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Zhemgang: Dechen Dzong
How Zhemgang derived its name
Zhemgang dzongkhag derives its name from a 12th century monastery built by Lam Zhang Dorji Dragpa, a scholar-sage of Drukpa Kagyud School according to a Bhutanese researcher. The Dechen Yantse dzong, in 1980, stands on the site where Lam Zhang built a monastery in 12th century The monastery was named "Zhangang" or immeasurable mound based on the name of the founder who visited Bhutan from Zhamling in Tibet in his mission to propagate Buddhism.

"Zhemgang, then called as Khengrig Namsum in olden times derived its name from Zhangang, different pronunciation changed the name into Zhemgang," the researcher at the national library said.

The monastery, which was later rebuilt as a dzong in the 17th century had a significant role in the evolution and shaping of the history of Khengrig Namsum. It has witnessed the major events of triumphs and blunders, withstood intrigues, a sacrilegious murder and cruel jolts of nature in the history of Zhemgang.

The dzong has witnessed the unsuccessful attempts to kill its founder, Lam Zhang, the final gruesome killing of Lam Zhang, civil strife amongst the various chieftains and the final consolidation under the central government. As a part of the national museum's effort to validate and verify the significance of dzongs in Bhutan, Dr Yonten Dargye, who researched on Zhemgang dzong said that the dzong had important political and religious significance in the history of Khengrig Namsum, the three regions of Zhemgang.

Dechen Dzong stands in 1980 on the site where Lam Zhang built a monastery in 12th century
Until the 17th century, the Kheng region was divided into multiple kingdoms with as many as nine Dungs, two Khoches, and four Ponpos, (feudal chieftains of noble descent). The polity of the region was marked with civil strife and the struggle for power amongst the local chieftains. Nyakhar dung who tried to establish hegemony in the region was notably the most powerful whose power was a threat to other local chieftains.

However, in the 17th century the political events in the Kheng region took a turn. After Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal consolidated his powers in the eastern region, he concentrated his unification in the central region, which coincided with the Tunglabi dung, arch-rival of Nyakhar dung, seeking help from the Trongsa Penlop.

The Trongsa Penlop (appointed by Shabdrung), later the third Desi (deb raja) Minjur Tenpa intervened and defeated the Nyakhar dung's force while other local chieftains surrendered. Thereafter, the whole region of Kheng came into the subjection of the Penlop.

A single storied dzong was later built in 1655 on the site where Lam Zhang built a hermitage to mark the unification of Khengrig Namsum. Khengrig Namsum was unified with the Sharchog khorlo tsibgyed, the whole of the eight eastern districts, bringing them under the direct control of the Zhabdrung's central government. Although Lam Zhang did not take part in any political activities directly, the renowned scholar-sage of the Drukpa Kagyud school of Buddhism actively propagated the spread of Buddhism in the Kheng region in the 12th century.

Today, Trong village where Lam Zhang was assassinated due the intrigues of the powerful Khaling over lord, Lango (half human and half bull like the Minataur in Greek mythology) is said to be cursed by the assassination. Trong is an honorific word for kill and people in Trong are believed to be poor. Undoubtedly the oldest religious structure in Zhemgang has a gold plated six-inch image of Lam Zhang in the Goenkhang. The image is said to have miraculously escaped two fire incidents, which destroyed the dzong. Who erected the image is still not confirmed according to the researcher.

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In 1963 when Zhemgang was created a separate dzongkhag, the dzong was renovated under the command of His late Majesty, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk and renamed as Dechen Yangtse or Druk Dechen Yangtse dzong.

The dzongkhag administration headquarters was separated from the old dzong in the mid 1980swhen a separate two-storied building was built. The dzong had once authentic chronicles and manuscripts preserved, but all these were destroyed when it was ravaged twice by fire.

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The community lhakhang (temple)

It is a norm in many parts of rural Bhutan for village households to take turns to look after the community lhakhang (temple) by serving as the koenyer (caretaker).

This means making daily offerings of water and butter lamps, conducting ritual ceremonies and looking after the lhakhang's antiques, sacred texts and monuments.

This system of households serving as koenyers is also followed in Ngala and Goshing gewogs of Zhemgang dzongkhag. The only difference is that the term of the koenyer is for a minimum of three years and three households together take on the responsibility of looking after the community's place of worship.

Ngada, 49, is one of three caretakers of Ngala Trong Lhakhang. His home is a two-day walk from the community lhakhang. He completes his term at the end of the tenth month by Bhutanese calendar. "When I get back, I'll need to construct a new house again," he said. "My old one may be in ruins because I've been away for so long."

The caretakers of the Goshing Trong Lhakhang are known as Khrep Dashog, Khrep Burma and Khrep Chungwa and the caretakers of the Ngala Trong Lhakhang are known as Lamarpa, Brala and Bjyarpa.

Besides fulfilling their general duties, caretakers also attend to guests visiting the village and are allowed to cultivate the three-acre land belonging to the lhakhang.

However, some people in the two gewogs said that the term to serve as koenyer was way too long. It affected their houses, that land became uncultivable and their children's education was affected.

Zhemgang dzongda Kunzang N Tshering said that it was the choice of the people of lower Kheng to either preserve their tradition or do away with it by replacing it with a permanent koenyer.

The cultural property record shows that there are 849 community lhakhangs in the country.

Contributed by Tashi Dema, KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper 2007

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