The Kangso ritual of Ogyenchoeling, Tang valley, Bumthang district, Bhutan - Françoise Pommaret, 2004

The Ogyenchoeling estate in the Tang valley of Bumthang (central Bhutan) is associated with great Tibetan masters of the Nyingmapa religious school. Longchen Rabjam (1308-1363) meditated here and it was one of the residences of Dorje Lingpa (1346-1405). The family that owns the estate and has done it for generations considers itself as one of his blood descendants. In the 19th century, the estate and the family became powerful and prosperous. The head of the lineage Tshokye Dorje, became the governor of Trongsa dzong and the de facto leader of Bhutan.

Moreover, the marital alliances between the Dorje Lingpa lineage and the descendants of Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), the other great lay-practitioner and treasure discoverer of Bumthang, increased the religious prestige of the Ogyenchoeling family called by the honorific term of Choeje. Tshokye Dorje 's grand-son Ogyen Dorje became the Jakar dzong governor, that is to say the head of the Bumthang district, and between 1900 and 1902, he rebuilt the family residence, which had been damaged by the 1897 earthquake.

Life in Ogyenchoeling is shaped by numerous rituals but the Kangso is the most important of all as it brings together, inside the manor, the Choeje family and the villagers in a long and complex ceremony, the organisation of which is the responsibility and duty of the Choeje family. The annual family festival of the Kangso, takes place in autumn from the 8th to the 10th day of the 9th month in the Bhutanese calendar. The Kangso combines in fact two ceremonies that existed separately before the 1970s but at that time, for socio-economic reasons, the two ceremonies had to be merged into one, held from the 8th to the 10th day of the 9th month. Prior to this period, there was a Tshechu ceremony with masked dances in the 9th month, and a Kangso in the 10th month. The masked dances are not performed any more.

The Kangso (a short form of the expression thugdam kangwa nyampa sowa) is generally described as a ritual of propitiation dedicated to tutelary deities. Although the date of the ritual's introduction in Ogyenchoeling is not known, the texts used during the liturgy are by the tertoen ("religious treasures discoverer") Dorje Lingpa. The two main texts are a part of the Lama Kadu which, in the past, was read at the Tshechu ceremony, and a part of a text dedicated to the protector Gonpo Maning, which was read at the Kangso ritual.

In Ogyenchoeling the Kangso is dedicated to Gonpo Maning (a form of Mahakala) who was the protective deity of Dorje Lingpa and became his descendants' deity. On the same occasion, all the deities of Ogyenchoeling that are considered to be part of the retinue of Gonpo Maning are also worshipped and presented with offerings. Short texts dedicated to them and composed by Dorje Lingpa and his descendants are included in the recitation. The deity called Indrabhuti is especially revered because he is the deity of the territory (nepo) of Ogyenchoeling. All are now considered to be local deities and at the same time make up the khor or "entourage" of Gonpo Maning; their offering cakes (torma) are placed symmetrically on each side of the torma of Gonpo on the altar.

The religious ceremony is performed by ten to fifteen lay-practitioners, to whom must be added the family and the villagers who also play an important role. The fact that most of the lay-practitioners come either from village families or are related to them adds to the social cohesion and allows an easy interaction. The lay-practitioners, called Gomchen, the term for lay-practitioners in Bhutan, come from the village or the surrounding areas. Ordained monks, called Gelong in Bhutan, also come if they are available. Most of them belong to the nying ma school of Tibetan Buddhism. All the practitioners are paid by the Choeje family, which also provides food for them, except for the 2nd day of the ritual when the lunch is provided by the villagers.

The ritual appears as a juxtaposition of events and ceremonies that take place inside the Jo bo lhakhang and outside near the prayer flag and in the courtyard. When events take place outside, the religious ceremony inside the temple stops. The Choeje family and the villagers view the ritual as a structured ceremony and the most important event of local life. It must be carried out as correctly as possible so that the deities are propitiated. The presence of a reincarnate lama is recommended and highly regarded. Great attention is paid to the order of events and to the strict execution of the liturgy (recitation of the texts, musical parts, offerings, blessings). After witnessing the full process three times, I have come to the conclusion that its description would be best arrived at if it is presented according to the places where the activities take place. It establishes a kind of continuum in the ritual, while a simple "day-wise" presentation would add to its complexity and would not bring out its specificities.

