The Tango Murals-Michelangelos of Asia

Murals in Tango

Murals in Tango

Thimphu: Bhutan: “The paintings in Tango are among the most important, beautiful and sacred in the world,” professor David Park, Director of Wall Painting Conservation at the Courtauld Institute of Art confirmed. The professor described the paintings as the, “Michelangelo’s of Asia.”

History of Tango

Tango Choying dzong is located at the end of the Thimphu valley. As the seat of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism, the fortress plays an important role as the seat of learning and propagating Buddhism in the country.

Many of the great Kagyu masters in the country have mediated and blessed this dzong. The list includes luminaries like Phajo Drukgom Zhigpo (1184-1251), Drukpa Kunlay (1455-1529) and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal ( 1594 -1651). Monks believe that the place is so sacred that seven days of meditation in Tango is equivalent to seven years of meditation elsewhere.

Lam Phajo Drukgom Zhigpo, the master who introduced the Drukpa Kagyu School to the valleys of western Bhutan meditated in the monastery. It is said that while in retreat, the lam saw the cliff in the form of horse head, which is the symbol of Yidam Tandin (Hayagriva). Accordingly, the monastery was named Tango or “Horse Head.”

Centuries later, in 1688, Desi Tenzin Rabgye (r.1680-1694), expanded the monastery to its present structure. The 4th Desi assigned his secretary Drung Norbu to supervise the construction of this architectural grandeur. The three-storied tower was built in the traditional fashion using, stones, mud and timber. The central tower has twelve corners making the architectural façade unique and magnificent.

According to, msthung med chokyi gyal po, in 1690, an elaborate consecration rite was held for the completion of the monastery. Since the Desi could not produce a male heir, he took his fourth wife, Wangdue Lhamo, and the marriage was timed with the consecration.

Lam Pekar Lhendup (1689–1697) who later became the third Je Khenpo or head abbot presided over the consecration ceremony.

According to msthung med chokyi gyal po, “the restoration and enlargement of Tango had been undertaken to fulfill a wish expressed earlier by Ngawang Namgyal, and no doubt the timing of the marriage had a certain magical rationale.”

In 1690, the new murals were completed but separately consecrated. The Desi’s closest disciples and advisor presided over the service, which was kept as a private affair. The disciple blessed the murals and offered prayers for his master’s continued male line.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the 8th Druk Desi Druk Rabgye (r. 1707-1720) added some structures to the Tango monastery to bring it to its present stature. In 1977 some alterations were made in the internal supporting timber but today, the utse or retains its integrity as a historic structure.

The priceless paintings of Tango are on the walls of the northern shrine rooms on the second and third floor of the utse. There are also some paintings in the secondary lhakhangs on the eastern and western sides of the utse.

The Paintings.

According to professor Park, the wall paintings of Tango Choying dzong are unique. He pointed out that only a handful of such painting exists in the world.

The professor, who is a world authority on murals conservation, said the Tango paintings are of tremendous importance because of its religious significance, subject matter, art technique and the era in which it was painted.



Unlike modern Bhutanese paintings, the ones in Tango are not produced in workshop or painted on industrial produced cloth as they have been painted directly on the adobe walls. The paints used are all from natural products; a style unique to the 17th century, making it precious.

The professor pointed out that the Tango paintings display sophistication in style and are of incredible quality. The gilding works and the details of the gold work, jewellery and drapery simply could not be better.

The most unique painting is the weeping Guru and has been associated with a miracle. It is believed that when the Desi died, the image shed a tear and hence the red spots in the corners of the painted eyes, making it the only painting of its kind in the world.

 The Artist

Little is known about the artist. Tsang Khenchen and Trulku Mipham Chogyal helped start up the formal training of painters in the country. Both these artists were renowned in Tibet for their mastery of the Men-ri and Khen-ri style of paintings that were used in the Tango painting.

Tsang Khenchen’s two most famous trainees were Lhadrip Jangchub Sempa and Tenpa Gyamtsho (1646-1719). The former is credited with the paintings of the murals in the Tango monastery and the latter is known for his works in Taktsang monastery.

