The Gangteng Monastery ,generally known as Gangtey Gonpa or Gangtey Monastery, is an important monastery of Nyingmapa school of Buddhism, the main seat of the Pema Lingpa tradition. located in the Wangdue Phodrang District in central Bhutan. The Monastery, also known by the Gangten village that surrounds it, is in the Phobjikha Valley where winter visitors – the black-necked cranes – visit central Bhutan to roost, circling the monastery three times on arrival and repeating this circling when returning to Tibet. The Monastery's history traces to the early 17th century and back to the prophecies made by the well-known Terton (treasure finder) Pema Lingpa in the late 15th century.
The Monastery is one of the main seats of the religious tradition based on Pema Lingpa's revelations and one of the two main centres of the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism in the country.
A Nyingma monastic college or shedra, Do-ngag Tösam Rabgayling, has been established above the village.
The descent of the first king of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck of the Wangchuk Dynasty of Bhutan, which continues to rule Bhutan is traced to the clan of the Dungkhar Choje, a subsidiary of the clan of Khouchung Choje whose founder was Kunga Wangpo, the fourth son of Pema Lingpa.
The Gangteng Monastery, also called the Gangteng Sangngak Chöling་, was established in 1613 by the first Peling Gyalsé Rinpoche or Gangteng Tulku, Rigdzin Pema Tinley (1564–1642), who was the grandson of the great Bhutanese "treasure revealer" Terchen Pema Lingpa (1450–1521). The earliest historical background relevant to this monastery is traced to establishment of the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, by Guru Rinpoche, who was instrumental in making Bhutan a Buddhist nation. The Guru, during his visits to the country in the 8th and 9th centuries, had hidden many sacred treasures (called terma) (images and scriptures), to avoid their desecration or destruction during troubled times, at various places in Bhutan to be retrieved in later years by treasure finders, to propagate the teachings of Buddha. These were retrieved at various periods over time and in the 15th century Pema Lingpa, born in 1450, considered an incarnation of Guru Rinpoche, prompted by a revelation of 108 treasure coves in his psychic dream revealed by his Guru Rinpoche. He embarked on the treasure hunt in 1476 when he was 25 years of age. He was successful in locating many treasures of images and scriptures related to Buddhism throughout Bhutan, which resulted in establishing many monasteries throughout Bhutan, and Buddhism took firm roots in the country. Consequently, Pema Lingpa came to be known as the “King Terton", a revered saint and teacher. The Terton, came on a visit to the Phobjikha Valley as a saint to teach Buddhist precepts to the people and also to bless them. During this visit, after looking at the impressive mountains that surrounded the valley he had foretold that one of his descendants would build a monastery or gonpa on the Gangten (meaning top of the mountain) and make it famous as the seat of the Peling tradition. This prediction fructified when a monastery was built by his grand son Gyalse Pema Thinley in 1613, and the spur of the mountain was given the name, the Gangteng Sang Nga Choling (meaning: “summit for the teaching of the dharma”). He became the first Trulku (spiritual head of the monastery or gonpa) of the monastery. It was initially built as a Lhakhang, a small village monastery, which was later expanded by his son Tenzing Legpai Dhendup (1645–1726), who succeeded him as the second Trulku. It was built like a Dzong (fortress). The present Wangchuk Dynasty, which rules Bhutan, are descendants of Pema Lingpa.
From 2002–2008, the Monastery has been completely restored under the present Gangteng Tulku, H.E. Rigdzin Kunzang Pema Namgyal (b. 1955).
The rebuilt monastery was consecrated by the present incarnation of Pema Lingpa on the October 10, 2008, graced by the fourth King of Bhutan. Gangteng Sang-ngak Chöling, as now restored, retains its original glory and is stated to be the resurgence of the Peling Tradition. Hence, the restoration of the Lhakhang and the resurgence of the Peling Tradition also symbolises the aura of Bhutan’s Monarchy.”
In the context of the 1864–65 battle fought between the British Army and the Bhutanese Army at Deothang in Bhutan, it is mentioned that the hands of the British military officer that was severed in the battle have been “preserved in the sanctum sanctorum of the Gangteng Gonpa.”
The construction of the original Lakhang was done with full community effort. The local materials such as timber came from the nearby forest trees that were cut, shaped and used for construction of the pillars, beams and windows. Building stones were extracted from the local hills; in this context a legend is also stated that the local guardian deity, called the Delep, facilitated availability of stones by creating a landslide in the opposite hill. A renowned artisan of the Umze of Lhalung Monastery in Tibet was specially brought from Tibet to head as the zowpon to guide the team of local craftsmen. Voluntary labour force was organized from among the devotees of the local village of Gangten.
