Saturday, April 28, 2012

How to Build a Chhorten

We had originally planned to construct a large, deep amphitheatre below our IT Park building, but that area is very boggy, with surface moisture, underground streams and constant seepage.  We’ve had 4 different excavator operators come in to start digging foundations, but all have managed to get stuck in the quagmire and have left the site shaking their heads. Our geophysical survey report tells us that the water table starts just under the surface and continues in some spots to a depth of 45 metres!

Rather than fight Mother Nature, we decided to work with her, and I proposed instead to create a beautiful marsh garden in that area, using large trees, colourful flowering plants and local grasses suited to the conditions.

We’ll have a spectacular waterfall tumbling down into a rock-strewn little cove, which feeds into two running streams. These streams will converge to fill a large pond area, before spilling over into yet another stream that meanders to the bottom of our 5 acres, and eventually finds its way to the Wangchu River , a couple of kilometres away.

Most of the initial shaping and early planting work for the marsh garden has now been completed, but possibly the most important feature is being constructed right now.

A chhorten is a (usually small) religious monument that houses sacred items, creates good karma and blessings, and is revered by all Buddhists. The construction of new highways and buildings is always planned so as not to disturb existing chhortens.

Some special ones contain a prayer-wheel that is driven by water, and that is what we are constructing on our site.

Here is a typical modern, free-standing chhorten, located in the town of Dochula and built for tourists. It even houses a telescope to view the mountains!

The one I envisaged for our site was to be slightly more rustic and traditional in style. We had some local architects design a couple for us, but these were too formal in appearance and lacked the earthiness and natural energy that we seek for this special area.

A Bhutanese friend put me in touch with some men from an outer village, who specialise in building traditional chhortens in rural areas. When I met them to discuss our project, they understood instantly what was required, and a few days later, their team of 5 men took up residence on our site and began work.

After first temporarily diverting the stream away from their work site, the men dug foundation holes for the structure...

... and because the chhorten will be in constantly running water, and straddling the muddy stream banks, they erected steel reinforced concrete pillars for strength.

The next day, using stone left over from other projects on the site, up she goes!

This guy even remembered to leave himself an escape route...the lower hole is where the stream will flow through after turning the propeller.

It was only a couple of days before the roof framing started. This was made from local blue pine timber, for religious significance as well as being a great choice for the purpose...long lasting as well as insect and water repellent.

Those dozens of ornate, wooden cornices are individually hand-carved before being placed in a specific arrangement.

Ready to put on the lid....

Corrugated iron for strength, durability and waterproofing...

And of course some colour, with natural paints made from rocks, earth and minerals gathered from the far-flung areas of Bhutan.

This will be the crown...

Roofing timbers are made from hand cut slats of local cypress, symbolically held in place with stones from the nearby Wangchu River. (The galvanised nails helped too, I'm sure!)

The hand-shaped (with a machete!) cypress wheel will support the 4000 paper prayer sheets...

This pipe will be submerged in the stream and direct the water flow onto the propeller to spin the prayer-wheel.

The propeller...with a modern and very strong wheel-bearing to ensure reliable, long-lasting service!

The slope between the chhorten and the main building will be cleared and planted with grass and shrubs this week...

 4000 sheets of paper prayers (I didn't count them), already blessed and waiting to be rolled around the timber shaft inside the prayer-wheel.

Half the prayers in place, wrapped in silk cloth...another roll will be added on top of these.

A steel sheet, painted and wrapped around the prayers to keep them dry for the next 100 years or so.
This will be finished by hand-painting of beautiful, traditional Bhutanese motifs.

An ornate door to seal the prayers inside.

Preparing the prayer-flags on bamboo poles...

A close-up of the prayer-flag. No, I can't read it, either!

Beautiful brass bell that will be mounted inside the chhorten. As the wheel gently turns in the stream, a small rod will strike the bell and chime for all to hear. And it has a sweet sounding note, too.
The ring being held is in the shape of a dragon, the famed "Druk" (Thunder Dragon), after which Bhutan is named.

An auspicious day was chosen for the official blessing by local monks...

The prayer-flags send their messages on the winds...

The stream will be diverted back through the chhorten...

And THAT is how you build a chhorten!

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