Kurje Lhakhang


5 kms north of the district headquarter and 1 km from Jampa Lhakhang, this majestic complex is located on the right bank of the Chamkhar river opposite Tamshing and Khonchogsum lhakhang. The Kurje complex is made up of three buildings facing south surrounded by an enclosure made of 108 chortens.


Kurje is one of the most sacred sites in Bhutan as Guru Rinpoche meditated here and left the imprint (je) of his body (ku) on a rock. In the 8th century, Bumthang was under the rule of a king named Sendhaka (alias Sintu Raja) whose home was the ‘iron castle’, Chakhar. This king was at war with his southern neighbour, King Na’oche. The latter killed the son of King Sendhaka, who became so distraught that he forgot to worship his personal deity, Shelging Karpo. The angry god withdrew the king’s vital principle and as a result he fell gravely ill. As a last resort, his ministers decided to call Guru Rinpoche, whose supernatural powers were well-known throughout the Himalayas. When Guru Rinpoche arrived in Bumthang, he went to a place a short distance north of Chakhar where there was a large rock resembling a diamond-thunderbolt on the summit. Here lived the deity Shelging Karpo. Guru Rinpoche meditated there for a while, leaving the imprint of his body on the rock. Then he asked the King’s daughter, whom he had taken as his consort, to go and fetch some water in a golden ewer. While she was away, he changed into his Eight Manifestations and began to dance in the meadow. So amazing was this spectacle that all the local divinities, except Shelging Karpo, came to watch. When the king’s daughter came back, Guru Rinpoche transformed her into five princesses, each holding a golden ewer in her hand. The ewers reflected the sun’s rays directly at Shelging Karpo’s rock. Curious about this unusual flashing, Shelging Karpo decided to take the form of a white lion and come out to see what was going on. This was the moment Guru Rinpoche had been waiting for. Turning himself into a holy griffon, (garuda/jachung), he swooped down, seized Shelging Karpo and forced him to give back the King’s vital principle. At the same time he made him promise not to cause any trouble for Buddhism and to become a protective deity. Guru Rinpoche planted his pilgrim staff in the ground where it grew into a cypress tree which has a descendant said to stand to this day in front of Kurje Lhakhang. As for Shelging Karpo, he is still the deity of Kurje. King Sendhaka recovered his health and converted to Buddhism. Guru Rinpoche compelled the two kings to meet each other and make peace at a place in the Black Mountains called Nabji, where a stone pillar commemorates this meeting. This episode constitutes the first conversion to Buddhism of Bumthang.

The actual Kurje complex is made up of three buildings facing south.

The first building on the right (east) is the oldest and was built on the rock where Guru Rinpoche meditated by King Sendha of Bumthang after his conversion to Buddhism. Its structure was rebuilt by Minjur Tenpa in 1652 while he was Trongsa Penlop and before he became the 3rd Desi of Bhutan.

The second building called the Sampa lhundrup temple was built in 1900 by Ugyen Wangchuck, the First King, while he was still the Penlop of Trongsa. The temple was built to house a monumental statue of Guru Rinpoche which was modelled after the advice of the great Nyingmapa lama, the Bakha Trulku, Rigzin Khamsum Yondrol.

A third building, the Ka Gon Phur sum lhakhang, was consecrated in June 1990 by the great master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (d.1991). The construction of the new Lhakhang at Kurje was undertaken by Mayum Chonying Wangmo Dorji and the then Queen Mother, now the Royal Grand-mother Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck in keeping with the 4th King’s wishes to build a sacred image of the deity Palchen Heruka while her mother Mayum Chonying Wangmo Dorji had also wished to construct a similar big image of Dorji Phurpa (Vajrakila) at this holy spot. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche then advised the then Queen Mother, now the Royal Grand-mother to build a temple of Ka-Gong-Phur-Sum (three esoteric teachings of Kagye, Gongdue and Phurpa) on this sacred place. Thus the construction started in1984 in dedication to all the past Kings of Bhutan, and to Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, Gongzim Sonam Tobgye Dorji and Lyonchen Jigme Palden Dorji, and with deepest prayers for the long life and successful reign of the 4th Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and for the eternal happiness and well-being of the Kingdom of Bhutan in particular and all sentient beings in general. It is the biggest and most elaborate Ka-Gong-Phur-Sum Temple of the Terma Nyingma tradition. Ka-Gong-Phur-Sum literally means Three Mystic Revelations of The Eight Pronouncements (Kagye), Abhipraya Samaja (Gongdue) and Vajra Kilaya (Phurpa).

