The Lhakhang: UTEP's Cultural Jewel

The Lhakhang: UTEP's Cultural Jewel

By Christina Rodriguez

The grand crimson doors swing open and footsteps echo off the raised pinewood floor, breaking the stark silence. Freshmen Karma Dema and Sonam Deki take small, cautious steps as their eyes carefully scan the 40-foot by 40-foot room with a look of wonderment on their faces, their mouths wide open.

“Wow,” Karma says. “It’s like being home.” 

“Can you believe it, Karma?” Sonam responds. The two young women left their country of Bhutan six months ago to pursue their studies at The University of Texas at El Paso. For the first time, they are touring the building that immediately caught their eye upon arriving on campus, the cultural centerpiece of Centennial Plaza – the Lhakhang. 

The UTEP campus as a whole has proven a smooth transition for the two freshmen. The Bhutanese-inspired buildings across campus are warm reminders of the faraway home and the family they left behind. However, it’s the Lhakhang that has special meaning to them. 

The interior walls of the Lhakhang are covered with floor-to-ceiling, brightly colored paintings that contain examples of Bhutanese iconography very rarely seen outside of the remote Himalayan kingdom and that invite study and reflection to discover their significance.

The interior walls of the Lhakhang are covered with floor-to-ceiling, brightly colored paintings that contain examples of Bhutanese iconography very rarely seen outside of the remote Himalayan kingdom and that invite study and reflection to discover their significance.

“We pass by every day after our classes and it (the Lhakhang) brings us peace and relieves stress from our studies just seeing it from the outside,” Sonam said. “I’m glad we finally got a chance to come in and see it.” 

A gift from the Bhutanese people to the people of the United States, the Lhakhang was first showcased at the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. After the festival, the structure was deconstructed and sent to El Paso, where it was later permanently rebuilt as a cultural exhibit at the heart of the UTEP campus with the help of 12 young Bhutanese artisans.

All who enter the Lhakhang are enamored by its beauty and remarkable detailing, but what does the Lhakhang tell us about Bhutanese culture, and what does it mean to UTEP? 

Every aspect of the structure from the inside out tells a very deliberate story about Bhutanese culture through its carvings, paintings, sculptures, and even its architecture; and every story has meaning for the Bhutanese people. Bhutanese art and architecture are very symbolic and visually serve as important historical and cultural vehicles to convey social and moral knowledge and values. 

“The Bhutanese people have a very visual vocabulary,” said Preston Scott, curator of the Bhutan program at the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. “It is important for people to really see what they are looking at (in the Lhakhang), with the operative word being,  ‘see.’ ”

Pema Lingpa, a historic Bhutanese scholastic and monastic leader who lived in the early 16th century and excelled in painting, sculpting, architecture and metal work, significantly influenced traditional visual arts that remain vibrant in Bhutan today. His artistic significance is recognized through zorig chusum or the “13 Traditional Arts” that remain central to Bhutanese art and culture and are represented throughout the Lhakhang.  

We pass by every day after our classes and it (the Lhakhang) brings us peace and relieves stress from our studies just seeing it from the outside.
— Sonam Deki, UTEP student

There are more than 1,000 lhakhangs throughout the kingdom of Bhutan built for religious or commemorative purposes. In Bhutan, lhakhangs are highly respected buildings used as a place for reflection and contemplation, and typically depict meaningful aspects of Bhutanese life, history and culture through their art and architecture. 

“Bhutanese people think very highly of lhakhangs,” Karma explained. “The art and architecture of the lhakhangs are very important as it signifies our country’s rich and diverse culture. The color and the symbols each have their significant meaning. The walls are painted with gods and goddesses and the ceilings are painted with mandalas (a ritual symbol that represents the universe). We walk into a room full of awe-inspiring paintings, large statues of Buddha and a heavenly smell of incense. It is no less than getting a feel of what heaven looks and feels like to us (Bhutanese people).” 

Back home, Karma and Sonam visit their lhakhang frequently when they need to reflect or de-stress and also on special occasions like the Descending Day of Buddha, which is a government holiday in Bhutan. On these occasions, they offer butter lamps that illuminate the lhakhang , pray for the well-being of all living things, and receive blessings.

The aim of the Bhutanese people in rendering the Lhakhang for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival was to teach people about the life and culture of a people from a small remote kingdom that few outsiders knew anything about. At UTEP, it serves the same purpose, although it is not used as a temple. 

“Bhutan has a very special place in the Western imagination,” said Michael Mason, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. “It was closed (to tourists) for a long time … so Americans are tremendously curious about Bhutan for lots of different reasons. We were particularly thrilled in this case to be able to find a natural home where this longstanding relationship between Bhutan and the United States could be expressed and celebrated.”

As soon as you ascend to the top of the steps leading to the Lhakhang, you are immediately engulfed with architectural details. The deep red color of the roof signifies a prominent public building, while the gold pinnacle or sertog that crowns the Lhakhang is traditionally reserved only for structures of very high importance. The four rectangular geykar windows, which are common throughout Bhutan, are usually very basically constructed. However, for this particular structure, they were crafted and painted very ornately to emphasize its significance. The dominant window at the front of the building, referred to as rabsel and meaning bright and open, also has a particular significance. 

