A Visit to a Glacier Goddess

view of Mount Jomolhari, a high peak in the Himalayas of Bhutan
View of Mount Jomolhari from village shop (source: Ben Orlove)

During my recent visit to Bhutan, a shopkeeper in a mountain village mentioned to me that there was a temple located high up in a valley on Mount Jomolhari.  It contained an image of the local deity, he added, the goddess of the mountain.  These facts, mentioned quite casually, stirred my curiosity and made me eager to visit it.  What would the image of the deity look like, and what could I learn from it about what the local people, most of them yak-herders, thought about the mountain and its shrinking glaciers? The shopkeeper was uncertain of the distance to the temple and of its elevation, but he did recall that there were several large streams to cross.

Several members of my party wanted to remain at lower elevations to advance their research on trees, but the horseman, Rinzin Dorji, was interested in coming—a fortunate addition, since he was familiar with the region. Kinga Thinley, one of the foresters working with us, wanted to join us as well. His English was better than Rinzin’s, so he could serve as an interpreter. The shopkeeper encouraged us to go, but warned us that we might not be able to enter the temple. It was usually locked, except for festivals, or when an itinerant monk might happen to stop by. Jomolhari Temple did have a caretaker who keeps a key; however, since the caretaker was a yak-herder who often traveled to high pastures or to market towns, we might not be able to find him.

Chorten on the path to the temple at Jomolhari source: Ben Orlove)
Chorten on the path to Jomolhari Temple (source: Ben Orlove)

We set off up the main valley early the next morning. After an hour or so, we came to a chorten, surrounded by prayer-flags, which marked a spot that had been visited by Guru Rinpoche, the Tibetan master who introduced Buddhism into Bhutan in the 8th century. Rinzin stopped to light a butter-lamp in a niche in the chorten, and then we began our ascent of the valley’s flank. A series of switchbacks led us up through pastures and forests to a flat meadow with several large boulders. Rinzin showed us a number of cracks and bumps in the boulders which were traces of events long in the past. Guru Rinpoche’s carrying basket and his horse’s saddle were visible. He also pointed out a flat space on one boulder, and a set of closely-spaced parallel lines.

Renzin, pointing out the impression of the book on a boulder to Kinga source: Ben Orlove)
Rinzin, pointing out the impression of the book on a boulder to Kinga source: Ben Orlove)

Thanks to Kinga’s help as an interpreter, I could understand the story that Rinzin was telling. The flat space was the impression that had been made by a sacred book, which had flown to this area from Dagala far to the southeast. The parallel lines were marks made by flutes that had rested there; these were the flutes that had been played by the monks as they walked from the temple—the same one that we were going to visit—to receive this book and carry it back to the temple. Rinzin indicated a low spot in the hills ahead of us, and said that there was another one just beyond it. They had contained lakes which had flown to Dagala. These lakes were the gifts of Jomolhari to another spirit, also named Jomo, and the book was a kind of return gift. There is a third Jomo in eastern Bhutan, near Sakteng in the province of Trashigang; Rinzin did not know much about her, though the caretaker would be able to tell us more. He did know that the three Jomos were sisters, and that Jomolhari was the oldest.

We continued along the trail, ascended a small rise, and entered a high valley that led directly to Jomolhari. The mountain’s immense mass was now visible in front of us. Rinzin mentioned other sacred sites to us. Kinga quickly found a meditation hut high up on a cliff, but I had to look carefully to see the small building and the line of prayer-flags to one side. A monk from the town of Lingzhi, a day’s walk away, comes for several months every spring, before returning to Lingzhi and continuing to other meditation huts in central Bhutan.  The local residents bring him food during his stay each year.

Tshering Wangchuk, the son of the temple's caretaker (source: Ben Orlove)
Tshering Wangchuk, the son of the temple’s caretaker (source: Ben Orlove)

On the trail, we met two men who were gathering plants to make incense. They directed us to the caretaker’s hut. The caretaker’s children told us that their father had gone to a market town, and their mother was visiting a nearby village; the son, Tshering, mentioned that he had the key to the temple, and would be glad to show it to us.

We continued on the same trail, which began to ascend more steeply. The others walked quickly, but I was slower, less accustomed than they were at picking a way over the rough ground, and less confident as well, since a drizzle was making the trail muddy. The exposed rocks that served as stepping-stones across creeks were a bit slippery as well. I was relieved to find bridges over the larger creeks. Rinzin pointed out a feature on a cliff that looked like an image of Buddha, and told us a story about the temple. A large flood had come down from the mountain, and nearly destroyed the entire temple. Only two objects remained unharmed, the sacred book that had flown over from Dagala, and one cup from the set of seven on the main altar, the ones that had been filled with fresh water every morning. The temple had been rebuilt, and has remained intact.

Two buildings came into view when we rounded a curve in the trail. The temple itself, surrounded by prayer-flags, was set right against enormous boulders at the base of a cliff. Tshering explained that the newer building, close by, served as a guest-house during festivals. He showed us some monk’s cells built up against the cliff; a dark space marked the entrance to a cave, which Guru Rinpoche had visited.