The monastery underwent a major refurbishing from 2000, which lasted for eight years. It was a massive restoration work which was organized by the ninth Gangteng Trulku, Kunzang Rigzin Pema Namgyal (stated to be the reincarnation of the body of Pema Lingpa) at a project cost of Bhutanese ngultrum (Nu) 700 million “to preserve this remarkable legacy for the future.” He engaged 'Landmarks Foundation' to mobilise the restoration and preservation of the Gonpa. This was the first occasion for the Landmarks Foundation to engage in a project in which the sacred site was fully functional. The structural problems were first identified, particularly as the wooden parts which deteriorated and affected the structure. The refurbishing was planned in such a way as not to disturb “the original aura and grandeur of the monastery”. The Royal Government of Bhutan supervised the work and provided the necessary technical and architectural support, including raw materials. This building construction lasted for eight years and all efforts were made to preserve the old structures, carvings, and paintings to the extent possible, while 104 new pillars were intricately crafted by the local artisans. This task was also supported by the fourth King of Bhutan with technical support and guidance. The monastery was painted with durable special mineral paints, locally called the dotshoen. The monastery occupies a prime space in the Phobjika valley, and as built now it is a large complex consisting of the central Gonpa, surrounded by monks' living quarters, meditation halls and a guest house. It also houses a school.
The monastery complex has five temples that surround the main central tower. The main hall in the monastery called the tshokhang has been built in Tibetan architectural style. The hall is built with eight very large wooden pillars, which are stated to be the largest in Bhutan. Wood work, both inside and outside of the old structure, which had deteriorated have been replaced. Similarly, some of the paintings and frescoes inside the monastery have also been redone. The monastery is now maintained by 100 odd lay monks (locally known as the gomchen). The monks are also assisted by Buddhist devotees whose families reside in the village near the Gonpa.
The restoration work has been done by craftsmen supported by gomchens, who are lay monks (not necessarily celibate). These monks supported themselves and offered their services free. The carpenters carved 50 feet (15 m) long wooden beams with lovely motifs out of blue-pine, by hand with set of wood-handled tools. Some used daggers to carve dorje (a diamond thunderbolt motif) which is a recurring theme in the exteriors of the monastery. The ancient gateway leading to the monastery was redone (see infobox).
Elaboration of the layout
The detailed layout and the holy images and frescos contained in the various buildings of the Gangten Gonpa complex are elaborated, starting with the four directions of the Gönpa and the sacred and symbolic significance of the areas that surround the Gonpa. Located in the central region of Bhutan, the precincts are forested with medicinal plants and trees. The sacred places that are in the region, in the four directions are: On the east – the Gayney Lhakhang in Bumthang; in the south – the Moenyul Namkha Dzong; in the west – the Paro Taktsang; and in the north – Namthang Lu Gi Phu, the meditation cave of Guru Rinpoche. The Gonpa is located on a spur at the highest point, symbolic of the Vajrayana teachings and its practice. Its location at the base is intertwined with nine large mountain peaks, symbolising the ninth “yana.” It has no problem of wild animals, which is indicative of lack of sufferings. The sky above appears in the form of the eight-spiked wheel, which is symbolic of the yogic practitioners of Dzogchen. The land where the Gonpa is located is an “equanimity and altruistic intention of Bodhicitta.” It has eight auspicious signs indicative of an assembly of the noble sons and daughters from all directions. The precincts depict “a victory banner in the east, long horns in the south, six-syllable mantra in the west and stupa in the north,” symbolising natural realization; further, the sun and moon rise early and set late, the three perennial rivers flow nearby and the spur where the Gonpa is located appears like an elephant – an auspicious sign.