“The rabsel window represents full light and opening eyes to see things,” Scott said. “Its meaning – and function – is to help illuminate the world around you by simply letting more light inside– functionally as well as symbolically.”

The symbolic language of the building continues to speak even more profoundly as you enter the Lhakhang. The three sculptures, housed in the three nooks of the built-in structure known as the choesham, represent Guru Rinpoche, credited with the spread of Buddhism in Bhutan; Sakyamuni, the “historic Buddha” or “enlightened one;” and Shabdrung, known as the unifier of modern Bhutan. These clay sculptures are typically found in important public buildings as well as in many homes throughout Bhutan.  

“The Lhakhang at UTEP is one of the few places outside of Bhutan where you will find this type of sculpture,” Kaye Mullins, a curator at UTEP’s Centennial Museum, said. They are highly symbolic of many cultural values by every element of their design. They are hand-crafted from Bhutanese clay and papier-mache made from the daphne plant that grows in Bhutan, dried without firing, and then very carefully painted. The lotus blossoms that the figures sit upon convey purification and the “blossoming of human potential.” The jewel upon Sakyamuni’s head represents wisdom, and the symbolic ritual object, or dorji, Guru Rinpoche holds depicts the combination of a thunderbolt and diamond to represent the energy and clarity needed to cut through ignorance, anger and greed in life. The cultural significance of these sculptures can go very deep and convey meaning through their clothing, color palette and even their poses. What they all have in common in some way is the shared representation of wisdom and compassion, which resonates symbolically throughout the entire structure.

To teach the public as much as possible about Bhutanese life, history, art and culture, certain components of the Lhakhang at UTEP are unique and wouldn’t traditionally be found in a lhakhang. Examples of this are the mannequins cloaked in traditional Bhutanese dance costumes used for cham or “masked dance” during annual tsechu festivals. These festivals are an important part of Bhutanese culture that allow social bonding among various and distant villages. Cham dancers perform vignettes based on the life of Guru Rinpoche and other respected figures in Bhutanese history. The themes behind most of the dances reflect compassion, forgiveness and enlightenment. The costumes are present in the Lhakhang to highlight the Bhutanese talent for textiles and screen printing, as well as to acknowledge the importance of these dances in Bhutanese cultural life.

With Bhutan known as the “land of the thunder dragon,” the dragon holds particular cultural significance. Visual depictions of the dragon can be seen throughout the structure, both inside and out.

“When the people of Bhutan hear thunder, it is the dragon talking,” Mullins explained. “When they hear wind, it is the dragon flying. For this reason, an open space was left between the outer and inner roof of the structure so that the dragon can move.” 

The paintings on the interior walls of the Lhakhang provide visual, allegorical glimpses of some of the history and evolution of Bhutanese culture. The paintings were created at the Choki Traditional Art School in a small village not far from Bhutan’s capital city, Thimphu. The overall designs of the images were prepared according to traditional methods on linen by master painters and then completed by a team of advanced painting students. The linen used was sized to match the specific wall sections of the Lhakhang and then stretched onto wooden frames before being painted. Because the paintings were too large to be completed at the Choki School’s own facilities, a local farmer allowed the students to use the large, high-ceilinged rooms of his traditional farmhouse as a painting studio. Once completed, the paintings were affixed to the Lhakhang’s walls like wallpaper. As is customary in Bhutan, the paintings were completed by teams of artists who do not sign their work and remain anonymous.  

Most of the iconography represented in the paintings relates to different stories about the lives of Sakyamuni and Guru Rinpoche handed down for centuries. Several of the paintings also include distinctive Bhutanese landscapes and other local and, in some cases, modern references. However, the paintings are not composed or organized with any particular beginning or end. Instead, they are intended to provide visual stimulation that provokes the mind to ponder the meaning of the images and life experiences represented. Because the style of the iconography is so foreign to most Western eyes – and in some cases can even confuse, bewilder, or frighten – it is important to approach them with a sense of genuine curiosity in order to begin to explore their meanings.       

Of particular significance in the Lhakhang are the overlying themes of wisdom, compassion and enlightenment that repeat and resonate through every architectural and artistic element. These values are at the core of Buddhism, which defines so much of Bhutanese culture.

“It was not the intention, but it’s interesting that the themes of wisdom and compassion the Lhakhang conveys are also particularly appropriate to life at a university,” Scott said. “These are the highest values a university can represent in a society at its best.”

The Lhakhang, beneath all the grandeur, tells the story of a people from a small remote kingdom with a culture that embraces values not so different from our own. The unspoken messages of wisdom and compassion that the Bhutanese people hold dear are reflected artistically and architecturally throughout the structure, showing us that though we express ourselves with different artistic styles and motifs, we are also a lot alike. For UTEP, the Lhakhang also is a physical representation of the connection the University has long shared with the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, and more importantly, the friendship that has evolved between UTEP and the people of Bhutan. 

This connection and friendship are what Karma Dema and Sonam Deki feel fortunate to be a part of and what makes them feel at home, despite being several thousand miles away from Bhutan. 

“As Bhutanese students at UTEP, we feel very grateful for all the love and support the University shows to our small and isolated country of Bhutan,” Karma said with a smile. “UTEP is a home away from home for us … We are so grateful to UTEP and hope this friendship we share grows stronger as time passes by.”