Thang Tong Gyalpo , the iron man of Bhutan, the Leonardo da Vinci of the Himalayas, the king of empty fields, artisan, engineer, composer, poet, soldier, merchant and more. He is a repertoire matched only by his own achievements. He is none other than Thang Tong Gyalpo, the great wandering scholar and accomplished yogi saint- and all the above.
Perhaps the most enigmatic of Buddhist saints, Thang Tong Gyalpo is the most renowned as the builders of iron bridges. In his many visits to Bhutan he built 8 iron bridges and 2 temples, the Dumtseg lhakhang in Paro and the Tachog Lhakhang . These are the top places to visit in Bhutan
If any imminent personage has fired the imagination of later day chronicles, scholars and devotees, none can compare to that of Thang Tong Gyalpo. From the scandalously rogue antics of Drukpa Kuenley, the divine madman, to the menacingly airborne Milarepa, the legacy of Thang Tong Gyalpo is solid iron, literally so.
Thang Tong Gyalpo is most revered and remembered for the numerous iron bridges that he built, accomplishments that begat him the more popular title Chazampa(iron bridges). For his eccentricity and unconventional behavior he was called Lungton Nyonpa, the madman of an empty village.
What was generally accepted was that he was Drubthob, the realized and accomplished one. He was so, in every sense of the word.
A popular and interesting but apocryphal legend has it that Thang Tong Gyalpo was born as an old man. His parents, fearing that they had given birth to a freak abandoned him in the fields. He was then brought up by the wild animals and hence his name Thang Tong Gyalpo. It translates as King of the open fields.
The more accurate accounts are that he grew up a child prodigy who has mastered the scriptures and the arts at a young age. In this context the name has been interpreted as the one with incomparable excellence in meditation. He is also known for steadfast and immobile from the plains (thang) of concentration. The name is also explained as indicative of his vast and supreme views on the nature of emptiness.
His life is one of progression. The avatars as manifold as the names and their interpretations. He is at once a militia conscript who rose rapidly through the ranks to become a commander. He has captured several forts by way of nonviolent strategy. In his youth, he was a very successful merchant who gave up his wealth and profits to a local ruler to save the lives of several unknown people from execution.
It is hardly surprising from this incident that he was considered an active emanation of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion. Additionally, several of his sadhanas such as Avalokiteshvara sadhana ‘For The benefit of All Beings Pervading Space” was composed by him after he received the transmission of this practice directly from Chenrizig. Chenrizig Nyungnye was also said to be a practice that he did throughout his life.
Thanthong Gyalpo lived for a time in Lhasa, at the court of the Deb Desi and was under the patronage of the daughter of the Desi.
The princess commissioned several major works of sculpture and paintings; most notable among them the exquisite gold sculpture of Milarepa. He also crafted several life-sized statues of Chenrezig, Tsepame and Drolma from conch shell, coral and turquoise that were destroyed in 1959.
Thang Tong Gyalpo’s creativity and ingenuity were not limited to art but even extended to developing numerous medicines and treatments including some longevity pills. Perhaps through strange coincidence, the Chakpori hilltop where Thang Tong Gyalpo lived near Lhasa later became the site for the first formal Tibetan medicinal institute built in the 17th century.
Thang Tong Gyalpo’s engineering feats, particularly with regard to bridge building, were reportedly inspired after he was refused passage on a ferry because of his ferocious and unkempt outward appearance. He was thrown unceremoniously into the water only to emerge with an insatiable zest for building bridges and ferry points.
The new found vocation was intended to inter-link remote and inaccessible villages and propagate the Buddhist faith. His early attempts suffered many set backs, the primary one being the lack of funds. This did not deter or faze Thang Tong Gyalpo and he is said to have come up with an innovative idea to compose and organize performances of the first ever Tibetan Opera, the Achi Lhamo to finance his passion.
Both bridge building and the opera were great successes. Thangthong Gyalpo went on to build something like 58 iron bridges and an equal number of wooden bridges, and over hundred ferry crossings all over the Himalayas including 8 iron bridges in Bhutan. None of the bridges are known to be standing. However, parts and pieces of iron still stand the taste of time at the national museum in Paro and at Duksum near Trashiyangtse, in eastern Bhutan.
The Achi Lhamo opera, with the starting troupe of seven sisters who worked on the saint’s bridges, is still performed and enjoyed hugely to these days during the new year celebration and on festive occasions.
Places he visited
Thangthong Gyalpo traveled widely and is said to have visited SIkkim, Ladakh, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan in search of iron ore. He is a celebrated figure in this region and his exploits and compositions live on in the local folk songs and lore. He is also credited with composing many of the work songs sung in the villages of the region, including in Bhutan. Numerous stories and songs also extol his miracles and his enlightened activities and one song tells of him using the yeti as his porter.
Living Temple of Thang Tong Gyalpo in Bhutan
Thang Tong Gyalpo’s passage in Bhutan stands enshrined in the temples of Tachoggang and Dumtse in Paro that he built.
The biography of Lochen Gyurmey Dechen narrates that the blacksmith of Paro once manufactured seven thousand chain links for Thangthong Gyalpo. These he took to Tibet in 1400 carrier loads. During his frequent and long sojourns to bhutan he took a consort Drubthob Zangmo, the aunt of Great Terton Pema Lingpa from whom he had several sons whose descendants live on at the Tachogang monastery.
The Depictions of Thang Tong Gyalpo
Depictions of Thang Tong Gyalpo are easily identifiable given his unusual appearances as in the manner of Maha siddhas. He has the signature iron chain link held in his right hand. The saint’s body complexion is dark reddish- brown, described in some cases as having the hue of “wet liver”.
He is said to belong to the descendent of the famed and legendary king Gesar. Seated on an antelope skin in the relaxed posture, he holds a tsebum or vase of long life in his left hand which rests on his lap in the dhyani mudra. The saint’s tsebum links him to tsepame, the bodhisattva of infinite life. He had also discovered the sacred dharani as a terma hidden by Guru Rinpoche. Special Thang Tong Gyalpo drupchens of long life are still very popular..
Thangthong Gyalpo is depicted with his hair in a turban-like knot. He sports a long beard and long logs up to his shoulders which may be either black or white depending on whether he is depicted as an old man or in his prime. His image in Dumtse Lhakhang near the entrance is perhaps the youngest depiction.
Clothed in a white garment in this particular and unusual depiction, he maintains a goatee, short hair and holds his hand in the bhumisparsa mudra. The iron chain links are not held in the hands as usual but lie at the edge of the throne, barely discernible under the folds of his garments. In contrast, the huge main statue of the saint in the ZIlukha Drubthob nunnery above the Tashichho Dzong shows him at a ripped old age with long white flowing locks and beard. A pot belly and perhaps a gentler expression on his face. Numerous slate carvings of the saint holding his iron chain and vase are found in the Dzong and monasteries all around Bhutan. In many of these slate carvings the face is embellished with gold paint.
So while in Bhutan, visit Tachoggang & Dumtseg Lhakhang in Bhutan to enjoy the living grandeur of Thang Tong Gyalpo.