The ten qualities of the precincts of the Gonpa are elaborated: The surrounding mountains and forests that enclose the Gonpa are like the 16 great Arhats with their entourage of close followers; the white road of Langleygang represents the eastern grey Tiger, there is the blue Zhungchu Ngoenmo, which symbolises the southern blue Dragon; red rock in Trawanang represents the western red Bird; the pastoral meadow of Tsi Tsi La symbolises the northern black Turtle; the four local protectors known as Sadags represent non-destruction by the four elements; there is the evergreen 'Wish-fulfilling Tree' (Paksam Joenshing) that symbolises spiritual and temporal prosperity; upper, middle and the lower sub-regions of the area represent the particular teachings of the 'Three Baskets'; and the retreat centres have dedicated male and female practitioners of Buddhism. Given these auspicious environment, Gangtey Gönpa has: A square plan that denotes perfection in teachings and practice; it has large fencing around it that protects it from evil influences; the monastery has three entrances representing “the doors of the three Yogas”; 108 doors and windows are provided to denote cleansing of the darkness of sentients; the images are painted and embossed, as protective compassion; Mandalas are depicted – the outer level Mandala is of the Mahayoga, the inner level Mandala denotes the Anuyoga and the secret level Mandala is of Atiyoga.
On the ground floor, images of the Buddhas of the 3 times similar to the ones in Magadha, Vajrasana and Yangpachenare deified. Next to these are the images of 4 other Buddhas, the 8 Noble Sons, the Great Teacher; wrathful form of Hayagriva, and Vajrapani flank them. The Assembly Hall has Jangchub Tungsha and offering goddesses. While at the sides of the entrance are the Kings of the 4 directions namely, “the Mandala of Cyclic Existence, layout of Mt. Meruaccording to the sutras and tantras, Zangdog Pelri and the Pureland of Shambala.” The first floor is where the successive Trilkus have lived, which has three shrine rooms of the Dharmapalas and the Treasury with the Namsey Phodrang. The second floor is where the Lamai Lhakhang with the statue of Vajrasattava surrounded by the Peling lineage holders are deified. The complete Nyingma Gyud Bum texts are located on the eastern side. The Tshengye Lhakhang is on the southern side where the statues of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, canonical texts and eight red-sandalwood Desheg Chortens are seen. The living quarters are to the east and west of the Gonpa. The west also has the Amitayus Lhakhang with the statue of Buddha Amitayus with his companions. The Machen Lhakhang is located to the north where the reliquary stupa with embalmed body of the 6th Gangteng Tulku Tenpai Nyima is located. It also houses statues of the 16 Arhats.
The 11-faced Avalokiteśvara Lhakhang is at the entrance to the main temple. The Shedra’s Assembly Hall and the Kezang Lhakhang flank the main temple. The living quarters of the monks are built on all four sides. The monastery also has a unique collection of armoury and weapons along with ritual paraphernalia.
The consecration ceremony, which was held on October 10, 2008 (on the auspicious 11th day of the 8th month of the Earth Rat Year according to the Bhutanese calendar), was a grand ceremony, which was not only graced by the Fourth King of Bhutan accompanied by his Queen and the royal family members and the Prime Minister with his Ministers but also by all descendents of Pema Lengpa. The hymnal extracts from the original sacred Peling scripture discovered by Terton Pema Lingpa in south Tibet and the Gurdag, dedicated to the wrathful form of Guru Rinpoche, were recited and the consecration rites performed in the four cardinal directions of the monastery. These rites were performed by monks, nuns and lay monks drawn from the 13 religious institutions that follow the Peling tradition. Local residents of the Phobjika Valley, and large number of students of the monastery under the tutelage of the present Trulku were also witness to the ceremony. The audience included devotees from Khunnu village in Himachal Pradesh, India, who were disciples of Pema Lingpa. Michael McClelland, who was associated with the restoration works right from the start said after the consecration ceremony that it was a “terrific experience to see the restoration and the consecration. He said he was struck by the sheer beauty of the Lhakhang and the organisation of the consecration ceremony. It’s a once in a life time experience.” The day following the consecration ceremony, the annual Tsechu and mask dances were held at the Gonpa. An exhibition of traditional arts and crafts was also part of the celebration for the next seven days.
The monastery and the Phobjika valley are covered under a blanket of snow during winter months of January and February when all the monks and the people of the valley shift, numbering about 4,500, temporarily to Wangdue Phodrong.
Gangtey treks are a popular tourism attraction in the Phubjika Valley which covers the Gangtey Gonpa. It is a trekking route followed by international trekking enthusiasts that starts from the Gangteng Gonpa in the Phobjika valley. It passes through the Kumbu village (east of the Gonpa), goes through the Gedachen and Khebayathang villages, leads to the Kilhorthang village and terminates in the Kungathang Lhakhang. A short trek of about 90 minutes, known as the Gangte Nature Trail, starts from the mani stone wall to the north of the Gangtey Gonpa and ends in Khewa Lhakhang.