Spiti Tales-The Caravan starts

Soon after the Bhutan trip I started getting the  familiar  symptoms of  Wanderitis and began  searching for the next  get away. I didn’t have to wait too long.  Friends from Mumbai sent me the details of a group tour to Lahaul & Spiti and I signed up .

Spiti is  a least populated cold desert mountain valley   with surreal landscapes , high mountain passes, enchanting lakes and picture postcard hamlets  is cut off from the rest of the country  for almost eight months  during winter and is open from late July till October.Spiti means The Middle Land-the land between Tibet and India and is in the state of Himachal Pradesh. This terrain is noted for the most  scenic and the most treacherous roads and is prone for landslides.

The trip started from Chandigarh   where I   met the  fellow travellers coming from Mumbai. I was excited to meet my  four friends after almost two years . Six couples and  a family with their daughter and grandson(the youngest member )   completed the group .  There was no time for formal introductions . No worries,  I would be getting to know them in the coming days.  After a  quick lunch at a local hotel  we started for Shimla-our halt for the night.We were staying in a  hotel at Taradevi away from the  hustle and bustle of the city.

I am an insomniac  during travel and was waiting for the dawn to get out of the room.

Misty morning

By this time my roommate   joined me and we went  to   a small temple nearby.Two friendly mountain dogs kept us company.From the temple  we  spotted a quaint railway station.It was exciting to see the Kalka-Shimla  Railway-the narrow gauge railway  passing through 102 tunnels and 864 bridges   and a UNESCO World Heritage site. We waited for sometime but no train was in sight.

Taradevi Railway Station

I would love to ride a toy train

By 10 we were ready to to leave  and after a customary group photo  set off for the next  destination Sarahan.This is another thing I like about Himachal Pradesh. It  has such sweet sounding   districts and towns-Chamba,Kullu,Kinoo, Jipsa,Solan, Seoni,Tapri,Chitkul, Una and more.

The roads are pretty good and there was not much traffic.Breathtaking views, pleasant weather and  friends-I couldn’t have asked for more.

Leaving Shimla

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A special feature of this tour was   the  travelling kitchen . Arjun and his dedicated team   pampered   us with simple, wholesome , fresh and yummy food. It was  nice having the meals on the roadside and it reminded me of school picnics.

Food on the highway

Soon  Sutlej  river came into view and  the landscape  started to look different. Over the next two days  we saw different shades of Sutlej-the most sacred river of Himachal Pradesh.  We are now  in Rampur . From here onward one can see a lot of hydropower plants.

Roaring Sutlej

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Rampur town in Sutlej Valley

From Rampur  it  was 34 km to Sarahan. Pine and cedar forests gave way to lush apple orchards  and traditional houses made of wood and stone .  I was excited to see  the  fruit laden tress and  had a wild impulse to  pluck some.Himachal apples have a  fascinating history. They were introduced in the state in  1916 by an American missionary Samuel Evans Stokes  and  since then they have become the most important cash crop of the region.  Royal delicious,Red delicious and Golden delicious are the most common  types  grown here.  All of us feasted on the fresh and juicy apples and wanted to buy more. This would make an ideal gift from here.

Never seen so many apples on a tree

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Wish I could take it all  !

Sarahan is the gateway to Kinnaur_our next destination, and is at a height of 7850 ft.This was the summer capital of the  erstwhile Bushahr kingdom and is  steeped in mythology. The Bhimkali Temple   dominates the little town.

Sarahan and Bhimkali Temple

There are a couple of small shops and guest houses around the temple.By the time we reached the temple was closed.

Our hotel was a modest  one right in the centre of the  town and very close to the Bhimkali temple .It was a long day and tomorrow is going to be another long one.Time to hit the bed.

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- The Maverick Monk in the La La Land

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.

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Punakha Valley

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Prayer flags, chortens,mountains,rice fields-so colorful,so Bhutanese

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.

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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. d2unnamed

A short trek through the rice fields take you to the  Chimi Lkhkhang dedicated to the  fertility specialist Drukpa Kunley.

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Trek through the fields and brooks

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?)

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Chimi Lhakhang and the black chorten

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?

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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-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 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.thai

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

 

 

 

 

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 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.

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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.