Ceremonies inside the Jowo temple

The lay-practitioners sit in two rows perpendicular to the altar; some of them are musicians. A reincarnate lama (rinpoche/trulku), the head of the liturgy, the choir master holding the cymbals, and the musicians playing the long trumpets sit with their backs to the window and face the altar, an arrangement that is different from many central Tibetan temples. The sacristan is called the choepon and he is a lay-practitioner from the village of Ogyenchoeling who carries out his duty very seriously. He has to coordinate the ceremony, perform parts of it and also help the young lay-practitioners find the right page of the texts when they are lost. The altar is stacked with offering cakes which have been prepared by three or four lay-practitioners the day before in the Vajrasattva lhakhang as well as on the landing of the first floor. There are two rows of offering cakes :The upper one consists of three elaborate ones made according to the Lama Kadu text and represent the yidam, the lama and the dakini. The lower row has a large offering cake of Gonpo Maning in the centre and, on each side, eleven smaller cakes represent the protective deities of Ogyenchoeling, each different from the other and well identified. On the side of the altar, near the arrow of good fortune (dadar), there is a large cake adorned with animal paintings (tsakali). This is the Wangtor of Gonpo Maning, the one that is filled by the ritual with the power of the deity. Dozens of smaller cakes, which are food for the deities are placed in front of the larger cakes.

On each of the three days, the ceremony is the same, that is to say repeated, and on the evening of the third day, it is held on a grander scale. The repetition of the ceremony for three days brings more merit and blessing. In the 1970s it had been reduced to one day but Dasho Ogyen Rigzin, co-owner of the estate, reintroduced the three-day ceremony in 1990.

The ceremony starts before dawn, about 4 a.m. The lay-practitioners read the Lama Kadu text and stop just before the food offering sequence (noegrub). Around 9 a.m., they have a twenty-minute rest. They then resume the ceremony, performing what they call the Ma ning Kangso and they must reach the passage regarding Indrabhuti, the nepo of Ogyenchoeling, at lunch time, which is about 12:30 p.m. The lay-practitioners are the first to take their lunch in the courtyard and they sit in two rows facing each other and in a strict order. In the afternoon, the ceremony consists of offering food to the deities. It is a long sequence. The ceremony concludes around 4:30 p.m. with the taking of the food offerings (noegrub) and a recitation of the Tashi Monlam, a prayer of good auspices.

On the third day, the ceremony in the temple starts at 1 a.m. because most of the liturgy has to be completed by lunch time as in the afternoon important elements of the ritual take place in the courtyard.

The ending of the ceremony takes place once the afternoon events in the courtyard are over, and lasts from 5 to 7 p.m. It is the grand finale of the invocation to Gonpo, to which everybody in the village tries to come, including the children, and the temple is packed with over one hundred people. The Choeje family and their friends or visitors sit on carpets along the eastern wall of the temple, their backs to the chapel of the protective deities. People from the village sit or stand at the back of the altar, and along the western wall. The sacristan has hardly any space to move about and the brightly lit candles are at risk of being knocked off by people who have had too much to drink. The ritual resumes at the offering sequence. First, everybody offers money to a large wrathful sacrificial cake, but before placing the banknote on the plate, people rub it on themselves in order to get rid of all the negative influences and obstacles of the year. Once the money is collected, the sacristan sets this cake alight and then takes it outside the temple. The sacristan offers scented water and alcohol to everybody. This is followed by a prayer for the blessing of a kapala bowl full of scented water and a kapala filled with small pills; these have been consecrated by the lama presiding over the ritual and distributed to each participant. Then, the sacristan gives the elaborate food offerings on plates, which have been placed on the altar since the morning, to the lay-practitioners and to each member of the family while the simple food offerings are distributed to the people. The food offerings are not eaten right there and then, but just nibbled at. The people pack the food in a piece of cloth to take back home as blessings for those who could not attend, especially small children and old people. Tea and saffron rice to the lay-practitioners, the family and all the people present in the temple. This is followed by alcohol. Towards the end of the ritual, the Choeje family distributes envelopes containing the ritual fees to all the lay-practitioners. The end of the ritual is signalled by the whole assembly saying the prayer of good auspices (Tashi Monlam), punctuated by rice grains thrown into the air. While the lay-practitioners start to fold their books and pack their instruments, the womenfolk sing religious songs in the temple. It is a moment when each participant feels the presence of Gonpo Maning. They are intimately linked to the protective deity and to each other as a community belonging to the Ogyenchoeling territory.

