As I was coming out of the Punakha dzong I could see a long bridge in the distance and wanted to have a closer look.After a short trek through a dirt path I am standing on the bridge and as expected this was another magnificent structure.It is the second longest suspension bridge in Bhutan and stretches over the Po Chhu. I knew it would take considerable time to cross the bridge but it was too good to pass up .I associate bridges with romance and pathos and this bridge was exceptional all the way.
Colorful prayer flags seemed to be telling me something and I wished I could read what is written on them.It started swaying gently as I reached the centre.I think this bridge would make an ideal location for movies.But it is not very easy getting permits for movie shooting. Bhutan has strict regulations and hefty royalty fees .
Now I am at the other end and a prayer wheel welcomes you to the village.A two storey building and rice fields are the main sights.
An old lady was seen turning the prayer wheel and three kids were playing in the court yard.They were very friendly and curious and asked a lot of questions. I can’t remember the last time a child wanted to know my name ! The youngest kid was the centre of attention and she entertained us with her antics.Even the dogs were in awe of her.
Today was a day of serendipitous moments and I wish I could stay.
Besides the Tiger’s Nest Punakha Dzong is the most iconic and revered monument in Bhutan and is also known as The Palace of Great Happiness or Bliss.It is also the headquarter of Punakha district.This was the last dzong of my trip and I found it the most beautiful and majestic. .Words and pictures can’t do justice to this magnificent fortress/monastery.
Situated at the confluence of the Mo Chhu(mother river) and Po Chuu( father river) Punakha Dzong was built in the 16th century and holds a special position in the history of Bhutan. This regal dzong is closely associated with Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal – the Tibetan Lama and the founding father of Bhutan. He was the one who unified this country and established the dual system of governance. Many dzongs were made during his time as defence fortresses against invaders. .He fought many Tibetan invasions and consolidated the country giving it a distinct Bhutanese identity. He went into retreat in 1651 and was believed to have passed away in this dzong..His death was not revealed for a long period for fear of unrest. His embalmed body is kept in the most important section of the dzong along with certain sacred relics and he is worshipped all over the country.Most of the temples have statues of Buddha,Guru Rinpoche and Zhabdrung and now I can identify him as the Lama with a flowing beard.
This was the first sight of the dzong and I was struck by its picturesque setting.They could not have chosen a better location.
There is a charming cantilever bridge connecting the main land with the dzong over the Mo Chhu.The original bridge was washed away in a flood in 1957 and this new bridge was made in 2008.
The wooden stairs can be pulled up in the event of an attack and there is a huge wooden door .A unique feature of this dzong is the three courtyards(Other dzongs have two ) The first courtyard has the two storey administrative wing .There is a huge white stupa and a Bodhi tree at the centre of the courtyard.
A six storey central tower UTSE separates it from the second courtyard which has the monastic quarters.
Compared to the rest of the dzongs the art work and colours are magnified and one can’t help but stop and gasp at the intricate carvings and paintings on the doors,windows,staircases,balustrades and balconies.It looks as if each part is made with great diligence and devotion.I remember the master in the art school saying that creating a piece of art is a also a form of worship. . Seeing the abundance and mastery of the exquisite art all around I felt I was having symptoms of Florence Syndrome.
All of a sudden there was a commotion and I could see many important looking people assembled in the courtyard .I thought they were waiting to receive someone from the royal family or a VIP and decided to wait and watch from the balcony.
Soon the the courtyard was resonating with chorus chanting , booming drums,blaring horns , gongs,cymbals and a religious procession started.It was a fascinating sight and I was spellbound.
Yellow hatted monks pc Dr Bruno
I did not know the religious significance of this ceremony but it was thrilling to be part of it.
The third courtyard houses the temple. The sanctum santorum has gigantic statues of Lord Buddha,Guru Rinpoche and Zhabdrung .There are huge gilded pillars and every inch of the walls and ceiling are adorned with exquisite murals depicting the life of Lord Buddha.The silence and serenity of the temple was overwhelming . One need not be a believer or follower of Buddhism to appreciate the energy and power of this sacred hall.
Next to the main temple is the Machey Lhakhang containing the embalmed body of the great Zhabrdrung and its entry is limited to the King and the Chief Abbot.