Professor Park said the artist of the murals in the Tango dzong was a genius. From his work it is clear that the artist trained professionally for decades.  The professor said he didn’t know any one in the world who can produce paintings like this any more.

Dashop Zepon Wangchuk who has helped renovate many monasteries said he saw a thangka painted by Lhadrip Jangchub Sempa in Phajoding monastery. The painting is that of Penden Shing Chen, the principal deity of Je Shakya Rinchen (1744-1755).

The thankga is one thok sem or one floor in height. Dasho said that the Lhadrip’s work is beautiful and it is commonly believed that in the future the thankga will sung jun or speak to its viewers.

While it is possible that the artists were influenced by the Tibetan culture and artistic tradition, the frescos in Tango dzong are a fine example of environmental adaptations as they the paintings have a distinctive pattern. The genius of Bhutanese art is represented by frescos such as the ones in Tango.

 The Challenge

The considerable interest of the world community in historic Buddhist art was well demonstrated by the international outcry, which followed the willful destruction of the ancient statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.

The rare murals on the walls of the northern shrine rooms of the utse were discovered recently. In preparation of the renovation work, altars were moved and this is when the murals were discovered.

In the government’s haste to renovate, the fortress, some of the walls on which these paintings sit would have damaged. Without the timely intervention of the royal family, some of the world treasure would have been reduced to dirt.

Art historians and conservations experts say that the value of these unique paintings is enhanced when they remain in their original context in a building, which retains its historical integrity. This is the case with Tango dzong, and the paintings it contains.

It is important therefore not only for us to preserve the paintings but also to conserve the historical integrity of the structure.



Courtesy Kuensel

Add comment August 29th, 2014

Tashi Tagye: the eight auspicious signs.

This set of symbols is very popular in Bhutan and you will find them in dzongs, temples, monasteries, home and offices. It is also known in Sanskrit as ‘Ashtamangala’, ashta means eight and mangala means auspicious and they carry special meanings:

DUG (parasol) embodies notions of wealth or royalty, for one had to be rich enough to possess such an item, and further, to have someone carry it. It points to the “royal ease” and power experienced in the Buddhist life of detachment. It also symbolises the wholesome activities to keep beings from harm (sun) like illness, harmful forces, obstacles and so forth, and the enjoyment of the results under its cool shade.

Dug - Parasol

Dug – Parasol

SERNYA (a pair of golden fishes) were originally symbolic of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna, but came to represent good fortune in general, for Hindus, Jain and Buddhists. Within Buddhism it also symbolises that living beings who practice the dharma need have no fear to drown in the ocean of suffering, and can freely migrate (chose their rebirth) like fish in the water. They may also be taken to symbolize the eye of perception as fish can see through muddy water.

Sernya - A pair of Fishes

Sernya – A pair of Fishes

BUMPA (Treasure Vase) is a sign of the inexhaustible riches available in the Buddhist teachings, but also symbolises long life, wealth, prosperity and all the benefits of this world. (There is even a practice which involves burying or storing treasure vases at certain locations to generate wealth, eg. for monasteries or dharma centers.)

Bumpa- Treasure Vase

Bumpa- Treasure Vase

LOTUS (padma) is a very important symbol in India and of Buddhism. It refers to the complete purification of body, speech and mind, and the blossoming of wholesome deeds in liberation. The lotus refers to many aspects of the path, as it grows from the mud (samsara), up through muddy water it appears clean on the surface (purification), and finally produces a beautiful flower (enlightenment). The white blossom represents purity, the stem stands for the practice of Buddhist teachings which raise the mind above the (mud of) worldly existence, and gives rise to purity of mind. An open blossom signifies full enlightenment; a closed blossom signifies the potential for enlightenment.

Lotus - Padma

Lotus – Padma

DUNGKAR (conch shell), which is also used as a horn, symbolises the deep, far reaching and melodious sound of the teachings, which is suitable for all disciples as it awakens them from the slumber of ignorance to accomplish all beings’ welfare. It symbolizes reverberating sound of Dharma and signifies the awakening of sentient beings from The sleeping state of Their ignorance. It persuades them towards the path of noble deeds that are beneficial to others. Gautam blew the conch shell when he decided to preach the law. The Conch shell is blown in commemoration of this event whenever there is a special sermon by a high lama.