Outdoor events: changing the flag, the procession and the ceremony dedicated to Gonpo.

The first and second days of the ritual are dedicated to the changing of the flags on the roofs, but especially the tall prayer flag dedicated to Gonpo Maning, just outside the manor. It is a major undertaking as the pole is more than 30 m. high and a source of, at the same time, great concern and amusement for everybody.

First day

About 9 o'clock in the morning, twenty men arrive from the village.. They sit along the central tower and are served tea and snacks. They are the ones who will take down the prayer-flag. Around 10:30 a.m., they move outside the manor and start removing the big stones that form the base and the foundation of the flag-pole. In the meantime, women villagers arrive and position themselves, holding thick ropes, which are used to take down the flag-pole. The ropes are made of rattan and are brought all the way from the region of Kurtoe where Ogyenchoeling has land. The ropes are tied to the flag-pole by the the head of all the estate workers or somebody who has climbing skills!

There is a row of about ten women on the roof of the building nearest the flag (on the south side), a row in the courtyard (west side), a row in the pasture (east side), and a row of menfolk holding the pole with crossed boards on the north side where the weight of the flag-pole is the most difficult to manage. At 11 a.m., once all the stones are cleared, the flag-pole is brought down with great care, held back by the ropes and supported by beams. Two men with a big double-faced cylindrical drum and a gong give the signals while another man shouts shag, "come".

As mentioned earlier, the ritual stops in the temple when the flag-pole is ready to be taken down. Six lay-practitioners climb onto the Jo bo lhakhang roof with their musical instruments.Wearing special yellow hats, they play while the flag-pole goes down. It takes about twenty to thirty minutes to bring the pole to the ground.

Once the pole is on the ground, the flag is detached from it and later burnt. In the afternoon the ceremony carries on in the temple while villagers prepare small poles for the flags that will go on the roofs of the manor, and two clean the long pole with a plane. All the flags are rectangular and of different colours, except the small flag for Gonpo, which is triangular, black and decorated with an eye and a skull. Called ru dar, it will be placed on the roof of chapel of the protective deities. Inside the manor, the work has started on the new 30-m-long flag. The four auspicious animals are printed from block prints and painted: tiger, snow lion, dragon and garuda; then Avalokishtesvara with eleven heads, and lastly prayers.

Second day

The new bamboo ornament and the flag are fixed to the pole with small wooden nails. The flag is now hoisted in the late morning of the second day. It is the same ceremony as the day before except that erecting the flag-pole is a more difficult task. It takes more than half an hour, with a lot of shouting and pulling. Everybody is placed in the same way as the first day. In the end, the flag-pole should be straight: if not, it is a bad omen for the whole territory. The pole is then secured with the stones, which are placed at its base.

Once the flag is hoisted, a short ceremony of consecration is performed by the lama after lunch. This ceremony can also be performed on the third day. A fire for the fumigation (sangs) with pine branches is lit near the flag. The consecration ends with the ceremony of the offering of butter and alcohol to Gonpo. A bamboo twig decorated with colourful ribbons is presented to the lama, who blesses it, and then it is stuck at the base of the flag-pole. It is dedicated to the deities of Ogyenchoeling in the retinue of Gonpo. Men then shout in Bumthangkha Tai ya hi, hi, hi, the equivalent of the Tibetan Ki so so. The barley flour that was used during the consecration ritual is placed on the head, the forehead or the neck of everybody, especially the children, as a blessing for long life.

That evening, helmets, shields, guns and some standards are taken out of the chapel of the protective deities and placed in front of the altar. The men who will wear these costumes on the third day are considered the servants of the Ogyenchoeling deities. They are villagers who volunteer to take up this role and whose parents have worked for the manor. That evening, on each of the deities' cakes, the sacristan places a little piece of dried meat.

Third day

There is no outdoor morning activities on the third day but lunch is served early, about 11 o'clock and the lay-practitioners who started the ceremony in the temple around 1:30 a.m. have finished it. Around midday, animals arrive: A bull, a cow, a yak and his female called dri led by the Ogyenchoeling cattle herder's family, horses and some sheep. Slowly the courtyard fills up with villagers carrying roosters and hens, and Ogyenchoeling mastiffs wear a thick collar made of red yak wool. A small yellow or red ribbon is attached to the hair or feathers of each animal; it is the mark of its dedication to Gonpo.

