Chösham: Domestic Shrine Rooms
Chösham (མཆོད་བཤམ་) generally refers to the shrine room in a Bhutanese household, and more specifically, to the shrine built to house the holy objects. It is a space dedicated to the divine beings and objects of worship known as the tensum (རྟེན་གསུམ་), or three supports or body, speech, and mind. Statues, which are representations of the enlightened body, holy books, which represent enlightened speech, and stūpas, which symbolize the Buddha’s enlightened mind, are kept and venerated. The chösham is an essential part of Bhutanese domestic life and while every Buddhist household possesses a chösham, the size and quality of said chösham may vary from family to family.
The chösham is often located on the top floor of the house. Given the deep regard Bhutanese show to religion and spirituality, the shrine room is usually the best room in the house, being spacious, organized, clean and also located in the best/most auspicious part of the house. In many cases, the room is painted and also has many ornamental hangings and decorations. Rich families would have wall paintings and sometimes even intricate wood carvings, silken banners, and religious wall hangings in their chösham. In the room, the choesham structure is generally prominently placed on one side, with the seat of the religious master on the other and mattresses and carpets laid out for priests to sit during rituals. Small traditional tables are a kept in the room to be used to put holy objects on them and to serve food to important people.
The main component of the chösham is the chösham architectural structure. The structure is created to possess almost all designs and features present in a dzong and temple architecture but in a miniature version. The structure has many window-like structures, behind which are placed various statues and shelves that hold scriptures. The various features of a chösham are built in a proportion system relying on symmetry and aesthetic preferences. They are generally specially built by specific carpenters and then purchased by homeowners to install in the house. Sometimes, a house owner may commission a carpenter to create a custom built chösham appropriate for the particular space.
In the front of the shrine is a bench or a cupboard that serves as an altar on which various offerings are made. The most common offering in Bhutan is seven bowls of water. A censer for incense, flower vases, torma sculptures, and many other things can also kept on the altar. Butter lamps are offered on the altar as are the first portion of food and drinks offered before all meals. In the cupboards, drawers and other boxes in the chösham, people might keep various musical instruments that are used in religious ceremonies, and the crockeries used for family rituals.
In terms of its use, the chösham is the main space for a family’s household religious activities. Their annual rituals and ceremonies take place in the chösham and funerary rites are also sometimes observed in this space. When the family has important guests such as respected religious figures, the chösham is used as a space to receive them and as a guest bedroom for them to sleep. As a sanctified space, it is treated with reverence and people do not enter it wearing shoes or hats. It is a special sacred space in which people seek both blessings and protection from higher powers, and live in the presence of the Three Jewels.
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.