Wedged high in the eastern end of the Himalayas, between India to the south, east and west, and Tibet to the north, Bhutan is one the most isolated countries in the word, and the last remaining Buddhist kingdom. Tourism was not permitted until 1974. Television and Internet access did not appear until 1999. Druk Yul (or Land of the Thunder Dragon) as is known in Dzonghka, the office language of Bhutan, is only 180 kilometers and (110 miles) from north to south and 325 kilometers (200 miles) from east to west. Think Switzerland with deeper valleys, higher mountains, and only one main road meandering west to east (paving seems to become optional the further east you travel); no railroad, no air travel beyond Paro, the international airport in the west of the country, and no navigable waterways. Although rivers abound, fed by thundering waterfalls from glacier-clad Himalayan peaks, they are better suited for extreme whitewater rafting than commercial navigation.
Today we leave the capital, Thimphu, to start our journey eastward into Bhutan’s heartland. It is only 30 kilometers to Dochu La Pass, but the vertical climb from 2,300 meters (7,650 feet) to 3,150 meters (10,350 feet) makes for a slow drive. The only gateway between the capital and the center of the country it is the most visited of the passes, and arguably the most picturesque. When we reach the top, the spectacular view of the Himalayas, “on a clear day” our guide Kesang is prompt point out, doesn’t materialize. We are in the clouds. But this only adds to mystical atmosphere of the place. The hill is covered with chortens, 108 of them rising from the midst. Chortens are religious structures built to honor the memory of eminent lamas or kings or to keep evil spirits at bay, a comforting thought on these roads. Everywhere around us, giant webs of multicolor prayer flags flap in the wind. The clouds drift apart just long enough to reveal a sunny valley far below us.
The Valley of Bliss
From the Dochu La Pass the road pitches down toward the Punakha-Wangdue Valley and our main destination for the day, the Pungrang Dechen Photrang Dzong (or Palace of Great Bliss), Punakha Dzong for short. Built in the early seventeenth century, it is one of the oldest and largest dzongs (fortresses housing religious temples, military and administrative offices and monks’ accommodations) in the country. The Punakha Dzong served as the seat of the government of Bhutan until 1975 when the capital was moved to Thimphu.
Located at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers, the Punaka Dzong is a sprawling complex of multi-storied buildings opening onto three vast courtyards and a central tower (or utse). The intricacy of the polychrome woodwork that surrounds all the doors, windows and balconies is magnificent. At the time of our visit the dzong is a beehive of activity as the following week it is to be the site of the Royal Wedding when King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck marries his commoner fiancée Jetsun Pema. The complex is being spruced up inside and out and festive buntings hung from every roof and balcony.
Demons and blessings
We get an early start the next morning. We are off to the Wangdi Dzong for the Festival. While the underlying purpose is spiritual, the festival is an extravaganza of dances by masked religious dances and dramas pantomimes depicting the triumph of good over evil and stories of the life of Bhutan’s patron saint, Guru Rinpoche. But it is also a great opportunities for socializing and celebrating, attended by throngs of area people of all ages, dressed in their finest clothes.
We are back at the Wangdi Dzong the next morning for the Thongdrel ceremony. A thongdrel is a giant religious cloth painting that is unfurled from the roof of a dzong into the courtyard. This event only takes place for a few hours on the last morning of the festival to minimize the damage to the thongdrel from exposure to the sun.
After the receiving the blessings associated with the Thongdrel ceremony, we leave the Punakha Valley and its serene terraces of golden rice paddies and drive to east to Trongsa, the gateway to central Bhutan.
Good to know
- Religious Buddhist festivals (or Tshechu) are held yearly in each district of the country. Dates vary according to the Buddhist calendar.
- Tourism in Bhutan is subject to strict regulations that are managed by the National Tourism Council of Bhutan. All travel within the country must be planned and booked through a tour operator registered with the council. Travel guidelines as well as a complete list of registered tour operators and the yearly festival schedule are available on the council’s website: http://www.tourism.gov.bt/plan.
- We selected Blue Poppy Tours and Treks http://www.bluepoppybhutan.com for their responsiveness in tailoring a tour to our personal interests and requirements.
Note – I was saddened to hear a few weeks ago that the Wangdi Dzong had been completely destroyed by fire on June 24, 2012. Fortunately no human casualties were reported. As the Dzong was under renovation at the time, most of the sacred relics had been relocated during the renovations and have been saved. Thus 2011 Wangdi Festival, which we were privileged to attend was the last to be staged in the historic Dzong.