- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A lhakhang - a Buddhist temple - complete with painted pine timbers shipped from Bhutan, stands reassembled near the Smithsonian Metro station as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s annual Folklife Festival, opening Wednesday on the Mall.

Sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan is known for its remarkable indigenous architecture of rammed-earth walls and intricately carved timbers. The wooden framing around the lhakhang’s windows and doors, carved in the capital city of Thimpu, is colorfully ornamented with traditional symbols such as tigers, mountain lions, deer and mythical creatures. Carved, green-painted dragon heads project from each corner of the 30-by-35-foot building like gargoyles to ward off evil spirits.

Inside the one-room temple, columns, beams and rafters erupt in a riot of bright patterns. A mural depicting the life of Buddha extends along the solid east-facing wall to form a backdrop to a three-arched altar decorated in geometric and floral motifs. Opposite the altar, a bay window frames a view of the Washington Monument between ornate supports.

“The temple isn’t just for show. It’s an important symbol of our architecture, our religion, our culture,” says Bhutanese architect and town planner Karma Wangchuk on a tour of the structure earlier this week. “It’s a culmination of who we are.”

Red-robed Buddhist monks from Bhutan will use the temple and its precinct for religious rituals during the 10-day festival. Bamboo and juniper will be burned every morning in a specially built stone fireplace next to a row of multicolored prayer flags.

To ensure that the temple adhered to his country’s design vernacular, Mr. Wangchuk led a team of nine artisans and an engineer from Bhutan, who also is named Karma Wangchuk but is no relation, to insert traditional Bhutanese elements into the structure. “There is no bad karma on this job,” the architect jokes.

Construction of the temple began May 17 under the direction of the Smithsonian’s technical director, Rob Schneider, and was being completed Monday as workmen stained the floorboards.

“The challenge was to build a wooden frame structure that could support millwork intended for a rammed-earth structure,” Mr. Schneider says. “Lumber is milled to different shapes in Bhutan.” No foundation could be dug on the Mall, he says, so the structure was built atop concrete block footings.

Though the painted timber details are authentic, the structure is not, he notes. It was erected like an old-fashioned American house with a balloon frame of wooden studs and joists sheathed in plywood. Stucco was applied to the exterior to simulate the whitewashed rammed-earth walls native to Bhutan. Demonstrations showing how soil is compacted between wooden forms to create such walls are also part of the festival.

Around the top of the 19-foot-high walls, a painted reddish-brown stripe decorated with circles symbolizing the moon, called a “khemar,” replicates the traditional markings of a temple.

The roof is built of custom-sized pine timbers and covered with sheets of corrugated metal instead of shingles to protect against uplift in the wind. Rising from its peak is a golden ornament to represent the spiritual importance of the building.

The public is invited to enter the 1,050-square-foot pavilion during the festival, but only about 20 people will be allowed inside at one time. Staircases lead to decorated doorways at the sides, and a ramp rising along the east and south faces provides wheelchair access. “This is the first ADA-compliant temple from Bhutan,” Mr. Wangchuk says, referring to the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Visitors to the festival also can sample this year’s salute to Bhutan with food, music and dance performances from the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

After the Folklife Festival closes, the temple will be disassembled and shipped to the University of Texas at El Paso, where it will be rebuilt to join other Bhutanese-influenced buildings on the campus.


WHAT: Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon

WHERE: 42nd Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall at Ninth Street Northwest

WHEN: Through June 29 and July 2 through 6; 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily


PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.folklife.si.edu

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