The lama presiding over the ritual and the head of the Ogyenchoeling family, accompanied by musicians, go up to the family's private chapel and take out a box that contains a hat believed to be that of Dorje Lingpa. When they cross the courtyard to go back to the temple, villagers line up to be blessed on their head with the hat. While this was taking place, male villagers have gone up into the temple and changed into their warrior outfits. There must be at least eleven, but if there are more of them, they get only parts of costumes. They are headed by a general who holds a flag made of multiple ribbons – and wears a thick red wool hat, while the warriors wear helmets. As soon as the warriors have gone down to the courtyard, the lama wearing Dorje Lingpa's hat stands on the throne and, while performing the ritual, watches the events in the courtyard through the window.

In the courtyard, a fire for the fumigation (sangs) is lit. Two horses have been prepared with their best saddles and ornaments: a white mule for lHa mo; a black stallion with a star mark on the face and on the right leg for Gonpo. Offerings of alcohol are made before them to request the deities to come and ride them. The warriors position themselves in two rows perpendicular to the temple and are surrounded by the villagers. The sacristan, in the middle, first purifies the ground. Then he conducts a ceremony dedicated to Gonpo, centered around the large cake decorated with tsakali, which is Gonpo's empowerment cake. A libation is offered and then a ceremonial offering of alcohol and a prayer empowers the flag by the deity. This cremony called mar chang is intended to please the protective deities in general and Gonpo in particular, so that people "have peace and good harvest, increased productivity of grain and healthy cattle, and every other auspicious accomplishment. May all wishes be fulfilled". Finally, the empowerment cake is taken out of the courtyard by the sacristan and thrown out of the manor. This ceremony is therefore an offering to the deity who then gives his blessing and empowerment to the warriors.

It is followed immediately by the procession around the temple. This is "renewing the support", which implies that it is intended to restore the link with Gonpo for another year. The procession follows this order: lay musicians with double-faced cylindrical drums and a gong, the two horses, the warriors, the yaks and then all the other animals led or carried by the people, then the rest of the villagers, especially those who had babies born that year so that they get blessings from the deities. There are three rounds of the temple and each time the horses and warriors reach the front of the temple, everybody shouts.

As soon as the procession is over, the warriors resume the same position in two lines and the villagers sit and watch. The general performs a very solemn dance, the steps of which are associated with subjugation or war. He jumps while brandishing his sword and uttering a song that invokes Gonpo. Suddenly, he runs out of the courtyard waving his sword. Then he comes back very calm, bows down to the temple where Gonpo resides. At the end of this ritual dance his attendant cleans the sword blade on his sleeve before helping him to put it back in the scabboard.

All believe that Gonpo has come and helped the general to vanquish the enemies. Two lay-practitioners on the roof announce the end of the whole sequence with their long trumps. It is now time for everybody to go up inside the temple and participate in the last part of the ceremony, which has been described earlier.

As in many parts of the Tibetan world, this ritual is important for the identity of the territory and the renewal of allegiances between the protective deity and the Choeje family, and between this family and the villagers. It is a thread back to the founder of the lineage and a stamp of authentication for the family, a covenant of well-being for the villagers and gives to all the feeling of belonging to the same territory, protected by Gonpo Maning.

Ogyenchoeling is, to my knowledge, one of the few, if not the only, estate in the Tibetan and Himalayan world that has survived as the property of the same religious and noble family for five centuries. It has produced statesmen as well as reincarnated lamas, and has adapted to the socio-agrarian reforms of the 1950s in Bhutan and to the development policies of the government. At the same time, it maintains what produces or provides its cohesion, what we could call its essence: the ritual that is the interface between the different aspects of this small community.

© 2004 By Francoise Pommaret and Ogyen choling Trust Fund

No part of the publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission of the copyright owners

Note: A longer and more detailed version of this paper was published in Pommaret, Françoise."Estate and ritual in Central Bhutan: The bskang gso of O rgyan chos gling (Bhutan)" in vol. Bhutan (J. Ardussi & F. Pommaret, eds.). Proceedings of the XIth IATS Oxford 2003. Brill, Leyden, 2005.

next page: Dorje Lingpa and His Rediscovery of the “Gold Needle” in Bhutan

back: the significance food druring losar celebrations