The spiritual heart of Bhutan

The spiritual heart of Bhutan

It’s only 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Wangdi to Trongsa, the geographical center of Bhutan, but the drive takes a solid five hours of hairpin turns up and down a narrow and improbably steep road. Two-third of the way to Trongsa, on a rare stretch of flat road, we make a short stop at the Chendebji Chorten. A chorten, sometimes also called stupa, is a dome-shaped monument topped by a sharp cone, used to house relics or commemorate significant events of Buddhism.

Myths and Chortens

Bhutan -Chendebji Chorten.

The nineteenth century Chendebji Chorten is a replica of the Swayambhunath Chorten in Katmandu, Nepal.

Our guide Kezang explains in approximate English that this particular chorten was built in the nineteenth century, recenctly by Bhutanese standards, to cover the remains of an evil spirit that was overpowered on this spot. It is remarkable for its imposing size, and for being a reproduction of the Swayambhunath Chorten in Katmandu, Nepal. As Kezang has it, every milestone of Bhutanese Buddhism involves the subjugation of some seriously evil spirit by Guru Rinpoche (or Precious Guru, the patron saint of Vajrayana Buddhism that is practiced in Bhutan) or his disciples, sometimes with the cooperation of other helpful deities temporarily incarnated as flying tigers and such.

Bhutan - Trongsa Dzong and Da Dzong watchtower.

The Trongsa Dzong and Da Dzong watchtower overlook a deep gorge of the Mangde River.

Trongsa Dzong, the largest fortress in Bhutan, is built on a spur overlooking a deep gorge of the Mangde River. Its massive exterior walls hold a maze of vast courtyards surrounded by temples, administrative offices and living quarters for its 200 monks. Further up the mountain a watchtower, Da Dzong, rises from the treetops. The view goes on forever, from the sky-high mountain range to the bottom of the gorge, a striking reminder of the dzong’s original strategic purpose.

Demons begone

Bhutan - Musicans at the Tamshingphala Festival.

Musicans at the Bhutanese lingm flute as the Tamshingphala Festival.

The next afternoon finds us at the annual Tamshingphala Festival. In the courtyard of this small fifteenth century monastery, monks and a multigenerational crowd of area villagers are gathered around an open space where dancers in ornate robes twirl wildly to the sound of ancient horns and cymbals. Evil spirits and other ill-intended demons don’t stand a chance.

We are in the Bumthang district now, the spiritual heartland of Bhutan. The landscape is dotted with legendary monasteries, temples and palaces. We are staying in Jakar, the district capital where there are unmistakable signs of development. Our hotel actually has, in addition to passable plumbing, a frequently operational Wifi in the dining room. And the owner is married to a lovely Indian woman who does the cooking, which means a nice curry break from the usual locally grown red rice and chilies (nb. chilies seem to be a food group in Bhutan).

The sacred cave of Guru Rinpoche

Bhutan - Kurje Lhakhang monastery in Bhumthang.

The Kurje Lhakhang monatery is build about a sacred cave.

Guru Rinpoche. In 747 A.D. the Buddhist saint came from India (where he was known as Padmasambhava) to Bumthang at the invitation of the local king who needed his soul retrieved from, you guessed it, a malevolent deity who had cursed him with a terrible illness. Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave in Lhakhang, subdued eight classes of demons and restored the king’s soul. He then departed for Tibet, but left imprints of his body in the cave, which became known as Kurje (body imprints).

 

Bhutan -Kurje Lhakhang monastery interior.

The Kurje Lhakhang monastery is a spiritual in Bhutan.

Guru Rinpoche subsequently returned, set up his headquarters in Bumthang and Kurje Lhakhang (Temple of Imprints) became a major spiritual and historical site. There are three temples here, home to giant Buddhas and stunning ancient murals representing Taras (deities associated with wealth and fortune) and a 12-meter (40 foot) high statue of Guru Rinpoche that obstructs the Cave of the Imprints.

 

Places where time stands still

Bhutan -Tang Valley Farmhouse.

Farmhouse in the most remote of Bumthang’s valleys.

We take a side trip to Tang Valley, the most remote of Bumthang’s valleys, for a close look at rural life. This is a pristine agricultural area where the industrial age has yet to take hold. Farmhouses precariously cling to the mountain, and farmers work their land just as they have for many centuries. What starts out as a dubiously paved road soon stops all pretenses, and our van rocks gamely along the dirt trail until we come to a bridge. It’s on foot from here on, one hour uphill on a narrow path through fields and along a cluster of farmhouses.

Bhutan - Oxdrawn plow in Bumthang.

A woman leads an oxdrawn wooden plow in her Tang Valley field.

A woman guides a team of oxen pulling a wooden tiller across a terraced field. Others spread buckwheat out to dry or spin wool with a drop spindle. We eventually reach Ugyen Choling, a country estate built in the seventeenth century for a local noble family. Their descendants still own it and have transformed most of it into a museum. They have recreated traditional living quarters, including all the everyday objects necessary to sustain the household: kitchen and weaving utensils, tools, farming implements, weapons, as well as religious masks and a rich collection of printing blocks.

Ugyen Choling printing blocks.

Once a self-sustaining remote country estate, Ugyen Choling has fine collection of rare printing blocks.

It’s on foot from here to Tharpaling Gompa, a fourteenth century monastery (altitude 3500 meters or 11,500 feet) still home to 100 monks. The view of Bumthang valley from here is, quite literally, breathtaking. We then stop at the Burning Lake, which turns out to be a gloomy pool at the bottom of a narrow gorge of the Tang Chhu River. But great deeds are said to have happened here in the fifteenth century, involving a reincarnated disciple of Guru Rinpoche diving to retrieve a sacred scroll from the bottom of the pool and returning with his still burning butter lamp. Judging the thousands of Tsha-tshas (small prayer stones honoring ancestors) tucked under the ledge leading to the water, and the bridge disappearing under thick layers of prayer flags, the site is very holly indeed.

Our next destination is Tashi Yangtse, about as east as we can travel without ending up in India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh. Apparently very few Western tourists make it this far.

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.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Bumthang, Bhutan

Eastward into the Myth

Eastward into the Myth

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.

Himalayan roller-coaster

Bhutan -Dochu La Pass

The pass is the only gateway between Thimphy and Central Bhutan.

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

Bhutan -Punakha Dzong.

The Punaka Dzong sits at confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers.

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.

Bhutan - Punakha Dzong

The Punakha Dzong is one of the oldest in Bhutan.

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

Bhutan - Cham dancers at Wangdi Dzong.

Cham dances are a form of meditation in Bhtanese Buddhist festivals.

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.

 

Bhutan - Wangdi Dzong Thongdrel Ceremony.

The unfurling of the thongdrel is the closing ceremony of the festival.

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.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Punakha Dzong