The Royal Grandmother, Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, also commissioned 108 chortens carved out of stones and placed at regular intervals on the top of the enclosure. These Chortens are known as Duduel or Jangchub Chortens and represent the Mind of all the Buddhas, and the steps towards spiritual enlightenment. They are symbols that commemorate Buddha’s victory over evil forces and the absolute purity of his enlightenment. They enclose the Kurje complex, transforming it into a three-dimensional mandala along a pattern set by the Samye Monastery in Tibet.

In front of the buildings there are three large chortens, one of them made up of a heap of stones which are dedicated to the three Kings of Bhutan. A little away from the main complex but facing it and on the footpath to Jampa Lhakhang, the Royal Grandmother Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck, commissioned yet another beautiful temple which was consecrated in the Summer 2008.  The temple was inspired and designed in 1988 by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche according to the Zangdopelri, Guru Rinpoche’s paradise, and Mayum Choying Wangmo Dorji (d.1994) had offered to be the patron. Unfortunately both passed away and Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck decided to take over the merituous task. The temple was built in memory of Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck’s Grandfather, Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, of her grand aunt Ani Thukten Wangmo and her parents, Gongzim Sonam Tobgye Dorji and Mayum Choying Wangmo Dorji (d.1994). The construction was carried out under the supervision of Geylong Nyabji Thinley Gyeltshen.


Architectural style / school and related art works

The oldest building to the east has two sanctuaries. Below the roof there is a carving of Guru Rinpoche as Garuda subduing the white lion. The upper temple is dedicated to the Past, Present and Future Buddhas, whose images stand in the sanctuary. On the wall to the right are painted the Twenty-One Taras and on the left are various deities associated with riches.

The lower temple is the holiest because this is the site of a cave containing a rock with the imprint of Guru Rinpoche’s body. The cave cannot be seen as it is concealed by a large statue of Guru Rinpoche. His Eight Manifestations are displayed on the altar. Just to the left of the entrance is the figure of Shelging Karpo and an altar dedicated to him. On the right of the door, a thousand statues of Guru Rinpoche are lined up against the wall accompanied by three large statues: of the white Tara, the Goddess of Compassion; Guru Rinpoche; and either Pema Lingpa or Dorje Lingpa—the identity of this image is uncertain.

The wall opposite the door, on the right of the altar, is covered with clay, high reliefs commissioned by the senior wife of the Second King, Ashi Phuntsho Chodgron, in the 1930s. They represent Guru Rinpoche and his Twenty-Five Disciples, his Eight Manifestations and various other forms accounted for in the tradition of Pema Lingpa. The ceiling is decorated with a magnificent mandala dedicated to the teaching of the esoteric text Gondu.

There are two holes in the rock to the left of the entrance. They offer a way to purify sins. The sinner is supposed to enter on one side, worm his way as best he can through the rock and come out the other side. If he gets stuck it is because he has committed too many sins and will only be able to free himself by saying prayers. (Just in front of the steps leading to the temples there is a fairly small rock with a hole which has the same purpose).

The second buiding was built in 1900 by Ugyen Wangchuck, the First King, while he was still the Penlop of Trongsa. The temple was built to house a monumental statue of Guru Rinpoche. It was modelled under the advice of the great Nyingmapa lama, the Bakha Trulku, Rigzin Khamsum Yondrol who said that the blessings brought about by the presence of this image would contribute to the prosperity and stability of the whole country. The image of Guru Rinpoche is about ten metres (over 32 feet) high and is surrounded by his Manifestations as they appear in the Sampa Lhundrup text. An image of the historical Buddha sits on the left side of the altar and Zangdopelri, the paradise of Guru Rinpoche, is on the right.

