Note — Part I of the blog is available here.
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.
Punakha Dzong is the most delightful in the country, in spring when jacaranda trees bring a lush sensuality to its towering whitewashed walls. The elaborate gold, maroon and black carved woods lend a sense of lightness; to what is an enormous structure. Built in 1637, it has served as the seat of the past government, every king has been crowned here, and it has survived a few fires, flash floods, and an earthquake. And yet it stands proud to tell the tales.
We hang around till nightfall, watching the mountains turn blue and solemn, while the dzong wraps itself in a warm florescent robe. Lights shine like candles in those rows of bay windows, and outside it gets chilly and silent.
Our hotel (Pema Karpo) is comfortable and served excellent Ema Dashti with red rice, after a few K5s. Across the street is an Archery Range–the local marksmen keep hitting a narrow wooden stake from 100 meters, despite the wind. Archery is to Bhutanese what cricket is to Indians.
Punakha to Bumthang
Early morning, we had fun taking pictures of the young porter girls. P4 (Prasanna’s Pocket Polaroid Printer) was a big hit. These girls hardly spoke English, but all had Instagram accounts; they even traced Richa down on the net in later weeks! A curious fact — in all the hotels, girls carried the baggage from the parking lot to the rooms. Hotels were one or two-story-high, and none had a lift.
We spent the rest of the day on the road. Punakha to Bumthang is 200 kilometers but takes 10 hours. Someone offered that the highway here, on average, had 17 turns per kilometer. Dorji puts on some local music, but soon personal headphones come out and the conversational patter dozes off. I recline and look outside….
The drive is through the central valleys–rich in farmland and cattle. Millet, Buckwheat, and Barley are the main staples here. The road undulates and we gain altitude. Vegetation changes and the air gets cooler. The place has an alpine feel and called the Switzerland of Bhutan. Rhododendrons' reds peek from bamboo groves, and the clouds hang below us in the valley. We stop at ‘Pele La Pass’, at 11,000 feet, marked by a chorten and a wacky assortment of prayer flags fluttering across a hillside. We are now entering from the west to the east of the country. The group bumps into David Lazar, another international photographer, and we create few frames. For a while, the majestic Trongsa Dzong plays hide and seek, sitting on a craggy spur at a distance. After some more passes and a lot more turns, we eventually reach our resort- Peling Bumthang, Jakar, in time for dinner.
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.
I corralled a bunch of merry kids for photography by bribing them with chocolates. They always accepted with both hands and bowed it with polite “Thank you, sir”–dignity and good manners at such a young age. English is taught at the schools (alongside the national language Dzongkha); most kids also manage Hindi, picked up through Indian TV serials and movies! Everyone’s choice was Tiger Shroff; ‘Khans’ the smart kids advised, were ‘over the hill’ now.
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.
Prittle prattle rain | Clouds factory | Steam from my teacup? — (Haiku at 7:10 AM)
In retrospect, that morning defined the soul of the place for me. It was a peaceful windless valley, so innocent that it did not know the meaning of the word.
We arrive early at the dzong and roam the village. It is compact and clean, with 80–100 stone houses. Massive piles of firewood lie stacked along the path and in the rafters. People are getting ready for the noon festivities. A dilapidated chorten stands in the midst of a street; an old man removes his hat and nods, startling me as we roll past. It’s one of those places where you could get invited into a home for a few hours, served tea and whatever they had available, and then gifted with a hand-woven scarf by the grandma, when you leave (real story–happened with Richa!). Monetizing a moment, or setting up a transaction, hasn’t reached here. Yet.
The festival is a celebration to appease and make offerings to the Yak God. This is a rural population, and it celebrates festivals when the harvest is sold; the peasant has got cash to spend, and it’s time to offer gratitude to the Gods. The myth surrounding the celebration is Padmasambhava appearing here as a traveler and leaving behind an icon. By late morning that statue is carried across the village, with considerable fanfare, beating of drums, led by a prankster scaring the kids, and annoying the dogs. Villagers burn fresh juniper leafage, creating a pleasant citric aroma and considerable smoke.
At noon we assemble at the dzong with a bit of Déjà vu — Much like Ladakh in 2011, we had arrived one day too early! Monks only made a practice run, devoid of masks and colorful finery on that day. But these dances were more disciplined and energetic, with controlled movements and synchronized jumps. More gravitas than yesterday’s levitas.
