Spiti Tales- Tabo Monastery and The Mummy Lama.

After leaving Nako we took a detour to go to  Gui- a small village near the Chinese border. Gui gained fame in 1975 when the Indo Tibet Border Police discovered a mummy which was later found to be a Lama. Carbon dating has estimated it to be 550 years old. Since then the Mummy Lama has become a revered local deity and this place has become a regular stop for the tourists.  Each day in Spiti is turning to be different and exciting but a Himalayan Mummy was the last thing we expected to find here.

The winding road takes you to the top of a hill. The place looks isolated and barring our group, not a soul was in sight.  The grand colorful monastery looks striking against the brown mountains.

The new monastery

This is going to be the new shrine for the mummy. Presently he is housed in the adjacent yellow roofed room. With mounting excitement, we walked in and came face to face with the Mummy Lama.   I was expecting to see a supine figure swathed in white clothes in a tomb similar to the mummies I had seen in the Cairo Museum. The Mummy Lama is seen in the sitting posture with his chin resting on the knee in a glass case.

The Mummy Lama Sangha Tenzin

On closer look, I could make out an intact set of teeth and brittle, brownish nails. Few strands of hair are visible on the scalp. His skin looks remarkably intact. The eye sockets are empty.

No chemicals are used for the preservation and it is believed that he achieved self- mummification through deep meditation and voluntary starvation.The Buddhist ritual of self- mummification is known as Sokushinbutsu and was practiced by the monks in Japan, Thailand, and Mongolia between the 11th and 19th century.  Those who achieved the difficult task are considered Living Buddhas.

One can’t help feeling awed by the ascetic monk who took this route for the ultimate salvation. They say Gui Mummy was around 45 years old. I wonder why he chose to leave the world this way. Can he look into our souls?

The new monastery is an exquisite piece of art. Wherever he is, the mystique of Mummy  Lama will endure.

Other than the monastery and the mountains there is nothing much to see in the Giu village and we left for Tabo.  Situated at a height of 3050m,  Tabo is a major Buddhist center.  We were exhausted and some of us were getting breathless and dizzy.   Acute Mountain Sickness!  A good sleep and Diamox was what we needed.

I woke up refreshed and set out to get a feel of the place. AMS seems to have settled.   The pure cold mountain air and the pristine surroundings are highly salubrious. I will take it easy today.

Like most of the Himalayan villages, Tabo has a welcome arch,  a couple of homestays, guesthouses,  helipad, and friendly dogs.

Let sleeping dogs lie

The Helipad

The Tabo Monastery could be seen from far with its gleaming golden stupa and colorful flags.

Tabo Monastery- a national historic treasure

Buddhist mantra on the mountain

 

 

Once inside I felt I was in a different era. Founded in 996AD the sprawling complex is one of the oldest functioning  Himalayan monasteries and is maintained by the Archeological Survey Of India.   The misty mountains encircle a series of mud stupas.  Buddhist chants could be heard from the main prayer hall. A monk who was hurrying for the prayers told me to come back at 8:00 when the complex will open to the public. I was in no hurry and walked around the place soaking in the overwhelming serenity and silence. Time seems to stand still……..

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Tabo monastery is one of the most important Buddhist centers in India.  It has a wealth of ancient scriptures, murals, frescoes, and statues.  There are 9 temples,  many stupas, and monk’s quarters within the complex.  The main prayer hall is richly decorated from the floor to the ceiling with murals depicting the life of Buddha.  We had to use a torchlight to see some of the paintings. Even a layman could make out that the rich artwork is different from what we see in the other Buddhist centers.  Photography is not permitted inside to protect the precious artifacts.

Unlike most of the Himalayan monasteries which are at impossible heights atop the mountains, Tabo monastery is on flat ground ( most encouraging for the vertically challenged folks like me).  Another special feature I noticed is that the mud stupas are unadorned. As I was discussing these points with my friends, the tour in charge informed that there are some caves in the mountains above the monastery.   There is a well- defined trail which did not look daunting. I inhaled deeply and went up the path.

