Dungtse Stupa Monastery, Paro:Bhutan

Dungtse Stupa Monastery or the Stacked Round Stupa is a unique architectural structure of the 14th C that was built by the Tibetan adept Thangtong Gyalpo who is famous for welding iron bridges and monasteries with unusual architectural designs. The inner structure is from the 14th C while the outer structure was built in the early 17th C. This 3-storied architectural treasure is one of a kind in the Himalayan region, and contains many reliquaries and beautifully painted murals depicting the three levels of Buddhist manifestations of body, speech and mind.

Over the years, due to high levels of water table from the surrounding creek and rice paddies as well as a severe earthquake in 2011, the damage to these mud-rammed walls of this exceptional historical monument calls for a particular urgency in conservation and restoration.

Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother Ashi Kesang Choedon Wangchuck requested the Druk Preservation to restore and conserve this spiritual heritage. The structural survey was kindly funded by MindSpring Foundation.

Dungtse Lhakhang Restoration


Dungtse Chorten or The Circular Stacked Stupa was built in a unique style that is the trademark of its founder, Thangtong Gyalpo(1385-1509), better known as the “Iron Bridge Builder.” This Tibetan ascetic is the first to have discovered welding iron; and is said to have travelled throughout the Himalayan region building many monasteries and iron bridges. He is said to have built more than 85 bridges, of which some still exist and are used in parts of Bhutan and Tibet.

This unique stupa-like monastery was built in accordance with the geomancy of the Paro valley, thus protecting the land and the people from the otherwise inauspicious layout of the mountain behind it, which is said to have fostered illnesses and evil spirits.

The monastery consists of three levels, symbolically representing the three fields of manifestation of a Buddha i.e. Dharmakaya(Absolute Manifestation), Sambogakaya(Perfect Enjoyment Manifestation) and Nirmanakaya(Emanation Manifestation).

The ground floor consists of large frescoes of which some include beautiful aspects of Lord Buddha’s life, a breathtaking mural of Guru Padmasambhava’s paradise Zangdok Palri as well as Thangtong Gyalpo ans his lineage holders.

The upper floors comprise of wrathful deities and Buddhist saints and ascetics, of which some are rare and detailed depictions.

For centuries, many pilgrims, patrons and the community of Paro valley have cared for Dungtse Lhakhang. However currently this community monastery receives very little financial assistance from the Central Monastic Body or from the Royal Government of Bhutan for the preservation of this important heritage site.

Past Renovation and Restoration

Due to natural deterioration, in 1821 it was decided that a 12-sided monastic structure should be built around the existing stupa-like structure as further protection, thence it came to be known as Dungtse Lhakhang or The Circular Stacked Monastery.

The original roofing composed of slates but due to severe deterioration and lack of natural resources, it was replaced with corrugated roofing sheets in the 1970s.

Bhutan in the 21st Century

Western methods of conservation are a new concept to the Kingdom of Bhutan, especially for physical structures, as it is common to tear down old dilapidated structures that are made with traditional mud and replace with new cement mixed ones as it is perceived as being stronger and longer lasting.

Their Majesties the Fourth and Fifth Kings and most especially Her Majesty Royal Grandmother Ashi Kezang Choeden Wangchuck perseveres in encouraging the conservation of many cultural heritage sites that are of great historical and spiritual significance in the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Concerned with the preservation of Dungtse Lhakhang, Her Majesty requested my assistance in its restoration and intends for this restoration efforts to serve as an exemplary example of architectural conservation in the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Conservation and Restoration Report

After examining Dungtse Monastery, I offered the following recommendations to Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck.

1) The poorly constructed roof must be replaced as a significant amount of rainwater is leaking through. The water coming in from the roof is damaging the paintings on the ceiling and walls. Over time the water has also caused cracks on the wall murals.

2) The windows around the temple have to be replaced to prevent rainwater from coming in when there are strong winds. For example, the rain coming through the roof as well as the water coming from the windows is also damaging the wall paintings.

3) The temple is located near a creek and a river. It is also beside a rice field. The ground moisture is seeping up the mud walls and compromising their strength. All of the walls have been weakened from the moisture and, in some areas; the mud walls are starting to fall apart.

4) The electrical wiring needs to be changed to current standard. The exposed electrical wires are a fire hazard. This simple up grade can be done by the carpenters.

5) Install sunroofs for more filtered light to come in the monastery as it is currently very dark that neither the frescos nor the statues can be viewed clearly.

6) Butter lamps are burning inside the monastery 24/7. This is a fire hazard and the smoke from the lamps contributes to darkening the wall paintings. We have to design a butter lamps enclosure outside the monastery that is safe. The design will be simple and easy to manufacture. The goal is to duplicate this standard for all monasteries with the Kingdom to follow.

Need for training local carpenters & roofers

Over the years, I have observed that local carpenters and contractors working on restoring heritage sites in the Kingdom are in dire need of improving their skills; more work and interest is needed and encouraged in protecting these cultural heritage sites from disappearing altogether.

Proposed work:

Structural work

With this proposed project, structural engineering and construction specialists will need to be brought in to supervise as well as assist with the restoration of Dungtse Lhakhang monastic structure. The specialist team will train the local construction team in order to improve their skills and to introduce them to the latest techniques in building preservation.

The on-site training received during this project will provide local craftsmen with necessary techniques and knowledge that can be applied to future restoration projects throughout the Kingdom and enable a continued sustainable job creating project that will assist with the high level of unemployment within the country.

The first step in initiating this project is to have the whole complex surveyed for a treatment proposal. Three experts from America; a master carpenter, roof contractor and a structural engineer will survey Dungtse Lhakhang. They will write an extensive report on what needs to be done, including a treatment proposal. After this each consultant will submit estimations for the restoration.

As much as possible we will use construction materials available in the Bhutan and India. However those materials that are not available will be imported from the US and shipped in a 20 feet container to Bhutan. The safety standards of work will be the same as the US.

After the structural improvements are complete, the Bhutanese monks that I have trained in art conservation will restore the wall and ceiling paintings in the Dungtse Lhakhang monastery.

Financial Aspect

An account has been set up at the Bhutan National Bank(BNB) by the Royal Government of Bhutan with the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Finance as signatory to this account.

For transparency and accountability reasons, an annual financial report will be submitted to Her Majesty Royal Grandmother, the Central Monastic Body, the Ministry of Home & Cultural Affairs as well as a copy to the donors. This report will be available for public use.

Public Relations/Media

Press releases on this project will be distributed world-wide, with the kind assistance of Ms. Brigida Bergkamp whose expertise lies in PR.

The whole process of the restoration will be documented in still photographs and video, of which a copy will be given to the Bhutan National Library and the Department of Cultural Affairs. This will be the very first recorded attempt of a restoration of a temple in Bhutan and will serve as an example for future restoration project.

To acknowledge the work that has been done, a plaque with all the names of the donors and contributors will be place by the main entrance.

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