It was around the first week of the third Bhutanese month, that the otherwise serene and silent Dungkhar Lhakhang under Khar gewog in Pemagatshel springs back to a frenzy life. It marks the onset of the preparation for its annual tshechu under the collective patronage of the four villages of Khar, Bongman, Labar and Yajur.
A month earlier, resources like grains are collected from each household of the four villages by designated people (Doolangpas) and the collections taken to Dungkhar Lhakhang where the grains are fermented and these Doolanpas come back about a week ahead of tshechu and begin distilling. It is during this time that others also make arrangements of putting up camps for their families and begin transporting necessities. Dungkhar Tshechu always begins on the seventh day of the third month and concludes on the tenth day.
“This year, it has been much easier for us with a road enabling us to transport materials to about an hour’s walking distance from the lhakhang. In the past everything had to be carried on our back all the way up for nearly four hours,” said Bongman Tshokpa Karma Wangdi. But, he said the present ease also depended on weather.
During the tshechu time, almost all the people of the four villages migrate to Dungkhar taking along even cattle. Although, the walk use to be hard and long, people from other villages also come to watch tshechu which is known for its sacredness and hospitality towards guests with local brews flowing freely.
The makeshift camps are also easily put up from the hut frames left behind from the previous year.
Lopen Shera Wangdi, a 86-year-old lay monk said that, each year around tshechu time, an elephant makes it to Dungkhar and retreats back to the lower hills and plains without causing any harm. Elephant dung from this year’s visit is found right near the lhakhang authenticating the claims. He said this indicated the un-explained spiritual importance of the tshechu.
Dungkhar Lhakhang is founded by Yab Tenpai Nyima, the father of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It is thus one of the oldest and the most sacred lhakhang in the dzongkhag. The lhakhang does not boast of architectural grandeur but it once contained some important inner relics-nangtens.
Unfortunately, it became the victim of repeated burglaries in the 1980s and 1990s leading to loss of some important relics and valuable items like elephant tusks among others. But, there are also other miraculous incidences which led to the recovery of these items while being stolen away.
Yeshi Jamtsho, the 30-year-old caretaker of the lhakhang said that, at one point of time a burglar made away with a pair of Duung (Long Horn). Somewhere in the forest the burglar was gripped with an irresistible urge to blow the horns right in the middle of the forest. People returning back from business trip to the south heard the sound and knew it to be of their Duung. They followed the sound and found the man with the stolen Duung which was recovered.
“But, village elders say that some antique items like statues and masks have been lost during the burglaries,” said the caretaker who just completed a year with the responsibility.
However, the lhakhang still have some important relics like a ritual skull cup (Ah Thoed) with letter (AHH), a mask of ox reported to have made sound (Langdong Suungjoenma) among others. After the tshechu these relics are taken back to the main village where they are stored under secured containers.
It was during those years of burglaries that the condition of the lhakhang also deteriorated damaging statues and scriptures. Today, it is found to be in better shape although it still remains desirable to be properly restored to even better state given its importance.
A retired major from Khar village initiated the restoration of wall paintings and frescoes (Debrees) some years back.
Government have also built a caretaker’s residence and rebuilt the old Naktshang (manor) where the local deity (Nep) resides. Electricity has come to the lhakhang and water is piped about few hundred metres below.
Construction of a shedra has been initiated privately by some local people led by the retired major. “We have initiated building a shedra to help spiritual activities at the lhakhang and with the hope it will serve as a source of a much needed replenishment of spiritual guides in the villages. Today, we are running short of lay monks and spiritual guides in the villages but the group is also running short of fund to see the construction expedited,” said Major Ugyen Thinley, retired.
It is heartening to see some changes taking place in Dungkhar Lhakhang for good but it certainly deserve even more attention from the government and restore it back to past glory. New lhakhangs and temples are important but even more important are the restoration and proper care of old ones like Dungkhar Lhakhang which is over 400-years-old and founded by no less a being than Yab Tenpai Nyima.