In search of the caves

In the olden days, the monks used these caves for meditation.  DSCN0143

Tabo seen from the hilltop.

From lofty spiritual heights, I was brought back to the present by a group of boisterous nursery kids. They were making the most of the midday break.  I was delighted to see Smt.Angmo Memorial Little Star School in this remote area. So what if the classroom is small, they do have midday meals, a small play area and the kids look happy.

Adore their uniform and attitude Pc: Mangesh

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The barren mountains, chilly winds,  holy Tabo monastery, meditative  Mummy Lama, solitary caves, and a bunch of bright kids- bliss!

Spiti Tales- Mountains, valleys, lakes, and bridges.

After bidding farewell to the divine Kinnaur Kailash, we set out for  Tabo. This route is known for landslides and we knew the photo stops would be considerably reduced. We passed through Akpa, Morang, Spello and Pooh.The road conditions varied from smooth tarmac to narrow mud tracks.  On the way, there are some lovely bridges and waterfalls. This stretch has some of the finest bridges  I have ever seen, ranging from Bailey, suspension to massive modern ones.

The good roads

Mud roads.Don’t miss the Mummy rock. Pc: Ajay

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The Border Road Organisation (BRO) is responsible for the maintenance of these mountain roads and frequently we came across people engaged in clearing the rock_  strewn paths. They have put up a number of quirky sign boards all along the route doling out safety precautions. ‘If married, divorce speed’, ‘ Be gentle on my curves’,  ‘Mind your brakes or break your mind’ and ‘Be Mr.Late than late Mr.’  are a few I remember now.

Our first halt was at Khab. This is where the mighty Sutlej which originates from Tibet meets Spiti river coming from the Spiti valley. The landscape is barren, arid and vast. The greenery has almost vanished. Mighty mountains lead us to a narrow tunnel with overhanging rocks.  Though technically we are still in Kinnaur I  feel we have entered the surreal land of Spiti.

The gateway to Spiti

Khab Bridge adorned with prayer flags.

The confluence of Satluj and Spiti rivers. Satluj is muddy brown and Spiti river is ash gray.

The rocks show a range of colors and some of them have striations. Wish we had a geologist in our group!

This rock reminded me of a gargoyle with cold, evil eyes.

Rock art Pc: Ajay

Boulders perched precariously

Our convoy.

 

Khab has another significance. Shipki La-the high mountain pass and border post on the India-China border is about 40 km from here. You require special permits to go there.

A slice of the sky Pc: Mangesh

Face off! Mr.Snub nose and Ms.Sharp nose.

From Khab to Hangrung valley

From Khab, the road ascended through a series of switchbacks. There were no other vehicles in sight. It was like going into an alien, remote land. All we could see were the mountains in different colors and dimensions. The landscape is like Ladakh except that Ladakh is always bursting with tourists.

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A patch of green.

The next stop was Nako -a beautiful village and often a night stop for the travelers. Nako is an important center of Buddhism. There are two main monasteries (gompas) and many temples in the Nako village. Guru Rinpoche is believed to have meditated in the caves seen up in the mountains.We could not go inside the monasteries as they were closed to the public.

Old Nako Gompa

After a quick lunch, we went over to Nako Lake. After the rocky, dusty, barren terrains, the shimmering lake was like an oasis. It looks more like a  large pond.

Enchanting Nako Lake

Nako lake is a natural lake and remains frozen during winter. The water was crystal clear and green reflecting the trees around the periphery.  The tranquility and silence all around was overpowering.  Though Nako has become quite popular on the travel circuit, there were not many people around.  I can imagine how this place would look with a bunch of noisy, selfie_ obsessed tourists.

Circumambulating the lake

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The walkway around the lake leads to the Nako village and its cluster of houses made of earth and stone. Fodder and firewood are piled on the wooden roofs and most houses have a pen for their cattle.   Prayer wheels, colorful prayer flags, and cairns with inscribed mantras seen among the winding lanes reflect the age-old Buddhist traditions.

Nako Village homes

A pen with no inmates

All peace and quiet here.

Where are the people?

I wanted to peek inside.

