Tsenden Köpéjong: A Country Bestrewn with Cypress

One of the botanical epithets of Bhutan is Tsenden Köpéjong (ཙན་དན་བཀོད་པའི་ལྗོངས་) – the country bestrewn with tsenden, or cypress. This was never used as a name of the country as such but rather the country has often poetically described using this epithet. Perhaps the earliest use of this epithet for the area of modern Bhutan is in homiletic letters the Tibetan saint Dorje Lingpa (1346-1405) sent to his Bhutanese students and patrons in 1381.[1] Today, the national anthem of Bhutan begins with this epithet:

འབྲུག་ཙན་དན་བཀོད་པའི་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་ན། །

In Bhutan, the country bestrewn with tsenden.

The Himalayan word tsenden is a mispronunciation of the Indian word chandan for sandalwood. The Sanskritic chandan and Tibetan tsenden are pronounced differently but still retain identical spelling when written in Tibetan characters. However, tsenden in the Bhutanese context is not sandalwood as all Tibetan dictionaries may have us believe. Sandalwood hardly grows in Bhutan and its role is not significant. Instead in Bhutan, tsenden refers to cypress, particularly the species which now goes by the name Bhutan cypress (Cupressus corneyana). It is quite possible that the gigantic cypresses of Bhutan got the name of the aromatic sandalwood as the wood from very mature cypresses produce a similar fragrance. The wood from mature cypresses is commonly used as a major ingredient in Bhutanese incense.

This coniferous tree stands as Bhutan’s national tree and found across the country. One could say this cypress holds the highest place in the Bhutanese botanical hierarchy, both in its physical height and its association with sacred events and personalities. It grows in most unlikely places, with an awesome height that can rise to over 80 metres, and carry an impressive girth of up to 14 metres in its large bulbous trunk. The tallest tsenden is believed to be the one on the way to Beyul Langdra and the one with largest girth to be the one growing near Pangrizampa Temple. Due to its fast-growing nature, it is also commonly planted in urban settlements.

To such impressive physical appearances, then, are added religious stories about their origins. One encounters cypresses that are considered to have grown from the walking staff used by sacred persons, such as like the large cypress next to Kurjé temple, which is believed to have grown from Guru Rinpoché’s staff.  It is not uncommon to see a gigantic cypress growing next to an old religious or secular establishment, which reaffirms the important status given to the cypress in Bhutanese cultural surroundings. For social historians today, these cypress trees serve as useful markers of historically significant places.

Tsenden wood is used in incense making and its branches are often burnt during sang fumigation rituals. Tsenden wood is also used to make funeral pyres as it is both aromatic, burns with high intensity, and is easy to light. The tsenden tree also appears in the lyrics of many folk and religious songs. Thus, the tsenden tree, among plants, has a significant place in the Bhutan’s cultural heritage.

 

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan from which this piece is extracted.

 

 

 

 

[1] Dorji Lingpa & Choying Rangdol (1984), gTer chen rdo rje gling pa’i rnam thar dang gzhal gdams, Delhi: Kunzang Tobgyel, p. 42.

Bhutan Cultural Library proper place names Sacred Tree Narrative Bhutan

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A view on the roles of cypress in conceptions of Bhutanese history and religion.

Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)
Author Karma Phuntsho
Editor Ariana Maki
Year published 2017
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Places