Looking for the drums of Tsamdrak

Tracing the Four Skills of Wang Valley – Part II

In the late 1990s, as a young engineer building radio towers over Paro Jabjikha, I was awed by the views of the Himalayas and the temples and gonpas (retreat centres) I could see from there such as Dongkala, Phurdo Gonpa to the north, Paga Gonpa and Thamdrak Gonpa to the east, and Dobji Dzong and Dawakha to the south. When I was tired of working, I would drive off to the villages nearby, and sit and eat with the locals and elders, and hear stories of the past legends, myths and heroes.

I always dreamt of visiting those places one day, but, to lift from a John Lennon song, life happened although I had other plans.

One fascinating story was about the legendary 108 drums of Tshamdrak Gonpa. And of a certain “Je Ngawang Drub” – the founder. A bit of research now shows that his name is Jetsun Ngawang Drukpa (1682-1748) and he came from the Metakha Choeje in Dungna. He was the nephew of Choeje Ngawang Dorji – another important lama in the history of Drukpa Kagyu school. He is the same lama who was offered the Milarepa statue by the Tibetan Government after he visited Lhasa and impressed both the people and the government. The statue is in Dobji Dzong after it was left there for it refused to move further to Tshamdrak Gonpa.

The founding of Tshamdrak

A visit to Tshamdrak is like walking into a museum. Both in terms of cultural artefacts and stories, Tshamdrak is a treasure house. You remain awed by everything there – least of which is the breath-taking view towards the Dawakha.

The place is associated with all important figures in Bhutanese Vajrayana Buddhism such as Guru Rimpoche, Terton Pema Lingpa, Aap Chundru, Tsang Khenchen, Je Sakya Rinchen among others. It brings together the best of the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions.

Tsham-drak means “meditation cave” and refers to a place that was opened by Drubthob Uthon Sangye, a member of the Kyurura clan in Tibet and a disciple of Drikung Kyobpa Pel (probably referring to Drikung Kagyu lama Jikten Gonpo Rinchen Pel – a 12th Century lama). Uthon Sangye is believed to have married a local woman and started the Metakha Choje in present-day Chukha district.

A more important figure from the Metakha Choje is Ngawang Dorji who appeared five centuries later. It is believed that when he was meditating in Tshamdrak, Guru Rimpoche appeared to him and recognised him as the reincarnation of Humchenkara (སློབ་དཔོན་ཧཱུྃྂ་ཆེན་ཀཱ་ར་ཡིས; Acharya Humkara) – one of the Eight Vidyadharas (རིག་འཛིན་བརྒྱད་, Rigdzin Gyé) of India. Tshamdrak, thus, became a very important site for serious practitioners. Ngawang Dorji was the paternal uncle of Je Ngawang Drukpa and became his first teacher.

The Pema Lingpa connection

While his ancestors identified the place it was Je Ngawang Drukpa who built the three-storied temple as we see today. The consecration was presided over by one of his main teachers, the Second Gangteng Trulku, Tenzin Legpai Dondrub (1645 – 1727) – a Nyingma lama from the Peling tradition, who is considered the greatest Gangtey Trulku among the previous eight reincarnations.

This connection to Peling tradition seems to be strong even today, which is evidenced by the fact that the regular propitiating rituals are conducted to the super powerful Gonpo Maning Nakpo – one of the dharma protectors of Terton Pema Lingpa and his followers and family line. 

The 108 ter-drums 

While there are other important relics and sacred objects in Tshamdrak, the place was known in popular culture for its 108 drums. Legends have it that all the 108 drums were carved by Lam Ngawang Drukpa out of a single tree. Of the 108 only 12 remain, and according to the caretaker, the rest has been distributed to Thimphu Dzong and Punakha Dzong. The 12 drums are put on permanent display in a museum that has been recently opened by Gyalsey Tenzin Rabgye.

Guru Rimpoche’s ceremonial robe

Another priceless treasure relic of Tshamdrak is the Choe-go (ceremonial robe) that is believed to be of Guru Padmasambhava. (This relic is now sealed and available only once a year).

Story has it that Lam Ngawang Drukpa sent his cook to buy tea loaves (ja-pakchu) from Paro Tshongdu. Those days tea loaves came packed in boxes. The cook was given a special instruction: Buy three boxes from the first seller. Don’t open the boxes. Shoot straight for Tshamdrak without taking rest on the way.

Few days later the cook returned with three boxes of tea and did everything as he was told. The lama opened the first box. There was tea inside. The lama opened the second, and there was also just tea. When the lama opened the third box, out came an orange robe. 

This robe is the most precious nang-ten (inner sacred relics) of Tshamdrak Gonpa today. 

Guru Sungjoen and caves, foot prints and stupas

In and and around the Gonpa, there are several caves, and hand and foot prints of Guru Padmasambhava, Lam Ngawang Dorji, Aap Chundu, and Uton Sangye. There is also a kudrung chorten that holds the physical remains of Je Ngawang Drukpa.

One interesting story tells of the Guru statue (located on the top floor) that is believed to have spoken to a thief. The robber had carried off the statue and when he got far off from the temple, he stopped to take a rest. However, he was not able to move after taking the rest. The Guru statue miraculously spoke telling the thief that unless he decides to carry him back, he will be stuck. After struggling for a few minutes and seeing the futility, the thief agreed to take the statue back.

There is also a big stone slab, associated to Aap Chundru (deity of Haa valley). The stone slab is believed to be stitched from two slabs of stones by Lam Ngawang Drukpa – using a thread made out of sand.

Nyingma Gyu-bum

A lesser known fact is that Tshamdrak Gonpa was a thriving library and publication house in the mediaeval period. Besides the Kanjur and Tenjur volumes, one of the only complete set of Nyingma Gyubum ((རྙིང་མ་རྒྱུད་འབུམ) – which literally means Tantric texts of the New Translation lineage, was found here. A copy was made for the National Library in the 1980s. Other Nyingma centres around the world also made copies from Tshamdrak. The Gyubum was compiled by Ratna Lingpa (1403-1478).

The temple also has many Terma scriptures including those revealed by Sangye Lingpa (1340–1398), Ratna Lingpa (1403-1478) and Pema Lingpa (1450-1521). 

Getting there

Tshamdrak (also written Tsamdrag) Gonpa is now connected by road and there is no need to make the steep uphill hike on foot.

You steer off at Damchu on the Thimphu – Phuntsholing highway. The road is bit rough for small cars – especially after one crosses the last village. A four wheel drive is recommended if you are doing in the wet season. The drive is about an hour from the highway.


People from central and eastern Bhutan whose choesung is Gonpo Maning, and who live in western Dzongkhags MUST visit one of the following lhakhangs: Tshamdrak Gonpa, Euthok Gonpa, Jabdo Gonpa or best – Nyechen Dongkala. Those who are ill, must visit Mendrup Gonpa. This is because Gonpo Maning has residence in these places.

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