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Prayer wheels and Mani stones

The premises are kept very clean. But where are the people?   Most people-both men and women work in the fields.Their main crops are peas, potato, wheat, and barley. The Himachal government has provided many houses with solar panels and they also have a helipad to transport people in case of an emergency. New concrete buildings are coming up beside the traditional homestays and small guesthouses. I did not see a school or a hospital.

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I had not even heard of Nako before coming here and now I am leaving with pleasant memories of a small, peaceful village.

 

 

Dragon Tales-The Bridge on the River Po

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.

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The mighty bridge spanning 350 m

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A long way to go

The bridge is sturdier and less  bouncy  compared to the one in  Paro  and  offers  stunning views of the  mountains and villages.I saw a variety of people on the bridge-school children,villagers, monks and  a quadruped.
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The lone monk pc:Dr Bruno

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Back from the school

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In meditation

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 . Bhutan April 2016 395IMG_0767

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Gently flows the River Po

 

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.d2d1

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Is this a museum ? office ? residence ? This is a general store.

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.

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Playtime

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Little Miss Sunshine

 

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The boss with her loyal guards

The girls   insisted on accompanying me  to the other end.They cross the bridge  every day to go  to the school and dzong.I had to coax them to go back after we reached half way and made a promise to visit them before they start going to college.I looked on as they waltzed their way back.

Today was  a day of serendipitous moments and I  wish I  could stay.

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Goodbye

Dragon Tales,Punakha-Seeking Bliss

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.

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Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel pc-wikipedia

This was the first sight of the dzong and  I was struck by its picturesque setting.They could not have chosen  a better  location.

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The Palace of Bliss pc Dr Bruno

 

 

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.

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Tower of the cantilever bridge over Mo Chhu

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School children on the bridge

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Sparkling Mo Chhu

 

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Dzongs are made of mud,stone and timber and painted in bright red,white and black.

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Seen from the bridge

 

 

Leaving the bridge tower  the imposing facade  of the dzong comes into view.Now you will  see the massive scale of the  structure and  I wonder how they made such a perfect  building in that period with  limited tools and technology.
A strict dress code is enforced . Bhutanese have to put a scarf ‘Kabney ‘ and visitors have to be in formal wear.I appreciate that.Can you imagine going to  this grand citadel in  casuals?
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The stone and wooden staircase leading to the dzong

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.

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The giant Bodhi tree standing like a sentinel

A six storey central tower  UTSE   separates it from the second courtyard which has the monastic  quarters.

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The central tower.This little girl was very excited and was dancing around.

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.d7d15d11

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.

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Kabney spotting. Green is for judges ,white with red stripe for headmen and white with fringes for the common man

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Monks are also waiting.

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.

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Yellow hatted monks pc Dr Bruno

 

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Monks with drums

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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.

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Punakha Dzong- Timeless and invincible

Dragon Tales, DochuLa_A Heavenly Pass

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  .

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DochuLa

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.

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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.

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Misty and magical

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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.

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Mountains and mountain passes are considered sacred in Bhutan and I went on to circumambulate the chortens  lost in  peaceful solitude.

Dragon Tales,Thimphu-Out and about

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.

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National Memorial Chorten

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The Temple

 

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.

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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.

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Fresh organic local fruits

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 .

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Aesthetic and elegant

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.

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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.

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National Institute for Zorig Chusum

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.

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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.

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Takin-national animal of Bhutan

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He looks melancholic

 

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..

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Tashichho Dzong-Fortress of the glorious religion

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From the lookout point

It had been a memorable day and I went back to the hotel after a stroll in the central square.

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Clock tower square at night

Dragon Tales-Buddha Point

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.

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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.

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Shakyamuni Buddha

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Dakini

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 display 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.thai

This is a nice quiet place to  unwind and listen to the chants of  prayer flags.

 

 

 

 

Dragon Tales,Paro-In search of a legend

Like India, Bhutan is a treasure trove of myths, legends, and folklore. There are venerable seers with magical powers and multiple manifestations, protective deities, and spirits inhabiting lakes, mountains, trees, and rocks. Of course, there is a fair share of the darker powers-the demons and ogres.

