Tseto Goenpa, 2016

Breaking Ground in the Clouds

Tseto Goenpa, 2016

In April 2016, a groundbreaking ceremony took place at Tseto Goenpa Monastery in Bhutan. WMF project consultant Stephen Kelley recounts his experiences.


Bhutan, a virtual kingdom in the clouds, is a constitutional monarchy in the southern Himalayas with an enlightened king who developed the concept of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). Distinctly Buddhist, GNH measures the development of the country using social rather than economic values. What follows is an over-riding respect for the environment, the culture and religion of Bhutan, and its communities and traditions. This is a guiding light for the world from a land that some consider to be medieval. And it is here where World Monuments Fund has embarked upon the rehabilitation of the Tseto Goenpa Buddhist Monastery and the restoration of the temple within the monastery, a project that is now well under way.

Our recent journey to the Tseto Goenpa began at the trailhead below the western slope of the Paro Valley. We wore colorful ghos and kiras fitted to us by the staff at our hotel. At the trailhead were a series of eight chortens (or stupas) laid out in a line where we perambulated in a clockwise fashion three times before ascending the slope. The climb, which is not particularly difficult or long, is not just a physical journey, but one of the spirit—and one of commitment, faith, and cooperation. Our entourage moved purposefully together: the benefactors, government officials, local architects and engineers, monks, and other helpers. Near the top of our climb was freshly harvested timber milled onsite to build new floors and roofs, and we stopped briefly to commemorate the moment with a photograph.

This day of April 1 was chosen for the groundbreaking through study and meditation by the Lama of Tseto Geonpa. The contradiction of this date (with April Fools’ Day) was not lost on the monk community and brought smiles to their faces. As we reached the summit we were met by the villagers who had also made the journey, and as we came out of the clearing a ring appeared around the sun as a physical sign of the positive energy of this communal effort. What followed was a day of celebration with singing, ritual “black hat” dancers, a feast, and prayers—all within the intimate courtyard surrounded by the rammed earth walls of the compound. In the temple we meditated, rolled the dice, and marveled over the sacred relics shared with us by the Lama. The Lama and his monks had chosen this day well.

But now there is work to be done. The village women pound the rammed earth walls with suttees as they sing, the carpenters build doorways, eckra panel walls with windows, and insert floors and roofs onto the expanded monks’ facilities for a monastic community that will grow from 13 to 30. And soon the precious murals within the temple will be carefully removed and conserved, and then reinstalled in the temple after the structure has been strengthened to be more earthquake resistant.