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
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.
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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.