Drupthob Thangtong Gyalpo was born in Upper Tsang, Tibet, some time between 1361 and 1385. Although there is no specific recorded time of his birth and death, biographers estimate that he lived for about 125 years. Thus, Thangtong Gyalpo naturally came to symbolize longevity and his image is commonly used as an aid to practices associated with long life.
The great yogi was physically strong with sharp features and a distinguished appearance. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche describes the Yogi:
“Visualize in front of you a vajra made of meteoric iron. At its center is Thangtong Gyalpo, 900 years old (but this 900-years old is very relative), very beautiful, with red rosy cheeks, dark red, healthy, with a big belly and muscles. But to symbolize the nonduality of youth and age he should have white hair, mustache and a long white beard…” (https://khyentsefoundation.org/great-patron-thangtong-gyalpo/).
In the known images, he is usually shown sitting in the lotus position on a double-lotus throne. He wears a white cotton garment and a red cloak, meditation belt, chain, earrings and arm band with flaming jewels. In his left hand he holds a skull-cup with a long-life vase in it with a yellow liquid overflowing it. His right hand touches the earth and lies on top of his knees along with a five-linked piece of chain. In some bronzes, he is shown holding a potent medicinal pill along with the longevity vase, but in all his depictions there is majestic radiance (http://www.kuenselonline.com/thangtong-gyalpo-leonardo-da-vinciof-the-himalayas/).
Having realized the nature of self and phenomena, and mastered the highest Vajrayana teachings, Thangtong Gyalpo lived a remarkably extraordinary life. He traveled to remote corners of Tibet and Bhutan where we find a legacy of monasteries, stupas, iron bridges, and other treasures that provide significant depth into Buddhist history.
Thangtong Gyalpo made the amazing conversion of sacred teachings into architectural and engineering feats that were extremely sophisticated for that period. Given his exceptional skills in metallurgy he became known as the Chagzampa—the builder of iron bridges. He collected iron in Bhutan and Tibet and moulded them into solid chains for suspension bridges at critical places, enabling pilgrims and travelers to cross the rough mountain rapids. The crossing of rivers symbolised the journey of liberation.
In this process he was known to have even melted needles into chain links. The first bridge was completed in 1430 over the Kyichu River near Lhasa. He constructed 58 suspension bridges throughout the Himalayan region, eight of them in Bhutan.
Thangtong Gyalpo built monasteries, temples and stupas with distinctive architectural aura that are visible today. The builder of iron bridges was so diversely talented that he introduced a unique opera tradition including the much-loved Ache Lhamo dance in Bhutan. Tibet’s first opera troupe would travel the country performing operas and reciting chants to teach the Buddha Dharma and subjugate negative forces. The funds generated by the performances and offerings of generous patrons were used for the massive construction projects.
Thangtong Gyalpo’s ability to eradicate sickness is also part of his legend. For example, he constructed a chorten-shaped monastery in the middle of the Paro Valley called Dumtseg Lhakhang. After completion of this structure he declared that the valley would hence-forth be free of leprosy. The site where Dumtseg Lhakhang was built was then known as Chu Pharkay, or on the other side of the river. His biography states that lepers were kept in the area. Back in the days, lepers were chased into the mountains and also seemingly to “islands” (http://www.kuenselonline.com/thangtong-gyalpo-leonardo-da-vinciof-the-himalayas/).
His prayers are considered to be effective against myriad adverse circumstances. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche writes that Thangtong Gyalpo’s Refuge Prayer is one of the most powerful.
“The Outer, Inner, and Secret Refuge Practice of the Mahasiddha Thangtong Gyalpo prayer is very helpful. I do it all the time, day and night, whenever there’s a need. It was given directly to Thangtong Gyalpo’s teacher by Avalokiteshvara himself for Thangtong Gyalpo to spread … I’ve given it to a few people to do, to transform their life circumstances and different difficulties and patterns, and it seems like it really has worked wonderfully” (https://khyentsefoundation.org/great-patron-thangtong-gyalpo/).
The Great Yogi’s unrestrained behavior, emblematic of divine wisdom, enabled him to interact with wealthy patrons as well as people from humble backgrounds. He was beyond the norms of social barriers and behavior.
Some additional resources on Thangtong Gyalpo