The Tango Murals-Michelangelos of Asia

29 August 2014
The Tango Murals-Michelangelos of Asia Anand Thapa
Murals in Tango
Murals in Tango

Thimphu: Bhutan: “The paintings in Tango are among the most important, beautiful and sacred in the world,” professor David Park, Director of Wall Painting Conservation at the Courtauld Institute of Art confirmed. The professor described the paintings as the, “Michelangelo’s of Asia”.
History of Tango
Tango Choying dzong is located at the end of the Thimphu valley. As the seat of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism, the fortress plays an important role as the seat of learning and propagating Buddhism in the country.
Many of the great Kagyu masters in the country have mediated and blessed this dzong. The list includes luminaries like Phajo Drukgom Zhigpo (1184-1251), Drukpa Kunlay (1455-1529) and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal ( 1594 -1651). Monks believe that the place is so sacred that seven days of meditation in Tango is equivalent to seven years of meditation elsewhere.
Lam Phajo Drukgom Zhigpo, the master who introduced the Drukpa Kagyu School to the valleys of western Bhutan meditated in the monastery. It is said that while in retreat, the lam saw the cliff in the form of horse head, which is the symbol of Yidam Tandin (Hayagriva). Accordingly, the monastery was named Tango or Horse Head.
Centuries later, in 1688, Desi Tenzin Rabgye (r.1680-1694), expanded the monastery to its present structure. The 4th Desi assigned his secretary Drung Norbu to supervise the construction of this architectural grandeur. The three-storied tower was built in the traditional fashion using, stones, mud and timber. The central tower has twelve corners making the architectural facade unique and magnificent.
According to, msthung med chokyi gyal po, in 1690, an elaborate consecration rite was held for the completion of the monastery. Since the Desi could not produce a male heir, he took his fourth wife, Wangdue Lhamo, and the marriage was timed with the consecration.
Lam Pekar Lhendup (1689–1697) who later became the third Je Khenpo or head abbot presided over the consecration ceremony.
According to msthung med chokyi gyal po, “the restoration and enlargement of Tango had been undertaken to fulfill a wish expressed earlier by Ngawang Namgyal, and no doubt the timing of the marriage had a certain magical rationale.”
In 1690, the new murals were completed but separately consecrated. The Desi’s closest disciples and advisor presided over the service, which was kept as a private affair. The disciple blessed the murals and offered prayers for his master’s continued male line.
At the beginning of the 18th century, the 8th Druk Desi Druk Rabgye (r. 1707-1720) added some structures to the Tango monastery to bring it to its present stature. In 1977 some alterations were made in the internal supporting timber but today, the utse or retains its integrity as a historic structure.
The priceless paintings of Tango are on the walls of the northern shrine rooms on the second and third floor of the utse. There are also some paintings in the secondary lhakhangs on the eastern and western sides of the utse.
The Paintings.
According to professor Park, the wall paintings of Tango Choying dzong are unique. He pointed out that only a handful of such painting exists in the world.
The professor, who is a world authority on murals conservation, said the Tango paintings are of tremendous importance because of its religious significance, subject matter, art technique and the era in which it was painted.


Unlike modern Bhutanese paintings, the ones in Tango are not produced in workshop or painted on industrial produced cloth as they have been painted directly on the adobe walls. The paints used are all from natural products; a style unique to the 17th century, making it precious.
The professor pointed out that the Tango paintings display sophistication in style and are of incredible quality. The gilding works and the details of the gold work, jewellery and drapery simply could not be better.
The most unique painting is the weeping Guru and has been associated with a miracle. It is believed that when the Desi died, the image shed a tear and hence the red spots in the corners of the painted eyes, making it the only painting of its kind in the world.
The Artist
Little is known about the artist. Tsang Khenchen and Trulku Mipham Chogyal helped start up the formal training of painters in the country. Both these artists were renowned in Tibet for their mastery of the Men-ri and Khen-ri style of paintings that were used in the Tango painting.
Tsang Khenchen’s two most famous trainees were Lhadrip Jangchub Sempa and Tenpa Gyamtsho (1646-1719). The former is credited with the paintings of the murals in the Tango monastery and the latter is known for his works in Taktsang monastery.
Professor Park said the artist of the murals in the Tango dzong was a genius. From his work it is clear that the artist trained professionally for decades. The professor said he didn’t know any one in the world who can produce paintings like this any more.
Dashop Zepon Wangchuk who has helped renovate many monasteries said he saw a thangka painted by Lhadrip Jangchub Sempa in Phajoding monastery. The painting is that of Penden Shing Chen, the principal deity of Je Shakya Rinchen (1744-1755).
The thankga is one thok sem or one floor in height. Dasho said that the Lhadrip”s work is beautiful and it is commonly believed that in the future the thankga will sung jun or speak to its viewers.
While it is possible that the artists were influenced by the Tibetan culture and artistic tradition, the frescos in Tango dzong are a fine example of environmental adaptations as they the paintings have a distinctive pattern. The genius of Bhutanese art is represented by frescos such as the ones in Tango.
The Challenge
The considerable interest of the world community in historic Buddhist art was well demonstrated by the international outcry, which followed the willful destruction of the ancient statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.
The rare murals on the walls of the northern shrine rooms of the utse were discovered recently. In preparation of the renovation work, altars were moved and this is when the murals were discovered.
In the government’s haste to renovate, the fortress, some of the walls on which these paintings sit would have damaged. Without the timely intervention of the royal family, some of the world treasure would have been reduced to dirt.
Art historians and conservations experts say that the value of these unique paintings is enhanced when they remain in their original context in a building, which retains its historical integrity. This is the case with Tango dzong, and the paintings it contains.
It is important therefore not only for us to preserve the paintings but also to conserve the historical integrity of the structure.


Courtesy Kuensel