The chorten (མཆོད་རྟེན་) monument is perhaps the most ubiquitous religious architecture of Bhutan. They dot the Bhutanese landscape giving people spiritual solace and the natural environment a special cultural and spiritual presence and power. As the representation of the Buddha’s mind or spirit (statues represent the body and holy books represent the speech), the chorten is also one of the most important shrines in the Buddhist tradition. Chorten literally means an object or support (རྟེན་) of worship or offering (མཆོད་) and is a translation of the Sanskrit terms stūpa and caitya. It refers to a wide range of religious monuments with different shapes, sizes and purposes.
The earliest Buddhist chortens are said to have been built during the life of the Buddha as monuments containing the remains of the enlightened saints who passed into nirvāṇā. In the centuries after the Buddha, the culture of building and worshipping chortens expanded. The remains of the Buddha are said to have been divided into eight portions and enshrined in eight chortens in different parts of north India. The eight main events in the Buddha’s life from birth to his death are also memorialized through eight different kinds of chortens which are today known as desheg chorten gye (བདེ་གཤེགས་མཆོད་རྟེན་བརྒྱད་) or eight stūpas of the Buddha.
They are the stūpa of heaped lotus (མཆོད་རྟེན་པདྨ་སྤུངས་པ་) initially built in Lumbini to commemorate the Buddha’s birth and symbolize the lotus which sprung during his birth, stūpa of enlightenment (བྱང་ཆུབ་མཆོད་རྟེན་) built on the shores of Narañjanā to celebrate his enlightenment and defeat of the inner demons, of many doors (མཆོད་རྟེན་བཀྲ་ཤིས་སྒོ་མང་) built in Varanasi to remember his first sermon and symbolic of the many doors of path to enlightenment, of miracles (ཆོ་འཕྲུལ་མཆོད་རྟེན་) in Śrāvastī to indicate the Buddha’s victory over other contemporary teachers using his power of miracles, of descent from heaven (ལྷ་བབ་མཆོད་རྟེན་) built in Sāṅkyāśya which portray the Buddha’s return from the celestial world after teachings his mother and other celestial beings, of reconciliation (དབྱེན་ཟླུམ་མཆོད་རྟེན་) of his congregation built in Rājagṛha to celebrate his success in bringing together his followers after Devadatta tried to split them into factions, of victory (རྣམ་རྒྱལ་མཆོད་རྟེན་) over evil forces built in Vaiśālī to symbolize his victory over the evil forces and the extension of his life, and finally of parinirvāṇa or passing into nirvāṇa (མྱང་འདས་མཆོད་རྟེན་) built in Kuśinagara to symbolize his final passing away.
The eight chortens of the Buddha are a common sight in Bhutan. There are many areas where all eight chortens are found as a complete set. However, when not built as a set, the chorten of enlightenment is the most popular. These chortens, in spite of the architectural differences, generally share the shape of having a about four tiers of square base, a bulging vase shape in the middle and the pinnacle which rises up with many layers of rings culminating in the moon crescent and the sun disc. The square khangzang chorten (ཁང་བཟང་) or mansion stūpa is also very common in Bhutan. As Bhutanese chortens are mostly made of stone, this type of square structure is the easiest and most stable to build. Roof of stone slabs with a small stone turret is put on these chortens. There are also a few cases of the dome shaped Nepali chorten with two eyes found in Bhutan. The chortens are built following the guidelines and measurements found in the Buddhist texts including the vinaya, the teachings of Drime namnyi and the manuals for building stūpas found in the Tanjur collection. The sources were further refined and elaborated by Himalayan masters and it is common to find today in Bhutan several variations in the design, scale and proportion of the chortens, and men who are experts at creating them.
As religious objects of worship and tools for merit making, the chortens are built by the people voluntarily. Some are built to subjugate evil forces, others as supports for wellbeing and yet others as a part of funerary rites. Many riches and symbolic items such as grains to avoid famine, weapons to suppress war, lamp to dispel darkness of ignorance and medicine to overcome illness are included in the chorten alongside many religious artefacts as the relics to imbue the structure with spiritual power. At the centre of the items inserted inside a chorten is a wooden pole called srogshing (སྲོག་ཤིང་) or life tree. It is generally made from juniper or cypress, cut to have four sides with broad base and narrow tip, painted red, inscribed with different mantras and covered with further rolls of mantras on paper. Building a chorten and filling it with items of spiritual significance is a complex process but some structures, when people do not have the knowhow or resources, are filled with tshatshas (ཚ་ཚ་) or miniature stūpas made from clay using a mould.
Chortens were traditionally built at power spots and haunted areas such as the conference of rivers, crossroads, entry to the village, mountain passes and end of ridges. They are believed to give protection to the travellers and also keep away the harmful spirits. For instance, a landscape resembling a serpent is often suppressed by building a chorten at the point which resembles the serpent’s head. Some chortens, especially built with copper or bronze and gilded in gold, are monuments for storing the remains of a great masters and are mostly found in the temples. However, most chortens in Bhutan are not built as monuments to house the remains of a great person. Astrologers also do not recommend building chorten to the east of a house, village or establishment. Pious Bhutanese, especially in their old age, circumambulate the chortens as a spiritual exercise. Some chortens are attributed special power, such as healing a specific disease, and thus attract people for such reasons. It is very common to find important chortens such as the
Memorial Chorten in Thimphu crowded with hundreds of people who circumambulate it regularly as their spiritual practice.