Each place has its own set of tales ripe for retelling and each day I heard incredible stories. Or are they really stories? Facts and fiction blend harmoniously and I had to leave my scepticism and rationalism aside and take in everything with an open mind. Bhutan does that to you.

Let me start with a holy trail to one of the most sacred monasteries  -Taktsang Palphug Lhakhang or Tiger’s Nest as it is popularly known. This is a cultural icon of Bhutan and its most photographed and written about site. The location, the trail, and the monastery interiors make for a unique experience.

Legend says that Guru Rinpoche who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan arrived here in the 8th century flying on a tigress who was his consort. He came as Dorje Drolo, one of his eight manifestations and subdued the local ogress. He meditated in a cave for three years and introduced the Bhutanese to Buddhism.  A temple was built around the cave in 1692. There was a fire in 1958 and it was rebuilt. In 1998 there was another fire which destroyed most of the temple. Renovations went on till 2005. It is said that the statue of Guru Rinpoche did not suffer any damage.

Most prefer to have this trek on the last day to get acclimatised as this is on a mountain cliff about  10,240 ft above sea level. My energy and enthusiasm levels tend to diminish towards the last days of a trip so I decided to go on the second day. One of my better decisions!  Singey was happy to come along.

The  4.8 km trail is well- marked and you will never get lost. It is fairly easy for avid trekkers. Being a reluctant trekker and occasional wheezer  I knew that I would find it difficult. There are horses which take you up half the way. I decided to walk all the way. It did look challenging and impossible, but I was determined to reach the top. One can read about it or see the pictures but the whole trek is an experience you will cherish.

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The trail head. Can you see the white speck? The first sight of the Tiger’s Nest

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Like their colorful attire. Sorry mates, I am going to walk.

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There it is- mighty and magical

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This part is fairly easy and flat

The morning was pleasant and since we started early there were not many people. The first part passes through a dense blue pine forest. I  am walking at my own pace. Who would want to hurry when you have such beauty all around?

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The enchanted forest      pic credit: Dr. Bruno

 

Soon came upon these water driven prayer wheels and a lovely bridge.

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From here the trail is steep and I was taking frequent breaks to get my breath and drink water. The crisp mountain air kept me going and I did not have to use my Ventolin inhaler even once.

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The trail twists and turns

 

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Paro valley seen from the top

After about an hour and a half,  I reached the halfway point and took a longer break to enjoy the view and recharge. This ridge is marked by a series of prayer wheels and prayer flags and is also the first viewpoint. I must say it offers breathtaking views.

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Tiger Nest is seen on the right.  pic credit: Dr. Bruno

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The Taktsang Cafeteria is nearby. Those who don’t wish to continue further make this their final point. I did not want to lose the pace, so  I kept going.

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Leaving the first viewpoint.

From certain turns, you can see the  Tiger’s Nest enveloped in the clouds and sometimes hidden among the trees and it still looked very far and I wondered if I would ever reach up there. But seeing this marvel at regular intervals was a strong motivation to move ahead.

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Misty and mystical

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Through the woods.  pic credit: Dr. Bruno

 

People of all age groups including monks were seen going up and down the path. The local people are seen in their traditional dress as this is a holy place.

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Higher and higher

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After what seemed like an eternal climb I  was relieved to see this flat path and a forest of prayer flags.

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And these Spanish moss- draped trees.

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All along the trail  you would see these mini stupas which are called Tsa tsa and are made from the ashes of the departed and clay. They are left in holy places and are considered sacred. You are not supposed to touch it.

At last, I can see the second lookout point and decided to stand and savor the vista. The final destination seems close enough to touch. That is wishful thinking as it is on the other side of the gorge and you may still need 1 hour or more.

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Looks as if it is fused to the rocks. So near and yet so far.

The hardest part of the trek starts now. You have to go down  500  cliff-hanging steps. There is no going back now and I trudge forward.

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Slow and steady. Thank God for those railings.