Facing the entrance, a second, smaller statue of Guru Rinpoche was commissioned by Tamshing Jagar, in the early 1960s. To the left of the window there is a large painting of the 4th reincarnation of Pema Lingpa, Ngawang Kunzang Dorje (1680–1723), and on the right is a painting of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal with on his right the Umze Tenzin Drugye (First Desi of Bhutan from I651 to 1656), and on his left Pekar Juney (the First Je Khenpo).

The porch forming the entrance to this temple contains particularly fine paintings of the Guardians of the Four Directions and various indigenous deities who were subdued by Guru Rinpoche and transformed into protectors of Buddhism: Dorje Legpa red in colour, holding a diamond-thunderbolt and riding on a goat; Ekajati, dark red, with one tooth and one eye; Yakdu Nagpo, the guardian deity of the valley, coloured black and mounted on a black yak; Kyebu Lungten, the guardian deity of the Four Valleys of Bumthang, red, wearing armour and mounted on a red horse; and of course Shelging Karpo, Kurje’s deity, coloured white and riding a white horse.

The temple of Ka-Gong-Phur-Sum to the West has three storeys with the main image of Palchen Chemchog Heruka (Mahasri Parama Heruka) in wrathful form or in short form “Mahasri Heruka of Palchen Duepa”, with his mystic consort standing imposingly from the first to the third floor. Though there are different forms of Palchen Heruka in various traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism, this particular one installed in the new Temple of Kurjey is the Chief of all Mahasri Heruka, and this sacred image has been made in accordance with the Longchen Nyingthig (The Heart Essence of Vast Openness) tradition. The image of Palchen Heruka has the beneficial effect of averting all undesirable elements like war, internal strife, natural calamities, misfortune, epidemics and bringing peace and happiness to the county.

On the right of Palchen Heruka stands the 17 feet image of Drangsong Throepa Lama Gondue with 3 heads, 6 hands and 4 legs while his consort has one head with two hands and two legs. On the left side of Palchen Heruka stands a 17 feet image of Sinbu Throepa Palchen Dorji Phurpa or Vajrakila with 3 heads, 6 hands and 4 legs with his consort who has one face with two hands and two legs.

Life size statues on the top floor on the right of Palchen Heruka are KHEN-LOB-CHOE-SUM or Khenchen Bodhisattava (Shantaraksita) on the right, Lopon (Guru) Rinpoche in the centre and Choegyal Thrisong Detsen on the left. Images of the lineage of Nyingmapa Lamas adorn the top portion of the altar.

On the side of Palchen Heruka on the top floor are statues of Drogoen Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorji (12th c.), founder of the Drukpa Kargyu tradition with Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (17th c.) and Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye (17th c.), the fourth Desi of Bhutan on the right and left respectively. Images of the lineage of Drukpa Kargyu Lamas are beautifully placed in a row above the three statues.

Statues in the middle floor are Kagye (The Eight Pronouncements), Gongdue (Abhipraya Samaja) and Phurpa (Vajra Kilaya). They are the Chief Tutelary Deities (Yidam) of the Terma tradition of Buddhism in the Kingdom.

Statues on the ground floor are BuddhaSakyamuni which is the main image on this floor with Sariputra and Moggallana standing on his right and left, the sixteen Arhats

(Neten Chudrug), Hashang, Upasaka Dhamata, and the four guardian kings of the Four Directions (Digpalas).

Social cultural function

Kurje is a very important place of pilgrimage for the Bhutanese as well as the Buddhist from all over the world. The caretakers of the temples are usually from the Trongsa monastic community. Some of the monks from Trongsa dzong spend the summer at Kurje and perform numerous rituals including a Tsechu festival on the 10th day of the 5th Bhutanese month when a thangka is unfurled.

Since 1990, the Royal Grandmother Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuck sponsors in the 4th Bhutanese month a ceremony (Grub) for the well-being of the Kings and the country in the Ka Gon Phur sum lhakhang.

The kings and some royal family members are cremated in Kurje.

Research team                                               

Lopen Nagwang Jamtsho, Lopen Tashi Tobgay, Lopen Karma Drupchu
Lecturers, Institute of Language and Culture Studies, Royal University of Bhutan, 2012


(Click on the Thumbnails to view the Photo Gallery)