Punakha Dzong was damaged in flash floods,earthquake and fire several times(most recent was the flash floods in 1994) and each time it was restored to its former glory.In 2011 the wedding celebrations of the present King was held here.What impressed me most was the way the Bhutanse have preserved their national heritage sites.India takes pride in its rich cultural heritage but most of our ancient monuments are in a sad state of neglect and some have even disappeared.It is sad seeing our protected sites in ruins and defaced with graffiti.We have a lot to learn from this neighbouring country.They don’t forget their past even when they are adapting to the challenges of the modern world.
Punakha Dzong-a perfect blend of religion,art and architecture and I will always remember it as the Palace of Sublime Moments.
Warning-This post contains images that could be offensive to some viewers.
From the cold and foggy DochuLa we drove down to the low lying sub tropical Punakha passing through winding bumpy roads and dense green forests.Punakha has a special place in the history of Bhutan.It was their old capital and the Punakha Dzong is the second largest and oldest dzongs in the country.Two major rivers Mo Chhu and Po Chhu converge here.
Chocolate mountains topped with chortens and cluster of houses gave way to terraced rice fields and farmlands.Weather was pleasanly warm .We got down at Sopsokha village to see the rural side of Bhutan.About 70% of the Bhutanese stay in the villages and agriculture is their main source of income.This hilly fertile land is ideal for rice and it is their main crop.Maize,buckwheat,potatoes are the other crops.There are many ongoing ambitious projects to make the country 100% organic by 2020.
The village houses are made of mud and stone.Most of the houses, cafes and souvenir shops have phalluses painted on the walls.What I took for graffiti is meant for warding off evil spirits and to bring prosperity and there is a legend behind it.
This graphic display is their homage to one of the revered lamas affectionately called The Divine Madman aka Drukpa Kunley.He was a Tibetan monk who came to Bhutan in the 15th century and went around spreading his brand of Buddhism.He chose not to follow the middle path and set out to break age old traditions and taboos.This unconventional monk indulged in wine,women,music,dance,hunting and feasting.He was also a proficient archer and subdued many demons with his phallus or “thunderbolt of wisdom” .One such demoness turned into a black dog to hide from him but he killed the dog/demoness and buried her at a hillock and built a chorten which is the site of a popular temple.Chimi Lhakhang or Temple of Fertility has since become a sacred temple where reproductively challenged couples offer prayers for divine help to conceive.
There are many outrageous feats attributed to Drukpa Kunley . Some were so wacky that I was finding it difficult to keep a straight face . For the Bhutanese such folklores and legends are part of their daily lives and they don’t question it.I am curious to know what the younger generation think of this colorful lama and his exploits.
I had noticed that Singey was using a lot of ‘la ‘ in our conversations eg How are you today,la?Was the food too spicy,la? and I was intrigued.Well,la is added as a sign of respect and since they are so used to la in Dzongkha they can’t help it even when they speak in English.Another special feature of the Bhutanese!
After the initial shock one gets used to seeing the painted walls and doorways.But it could be awkward if you are with children.I went inside a souvenir shop out of curiosity and found an eye popping collection.No, I did not buy anything.
A short trek through the rice fields take you to the Chimi Lkhkhang dedicated to the fertility specialist Drukpa Kunley.
Chimi Lhakhang (Chimi means no dog) is quite a small modest temple compared to the humongous ornate ones I had seen in Paro and Thimphu..Drukpa Kunley did not believe in building temples or monasteries.This temple was made by his cousin.There is a huge bodhi tree in the front and a chorten where the demoness was buried.Unlike other chortens this is painted black (to highlight her evil deeds?)
Couple of young mothers were seen waiting for the head lama to choose names for their babies. There is something interesting about Bhutanese names. They have no surnames or family names and most of the names are not gender specific..The names are chosen by the local Lama and parents have no say in this matter. Now I know why Kunley and Chimi are popular names here.Sonam,Dorji,Tashi,Karma,Pema,Norbu,Tenzin are also quite common and unisex names.Singey has a sister who is also Singey.Confusing?
I went inside the temple and found a statue of the famous Lama.One of the monks showed me an album with pictures of cherubic babies with their happy parents from many countries.Seems like the blessings have travelled far and wide. Being Drukpa Kunley’s temple the wangs (blessings in Bhutanese) are given in a special way.The head monk taps your head with a huge wooden and ivory phallus.Unique traditions and legends !
