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What’s a Chorten, Anyway?

June 2, 2023

Our first encounter with chortens was at the top of the Dochula Pass between Thimphu and Punakha. In the center of a small field was a large one, surrounded by 108 smaller ones. Inside each one there were small figures, mostly religious relics.

A chorten is also called a stupa, and, as with all Buddhist structures, has symbolic components. The base represents earth; the dome, water; the spire, fire, and its 13 segments the steps leading to Buddhahood; the crescent moon and sun air; its vertical spike ether or the sacred light of Buddha. Inside, a carved wooden pole, called a shokshing, is the life spirit of the chorten.

The Bhutanese people (called Drukpas) believe that if one circumambulates the chorten (s)he will collect blessings emanating from it.

A typical chorten is made of whitewashed stone and is embellished with the Buddha’s eyes and perhaps bands of dark red. There is a chorten in the center courtyard of every temple or dzong., and often a large one in the center of a town.

The Royal Botanical Garden at the top of Dorchula Pass is a lovely spot for walking. Forty-six varieties of rhododendron bloom there during spring and summer; but during our visit many were past flowering and others just bore fat buds that looked ready to pop open. It must be a spectacular sight when the flowers are in full bloom. Scattered throughout are little caves for praying or meditating, painted in the exquisite decorative style we were to see all over the country.

We wandered around Lobesa, a small town known for its obsession with decorative penises (more on that later…maybe), encountering some friendly residents and shopkeepers.

The blue hour found us at the Punakha dzong, one of the most important in the country.

  1. Marlo Quick permalink

    So much beauty! The chortens are exquisite. I could definitely be happy walking in the Botanical Gardens and enjoying the peace they seem to exude. Can’t wait to hear more, probably, about the decorative penises.

  2. Marlo Quick permalink

    P.S. How often do they repaint the decorative parts of the buildings?

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