Jomolhari Temple, below cliff (sorce: Ben Orlove)
Jomolhari Temple, below cliff (source: Ben Orlove)

Tshering took out the key, and opened the door to the temple, a single room, square in shape. Rinzin, Kinga and I made the customary prostrations, first to the lama’s seat—throne-like in its dimensions and style—under the window on the wall to the left, then to the large altar, with a number of images behind it, to the right. Tshering, filling in the role of a monk, brought a ewer and poured a little water into our cupped hands, once for us to sip and a second time for us to dab on our hair and foreheads.

These acts completed, we sat on the floor to rest a moment. Light was streaming through the window behind the lama’s seat, illuminating the table in front of it and the brightly colored cloths which reached partway down from the ceiling. The rain had stopped after we had entered the temple, and the clouds had lifted. As Kinga later mentioned, this was a good sign; had we displeased the spirits, they might have sent heavier rain, or hail. Tshering explained some details of the temple’s history, which I wrote in my notebook. And then something heavy suddenly hit the top of my head. Rinzin had picked up the book, the one that had flown from Dagala and survived the flood, and was tapping each of us with it in turn. This gesture would bring us good fortune, he explained

We looked more carefully around the temple, examining the murals of deities and demons that decorated the walls. Tshering showed me the tall figures, several meters high, behind the altar: three Buddhas, the middle one the largest, with Guru Rinpoche next to them on the right, and Gyalwa Lorepa, the founder of the temple, to the left.  He then brought me to a table against the far wall, which held a painted box a bit under a meter high. Inside the box was the image of Aum Jomo, Mother Jomolhari. Kinga explained further: she is the local deity, the powerful spirit that governs the region. So here, at last, was the glacier goddess.

Renzin sitting to one side of lama's seat, with sacred book in front source: Ben Orlove
Rinzin sitting to one side of lama’s seat, with sacred book in front (source: Ben Orlove)

I would not get to see her full image, since the box was opened only three times a year, for the festivals that celebrate her. Tshering conferred with the others about the dates, and then Tshering brought out a calendar that showed both the Western and Bhutanese months.  The three festivals are all on dates marked as national holidays: the day of Buddha’s first sermon to his five disciples; the day when Buddha, having reached heaven, descended back to earth to continue teaching; the anniversary of the death of Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal, the Tibetan lama who unified Bhutan and founded the monarchy in the 17th century. Large groups gathered for all of these, Tshering told us, some of them coming from a day’s walk away, or further. As Kinga explained, these festivals were opportunities to renew one’s ties to the goddess, and encourage her to bring health and good fortune. Illness and bad luck could come to those who incurred her displeasure or anger, or to their animals.

The box containing the image of Am Jomo, on right side of table (source: Ben Orlove)
The box containing the image of Aum Jomo, on right side of table (source: Ben Orlove)

I was able to get a glimpse of  part of the image, though, through a small window on the front of the box. She has remarkably long earlobes, and a calm smile. A garland of five flowers was strung across her hair. Her robe, her entire body, were hidden in shadow. I would not get to see them unless I returned for one of her festivals.

Kinga and Rinzin were standing, ready to head back down the valley. I took a last look around the temple. Tshering waited for us to leave, and then locked the door behind us. He led us into the cave, where we found a spring. Kinga and Rinzin filled plastic bottles with this water, infused with the power of Guru Rinpoche.

As we walked back, I tried to put my thoughts together. Aum Jomo, Buddha, Guru Rinpoche: how did they fit together in this temple at the foot of the mountain, the temple which bore her name? Buddha is a universal being, Aum Jomo a local spirit. The main images at the altar were of the Buddhist figures, with the goddess, a smaller figure, off to the side in a box. The main festivals celebrated her, but they took place on dates associated with Buddhism. The most important ritual object in the temple was not an object from the mountain, but a Buddhist book that came from another region. But the book was there because of Aum Jomo, whose initial gift of two lakes to her younger sister brought it to the valley.

Burning incense as an offering in village below Jomolhari Temple source: Ben Orlove_
Burning incense as an offering in a village below Jomolhari Temple (source: Ben Orlove)

I tried to formulate questions on these points of religion to ask Kinga. We have words for these things, he said, but they are hard to translate; if only we could talk to the caretaker, he is the one who really knows about this. Kinga did manage to convey that Buddha was wholly benevolent, and the local deities were capable of doing harm as well as good; the presence of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche would direct the goddess to work in a positive fashion, and would prevent her from expressing her dark side.

I looked back at the mountain, its summit gleaming white in the sunshine, and thought for a moment how dangerous a sudden snowstorm on our trail could be. And Aum Jomo’s influence extended much further down the mountain, to villages whose residents came to pay her respect. They knew her great power, and, in the words and acts, had conveyed something of that great power to me.