Before the start of dances, the Deputy Senior Monk assembled all the visitors inside the monastery and set out the ground rules. And it was a master class in instruction -
- 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)
We sit outside in a large rectangular courtyard, taking pictures of the dancers and the audience. Candles and butter lamps flutter in the antechamber. Villagers, young monks in maroon robes, old women in turquoise beads and plaits come and go, circling around the dzong, counting their rosaries as they walked, rolling the Mani wheels recessed in sidewalls, earning their good karma… Life is good.
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.
For a culture steeped in tradition, we learn this society holds a very open stance towards sex. Tales of young boys indulging in ‘night hunting’ are yet told. Live-in relationships are accepted, and polygamy exists where the man may marry more than one sister. The reigning king’s father had married four sisters simultaneously. Among them, they had had ten children — eight of them born before the wedding ceremony in 1988.
Sexual imagery abounds, with large phallus painted on front walls of the homes to keep away the evil eye. A 16th-century lama Drukpa Kunley, or the Divine Madman, remains a beloved saint in much of Bhutan. Stories abound of how carousing across the countryside, Kunley slew demons and granted enlightenment to young maidens with the magical powers of his “flaming thunderbolt!”
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.
Padmasambava — “he who came into being in a lotus,” was a Brahmin royal who spread Tantric Buddhism through Bhutan and Tibet in the 8th century, and is as divine as the Buddha himself. Legend has it that Padmasambava landed at Paro Taktsang to meditate, arriving on a flying tigress which had until then been his Tibetan concubine.
He then meditated in a grotto here for 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days, subdued the local ‘demons’, and converted the Bhutanese to Buddhism. The monastery was built in 1692, burned down in 1951, and then in 1998, perhaps caused by a butter lamp. Rebuilt and reopened in 2005. It beats imagination how those large beams and girders were carried all the way up.
For those of us without a flying tigress concubine, the climb did not look easy. We had started early from Punakha and arrived at the base car park by 11.45. The valley is covered in forests of rhododendron, azalea, and juniper. It starts at 7K feet and goes to 10K feet, through a series of steep trails, sharp switchbacks, and then about 700 odd stairs at the finish. One shares the route with ponies, monks, moms with babies strapped to their back, and even older age Indian tourist groups. Of our own group, only I and Subodh made it to the end. Rest fell by the wayside and received lesser good karma.
Travel Tip — one can eat this elephant in smaller bites. There are three landmarks to rest at–first is ‘Midway Cafeteria’ about 30% of the climb up is a welcome stop for snacks and beer. Second is the Viewing Points 60% of the way and offers best picture ops. The third is the monastery itself.
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.
Bhutan has a firm belief in medicinal herbs that borrows from Indian Ayurveda–this steaming bath is a remedy and an invocation to tired limbs and souls. The cleansing itself is an hour-long soak in Oakwood tubs, filled with river water, and sprayed with twigs of Artemisia herbs. The water is heated by dropping hot stones (roasted for 7–9 hours), creating a sharp sizzle and a blast wave of warmth. Sprigs of herbs stick to the body, and a kind of gentle languor takes over, turning me into a soft jelly state. Of course, then you sleep like a log and wake up light as a petal.
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.
It is poor in relative terms, but there are no beggars on the streets. Institution of orphanage does not exist, as people take care of each other. Those in extreme circumstances can directly petition the royalty for help. Everyone has roofs over their heads and something to eat.
Government strategy to restrict the visitors through a $250 per Diem spend policy has surely saved Bhutan from being ‘Nepalmed’. Neighboring Nepal offered a slice of Shangri la at two dollars a day in the 1970s through mass tourism and now relies on mountain trekking passes. It has seen its culture erode, temples defaced, and its per capita income actually decline.
But the size of the challenge for this lovely nation is mounting. Almost two-thirds of the population is less than 35 years of age. They are better educated than the previous generations and have watched TV for over two decades. Their arch of desires and aspirations is far bigger than their parents and unlikely to be fulfilled by the rustic ways of the past.
How the country juggles its culture, myth, and tradition with the imperatives of modernity, progress, and development remains an open question.
Note — We flew into Kathmandu from Paro — the related entry is here