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One of most popular calligraphic symbols in Bhutan and the Himalayas is the Namchu Wangden (རྣམ་བཅུ་དབང་ལྡན་) stack of letters from the Kālacakra cycle of teachings.

Namchu Wangden

One of most popular calligraphic symbols in Bhutan and the Himalayas is the Namchu Wangden (རྣམ་བཅུ་དབང་ལྡན་) stack of letters from the Kālacakra cycle of teachings. For both its efficacy as an advanced spiritual system and the cosmological and astrological content, the Kālacakra tantra is one of the most influential tantric teachings followed by all the Tibetan Buddhist schools. It is the last major tantric cycle transmitted from India to Tibet. The Namchu Wangden, literally the powerful one with ten aspects, is a calligraphic symbol containing the mantra spell of Kālacakra tantra written in the stylized Lantsa script which is a Tibetanized version of the Indian Ranjana script.

The symbol is generally made up of ten components including the seven syllables of mantra, ha kṣaa, ma la va ra ya (ཧ་ཀྵ་མ་ལ་ཝ་ར་ཡ་) and three elements of a crescent indicating the visarga (ཿ) allophone or namched (རྣམ་བཅད་), a disk indicating anusvara/bindu (་་་ཾ) allophone or jesungaro/thigle (རྗེས་སུ་ང་རོ་/ཐིག་ལེ་) and a wisp symbolizing the nāda character.

The structure and symbolism of the mantra monogram is given in the Vimalaprabhā (དྲི་མེད་འོད་), a commentary on the Kālacakratantra attributed to the Shambala king Mañjuśrīyaśas (འཇམ་དཔལ་གྲགས་པ་). Based on the fifth verse of the Kālacakratantra, the Vimalaprabha explains the ten aspects of existence which are associated with ten sites of articulation of different sounds. They are the moon, sun, space, wind, fire, water, earth, outer inanimate world, moving animate world, and formless realm. The ten sounds or letters are said to arise respectively from these ten aspects of existence and the letters are to be written one on top of the other in order to form the Kālacakra monogram. Unlike other drawings, where the crescent is portrayed in white colour as the moon and the red disk as the sun, in Namchu Wangden, the crescent is associated with the visarga and sun and thus red in colour and the disk with anusvara and moon and thus white in colour.

The symbolism of the monogram is further elaborated in some texts by explaining the three levels of the outer (ཕྱི་), inner (ནང་) and other (གཞན་) concepts of Kālacakra.

The Outer Kālacakra relates to the physical world including the planets and constellation of stars and the ten letters are associated with different aspects of the physical world.

Ya: black wind element

Ra: red fire element

Va: white water element

La: yellow earth element

Ma: multicoloured Mt Meru and desire realm

Kśa: green form realm

Ha: blue formless realm

Visarga: red sun

Bindu/anusvara: white moon

Nāda: deep blue space

The Inner Kālacakra refers to the internal phenomena of sentient beings, their body parts, sacred energy channels, channel networks and the energies and fluids. On this level, the ten syllables have the following symbolism.

Ya: the soles of feet and wind

Ra: the shins and fire

Va: the knees and water

La: the hips and earth

Ma: the spine and all five elements

Kśa: the head and awareness

Ha: the crown and space

Visarga: the left channel and red fluid

Bindu: the left channel and white fluid

Nāda: the central channel and vital air

The concept of Other or Alternative Kālacakra refers to the configuration of divine mansions and deities associated with the practice of Kālacakra. This is further subdivided into the configuration of palatial mansions, the figures of deities, the principles, philosophies and enlightened energies they represent, and the various practices of tantric meditation to actualize the divine elements. The ten letters symbolize the different aspects of enlightenment.

The Namchu Wangden is drawn on eight layers of seat representing the four natural elements and four heavenly bodies. It is often flanked by the syllables E and Vaṃ which represent the enlightenment energies of wisdom and compassion. The Namchu Wangden monogram is painted on wall hangings, religious monuments, temple walls and houses, carved on shrines and amulets, and today also printed on shirts, caps and other objects. It is believed to bring blessings to the object and the user, and also clear away misfortunes and problems. It is one of the most widely used artistic monogram in Bhutan and the Buddhist Himalayas.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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