant colours, you’d love the textiles of Bhutan

From the dyeing to the weaving, the Bhutanese have nailed the process.

May 21, 2022 17:26

Latest

News

CNN lists Tergo-La trek among 23 of the world's best hiking trails

CNN travel recently published a list of “23 of the world’s best hiking trails” for their “Monthly Ticket” travel series.

Jul 28, 2022 19:25

Bhutan revised entrance fees for historical monuments and sacred sites

Aside from the Tiger's Nest Monastery, tourists are now required to pay Nu. 1000 entrance fees to various sacred sites in the kingdom.

Jul 18, 2022 18:51

Features

A French's connection and deep love for Bhutan

We talked to Dr Francoise Pommaret about French Friends of Bhutan and the France-Bhutan relationship.

Jul 12, 2022 20:36

7 interesting facts about the roads in Bhutan

Did you know that there are no traffic lights in the Kingdom?

Jun 15, 2022 21:52

Business

The enormous role of hydropower in Bhutan

Bhutan uses hydropower to conserve the environment, produce electricity, and achieve economic self-reliance.

Jan 25, 2022 11:43

Online businesses are becoming more and more popular in Bhutan

Even though the Internet was developed in the 1960s, the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan was only introduced to it in June 1999.

Jan 20, 2022 12:41

Sports

More Bhutanese youths are engaged in football

Sitting at the 186th position in the FIFA rankings, Bhutan looks to improve its rankings in the years to come.

Aug 03, 2022 20:19

BOB Bhutan Premier League is coming back soon with a bang

There’s an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation growing in the valleys of Bhutan as football fans in the country await what appears to...

Jul 24, 2022 14:47

Travel

Bhutan revises its tourism policy to redefine High Value Low Volume tourism

Visitors to Bhutan will now have to pay more than triple the previous Sustainable Development Fees (SDF).

Jul 20, 2022 21:44

Join #mybhutanmemories campaign now to win FREE flight tickets to Bhutan!

All you have to do is to share your fond memories of Bhutan.

Jun 19, 2022 21:52

Lifestyle

Chillies, a spicy affair in Bhutan

The Bhutanese love it hot.

Jun 07, 2022 23:55

Bhutan is traditionally a matriarchal society

Women are the decision-makers at home, but something is keeping them from public life.

May 27, 2022 22:14

COVID-19

A detailed summary of Bhutan's COVID-19 management and plans moving forward

With offices and all businesses open, movement of vehicles allowed and critical services resumed from 21st March 2022, Bhutan braces for a...

Mar 22, 2022 11:23

Vaccinated tourists to undergo 5-day quarantine in Bhutan from April 25

What you need to know about entering Bhutan from April 25.

Mar 14, 2022 14:21

Subscribe to our newsletter

Never miss out on new happenings and news stories!

Download Daily Bhutan Mobile App

Connecting with us just got easier!