This humble temple dedicated to a free spirited Lama has brought joy and happiness to a lot of people.Divine Madman or the People’s Lama?I can’t make a choice,la.
Today I am leaving Thimphu and going to see the old capital Punakha which is about 70 km and would take 3-4 hours. We set off early keeping in mind the ongoing road repair works.Singey was effusive as always and my history lessons continued.
After going through the slow winding mountainous road we reached a hilltop and a breathtaking sight unfolded .A hillock with 108 beautiful symmetric chortens or stupas enveloped in mist looked something out of a fairy tale.DochuLa is at a height of 3100 m and this popular tourist spot was commissioned by the Queen Mother as a memorial to honor the victory of the Bhutanese army over Indian insurgents in a military operation in 2003.Singey told me with unmistakable pride that the King himself led his troops .
I went up the steps and walked around the victory stupas known as Druk Wangyal chortens.The whitewashed 108 stupas with a brick red band and golden spire look stunning.108 is a sacred number in Buddhism and refers to the number of torments or defilements overcome by Buddha to attain enlightenment.
On a clear day one can see the snowcovered peaks of the Himalaya from here.I wasn’t disappointed . I felt the mist enhanced the beauty and serenity of this spot.
There is a temple near the site – Druk Wangyal Lhakhang built in honor of the Fourth King.This was closed for the public that day.
I came across a group of Chinese tourists togged up in Bhutanese costumes and they happily posed for a group photo.
Mountains and mountain passes are considered sacred in Bhutan and I went on to circumambulate the chortens lost in peaceful solitude.
Another day in Thimphu and it began with a visit to The National Memorial Chorten – a prominent landmark and religious centre for the Bhutanese.It was not far from the hotel and the huge white structure with the gleaming golden spire could be seen from far.Going to this shrine every morning is a ritual for the devout Bhutanese.
Many elderly men and women are seen in the premises engaged in prayers and circumambulating the main shrine.Some are seen spinning the giant prayer wheels and prostrating in prayers.This is not so easy and I was wondering how some of those frail old Bhutanese were doing it with such ease and remarkable grace. A group of ladies were relaxing around the central pavilion.This must be their favourite place for meeting friends.
From the chorten I went to see the Centenary Farmers Market.This sprawling 2 storey building is the largest domestic market for the local farmers. Being a week day it was not crowded and I could explore it leisurely.There are about 400 stalls displaying local and imported produce of vegetables,fruits,cheese, rice,spices etc.The whole market is kept remarkably clean and everything is clearly marked.
Bhutan has banned the use of pesticides and agriculture is wholly organic .Most of the Bhutanese are non vegetarians and red rice,meat,cheese and chillies form their staple diet.Chillies are an integral part of their cuisine and is used more like a vegetable than a spice. Ema datshi is the national dish and it is made of chillies and cheese. Cheese products are seen in all shapes and sizes.Asparagus and fiddlehead ferns called Nakey were in season .I had them almost every day and found it quite tasty.There is a section for dried fish and meat but the odour kept me away.
As I came out of the market I saw a bridge and had to go there.Bhutan being a country with rivers has many bridges and most of them are pieces of art unlike the nondescript structures I have seen in India.This one was also painted in bright colors and decorated with prayer flags .
I spotted a pair of school girls and followed them to the other side and found many empty stalls . The bubbly girls informed that this is the place for the weekend handicrafts market.
Leaving these charming girls I made my way to the National Institute for Zorig Chusum(Zo=to make,rig=science,chusum=13)Here the students learn 13 forms of art and craft which includes weaving,masonry,sculpting and painting. It is admirable that the government has taken measures to preserve and promote their traditional art.The courses take 4-6 years.
I went inside the classrooms and saw many young students . Some of the classrooms looked crowded – could be the junior grades. They seemed to be engrossed in their studies and I felt I was invading with my camera though I was told that they are quite used to visitors. I was not convinced and preferred to observe their meticulous work .It was impressive to see the talented youngsters.Girls were seen mostly in the embroidery and sculpture classes and boys dominated the painting section.I spoke to one of the teachers who showed these sketches by the students and gave an insight into the curriculum.
