The king of Bumthang region in the 8th century fell terribly ill after falling out with the local guardian deity. Desperate to recover from the curse, he invited Guru Rinpoche to Bumthang to help the King regain his health. Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave to subdue the local deity and obliged in restoring the health of the King. Imprints of Guru’s body remained in that cave and thus the name Kurje which means the imprint of the body.
In 1652, first Governor of Trongsa constructed a temple enclosing the cave. Today there are three main Lhakhang within the Kurje complex. It is also believed that the cypress tree near the entrance is an offshoot of Guru Rinpoche’s walking stick.
(Kurjey Lhakhang, which translates as ‘Temple of the Sacred Body Imprint,’ is one of the holiest sites and an important place of pilgrimage for all devout Buddhists. It was built around a rock on which Guru Rinpoche left an imprint of his body while mediating there in the 8th century, where he had arrived to save the life of Sendha Gyelpo, the king of Bumthang. At Kurjey, the Guru, in the form of a Garuda, defeated and subdued the local deity Shelging Karpo, who had commandeered the king’s life force. The king’s life having been saved, Shelging Karpo was further converted to the faith and made its staunch guardian, bound by oath to protect and propitiate the Dharma. Today Shelging Karpo is revered as the Local Deity at Kurjey Lhakhang and is regularly propitiated by visitors and locals alike.
The first of the three Temples – the Guru Lhakhang, is the oldest and was built in 1652 by Mingyur Tenpa, the Trongsa Penlop (or Local Governor). Tucked just below the eaves is the figure of a snow lion with a Garuda above it, a depiction of the subjugation of Shelging Karpo by the Guru. At the entrance to the lower floor – Sangay Lhakhang is a small crawl-through rock passage. The belief is that crawling through the passageway results in the cleansing of one’s sins. Behind the three Buddha statues is a secret passageway that is said to lead to Tharpaling. The upper-floor sanctuary is the holiest in the complex. There are a thousand small statues of Guru Rinpoche neatly lined up along the left wall, along with statues of Guru Rinpoche, Pema Lingpa and Drolma (Tara). The main relic in the temple is the statue of Guru Rinpoche, flanked by his eight manifestations and eight Chortens. Hidden behind these figures is the very cave where the Guru meditated and left his body imprint. The far wall has images of Guru Rinpoche, his eight manifestations, his 25 disciples and various other figures connected with the Guru. The big cypress tree behind the Lhakhang is said to have sprouted from the Guru’s walking stick.
Ugyen Wangchuck, the First Hereditary Monarch of Bhutan, built the second temple, the Sampa Lhundrup Lhakhang, in 1900, while he was the Trongsa Penlop (and yet to be crowned King). On the entrance porch are paintings of the Guardians of the Four Directions and of various local deities who were converted to Buddhism by Guru Rinpoche. The white ghostlike figure on the white horse above the doorway to the right is Shelging Kharpo, along with the other Local Guardians – Yakdu Nagpo (on a black yak) and Kyebu Lungten (on a red horse). Inside the temple is a towering 10 meter high statue of Guru Rinpoche, flanked again by his eight manifestations. A smaller image of the Guru sits facing towards the direction of Tibet with a defiant stare.
The third temple in the complex was built in 1984 by Ashi Kesang Wangchuck (Queen to the Third King), under the guidance of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. She also built a wall of 108 Chortens around the whole complex and had the courtyard in front of the three temples paved with stone slabs. These Chortens, known as Jangchub Chortens are symbols that commemorate Buddha’s victory over evil forces and the absolute purity of his claim to enlightenment. They enclose the Kurje complex, transforming it into a three-dimensional Mandala, in the likeness of the Samye Monastery in Tibet. On the porch in front of the temple is a large wheel of life. At the bottom you can see a man being judged, with the white stones representing his good deeds and the black stones representing his bad deeds. There’s also a mystic spiral Mandala on the side of the entrance. Interior murals illustrate various monastic rules and regulations, including the stringent dress codes. In front of the buildings there are three large Chortens dedicated to the three Kings of Bhutan. )