Dungkhar - Conch Shell

Dungkhar – Conch Shell

PALBHEU (endless knot) is a geometric diagram which symbolises the nature of reality where everything is interrelated and only exists as part of a web of karma and its effect. Having no beginning or end, it also represents the infinite wisdom of the Buddha, and the union of compassion and wisdom. Also, it represents the illusory character of time, and long life as it is endless.

Palbheu (Endless Knot)

Palbheu (Endless Knot)

The GYALTSEN (Victory Banner) symbolises the victory of the Buddha’s teachings over death, ignorance, disharmony and all the negativities of this world, and victory over. This symbol also signifies the fortune of having victory of good over the evil forces which hinders the success of noble goals and also proclaims the victory of deity over evil. It is used in processions.

Gyaltshen (Victory Banner)

Gyaltshen (Victory Banner)

KHORLO (Dharmachakra); it is said that after Siddharta Gautama achieved enlightenment, Brahma came to him, offered a Dharma-Wheel and requested the Buddha to teach. It represents the Buddhist teachings.

Khorlo - The wheel of Dharma

Khorlo – The wheel of Dharma

Add comment August 23rd, 2014

The National Flower of Bhutan

Meconopsis spp

Meconopsis spp


BLUE POPPY: With the monsoon in the air it’s time for blue poppy to flourish, the monsoon bring along with it rain, heat, dampness and moisture a pre requisite for the delicate blue poppy to thrive.

The national flower, blue poppy, is one of the most exquisite and rare flowers in the country and found at elevations of around 3,000m to 4,000m above sea level.

Blue poppy, with its scientific name Meconopsis spp, has 13 species and falls under the family of papaveraceae. Blue poppy also comes in pink, white and red colors and are found in the country.

Meconopsis superba (endemic  To HAA)

Meconopsis superba (endemic To HAA)

The white-coloured blue poppy is endemic and found in Haa, a quaint town in south western Bhutan. About eight species are found in blue, while one species is red in color, and a few are white and purple.

Blue poppy starts flowering from June to August and they need lots of moisture to grow. They grow on sandy and moist soil

Blue poppy grows across the Himalaya and they survive in extreme conditions, such as freezing temperatures. And  it’s amazing how this rare flower can grow in extreme conditions, and yet it is frail in nature. Blue poppy is said to flower once, after which it seeds and withers.  It takes about two to three years for the seeds to grow into a plant.

Meconopsis napaulensis

Meconopsis napaulensis

It was in the early ‘90s that the blue poppy was declared as the national flower of Bhutan.

Blue Poppy is the national flower because it’s said that blue blood runs through it and it’s a rare flower,” About 5,603 plant species have been identified in the country, including about 576 wild orchids and 46 rhododendron and over 300 medicinal plants.

Meconopsis paniculata

Meconopsis paniculata


August 7th, 2014

The Airport Trap (Bangkok, Thailand)

Suvarnabhumi-airport (Bangkok, Thailand)

Suvarnabhumi-airport (Bangkok, Thailand)

This is another articles that I happen to come across in Kuensel ( National Newspaper in Bhutan) Albeit, the protagonist are the Bhutanese in the articles but this can be served as general notification to all.

Basically, more than 80% of our guests choose to fly from the Bangkok for its convenience to connect directly to Bhutan and in most cases it help to avoid India visa.

If guests exercise general caution and pay heed to notification can add value to overall enjoyment of the trip

 The Airport Trap

For the thousands of Bhutanese travelling to Thailand, the duty free shop at the Bangkok international airport is a favorite place to do last minute shopping, whether to pick up a gift or spend their remaining baht.

But the duty free shop, it seems, is turning out to be a dangerous place to pick up a gift for your loved ones, or to window shop.  There are stories of how departing passengers are detained for allegedly shoplifting and let off after paying huge sums of money.  Airport security officials and even police are alleged to be partnering with those at the shops.

Recently, the BBC carried a story warning tourists travelling to Thailand of the alleged airport scam.  Many newspapers and websites picked it up, as Thailand is a favourite tourist destination.  Following the article, there were many stories shared by victims, most of who paid huge sums of money to get back to their country and avoid the notorious Thai jails.

