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El Paso, Texas

Lhakhang Cultural Exhibit

A Bhutanese temple gifted from the isolated Himalayan kingdom is now a surprising cultural gem in El Paso. 

Situated unexpectedly in El Paso, Texas, is a 40-by-40 foot (1600 square feet) Bhutanese temple, called a Lhakhang. The interior was built in Bhutan and shipped to the U.S. where a crew of Americans and Bhutanese, some of whom had never left Bhutan or even seen a plane, assembled the structure using traditional techniques like rhythmically ramming the clay into wooden molds for the walls. Workers sang along to the ramming, and as the walls grew higher their songs carried further out, just as they would have in the Himalayas.

The Lhakhang was built for the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It ended up on the campus of Texas University thanks to an unlikely series of events.

In 1916 the main building of the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, then located just east of Fort Bliss, burned to the ground. Classes continued in the campus’s dormitories and buildings in nearby El Paso while officials decided on the fate of the school. Kathleen Worrell, the wife of the school’s dean, had taken an interest in Bhutan after viewing a National Geographic photo essay about the nation. The 74 photos of the distinctive fortresses situated among the Himalayas were some of the first ever published of the isolated kingdom. They inspired in her a vision for the mining school’s new location in the foothills of El Paso’s Franklin Mountains.

The first building, Old Main, incorporated the unique style and was finished just a year later in 1917, and every building that followed maintained the architectural theme. In the late ‘60s, after the school became the University of Texas at El Paso, a campus administrator sent a letter to Bhutan. A member of the royal family said it was “deeply moving” to read about the school’s architecture, and a relationship between the nation and university began. The first Bhutanese student graduated in 1978.

During the 2008 Folklife Festival, hundreds of thousands of people waited in line to set foot inside the intricate temple. The exhibition’s curator, Preston Scott, said it would’ve been dismantled and thrown away if it wasn’t for Texas University’s president Diana Natalicio. She claimed what was then the largest structure built for the Folklife Festival and stored it away for a few years until the school’s Centennial Plaza renovation project was done. The Lhakhang is considered an official gift from Bhutan and rests in the 16-acre park in the middle of campus, the real thing among its emulators.