Bhutanese women from time immemorial have been prohibited from entering the sacred Gyenkhang (inner sanctum) of temples, lhakhangs and monasteries. The tradition has been passed down from generations and is still followed.
In an interview with Business Bhutan, Deputy Chief Research officer of Royal Academy of Performing Arts, Kunzang Dorji, said: “From generations past, oral transmission has instructed not to allow women to enter the Gyenkhang.”
According to Kunzang Dorji, the tradition has its roots in culture and applies especially to any woman whose menstrual cycle has started.
“They are expected to abstain from daily rites of making water offerings, incense and entering the shrine,” he said.
Also, if someone has come into direct contact with a corpse recently, the association is considered to have made him impure and would therefore upset the Gyenkhang’s deities. Or else if someone has been to a place of childbirth, it is believed that such a person should not enter the Gyenkhang.
In the same way, it is believed that if a woman is menstruating, entering the Gyenkhang would tantamount to contamination of the shrine thus displeasing the deities.
Kunzang Dorji said the practice is not meant to discriminate against women but “the sole purpose of it is to maintain the sanctity of the Gyenkhang and prevent desecration of the deities.”
Women under certain conditions are believed to invoke and outrage the deities so that they would stop protecting the country resulting in natural calamities, disasters and misfortunes.
“Even the lives of the women who have entered the Gyenkhang will not be spared,” he added.
Many monks Business Bhutan spoke to said that women carry certain “impurity” due to which they are not allowed to enter the Gyenkhang.
A monk at Changangkha lhakhang said: “It is believed the tradition started with Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. Zhabdrung is supposed to have expressly issued instructions to prohibit women from entering the inner sanctum of temples and monasteries on grounds that it would defile the sanctum, thereby incurring the wrath of the guardians of the faith.”
However, Dr. Karma Phuntsho, CEO and founder of the Loden Foundation who is also a well-versed Buddhist scholar, said that he does not remember finding any passages in kanjur and tenjur canons disallowing women from entering the Gyenkhang.
“In fact I do not think Gyenkhang is mentioned in the canonical scriptures of Bhutan. The rule is man-made as all rules are. There is no rule made by celestial god or being as we tend to believe. This is a cultural norm created by people,” said Dr. Karma Phuntsho adding that restriction into Gyenkhang is not a law of nature either. “There are laws of nature but restricting women from entering the Gyenkhang is not one of them.”
According to him, the concept of Gyenkhang perhaps started with the introduction of Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism into the Himalayan countries.
“Gyenkhang basically means the house of the protector deities: gyen stands for the guardian/ protector and khang for house. So, Gyenkhang is a space allocated to the protector deities in temple complex, and some of the protector deities are considered to be enlightened while others are thought to be ordinary with worldly emotions, likes and dislikes.”
Dr. Karma Phunstho said that if the deity is not enlightened, “when we worship them we have to provide what pleases them and what they like, and remove what they do not.”
“A strong belief exists that the protector deities do not like impurities or pollutions caused by people who have been freshly in contact with corpses or childbirth or who have menstruation. To avoid upsetting the deity, people have to avoid these impurities. That is why menstruating women or people who have come into contact with dead bodies or childbirth are restricted entry into the Gyenkhang.”
Dr. Karma Phuntsho explained that restriction into Gyenkhang space is part of a bigger belief system and is not a practice intended to create bias or discrimination against women. “It is difficult to just give up this norm and still keep our general belief in the protector deities. A few enlightened lamas can make the change but it is very difficult to change people’s mindset.”
He feels that as long as Bhutanese belief in protecting deities exists, people may have to accept this cultural norm.
“Honestly, this also does not disadvantage or disempower women in any significant way. There are many other socio-political areas where we need to work to bring about real gender equality and uproot discrimination. The Gyenkhang issue is actually distracting us from more important gender issues,” said Dr. Karma Phuntsho.
Gyenkhang is home to the guardian deities Yeshey Goenbo, Leygeen Jara Dongchen and Pelden Lhamo.
Gyenkhang was originally the shrine where war weapons like armor, shields, and guns claimed during war were kept. The first Gyenkhang was built in Chari Monastery in Thimphu, the second in Semtokha Dzong and the third in Punakha Dzong.
Chencho Dema from Thimphu