– Joaquim Magalhães de Castro
In the seventh century BC, “in order to subdue a gigantic demonic entity that swept all across the Himalayan region,” Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo ordered the construction of 108 hermitages, including Kyichu Lhakhang, the temple that our guide Sangay insists that we visit. It is one of the oldest in Bhutan and one of the three survivors of the work carried out by King Gampo.
This country is also home to the second temple, being the third one – my old acquaintance Jokhang – based on the worn-out lages of old Lhasa, the main pilgrimage site in all of Tibet. Remember that 108 is a mystical number for Buddhists. With a smile on his face, almost victorious, Sangay reveals to us the reason why he takes us there. “The church that Shabdrung promised the Jesuits was established in this temple,” he says. Although there is no record of such a claim, the promise made by Shabdrung is a fact. All we can do is pay a visit and try to find some identifying traces. But there is a problem. We are not allowed to record images, as is standard in all Tibetan Buddhist temples.
But we are decided, in this case, to break the rules. Sangay guesses our intentions. His gaze tells us: “Do it, but discreetly.” He’s a buddy! Of our “illegal” activity – which takes just the time for us to go through a series of dark partitions with altars, Buddha statues and their avatars, incense sticks, devotees and guardian monks, fifteen to twenty minutes at most – two details strike me.
The first, in one of the side rooms, a black wooden altar that contains elements of decoration evocative of the altars of the Catholic churches. I am referring to floral motifs and, above all, to a carved human figure resembling the angels who support parts of the altars, and who in Vure, on the Indonesian island of Flores, the locals catholics designate “anjo-meja.” In addition, two magnificent tusks of elephant as main decorative element. The Portuguese used to offered them to the rajas with whom they were allied, and deposited them with the title of Dom and lending them nicknames that still remain today.
Our question now is: has the church, or rather chapel, functioned here?
On the wall of another sheltered partition is a painting of Shabdrung accompanied by two bearded figures in monastic robes and with vaguely Caucasian features.
Is this a representation of our padres?
It is very natural that Cacela and Cabral, like good Jesuits, dressed in the Bhutanese fashion during their stay. It is hard to believe, even for the impact the visit had, they had not been, at least once, immortalized in one of the thousands of paintings in the monasteries of the kingdom. Of course, in this case, we have to enter a purely speculative domain. It is well known that Shabdrung came to administer the temple in 1644, which presupposes that the place might have been vacant, thus reinforcing the hypothesis that the Jesuits were authorized to use one of the chapel chapters, as they did in Chagri.