Gods and Sacred Mountains | Guru Rinpoche | The Life of Guru Rinpoche | Guru Rinpoche in Bhutan

The Sins of King Sendharkha

Towards the end of the eighth century, King Sendharkha ruled a small kingdom in the province which is today called Bumthang in central Bhutan. As his son died in a battle, Sendharkha placed the blame for this on Shelging Karpo, the god who should protect his lineage. In his anger, the king had all the holy places of Shelging Karpo soiled with excrement, thus spiritually polluting these sites. Shelging Karpo, however, sought revenge in slowly robbing Sendharkha of his vitality. As a result of this, the king became very ill.

In this situation, only Guru Rinpoche could now help. Sendharkha had heard of the Guru's reputation as a conquerer of demons. At this time, Guru Rinpoche was staying with his tantric consort Mandarava, a Dakini*, in Nepal and was practicing secret rituals in the Maratika cave.

The Ride on the Tiger

Here he heard the calling to come to Bumthang in order to conquer Shelging Karpo. Strengthened through the tantric rituals, through which he had been conveyed Buddha Amitayus's power and insight, Guru Rinpoche flew in his emanation as Dorje Drolö - riding on a tiger - to Bhutan. There he meditated for three months in a cave, high over the Paro Valley. Today, at this place stands the Taktsang or the »Tiger's Nest« monastery, one of the holiest places of the country.


Victory over Shelging Karpo

Only then did the Guru travel further to Bumthang. There he also first retreated to a rocky cave in order to meditate. During this, his body produced so much energy that his silhouette was embossed in the stone. Later, at this place, the Kurje Lhakang temple was erected. It is dedicated to the Guru and one of the most important monasteries of Bhutan.

In a magical fight Guru Rinpoche finally conquered the malicious Shelging Karpo and tamed him. Sendharkha became well and his kingdom also flourished again. The king then joined the religion of Buddhism. Just like in Tibet, Guru Rinpoche also travelled throughout the countryside of Bhutan, spreading Buddhism. In numerous clashes he conquered many of the local deities, which he then integrated into the Buddhist belief system.

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Detail from a fabric mural; 19th century; 245 x 121 centimeters; on loan from the Völkerkundemuseum der Universität Zürich

Detail of a mural in Guru Tsengye Lhakang
Embodied as Dorje Drolö, Guru Rinpoche is the protector and demon-conquerer. The gestures of the hands, the upwards-facing right hand with the vajra and the downwards-facing left hand with the ritual dagger indicate his power over the gods above and the demons below. The ritual dagger made of iron shows its usefulness in active work. The worn-out demon heads on the garland impressively emphasize his power over these demons.
The name, Dorje Drolö, is untranslatable. It comes from the secret language of the Dakini.

Taktsang, the »Tiger's Nest«.
In the 16th century, above the cave in which Guru Rinpoche meditated after his arrival in Bhutan, a monastery was built.
Photograph by Gerald Navawa