Bhutanese art is also deeply rooted in Buddhism and was formally categorised into the 13 traditional art forms towards the end of 17th century.Some of the eminent lamas themselves were great artists .
It was interesting to know that they use natural pigments and dyes and they have to follow a set of iconography rules.Art is considered a pious act and the artists remain anonymous. So what about artistic freedom?There are some art studios in the city that promote contemporary art.I must say that this glimpse into the traditional art was the highlight of the day and I regret that I could not spend more time out there.
From the ‘Painting School’ I went to see the national animal-Takin.I have not heard of such an animal before and was curious .Legend has it that takin was created by the famed Lama Drukpa Kunley who is also known as the Divine Madman for his unconventional ways.It seems he fixed the head of a goat on the skeleton of a cow and created this new species.Wikipedia informs that takins belong to the category of goat antelope and they are also found in Tibet and China.Motithang Takin Preserve is on the outskirts of Thimphu and we drive through a dense forest and walk up a short distance and there he stands.They do look rather odd and docile.
Can I leave Thimphu without seeing the famous dzong? Tashichho Dzong is the seat of the government and houses the throne room and office of the King,secretariat and ministries of finance and home affairs.It is also the headquarters of the central monastic body and their summer retreat.By the time I reached it was closed and I could only see the magnificent building and surrounding gardens from far..
It had been a memorable day and I went back to the hotel after a stroll in the central square.
A massive golden Buddha statue can be seen from most parts of Thimphu and today I am there to seek his blessings.
The Buddha statue , a part of Buddha Dordenma project , is a massive 51 meters statue situated on top of a hill in the 1000 acres forested Kuensel Phodrang Nature Park. A short drive through winding roads leads to the site.
In no time I am in front of Shakyamuni Buddha ,one of the largest sitting Buddha statues in the world. Made of bronze and gilded in gold he is seen with an alms bowl in the left hand .The face radiates compassion and serenity and he seems to be looking right at you. The mammoth statue is surrounded by beautiful Dakinis_ enlightened ladies of Buddhism.
The Buddha Dordernma site informs that this is 100 million USD international project and it commemorates the centennial of the Bhutan monarchy.Work began in 2006 and it was consecrated by the chief abbot in September 2016.
Before going inside the meditation hall I went around the place and took time to take in the majestic panoramic view of the Thimphu valley.
Inside the meditation hall there are huge statues of Buddha and his various manifestations. The gilded walls are lined with thousands of small Buddha statues, huge thankhas and elaborate mandalas .The iconography is stunning.
In spite of the serene environs I could sense a corporate aura .It was rather disconcerting to see so much gold, diamond(The third eye of Buddha is made of diamonds) and the prominent dispaly of sponsors. After all,Buddha was the prince who gave up his kingdom and chose the middle path. I prefer the small temples built by revered monks and devotees where one can see history and piety.
After the Buddha Point I went to see the Coronation Park.This is near the National Stadium.A 45 ft tall walking Buddha statue dominates the park .This statue is a gift from Thailand and the local people affectionately call him Thai Buddha.
This is a nice quiet place to unwind and listen to the chants of prayer flags.
From the rustic hamlet of Paro, I found myself heading for the equally sylvan surroundings of the capital Thimphu and Bhutan’s most populated city.
Getting there took about an hour and a half, vending through highway and all the while being treated to a still unblemished scenic beauty on either side. The capital city came into being in 1961 and the valley that envelops it stretches along the Wang Chhu river. It does have some of trappings of a bustling city but omits some features that we have come to accept as standard fare these days – airport, traffic lights ,MNCs and billboards.
My hotel was near the main street and opposite the National Stadium. This stadium has historical significance as it is built at the site of a famous battle which led to the unification of Bhutan and the coronation of their first king. When I went in a football match was going on. Though archery is their national sport, football is quite popular.
A short walk took me to the main throughfare of Zorin Lam Street and the clock tower square. This is a city landmark and remains an ever popular hangout for the young and the young at heart. A gig in connection with 4G launch was going on .For a country which introduced internet as recent as 1999,their telecom sector is booming.
