The three-storey Bonbji Choje Nagtshang (a building traditionally belonging to rulers or religious leaders and their lineage) is located approximately 16 km (a 1½ hour drive) up a feeder road from Gezam bridge on the Trongsa–Wangdue highway. The Nagtshang stands at an elevation of 2300m, close to Bemji Community Primary School on a hilltop overlooking eleven villages: Pang, Jonthang, Kamshaing, Gagar, Dranishing, Trem, Simphu, Gonpa, Threhel, Dabai, and Kabu.
There are different oral and written traditions that conflict and overlap about the origin of the Bonbji Choje lineage, which traces back to the Yarlung Dynasty in Central Tibet during the reign of King Trisong Deutsen in the 8th century.
One tradition says that Bonbji got its name, “the place of Bon,” because it was where one of the illegitimate children of the great Tibetan dharma king Trisong Deutsen settled after being exiled from Tibet in the 8th century. He was a Bon religion follower, hence the name.
Another tradition says that the family lineage descends from King Trisong Deutsen’s illegitimate son named Dechung Dhondup, who ruled the Lhodrak Yawa region in Southern Tibet. Dechung Dhondup had three sons who migrated toward Bhutan and one of them, Khyeu Dorji, settled at Ngang in the north of Bumthang.
Centuries later it was Khyeu Dorji’s descendant, Dung Lhadar, a disciple of Thukse Dawa Gyaltshen, who went to settle in Bonbji Choje in Trongsa, following the prophecy of his religious master. Therefore, according to this tradition, the Bonbji Choje Nagtshang was built by Dung Lhadar in the 16th century as per the prophecy of Thukse Dawa Gyaltshen (1499–1587), the son of Terton Pema Lingpa.
Bonbji Choje’s lineage produced some eminent Buddhist masters, such as the 2nd Ganteng Trulku, Tendzin Legpai Dondup (1645–1727), who was born to Bonbji Choje Thinley Wangchen and Buthri Lhamo (who was herself a descendant of the 13th century Drukpa Kagyu master Phajo Drugom Zhigpo). The lineage also produced the 6th Gangteng Tulku, Tenpai Nyima (1838–1874); and the 9th Gangteng Tulku, Kunzang Rigdzin Pema Namgyal (b. 1955).
Other great personalities from the Bonbji Choje lineage who held important positions and ruled Bhutan were:
- 10th Druk Desi Mipham Wangpo (1709–1738): 1st incarnation of Gyaltse Tenzin Rabgye, who became Desi in 1729 at the age of 21
- 11th Desi Khuwo Paljor (1736–1739)
- Lama Nyentsen Tshering Wangchuck (1729–1740): representative of Bhutan to Tibet during the reign of the 10th Desi
- 18th Desi Jigme Singye (1742–1788): 2nd incarnation of Gyaltse Tenzin Rabgye; Desi from 1776–1788
- 26th Desi Tsultrim Drakpa (1790–1810)
- 50th Desi Kishelpa Dorji Namgyal (1873–1879)
A few meters below the Nagtshang, there are two holy springs (drubchu): Khandu Drupchu (Dakinis’ spring) and Thukse Dawa’s spring. It is believed that Terton Pema Lingpa’s son, Thukse Dawa Gyaltshen, discovered the spring, as there was no water for the Nagtshang.
The local deity associated with Bonbji Choje Nagtshang is Ap Mugtsen, worshipped as the protecting deity of the entire region of Mangdue. It is said that he had many illegitimate children, and his sons were fearsome, oppressive, and difficult to control. In the 18th century, Lama Nyentsen Tshering Wangchuk made a proposal to solve the problems caused by these wayward sons. He proposed to the deity Ap Mugtsen that he take as his wife Aum Tashi Wangzom, a local deity from Kheng Dakpai south of Trongsa.
Lama Nyentsen also promised Ap Mugtsen that he would erect a phodrang (palace for deities) for him in the Nagtshang. Ap Mugtsen accepted, and it is said that he himself provided the measurements for the statue of his likeness that would be erected within the protective deities’ temple (gonkhang). Thereafter, Ap Mugtsen was appeased as the locality’s protecting deity, and he did not have any more sons with local women. Peace and harmony were restored.
Inside the Nagtshang stand golden statues of Chenrezig (Avalokiteśvara); the Sixteen Great Arhats; Tsepame (Amitayus/Buddha of Long Life); Drolma (Tara); Guru Rinpoche with his consorts; Dorji Lingpa; and Pema Lingpa Phurpa.
Clay statues represent the Buddha; the Future Buddha (Jampa /Maitreya); the Long Life Buddha; Zhabdrung Rinpoche; Chana Dorji (Vajrapani); Mugtsen (local deity of Mangdue region); Marpa; Milarepa; Naropa; Lama Nyentsen Tshering; the 2nd Gangtey Tulku Tenzin Lekpai Dondup; and the 10th Desi Mipham Wangpo.
Thangkas represent Jangchub Sempai Tungshag (Confession Buddhas); Phurpa (Vajrakilaya); Palden Lhamo (female protective deity); Leygen (protecting deity); and Shing Chung Wangmo (female deity, form of Palden Lhamo).
There are many texts also present, such as the Domang (collection of religious works); Gyatongpa (abridged sutra of transcendental wisdom in 8000 stanzas); and Dorji chopa (diamond sutra). There is also a sandalwood stupa of the Enlightment type and a Kadam stupa, as well as many other objects.
Beautiful wall paintings in the main temple were also offered to the Nagtshang in the 1990s by the 9th Gangteng Tulku and Namgay Lhendup. These paintings represent Guru Padmasambhava; Phurpa Lhatshog; Terton Pema Lingpa; Marpa Lotsawa (the lineage holder of the Kagyu tradition); and the Druk Desis that were born of the Bonbji Choje lineage.
The Bonbji Choje Nagtshang is, architecturally, one of the most exemplary examples of a traditional Bhutanese Nagtshang. Major renovations were done in 1994–95, although no changes were made to the architectural structure; the building was reconsecrated in 1996.
The three-storey building is constructed of stone, wood, and mud, with added cement pillars. In the past, the ground floor housed cattle, but now it is used both as a living room and a storeroom for grain. The second floor includes a kitchen and sleeping quarters. The third floor now serves partly as a guest house and partly as a private chapel with a beautiful, traditional Bhutanese altar.
Social and Cultural Activities
In the past, Bonbji Choje received grain and provisions from nine households of Bonbji village and was under the administration of the Trongsa Ponlop. This changed with the 3rd king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck’s abolition of the serf system in Bhutan, however, and today the Nagtshang, a private property, generates its own revenue.
Major annual religious rituals and festivals are performed in the Nagtshang, such as Denchog (Drolma/Tara Prayer); Gonpo Bangrim (prayer for Gonpo); Phurpa (Vajrakilaya); Chagkhu Yangkhu (good fortune prayer); and Chosung (prayer for the protecting deity).
Although there are no set dates, these rituals normally occur twice a year as winter and summer events. The Nagtshang also makes regular offerings and conducts rituals on all auspicious days of the Bhutanese calendar: 8th, 10th, 15th, 25th, and 30th.
Bonbji Choje Nagtshang receives many visitors on these days.
Aum Tadinmo, 84, wife of the Bonbji Choje’s late son, Phuntsho
Ap Thuba, 48, current Mangmi (local leader) of Nubi gewog, Trongsa dzongkhag
Ap Tashi Paljor, 45, former member of Bhutan’s army and husband of the Bonbji Choje’s daughter
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