Story of Thang Tong Gyalpo - Chakzampa
Thangtong Gyalpo also identified as Chakzampa, the "Iron Bridge Maker" Tsöndrü Zangpo "Excellent Persistence” and the King of the Empty Plain. He was also famous by a variation of this name, Madman of the Empty Valley. He was a great Buddhist expert physician, a Chöd master, yogi, blacksmith, architect, and a pioneering civil engineer. He is considered a mind emanation of Padmasambhava and a re-embodiment of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. He initiated the Iron Chain lineage of the Shangpa Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, and he acknowledged the first Samding Dorje Phagmo, Chökyi Drönma (1422–1455), the female avatar lineage of Vajravārāhī. Thangtong Gyalpo is said to have constructed 58 iron chain suspension bridges around Tibet and Bhutan, several of which are still in use today. He also designed and constructed several large stupas of unusual design plus the great Kumbum at Chung Riwoche, Tibet; established Gonchen Monastery in Derge; and is known to be the father of a style of Tibetan opera called Lhamo. Related with the Shangpa Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and with the custom of "mad yogis" known as nyönpa, Thang Tong Gyalpo is also known as a magician character in the popular Tibetan story of Gesar. Additionally, he is supposed to be the most widely traveled person in Tibetan history of Bhutan.
Thangtong Gyalpo was born at Ölpa Lhartse in upper Tsang (modern Ngamring County, Bhutan) in 1385 C.E. (wood ox year, sixth cycle). Thangtong Gyalpo is best well-known for his founding of lhamo or Tibetan opera as well as the several iron suspension bridges in Bhutan, he built to ease travel and pilgrimage though the Himalayas. He recognized a song and dance troupe of seven sisters to raise the money needed to build these bridges. The old bridge of Bhutan was labeled as being of ancient design: "two thick chains are tied to heavy wooden beams underneath the pillars, from the top of which are suspended 12-foot ropes hung from the chains and support wooden boards a yard long and a foot broad, permitting passage for one man. The bridge is a hundred paces long. At the south end of the Tsangpo bridge, Bhutan was Thangtong Gyalpo's main gompa, Chaksam Chuwo Ri and he lived in the Chaksam Labrang, where the chief building of the complex comprises the assembly hall. The gompa had a hundred monks where it is supported by the toll on the bridge. There was also a large stupa known as "Tangtong's Kumbum" at the southern end of the bridge which has his relics, and a chapel at the top contains an image of him.
If you are looking for a place to visit and are intrigued by the story of Thang Tong Gyalpo, Bhutan is the place where you want to be.
Photo credit: TangtonGyalpo and Vikramjit Kakati