BHUTAN 2/2

Punakha Dzong

Like a ship at the confluence of two estuaries, the dzong stands strong as a fortress. The rivers Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu represent the yin /yang duality in nature. The steep wooden entry stairs can be pulled up, and a heavy wooden door is still closed at night. Its exterior walls are white, dotted with rows and rows of bay windows, their frames painted with flowers or tails of snarling dragons. Inside, it has three courtyards, exceptional murals, and residential quarters for monks, and practically all of them open to visitors.

Monks at Punakha Dzong
Night arrives at Punakha Dzong

Punakha to Bumthang

Trongsa Dzong

Domkhar festival (Chumey Valley)

The festivals here are part spiritual and part social, a tradition of mass entertainment and myth-telling that has carried over the centuries. The stories enacted are of evil spirits, demons, and their slaying by the Gods. Families from neighboring villages, in their brightest finery, huddle together; community kitchens work overtime to serve snacks and butter tea, and at end of the day the attendees leave with a sense of blessings and elation. The dances are a head-spinning kaleidoscope of swishing brocade and silk, as masked performers pounce and twirl on the flagstones, to the sound of gongs and long Himalayan horns.

Dhomkhar Festival — spirituality + Entertainment for the village
The cool bunch that soon turned willing subjects for portraits

URA Valley Festival (Yakchoe)

Woke up to a magnificent morning–clouds hung over the hillside, strip of mist had snaked through the valley, dung fire smoke from a hut at some distance rose in a straight line to merge with the fog, and stray drops of rain tinkled on the tin rooftops. And there is an irregular tennis-ball thud… of wood being chopped outside my window… like a living heartbeat…though I can’t see anyone.

The old man removes his hat and nods, startling me as we roll past
  • He welcomes all and introduced himself with a brief background, spoke impeccable English, and had spent 15 years at Cambridge, UK and 5 in a US university.
  • He was candid about Bhutani conception of history: written tradition only started from the 18th century, before that it was only oral/ word of mouth from generation to generation.
  • Cleared the rules of photography: mutual respect, leave the backdrop clean.
  • Donations of Indian rupees 500/ per guest essential–it helps keep these traditions alive.
  • The black-masked Joker is the most prominent character in the dance. He is the narrator, the raconteur. Follow him and you’ll have no trouble in understanding the story.
  • All stories here and elsewhere are about exorcising the negativity: these dances exhort the viewer to deal with the negativism that lies within.
  • He recommended partaking in their hospitality and trying local butter tea served at the festival. If it doesn’t taste like tea, then sip it as exotic soup, and all will be fine. The narrative can influence our minds and emotions.
  • Tashi Delek!! (That’s a Tibetan expression for greetings, good luck, and best wishes)

Heading back to Punakha

We spent the day on the highway, with a brief stopover at ‘Pele La Pass’ to stretch our limbs. Lunch was on pretty lookout balconies and of momos, red rice, Ezay, and Emma Dastey. More striking were the large phalluses painted on front facades of most houses…. we were curious about such sexual imagery in public space.

Tiger’s nest (or Taktsang monastery)

“It clings to the sides of mountain like a gecko” sums up this monastery complex well. It’s the iconic image that shows on every travel book and fridge magnet. It’s the “tiger lair” that hangs far up at 10k feet, on a steep vertical cliff, overlooking the Paro valley. Buddhist master Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, is said to have meditated here.

Hot stone bath for NU 1500

The conventional way to rejuvenate tired muscles after the trek is the Hot Stone bath with medicinal properties. Ever ready for such experiences, we headed out of town, into someone’s estate where apple orchard was blossoming. It was a dimly lit place with 4/5 wooden bath cabins, away from the main farmhouse.

Epilogue (April 2020)

After the trip, when I look back, it looks surprising how well Bhutan is transitioning to modernity, after centuries of solitude. The place has a gentleness about it–the people we saw were dignified and always gracious. Nobody ever hustled for money and the little kids who greeted me along the street sang out, “Good afternoon, sir,” and followed it up with a graceful bow.

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Ajay Goel

Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.