While demystifying the origin and the tales surrounding the mighty tree is a futile effort, it still stands tall and has withstood the test of time
SHERAB DORJI and KARMA CHIMI
The mighty-old cypress tree (Tsenden Shing) at Changzamtog is replete with a rich history of its own, including speculations that the tree sprouted from the walking staff of Guru Padmasambava and, or, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel.
This theory, however, is put to the test as many believe the tree actually is an upshoot of another Buddhist master’s walking staff – of that of Lama Drukpa Kunleg – popularly known as the divine madman in the western pantheons.
According to local residents living at Changzamtog, they say that the Tsenden Shing, on whose circular base a stupa was built, actually grew from the walking stick of Lama Drukpa Kunleg, a great Tibetan Yogi who visited Bhutan during the 15th century.
While constructing a chorten, the locals were wondering on the Zung (inner installation) and it is said that Drukpa Kunleg gave his staff as a Zung.
Another anecdote has it that Lama Drukpa Kunleg gave it as a keepsake to some residents in the community, and which was later placed inside the chorten.
While the actual history of the chorten is still unknown and shrouded in mystery, locals are confident that the cypress tree which seems as if it has sprouted from the chorten’s core actually belongs to 15th century Buddhist yogi.
Local folklores also have it that the tree once bled when the Tibetan from the North came and tried to cut it down as it was blessed by the Divine Madman himself. They say the tree still bears the old scars when it was attempted to be felled down, much to the astonishment of the communities who then started to revere it more.
76-year-old Agay Ugyen Tshering who served as the gup of Chang (local leader) from 1981 to 1987 says that the conjecture of the tree having sprouted from the staffs belonging to different Buddhist saint is false. He further opines that the tree could have long existed even before Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel who is credited to have been the most popular Buddhist figure and leader at that time – and hence the myth.
Besides the Tsenden Shing, one sacred site (nye) in particular is the frog- shaped stone which is believed to be the Divine Madman’s personal steed.
According to Chang Dorji, 81, a local resident, there is connection between the local deity of Changzamtog, Aum Jashi Mem and Drukpa Kunleg whereby myths has it that she received and welcomed the Lama when he came to Bhutan and later the lama placed Aum Jashi Mem as the local deity of Changzamtog community.
However, what baffles the locals is that the cypress tree has remained the same and that it hasn’t even damaged the chorten that was built on its circular base.
Today, the old-faithful tree is a place where the local elders meet during their leisure time. Most of all, they believe, it is place for them to gain merit if one circumambulates the chorten.
Locals added that in the olden days, there used to be festivals and rituals every year near the Aum Jashi Mem Chorten and even at the Tsenden Shing.
When people were sick, the locals used to seek blessing and chant prayers near the chorten and the tree and they used to do the same when there wasn’t bountiful harvest of crops in the village and when the village was in dire circumstances.
Nonetheless, 78-year-old Thinley Dorji, from Toedbesa in Punakha who settled in Thimphu from his early age, shares that there is no known written records and history related with the chorten and the Tsenden Shing., and that everything that we know and fathom of today are all based on oral accounts.
He said it has now been around 20 years since the last rituals and festive near the Tsenden Shing was conducted. Such devaluing gestures, he adds, disheartens the locals living nearby and fears over the loss of age-old tradition and customs in their locality.
Agay Thinley feels that it would be great if they can revive the tradition that their forefathers have done. And, as far as Agay Ugyen Tshering has known, till date there has been two major renovations conducted on the chorten.
It is said that Chang Dorji and one of his friends installed the prayer wheels around the chorten just about six years ago.
However, the butter lamp lighting and the management of the chorten and the cypress tree is still being conducted and maintained by locals residing in Changzamtog and the people who circumambulate the chorten.
Locals residing near the vicinity also do opine that, over the years as modernization spread its wings, the concerned authorities haven’t done much to renovate or the chorten, nor did anything to connect its past spiritual histories.
And, despite the chorten and old-faithful cypress tree being engulfed by the ever-growing tentacles of modernization, the tree and the stupa has stood as a silent sentinel guarding the community of Changzamtog.
Only time can tell if the old tree and the stupa, and the majestic tales surrounding it, will withstand the test of time.