The number of Bhutanese travelling to Thailand, especially Bangkok, has increased by manifold in recent years.  From only civil servants on official tour in the past, Bhutanese visitors have increased and include business people, students, and families on holiday or for medical reasons.  It is a favourite destination for shopping and a transit route with a request of few days’ stopover.

Although no Bhutanese were reported to have gone through the ordeal, it is important for the travellers to be cautious of the scam.  The joke among some is that Bhutanese will not be targeted, because they don’t carry USD or pound sterling or euros or credit cards to withdraw and pay the officials.  But the average Bhutanese traveller is comparatively naïve, and chances of getting cheated or robbed are higher.  Bhutanese travellers will suffer more than others, because we are not used to this kind of treatment.

Maybe not at the airport, but a good number of Bhutanese have fallen victim to scamsters or conmen while in Bangkok.  Many will not share the story for  fear of being mocked.  But there are instances, where some have lost their entire stipend or shopping money on the day of arrival.  This is made worse by lack of credit card facility, or the habit of carrying wads of cash everywhere we go.

A common incident being letting a stranger, in Arab dress in most cases, see your wallet and exchange currencies.  Because we’re friendly by nature, we are easier prey to such predators.

Unfortunately, there are no stories of anyone getting back their money, even when attempts were made to involve authorities.

The chocolates, watches, alcohol and branded goods at Bangkok airport may be tempting, but it would be wiser to be a little more cautious when on the streets or duty free shops in Bangkok.

Courtesy Kuensel

July 31st, 2014

Happiness isn’t just a state of mind; it’s a place on earth BY BRYAN FERNANDE

Recently I was browsing the news on Today; I came across a very interesting article by Bryan Fernandez, who visited Bhutan recently. Albeit, he travelled with different Travel Operator in Bhutan. He portray his experiences so vividly in the manner that it makes the reading most exciting and at the same time bringing the true essences, and color of day to day life to the surface in most natural tone.

I felt it would be pity not to provide a larger audience for such an interesting article that captured even locals’ imaginations. Everywords and lines are by Bryan Fernandez and I made an attempt to lend support with general Photos, though it’s hardly require so.

Happiness isn’t just a state of mind; it’s a place on earth  BY  BRYAN FERNANDE 

Happiness Is A Place. At least that’s the official slogan of the Tourism Council of Bhutan; and I was determined to find out if it was merely hype and a clever marketing gimmick or truly a way of life in Bhutan.

As soon as you land at Paro airport, you know you’re in for something completely different. Even the ramp service agent waving the planes off is dressed in a traditional costume — basically everyone is.

Here’s what we know about the country: It is landlocked and located along the eastern end of the Himalayas and flanked by both China and India. It is relatively small in terms of its population (about 750,000) but its land space is roughly 38,000 sq km (about 50 times larger than Singapore). It gets approximately 50,000 international visitors a year (that’s about the number of visitors to Sentosa a day).

Bhutan is also popular for its Gross National Happiness (GNH) policy: It measures the nation’s success not by GDP but by the well-being of its people. Bhutan is sometimes referred to as the last Shangri-La, because it is said to be relatively untouched by modern culture and western influence.

There are some things to note before you fly off to Bhutan for a holiday. Firstly, you have to fly by Druk Air which currently has two flights from Singapore to Paro a week. Secondly, look for a reputable travel agent that specialises in Bhutan: He or she will be able to sort everything out, including getting visas and customising an itinerary. You’ll have to get a prepaid travel package (approximately US$250, or S$309, per person per night) and this includes a hotel room, a dedicated guide and driver, meals and entrance fees to attractions. So it’s kind of like a full board vacation.

Our two weeks there saw us travelling from town to town; through valleys, over mountains and across rivers. There are no malls, McDonalds, Starbucks, cinemas … nothing that defines a modern city. There aren’t even any traffic lights — and hardly any street signs. If you do see one, it would just point you in the general direction of where the next town is. (I asked the locals how they would arrange to meet someone or find their way around. They said they would just describe it, accompany it with a familiar landmark and find their way, no problem.)


