Mendre Togchhung Lhakhang

Mendre Togchhung Lhakhang (temple) in Dzongthang village is an approximately two hour drive from Trongsa. The village is entrenched on the slopes of a mountain at the end of a mountain range beyond Trongsa hospital, past Kharshong Community School and Gagar village. It is accessible off the Thimphu–Trongsa highway via a feeder road that leads to the Trongsa hospital.

The lhakhang is a two-storey structure built of mud and stone, narrowing from the base to the top. It is perched on a site resembling a hillock, providing a strategic view of the fields and river bank beneath, with a picturesque sight of the mountain ridges, forests, and villages that one passes through enroute. The lhakhang indeed has a commanding presence, as it lies right below the village and is the first building to greet passersby.


The famous Prince Drime Kuenden (known as a previous life of the historical Buddha in the Vessantara Jataka) is said to have been exiled from India by his father around 1500 BCE for what was likely an altruistic act. He was sent to a place called Durihasang, which is assumed to be located in Bhutan; the locals refer to the place as “Kemkem rig.” The prince was accompanied by his consort and children and is believed to have travelled through the mountains and valleys where Dzongthang village lies. It is also believed that while they were in the village the prince’s consort, Mendre Zam, initiated construction of the temple, and that the temple was named after her.

Many places below and above Dzongthang village are also said to be named after certain episodes in the princely couple’s travels through the region. For example, Chenrey, the name of a place located south of Dzongthang, may have some relation to the honorific term for eye, “chen” in Dzongkha and Choeke. People hold that the place was named after an incident in which the prince sacrificed his eyes to a blind man, whom he had met on a journey. There is a related story about a place called Gurthang Pang, located north of Dzongthang. People believe that the prince and his family had pitched their tent in that location. Gur is the Bhutanese term for tent, and thang pang is a flat place. Some call the temple Dzongthang Lhakhang, however, following the location name.

The temple’s foundation was initially laid in an area some meters above the present location in the middle of the surrounding fields, on plain ground undisturbed by human activity. Oral tradition has it that the initial location had a lake underneath it and a mermaid (water deity) residing in it. It is believed that when the temple was moved to the present location, the mermaid and the lake moved with it. The reasons for constructing the temple are unknown owing to the lack of preservation of once orally transferred knowledge.

Although thus far there is no concrete evidence to prove the temple’s existence as early as 1500 BCE, certain recently discovered artifacts show that it may have existed before or around the early 18th century. During recent renovations, workers discovered silver coins with the year 713 imprinted on them. These coins are distinct from those commonly used at that time (da yangchen, chimi tsim, beta kaap and cheythay were in common use). They also uncovered thumb-sized mukus (mud statues) of Guru Nangsi Zilnon (a form of Guru Rinpoche subduing the enemies) in the structure’s four pillars, adding to its sanctity. Informants say that each statue was specifically designated for a particular direction and that the direction to which a particular statue belonged was carved on the boxes in which each was found.

Architecture and Artwork

The temple is a two-storey building narrowing slightly from the base to the top. It is a tall structure, quite distinct from the village buildings, both in design and location, being perched on an elevated hillock on the slopes. The lhakhang has a three meter wide area around it for circumambulation and a small kitchen next to it. The buildings appear new and bright due to the ongoing renovation work.

The first floor of the structure serves as the main temple, which is connected to the ground by a traditionally built wooden ladder. On the left of the entrance door is the gonkhang or chapel – a small room allocated solely for the local protective deities, Ap Gaypo and Aum Lham. Women are not allowed to enter this room.

Outside this chapel is the place for the altar, but no altar exists right now, since the previous altar has been removed to make room for a new one. Hence, all statues are placed on a mantle. There are statues of Chana Dorji (Vajrapani); Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara); Jowo (Ornated Buddha); Tempa Shacha ( Historical Buddha); Chukchi Zhey (Avalokiteshvara with eleven heads); Guru Rinpoche with his two consorts by his sides; and Zambalha (Vaisravana, deity of wealth). Some religious texts, such as the Kanjur and Tenjur, are also stacked nearby.

The wall facing the entrance door is said to have housed paintings of peaceful deities, and the wall to the right of the entrance had paintings of wrathful deities, but these no longer exist. However, numerous thangkas (banners) adorn the room, hanging around the wall opposite the altar location.

The ground floor is used for multiple purposes: as a place to sit and chant mantras; to eat; perform dances; and as a dormitory when the lhakhang conducts rituals that stretch longer than a day.

Renovations involving dismantling of the entire structure were begun in the 10th month of the Bhutanese calendar in 2012, and the work is now nearing completion. The government provided Nu. 1,500,000, but this has been insufficient to complete the remaining work. Although there have been contributions from the public, these amounts are relatively small and are used for providing lunches to the laborers.

Earlier renovations saw the extension of the temple’s width in the ’80s and construction of a small extended room for the lama 6–8 years afterward. An official, Ramjam Golay, is said to have provided tools and monetary support, while the community provided labour for the temple’s widening, while the extension was the sole undertaking of the villagers.

Social and Cultural Functions

The temple is the only religious haven for the people of Dzongthang. The village witnesses numerous religious rituals in the lhakhang throughout the year, with at minimum one ritual every month.

A three day ritual, Dangpai Nyungne (snyung gnas), is performed in the 1st month of the Bhutanese calendar. Devotees gather, fast, and chant “mani” in the presence of a lam (abbot). The prayers chanted in the first two days are for the benefit of the individual devotees, while those chanted in the final day are believed to benefit the community as a whole. An offering to the local deities is also made on that final ritual day.

A ritual with the same purpose, Chunyipai Nyungne (snyung gnas), is also observed in the 12th month of the Bhutanese calendar.

Tendha tsechu (festival) is conducted in the 5th month of the Bhutanese calendar. It is a single day festival for Guru Rinpoche initiated about 10 years ago by the present Gangtey Trulku, relating to a similar festival conducted in Tibet with great fervor and reverence.

Lue Dhim, a three day ritual, is performed from the 10th–13th days of the 7th month. This ritual is specifically observed to give thanks to the local deities, as the fields have started yielding their crops, and also to seek protection from potential harm from wild animals and the forces of nature.

Other rituals are all one day events conducted on the usual auspicious dates as per the Bhutanese calendar, such as the 10th and 15th of the month.

All rituals and festivals are conducted by the community, which also bears the expenses. Sponsorship of Nyungne and Lue Dhim is a social obligation that comes in rotation, while sponsorship is sought for the other festivals. For the purpose of getting sponsors, two people, called the “Ley Tsey,” are selected from the village every year; they go around the village asking for sponsorship for the festivals and rituals.

In the past, the lhakhang did not have a lama, neither of its own nor appointed by the government. Six or seven years ago, however, the Gangtey Trulku initiated the appointment of a lama, whose tenure was dependent on the decision from Gangtey monastery in Wangdue district. A monthly salary is provided by the Gangtey Trulku, and a certain amount is also paid by the Trongsa Dratshang.

A caretaker, whose tenure is also not fixed, is chosen by the community villagers. They contribute rice and cereals to the caretaker in a gesture of payment for the services he renders to the community. The caretaker may be removed from service if his or her conduct is deemed unscrupulous.

Sonam, caretaker, Dzongthang village

Karma Phuntsho. (2013.) The History of Bhutan. Noida London: Vintage books, Random House India.

Researcher and Photographer
Choney Dorji, Asst. Lecturer, Institute of Language and Culture Studies, 2015

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