Tag Archives: utep

Bhutan, without the jetlag: An authentic Buddhist lhakhang completes El Paso’s Himalayan connection

Looks like Bhutan, but it's Texas

The Bhutanese ambassador to the United Nations stands in front of the new lhakhang with the 18 Bhutanese students who attend UTEP

El Paso is the new Bhutan–more than ever.  In April, I had the absolute joy of attending the opening of the Bhutanese lhakhang, or temple, installed on the campus of the University of Texas El Paso. It’s the centerpiece of a campus transformation and it was an incredible experience to be there for the first time people were allowed to step inside this gorgeous structure–something you’d never see outside of the Kingdom of Bhutan.

The temple isn't intended to serve a religious purpose, but rather stands as a cultural artifact.

The temple isn’t intended to serve a religious purpose, but rather stands as a cultural artifact.

That completes the pleasure of having seen it built in the first place on the National Mall in Washington, DC back in the summer of 2008, which I’ve written about in this story.

If you’re asking, ‘what the heck does El Paso have to do with Bhutan,’ then you’re new to this blog–welcome!–and these stories I filed on this momentous occasion will give it some context: One for PRI’s The World and the other for Smithsonian.

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Bhutan, Tex-Mex style: Himalayas cast a wide net in El Paso

Prayer wheel behind UTEP's Centennial Museum

Prayer wheel behind UTEP’s Centennial Museum

This morning around dawn, on Veteran’s Day, which also happens to be the birth anniversary of the fourth King of Bhutan, I turned an authentic Bhutanese prayer wheel in an unlikely place: on the campus of the University of Texas El Paso.

The palm tree is the dead giveaway: This is El Paso, not Bhutan

The palm tree is the dead giveaway: This is El Paso, not the Himalayas.

The entire school is built in the distinctive style of the Kingdom’s architecture.   If that wasn’t strange enough, the connection dates back to 1914, long before anyone from Texas could have imagined stepping foot in Bhutan (since the tiny country wasn’t officially open to outsiders until the 1970s.)

Campus library: A giant thangkha of the Four Friends hangs over a 100-foot altar in the lobby.  At the espresso stand on the left, the barista told me the architecture is even starting to seep into other places around El Paso

Campus library: A giant thangkha of the Four Friends hangs over a 100-foot altar in the lobby. At the espresso stand on the left, the barista told me the architecture is even starting to seep into other places around town.

I’ve written about this surreal connection in my book, Radio Shangri-la, and before on this blog, so I won’t detail the interesting history here, but my fascination with this bizarre and wonderful bit of pre-globalization globalization never ends.  This week, I’m on the campus of UTEP to speak to a number of classes and to deliver a talk at the museum tomorrow night at 5pm.

Here are some photos (and if you’d like to see some videos, please click here.)  The first one below is of an authentic Bhutanese temple that was constructed on the National Mall in DC for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2008, and was recently “re-incarnated” here on the campus in El Paso.  Surrounded by dozens of examples of the Tex-Mex interpretation of Bhutan’s architecture.

This lakhang (temple) once sat on the National Mall in DC.  It's being readied for public view in UTEP's plaza.

This lakhang (temple) once sat on the National Mall in DC. It’s being readied for public view in UTEP’s plaza, which as you can see is under renovation.

No where else on earth, not even in Bhutan, is there a parking garage that looks like this

No where else on earth, not even in Bhutan, is there a parking garage that looks like this

Nor would you ever see a stupa fronted by an animated billboard, like this one in front of the Centennial museum

Nor would you ever see a stupa fronted by an animated billboard, like this one in front of the Centennial museum

IMG_4239And if you share my fascination with all of this and would like to know more, there’s also this short story available on Amazon.

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The 100 year-old magazine article that changed the face of an American university

View of bridge outside Punakha, where the 5th King of Bhutan married several years ago.

View of bridge outside Punakha, where the 5th King of Bhutan married several years ago.

One of the most exciting parts of learning about Bhutan has been an odd, wonderful gem I learned from some people, ironically, here in Los Angeles.

The late architect Kurt Meyer and his intrepid wife Pamela Deuel Meyer kindly clued me in to the fact that the University of Texas El Paso is built entirely in the style of Bhutanese architecture.

It’s all because the wife of the provost of the school at the time, then named the Texas School of Mines, was reading this article in the National Geographic 100 years ago, poetically titled Castles in the Air.

The first king of Bhutan was crowned during a visit by John Claude White, who worked for the Brits "next door" in India.

The first king of Bhutan was crowned during a visit by John Claude White, who worked for the Brits “next door” in India.

John Claude White, who built a bridge between Bhutan and El Paso, Texas--without realizing it

John Claude White, who built a bridge between Bhutan and El Paso, Texas–without realizing it

The British explorer John Claude White offered a peak inside the Kingdom that the world, certainly not the west, had ever seen before.  88 pages of photographs made on plate glass, that somehow managed to make it out of Bhutan on horseback.

Tantalized by the architecture and this mysterious Kingdom in the clouds, Kathleen Worrell pushed her husband to model the school he ran after this unique place—long before any tourists could ever imagine visiting it.

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You have to look awfully close, at the center of this photograph, to see the hermit house

Used to be, if you wanted to see that article, you had to plunk down a pretty penny for a back issue, or find it at a library, or in someone’s dusty old collection.  Not as of today.  The good folks at National Geographic have published it online, photographs and all.

The dzong in Thimphu looks much like this photograph from 100 years ago.

The dzong in Thimphu looks much like this photograph from 100 years ago.

If you are at all interested in Bhutan, its history, or UTEP, or the impact of a magazine article to inspire someone half a world away, you must read it: here.

And here’s my piece about the unique connection in the LA Times.

UTEP calls itself "Bhutan on the Border" (of Mexico, of course.)

UTEP calls itself “Bhutan on the Border” (of Mexico, of course.)

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