Why Bhutanese Built Chortens Everywhere
Hundreds of people from all walks of life go to circumambulate the giant whitewashed stupa from dawn till dusk. Building a Chorten or even circumambulating the chorten once is considered to accumulate good merits and beneficial to all the sentient beings.
One of the most popular Chorten ‘ Stupa’ in the capital city of Thimphu is Memorial Chorten built-in memory of the third king of Bhutan. The Chorten is an extraordinary example of Buddhist architecture and artwork with its gorgeous paintings and intricate sculptures. Hundreds of people from all walks of life go to circumambulate the giant whitewashed stupa from dawn till dusk. Similarly, places in Bhutan is adorned with Chortens or Stupas. It can be seen almost everywhere in Bhutan, on hilltops, in the valleys and even on the highways, roundabout, resting place, and pretty much everywhere.
A chorten is a receptacle for offerings, and in Bhutan, all chortens contain religious relics. Chortens are often situated in locations considered inauspicious – river junctions, crossroads, mountain passes, and bridges – to ward off evil. The classical chorten shape is based on the ancient Indian form of a stupa. Each of the chorten’s five architectural elements has a symbolic meaning.
The square or rectangular base symbolizes the earth. The hemispherical dome symbolizes water. The conical or pyramidal spire symbolizes fire (the spire has 13 step-like segments that symbolize the 13 steps leading to Buddhahood). On top is a crescent moon and a sun, symbolizing air, and a vertical spike symbolizing ether or the sacred light of the Buddha. Inside is placed a carved wooden pole called a sokshing, which is the life-spirit of the chorten.
Some chortens, such as the National Memorial Chorten in Thimphu are built-in memory of an individual. Others commemorate the visit of a saint or contain sacred books or the bodies of saints or great lamas. Bhutan has three basic styles of chorten, usually characterized as Bhutanese, Tibetan, and Nepal.
The Nepali-style chorten is based on classical stupa. On Nepali chortens, the four sides of the tower are painted with a pair of eyes, the all-seeing eyes of Buddha. What appears to be a nose is the Sanskrit character for number one, symbolizing the absoluteness of the Buddha. The prototypes for the Nepali chortens in Bhutan are Swayambhunath and Bodhnath in Kathmandu. The large chorten kora on Trashi Yangtse and Chendebji chorten near Trongsa are two examples of the Nepali style of chorten.
The Tibetan-style chorten has a shape similar to the stupa, but the rounded part flares outward instead of being a dome shape. Thimphu’s National Memorial Chorten is an excellent example of this style.
The Bhutanese design comprises a square stone pillar with a khimar near the top. The exact origin of this style is not known but is believed to be a reduced form of the classical stupa, with only the pinnacle and square base. Some Bhutanese chorten have a ball and crescent representing the moon and sun on top.
Several other types of chorten are also found in Bhutan. The khonying (two legs) is an archway that forms a gate over a trail. Travelers earn merit by passing through the structure, which is decorated with interior wall paintings and a mandala on the roof. The mani chukor is shaped like a Bhutanese chorten but is hollow and contains a large prayer wheel. It is built over or near a stream so that the water turns a wooden turbine below the structure, which then turns the prayer wheel.
Building a Chorten or even circumambulating the chorten once is considered to accumulate good merits and beneficial to all the sentient beings.