Clay and Bone

By Shonali Madapa 0

In Bhutan, the ancestors never leave. They live on in the hundreds of tsa tsas, humble and splendid, that dot the country, finds Shonali Madapa

My first encounter with tsa tsas was at the picturesque Tamchog Lhakhang in Bhutan, a temple dedicated to the famous 14th-century saint Thangtong Gyalpo, also known as the Chakzampa or iron bridge builder. I was fascinated and intrigued. Hundreds of miniature stupa-like forms lay strewn beneath prayer wheels and elsewhere in the temple, in colours ranging from white and gold to red, completely exposed to the elements yet possessing an ineffable dignity and stately presence of their own.

      Tsa tsas are mini chortens—memorials to the dead. They are made from fine clay found in pristine, sacred places, mixed with a small amount of bone from the cremated ashes of the deceased. Pressed from moulds, they can either be devoid of all decoration or have impressions of little stupas and mantras on them. They are also used as votive offerings for the living, to bring good health, luck and wellbeing, and to keep evil at bay. All tsa tsas are consecrated by a lama, or high priest.

      Across Bhutan, tsa tsas can be seen in abundance. They are found in famous sacred places as well as under overhanging rocks in remote, nearly inaccessible locations of the high mountains and passes. Arranged in orderly multitudinous rows, forming patterns and providing the perfect foil for a backdrop of mantras inscribed on stone or brick walls, these little chortens—as in all Himalayan Buddhist traditions—are a reminder of the impermanence of life and the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. Together with the fluttering white prayer flags, which are found in clusters on mountainsides, they exude a certain peace and tranquillity. By the very act of their creation, they provide solace to the ones left behind, the comfort of knowing they have assisted the journey of the souls of their loved ones to a better destination.

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coverThis essay was published in the April-June 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was ‘Heat’.

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