Dragon Tales,Paro-A Dzong ,monks and movies.

Dzongs [pronounced as zong] are fine examples of the traditional Bhutanese architecture. Each district has a dzong which serves 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.

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Rinpung Dzong

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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.

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Men in gho and kabney and lady in kira and rachu

I was in no hurry to get inside and spent time admiring the vibrant colours and the intricate woodworks.

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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.

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COURTYARD

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CENTRAL TOWER

 

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MONASTIC QUARTERS

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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.

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A VERTICAL NIGHTMARE-What goes up must come down !

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.

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YOU NEED A HAIR CUT,BUDDY

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.

Dragon Tales,Paro-Crossing bridges

I think I  am a pontist. I have always been fascinated by bridges  and there are quite a  few in Bhutan which are old and with interesting history.

This bridge is in  the Paro  valley and is  a popular tourist spot.Drubthop Thangto Gyalpo bridge  is a suspension bridge over the Paro Chu and  is over 600 years old.It was washed away  in a flood in  1969 and was restored in 2005.It was made by  the legendary  Thangtong  Gyalpo who  had built many bridges all over Tibet and Bhutan and was also  a physician,blacksmith and the founder of  Tibetan opera.I think he can be called as the Iron Man of Bhutan.

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A narrow path off the Paro Thimpu highway takes you to the entrance of the bridge tower .A prominently displayed board  cautions you.

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No swinging,please.

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Crystal clear Paro Chu

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Looks easy?

I was  very excited  and took the first few steps  without losing balance.It was a treat to  see the gushing waters and the majestic mountains.

Soon it started to swing as more people got on the bridge.So I had to slow down and watch the steps.

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You can make out the  600  year old iron chains reinforced with the new iron rods and  wire mesh.It is a bit unnerving to look down the wide gaps.This gentleman did not seem to mind  and am sure he found my  slow progress amusing.

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I must have taken 10minutes to get across to the bridge tower.It  is a  two storey structure with beautiful murals  of Buddha,Guru Rinpoche and the bridgemaker Thangtong Gyalpo. Some  parts of the old  iron chains are kept there.The windowsill  has a collection of tsatsas-the special memorials.

As you come out of the tower you can see the Tachog Lhakhang  on  the hill top and  this was  also built by  Thangto Gyalpo.It is a private monastery now  and is maintained by his descendants.

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Tachog Lhakhang

There is a wooden bridge near the iron bridge and this is meant for the cattle.Trust the  Bhutanese  to be kind to all  sentinent beings.After the swinging    iron bridge this was a cakewalk.

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Wooden deck for the cattle and the cautious.

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I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea –
I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch –
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience –
Thank you,Emily Dickinson.

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-Paro and a fort in ruins

Paro is a major district in Bhutan and has historical and religious significance. It is also a picturesque fertile valley.  There are over  155  monasteries and temples in this place. I started off with a visit to the Drukgyel Dzong   which means the Fortress of the Victorious Drukpa. This is considered as one of the most famous archeological sites in Bhutan.

Dzongs are unique Bhutanese fortresses which also serve as administrative and monastic centres. Each district has a dzong, and they are built at strategic locations mostly on the hilltops. Zhabdrung Ngwang Namgyal-the unifier of Bhutan is credited with building most of the major dzongs, and he also established the dual system of governance. So each dzong has a monastic center with temples, schools,  living quarters,  and administrative offices for the government officials.

Drukgyal dzong was made in the 16th century to commemorate the victory over the invading Tibetan and Mongolian army. It also served as a major trade route as it was at a strategic site near the border with Tibet. It was also supposed to have the best armory in the country. A major fire destroyed most of the fort in 1951, and we see only the ruins.  It is still impressive and worth a visit.

Singey, his wife Ugyen, and their kids Angel and Angela kept me company. A huge prayer wheel is at the foot of the hill and from there it is a steep climb to the top.

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It took 10 minutes to reach the top. It was starting to get dark and there was a chill in the air, adding to the suspense ahead.

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View from the top

Finally reached the entrance and I felt as if I have stepped into a bygone era. The whole place looked abandoned and a  little spooky. One can see the ravages of fire all around. Isn’t it ironic that this fort was never conquered by the enemy but was destroyed by man- made fire?

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The Entrance

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Still Standing!

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Checkposts

 

 

 

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We went inside and could see only the burnt walls and woodwork.

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Singey informed that this year the Prime Minister had announced a  major renovation programme.

This fort is listed as a tentative site in Bhutan tentative list for UNESCO heritage sites.

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Dragon Tales-Paro and free history lessons

My travel agent Singey stays in Paro and I decided to go there in his car. This would be   a good way to get to know this country and its people. Singey had done his high school and college from Kolkata, and he is immensely proud of his homeland. Over the next few days he and his family took me around, and they won me over with their hospitality and warmth.

Paro is 175 km from Phuntsholing and it is a  pleasant  5 hour drive through well maintained winding roads with majestic mountains, lush green valleys, and sparkling free- flowing rivers.  The weather was perfect with clear blue skies and cool winds. There was not much traffic and over here people seemed to be in no hurry. Bhutan is a  carbon sink( a fact most seem to know) and about 72 % of the land is forested.

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Paro Chhu

 

Singey patiently tried to answer my queries.  It was more interesting to learn from a local and I was glad that I opted out of having a registered tour guide.  Hydropower projects and tourism are the main revenue earners and more than three fourth of the electricity generated is exported to India. So India is an important regional ally. Most of the roads are built and maintained by the Indian BRO(Border Road Organisation). Till 1960 there were no schools, hospitals, proper roads, currency or electricity. Tourism was introduced only in 1974. High value low volume tourism is their mantra.

The population is about 780000. Education up to high school and health care are free. The medium is English and Dzongkha. Depending on the high school grades the college education is also supported by the government. Many go to India, USA, UK and Thailand for higher studies. Singey told me that most of them prefer to come back after completing their education. But unemployment is an issue.

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Prayer flags and stupas are regular sights. After crossing this bridge at the confluence of Wang Chhu and Paro Chuu(chhu is river)  we are in the Paro valley. Soon the airport came into view. This is the only international airport and was opened in 1983 and is considered to be one of the most challenging. It would have been thrilling to come by air but now I can just look at the tiny airport and admire.

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Paro Airport

I checked into Hotel Drukchen near the airport. All the buildings in Bhutan are required to have traditional Bhutanse designs and this was a fine example.

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Hotel Drukchen

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