The steep stairs go down to a small bridge across a waterfall that plunges  200 feet into a sacred pool. I stopped to taste the ice- cold water and it was very refreshing.

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Shelkar Zar waterfall 

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They make it look so easy

Here you can see a  small meditation retreat known as Singey Phu Lhakhang or The Snow Lion Cave which is built into a crevice on the rock face. I am sure this is an ideal location for meditation and seek salvation.

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Singey Phu Lhakhang pic credit: Dr. Bruno

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Crossing the bridge

Now comes the most grinding part. You have to go up  200  very steep steps. Aching, puffing, panting and stopping at every other step I am inching my way up.

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The final and most punishing path

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Getting closer

 

Finally, you are in and you are overwhelmed by the entire journey and the atmosphere.

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The jewel in the crown

 

We have to keep our bags and cameras in the lockers. No photography is permitted inside and in a way I am happy about it.

Singey went on to pray, and he left me with a  friend who is a registered guide accompanying a couple from Slovakia, and he took us around. The monastery complex has four temples and eight caves. They are interconnected through stairways and steps. Each one is beautifully decorated and has statues of Lord Buddha and various manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. The stunning frescoes, murals,  altar with its various offerings and the monks in red robes made me forget the exhaustion and appreciate the serenity and calming silence. It was a  deeply moving experience.

 

Going back is more difficult but I did not feel it. It could be the endorphin surge. I made my way back slowly beaming at everyone coming my way and encouraging them to reach before the monastery closes. I had a delightful companion. I think he is a permanent resident.

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Patiently waiting for me to catch up.

I had to stop at the halfway point and spin the prayer wheel three times thanking for the blessings and praying for a return visit. Singey told me that those who come once will have to come twice again and I fervently hope that I can.

We decided to go to the cafeteria for tea and enjoyed the clear views of this incredible structure which defies logic and gravity.

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View from the cafeteria

 

I could not help thinking what if someone had a medical emergency? It would be good to have a mobile clinic and ambulance at the base. The trek is not hazardous but the altitude and switchbacks can be stressful for the medically and fitness challenged.

The trek took almost 6 hours and gave me memories for life. Facts or fiction, Bhutan from any viewing is magical where there is no place for the mundane or soporific, and I am looking forward to more.

Dragon Tales-Zangtho Pelri Lhakhang

Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan and  is followed by 70% of the population . My knowledge of this ancient religion is very limited.After spending  a short time here I feel that Buddhism is the most distinct feature of this kingdom .One week is too short a period to get an insight   but each day was a learning experience.

I wanted to start by  visiting  a buddhist temple and I did not have to look far.

More than 2000 Lhakhangs  or temples are scattered around the 20 districts  in Bhutan.I had my first glimpse of one in Phuentsholing.

Zangtho Pelri Lhakhang  is  near the  immigration office and it has an impressive structutre .It was  6 30 in the morning and  people were coming in large numbers for their morning prayers.

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The main  deities  are Buddha,Guru Rinpoche   who brought Buddhism to Bhutan and Zhabdrung Rinpoche who unified Bhutan.The walls are decorated with murals and frescos  depicting the life of Buddha.  The altar was beautifully   adorned with lamps,prayer bowls,flowers  and incense sticks..It is believed that by gazing at Buddha,lighting lamps,offering flowers,burning incense  , prostrating before the deities  etc ,the functions of the five sense organs are completely immersed in Buddhist practises.As in most  Buddhist temples,there is a large prayer wheel and a huge  fig tree in the courtyard.Remember to spin the prayer wheel in a clockwise direction.Turning the prayer wheel is supposed to have the same benefits as reciting the mantras inside.

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Butter lamps are kept in  a it small room near the main temple and  one can make offerings .

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Giant butter lamp

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Devotion

This temple reminded me of a small village temple where people come for prayers and meeting one another.I am put off  by large , popular temples where one has to stand in a serpentine queue for hours to see the idol for a minute or less before you are pushed out by the milling crowd.Here people  seemed unhurried  and  one can sense the serenity and spirituality all around.

I spent some time in the temple garden and returned to the hotel  happy with the auspicious beginning.