Sumtrhang Samdrup Choedzong is the full name of the monastic establishment, located in Sombrang village under Ura Gewog (county) of Bumthang district. It is one of the earliest establishments in Bhutan. As one of the oldest religious centers, it houses some of the country’s most sacred relics and has been a vibrant center of religious and cultural life.
Nyö Gyelwa Lhanangpa one of the principle disciples of Drikung Jigten Sumgoen the founder of Drikung Kagyue school founded the Sumtrhang monastery in 1220s and his only son a Vajrakīla Yogi known as Nyöton Dechog Thrulzhig Chöje was entrusted to establish the Sumtrhang monastic tradition to maintain the activities through a bloodline lineage as Nyö Gyelwa Lhanangpa foresaw diminishing of his school of Drikung tradition, which his followers had spread until the western Bhutan since the early 1190s. His school of Driking later known as Lhapa Kaguye become prominent in western Bhutan after he established the Chelkha Dzong in 1194 until it faced dominance from Drukpa schools which arrived Bhutan in 1220s.
The monastery is build on a symbolic landscape with a cliff resembling like a stack of texts at the north, a conch shell resembling land at the south, a rocky terrain in the shape of swastika at the east and a milky brook at the west. The temple was built on a ground where a four sided stone pillar stands symbolizing the pillar of four activities. This stone pillar is housed in the ground floor of the temple today.
The monastery is probably the earliest monastic establishment, which introduced the Vajra Kyilaya practice and traditions in Bhutan. The cliff at its north known as Sumtrhang Drag is the area of its retreat center on and around which is dotted with ruins of hermit houses of the monastery’s retreat center where its incumbent lineage holders and their followers spent later times in secluded practice. The cliff which stand divided into two blocks are known as the Sharling the eastern block and Nubling the western block and was named similar to how Nyo Lhanangpa established Sharling and Nubling on Ngyenchen Thanglha in Drikung.
The monastery’s local and incumbent’s personal guardian deity is the Sumtrhang Draktsen Lhatsen Dorji Draduel which rides on a dark black horse with retinue of the kings of four directions and other local non-human spirits. Many communities around the branch monastic temples founded by the incumbents of Sumtrhang across the kingdom, such as the Shingnyer in Bumthang, Zhongmey and Wangzhing in Lhuentse and several communities in Zhemgang district’s Kheng region also worship Draktsen as their local guardian deity maintaining the cultural history of association of these communities and their temples to Sumtrhang.
Sumtrhang monastery’s degeneration has probably began since the 1770s, during the reign of Druk Desi Zhidar who was said to have restricted the practice of schools other than Drukpa Kaguye. Until then Sumtrhang has had a good relation with central monastic body as several sons from the family of the Chöje has also joined the central monk body and one of them has even achieved the highest ranks in the monastic system as the Tsenyid Lopen during Desi Tenzin Rabgay’s time while another by name Ngawang has gone to Ladakh as the Gangri Lama.
Today, the monastic establishment is undergoing a process of gradual restoration since 2000 initiated by current Sumtrhang’s seat holder Ven. Chöje Lama Gyatsho who is the 28th Sumtrhang Chöje from among the 48th generation of the Nyö clan in Bhutan.Since 2000, main temple was renovated and under the restoration initiative, seven young and bright students were sent to Drikung Jangchubling in Dheradhun Inda, and a nunnery was started at Nubling retreat center since 2016.
Located at 3,100 metres above the sea level, the small village locally known as Sombrang and its people the Sombrangpa sits at the foot of the huge wall of Sumtrhang cliff at its north with rest of the valley down below at its south dotted with several other villages in the valley among which is the famous Ura village of Bumthang.
The name of the village was a later mispronunciation of Sumtrhang. In the past there was only the Sumtrhang Samdrup Choedzong Monastery and its monastic community without a village such as the one we have today. As the village grew it came to be known as Sombrang and the monastic temple, as Sombrang Lhakhang.
The monastic community in the early time was divided into five, the residence of the founder was called the Nagtsang, and rest of the community was divided into four known as the Konyeray the temple caretaker, Gartsangba the blacksmith, Zargangba the water in-charge and Taraiba the staple keeper.
In the later time, the community grew into a small village as the members of the households increased and therefore, today the households in Sombrang has grown into eighteen, all of them an extension of these four major units of the past Sumtrhang Samdrup Choedzong monastic community. Traditionally the community members were active participants in the upkeep of the monastic cultures and were also involved in the initial restoration process in early 2000s by receiving government support of labour tax being exempted for the locals contributing in the renovation works. However since labour tax system is discontinued, the community members of Sombrang were not able to take part in the restoration process and in the upkeep of the monastic traditions as they are occupied by individual responsibilities as a farming community without other source of income.
Samten Yeshi is a member of the Bhutan Nyö Foundation’s management committee. He is at present a student of MA in Cultural Heritage Studies Program at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.
1. Karma Phuntsho, The History of Bhutan, Random House (2013) pg140-141
2. Sonam Nyenda, Kangsöl: A Vajrakila Performance Tradition of Sumthrang Monastery in Central Bhutan, MA Thesis, University of Colorado (2016) pg 25-27
3. Lam Sangag, ‘brug gi myos rabs gsal ba’i me long [Geneological history of Nyö lineage of Sumtrhang in Bhutan] (1983).
4. Palden Zangpo, mon ban dpal ldan bzang po bdag gi thob yig thos pa rgya mtsho.
5. Lama Gyatsho, Draft Sumtrhang Dhenrab (unpublished).
6. Local Oral accounts