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Lhakhang finds new home in El Paso

The structure was first made in Washington, DC for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Heritage: Seven years after first being constructed in Washington, DC for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a lhakhang made by Bhutanese artisans has been permanently installed on the 366-acre campus of the University of Texas, El Paso.

The lhakhang, a gift to the university by the kingdom, is the showpiece of a new 16-acre, $22 million park at the centre of the university campus.

The Bhutanese ambassador to the United Nations, Kunzang Choden Namgyel, arrived from New York for the official opening ceremony.  It was also attended by the 18-Bhutanese students, who currently studying in the university.

The ambassador told the assembled crowd of 1,500 people, “For us Bhutanese, it’s a breathtaking experience having Bhutan here at UTEP. It’s like being at home, not a home away from home.”

The UTEP president, (Dr) Diana Natalicio, said, “We’re happy to have the beautiful relationship with the Bhutanese.  This is a very special day on campus.”

(Dr) Natalicios also greeted special guest, the curator of the Bhutan exhibition at the 2008 Folklife Festival, Preston Scott, who consulted with the school to retrofit the lhakhang for permanent installation.  The structure was not intended to be permanent and now features heating, air-conditioning, a handicapped access ramp, and glass windows.

“It would have been a shame to cut this thing up and throw it away,” said Scott, who toured visitors at the lhakhang all day on Saturday.

As was the case back at the festival in Washington, DC, visitors lined up for quite some time in order to step inside the structure.  Most had never been inside a lhakhang and many knew very little about Bhutan.  Many had questions about Buddhist traditions and the significance of the paintings.

The entire campus of the university is built in the style of Bhutanese architecture dating back to 1917.  It was inspired by the 1914 National Geographic article by John Claude White, with the first published pictures of the kingdom.  Mrs Kathleen Worrell, who was the university’s first provost, asked her husband if he would mimic the distinctive architecture of Bhutan on the school’s campus, and he complied.

UTEP student, Rigden Chungdu of Thimphu, is in his second semester studying finance.  He said the community of El Paso knows more about Bhutan than people he met in New York.  El Paso, he said, is much more similar to home: “Like in Bhutan, family is first here.”  Communities are really helpful, and the mountains remind him of home, too, he said.

Student Pema Wangchuk of Mongar said, “Looking at the infrastructure here, I feel homely.”

The schedule for the lhakhang, which will be administered by the university’s museum, has not yet been determined.  There are a number of other Bhutanese artefacts on the campus, including three thangkhas, an altar in the lobby of the campus library, a prayer wheel, and prayer flags.

This is believed to be the first authentic Bhutanese lhakhang to be permanently constructed outside the country.

Contributed by Lisa Napoli

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