To fully understand Bhutan though, you should truly have a basic understanding of Buddhism. It permeates everyday life in Bhutan. The majority of its citizens are Buddhist and it is evident when you look around. Buddhist culture has penetrated into every aspect of their lives. Colourful prayer flags and prayer wheels and stupas (structures containing Buddhist relics) can be seen all around.

The lines between myth and legend are blurred. Listening to some of the stories made me feel like I was travelling through the pages of Journey To The West. One of the first sacred sights we visited was Chimi Lhakhang, or “the temple of the divine madman”. According to legend, Drukpa Kunley, aka the Divine Madman, subdued demons with his phallus — which is why you will see images of giant phalluses adorning the walls of building exteriors all over Bhutan: It is said to drive away evil spirits.

The Divine Madman was also known for his outrageous and often obscene methods of spreading enlightenment to the common man, but he is credited by some for creating the Takin (Bhutan’s national animal) by taking the head of a goat and placing it on a cow’s body. Local women visit the temple to pray for fertility.

As a director/videographer (for if you must know), I’m always on the lookout for stunning sights. And the one sacred site that no one should miss — even if you don’t care for Buddhist history — is Taktshang Monastery, or the Tiger’s Nest. The sheer beauty and magnificence of this monastery will take your breath away. Built on the side of a cliff overseeing Paro valley, this dramatic and highly venerated religious site was the highlight of the trip. But be warned, there are no roads up this mountain and the Tiger’s Nest is approximately 10,000 feet above sea level. You may find yourself trekking for hours just to get there. Then again, we saw plenty of elderly tourists hoof it without any problems.

Paro Taksang

Paro Taksang


Next up was Punakha, the ancient capital of Bhutan. At the centre of it all is Punakha Dzong, a stunning example of Bhutanese architecture. Dzongs once served as fortresses, housing temples and courtyards, and were the district’s social centre. Today, they function as administrative offices and house monks, and tourists come to marvel at the craftsmanship and murals that grace the walls. It is the Bhutanese equivalent of a medieval city. Trongsa Dzong has a watchtower that has been converted into a museum that narrates its history and that of the royal Wangchuck dynasty.


Trongsa Dzong

Trongsa Dzong

Of course, festivals or tshechus are a big draw for visitors to Bhutan. Paro Festival in particular, is an annual event that is marked on everyone’s calendar. Thousands join in the celebration, with most, if not all, dressed in traditional outfits — kiras for women and ghos for men. The fancy ones come in intricate patterns and are handmade; but they are generally cheap and can be bought in the shops around town. Even the king and queen grace this event; they are often seen sitting and chatting with the people, be they tourists or locals.



The food in Bhutan is pretty delicious and healthy. Just a tip: Look for restaurants where the locals eat. Bhutan hopes to be the world’s first fully organic nation. However, if you’ve been weaned on Big Macs and Cokes, be warned: The Bhutanese like their food really spicy. Hotels pretty much dish out the same fare as restaurants but tame the flavours to suit the tourist palette. Chilli cheese or ema datshi is a staple that I quite enjoyed, although I would skip the “tender” beef — the Bhutanese dry their beef out so much, it feels like leather. If you’re ever in Thimpu, look out for The Zone. It’s the Hard Rock Cafe of Bhutan and they serve a mean yak burger. Yeah, you read that right.

Typical Bhutanese Dishes

Typical Bhutanese Dishes

While Bhutan is a scenic and spiritual destination, I think what really made it an unforgettable journey is the people that we met along the way. The Bhutanese are warm and friendly, and almost everyone speaks English. We were chatting with a local at a festival and he invited us to join his family for lunch — they had a picnic spread and his whole family, from his grandmother to his nieces and nephews, looked on with glee as we sampled their home-cooked food.

Yes, people are indeed happier in Bhutan — happy to lead a simple life and satisfied with what they have but always mindful of their environment and the people around them. It never once cross my mind that the Bhutanese people were backward village folk (even though they only had televisions since 1999). They are as modern a society as any that I can think of (they have iPads and Internet access, and they know their pop culture). They’ve definitely got their priorities right as a society.

So is happiness a place? Yes.

It’s a place where your heart and mind meet to enjoy the simple beauties that this world has to offer.



July 30th, 2014

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