I was quite tired after the epic Tiger nest trek and was looking forward to a comfortable night’s kip . Clearly, I knew nothing about the notorious dogs there. They were barking all night and the canine symphony kept me awake most of the time.
Later I came to know that stray dogs are a major problem here and being a Buddhist country they cannot euthanise them.Singey told me that they have an ongoing spay neuter and vaccination program.Well,that did put me at ease.These dogs are fiercely territorial and one can see chorten dogs,monastery dogs , restaurant dogs,etc.My tormentors could be the downtown pack.
I got out of the hotel as the city was waking up to a new day. My first stop was the clock tower centre. Souvenir shops,restaurants,cafes, and bars are seen around the well maintained streets.A few elderly ladies were seen turning the prayer wheels.I think this is their morning ritual.
From there I walked down towards the traffic kiosk. Thimphu being the capital has the heaviest traffic in the country and it also boasts of having no traffic lights.Traffic police from the Royal Bhutan Police controls the traffic.In 1995 traffic lights were installed but they were taken off soon as most people failed to follow and there were accidents.So the traffic cops were reinstated and this spot has become a major tourist attraction. The kiosk also sports the traditional look. The night revellers were seen curled up and sleeping cosily.They must be the kiosk pack.
Symbols of Buddhism and pictures of the King and the royal family can be seen everywhere.
Most of the commercial buildings are 4-5 storey structures made in the traditional style with brightly coloured hand painted floral, animal and religious motifs on the walls and embellished windows.All the shops are numbered.
Few old mud houses share space with their modern concrete counterparts.
Impressive government offices are also scattered in and around the main street.
I wandered into an alleyway and couldn’t help noticing the red stains on the wall.These are betel nut stains.Doma pani is the local term and quite a few Bhutanese are addicted to its use.
The high point of the morning was seeing the flowers in bloom and I knew I was in the right place.
Dzongs [pronounced as zong] are fine examples of the traditional Bhutanese architecture. Each district has a dzong which serve as administrative and monastic centres. They also have temples and living quarters for the monks. Most of them were built during the 17th century.I was surprised to know that they are built without nails or iron bars and without any blueprints.Then how were they made?A high ranking lama will be calling the shots and he would be guided by spiritual inspiration.
Rinpung Dzong is a majestic golden domed red and white building dominating the Paro skyline . Rinpung means a heap of jewels.This impressive fortress/monastery had also seen massive earthquake and fire and what we see now is the rebuilt structure. Most of the treasures were lost in the mishaps except a precious tapestry Thongdrel.This is unfurled once a year during the Paro Festival and it is believed that seeing it can cleanse you of all your sins.Festival season is the best time to visit Bhutan and the next festival will be from April 7-11.
Bhutanese people have to be in their national dress to get inside and they also have to wear a silk scarf known as Kabney [for men] and Rachu[for women].I must say they look very elegant in this attire.There is no such dress code for the visitors.We just have to be dressed appropriately-long sleeves,no shorts,no caps.
I was in no hurry to get inside and spent time admiring the vibrant colours and the intricate woodworks.
After going through the imposing main door you will see the huge courtyards, winding corridors,central tower ,temples and living quarters for the monks.The entire structure is breathtaking.For me Rinpung Dzong was the jewel in the crown of Paro.
We have to climb a lot of stairs and some of them can be quite challenging.The ascent is fairly easy but the descent needs lot of caution.Photography is not permitted inside the temple complex.
Saw these student monks playing in the courtyard. They seemed to be having a good time and I wondered how many of them will go on to becoming lamas. Do they miss home? Is their curriculum tough?What if they can’t cope? What if they want to leave? I was very keen to talk to them.They are not shy and are quite used to visitors.But this was their recess and I did not want to disturb them.
Seeing these young lively monks I was reminded of a delightful Tibetan movie Phorpa [The Cup].It is about a mischievous kid monk who is obsessed with football and is set against the 1998 Football World Cup. It was made by a Lama and I think this could be his own experience. It takes you to the unknown world of young monks and they are shown as they are- free spirited and natural. Another one I remember is ‘Spring,Summer,Fall,Winter and Spring’-a Korean movie on the life of a monk with each season signifying a stage in his life.
Paro Dzong and movies?Yes, few scenes from ‘Little Buddha’ were shot here.