Mini Stupas in Bhutan
Tsa-Tsa – the miniature stupas of Bhutan
As you travel across Bhutan, you will find, besides dzongs, chortens, and lhakangs, small stupas – cone-shaped clay castings tucked away in holy and sacred niches, clinging to rocky outcroppings near caves, piled high at the foot of prayer wheels, and even floating down rivers on rafts of sacred wood, such as cedar and sandalwood. These votive earthen offerings are called Tsa-Tsa, pronounced with a silent T.
Each Tsa-Tsa is placed with loving tenderness and devout belief in its powers. Each one of them is an ancient prayer for the well-being of a beloved human – living or departed – and has its own individual story to tell.
The history of the Tsa-Tsa goes back to hundreds, maybe thousands of years and their origin is traced in the Himalayan regions of India, Bhutan and Tibet. The moulds and casting process have been handed down through generations from master to student, lama to monk. Also passed down are the meditations and mantras that are chanted during the casting process.
Tsa-Tsas are empowered by inserting a tiny scroll of prayers or mantras into a hollow space in miniature stupas while reciting special mantras that were written centuries ago by Buddhist masters. Ordinary earth is transformed through this ritual of empowerment into a receptacle of sacred energy that sweetens the air around it, and calls to action all the merciful powers of the deities.“When our friends or relatives are really suffering, maybe from cancer or other serious ailments, we find ourselves helpless,” explained Lama Ugyen. “But there is still something we can do to actually save them and prolong their life.
Through the power of the Tsa-Tsa, we can gain merit and then dedicate that merit to others. You see, the Tsa-Tsa is actually a miniature stupa. We, here in Bhutan, also call them chortens. Though small as they are, Tsa-Tsas evoke the same powers as the largest stupa, but only if the maker and sponsor of them is a true believer in their powers. During construction and placement of the Tsa-Tsa and for many days after, one should recite aloud the most precious Sutra of Long Life, a thousand times over or even more. We should enlist the aid of monks at monasteries to continue to chant the sutra as many times as possible. All of this will focus the healing powers of the Tsa-Tsa on those who are true believers as well as their makers and sponsors.”
Lama Ugyen went on to explain the building process of the Tsa-Tsa. There are two types and sizes in use in Bhutan, with the smaller containing the impressions of eight stupas and the larger one a hundred and eight stupas. Each is just as powerful as the other depending on the strength of belief of the maker and the sponsor as well as the number of mantras chanted.
First, fine clay is collected from different sites in Bhutan, some from near Paro but most from southern Bhutan. This clay is very sticky and contains a minimum of sand which makes it perfect for pressing into the mould. The Tsa-Tsa caster, after picking out all the small pebbles and stones, pounds the mixture of clay with a wooden mallet. He also mixes in it the clay particles of saffron, holy herbs and spices and kneads it like bread dough until it is pliable and ready for the mould.
The best metal moulds are from foundries in India. They have cast copies of original ancient moulds made by Tibetan masters. Oil is spread inside the mould to keep the clay from sticking. After pressing the clay into the mould, a tubular hole is pressed into the bottom of the Tsa-Tsa that will eventually contain mantras from a Sanskrit scripture as well as of Varocana Buddha. The mantras are copied onto a paper using ink that has partially been extracted from the seeds of holy trees, such as cyprus and sandalwood.
This tiny paper scroll is then tightly rolled and placed into the bottom of the Tsa-Tsa and sealed with a plug of clay. The Tsa-Tsa is then dried in the sun until hard and then delivered to the sponsor during a beautiful consecration ceremony of chanting and bell ringing.
So as you venture across Bhutan and witness its glorious landscapes, architecture, history and culture, pay particular attention to the thousands of Tsa-Tsas that you will come across on your journey.
Always show respect to the Tsa-Tsas wherever you may find them. Never move or touch a Tsa-Tsa because much thought has gone into its exact placement. Never step on it as it is considered a sacred religious object. If you want to construct or sponsor your own Tsa-Tsa, consult your tour agent or guide and ask for a meeting with a qualified Tsa-Tsa master. Thus you will begin to understand the depth of spiritual practice of Buddhism.