Punakha Dzong and the Capital, Thimphu
This morning we rode through the brisk air to the nearby town of Punakha, which was the capital of Bhutan until 1955. We stopped to view the Punakha Dzong across the river—wow!
The Punakha Dzong was once known as “the palace of great happiness”. It was built in 1637 at the confluence of two rivers, Mo Chhu (Mother river) and Pho Chhu (Father river), to make the dzong easier to defend against invading armies. The builder, Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel, was the first leader of Bhutan, and he now lies embalmed inside a private chamber in the dzong. All of the kings of Bhutan have been coronated in this dzong, and it also serves at the winter residence for the religious and spiritual leader of Bhutan (the supreme abbot), who is accompanied by more than 500 monks. The dzong has been partially destroyed and rebuilt several times, due to fires, earthquakes, and catastrophic floods from glacial melts.
I was mesmerized by the breathtaking beauty of the scene. I think we all were.
Dorji waited for us in front of the covered wooden bridge, while we parked our bikes.
A note about Dorji’s clothing: The law requires men and women to wear traditional dress in public, especially for work and formal occasions. Men wear a gho, and women wear a kira. This morning after breakfast, Dorji gave an impromptu demonstration of how his gho is wrapped. The gho looks very similar to a bathrobe initially, and it hangs to the floor when first put on. The robe is then pulled up and overlapped above the waist, lining up the edges perfectly; finally, the gho is wrapped tightly around the body and tied with a belt so that the bottom edge of the robe falls around the knees. The upper front portion of the robe serves as a big pouch that can carry many different items (books, extra clothing, food, etc.). In the past, strict rules existed regarding the types of garments that certain people could wear—one could tell the social and economic status of a man by looking at the fabric, design and length of his gho, as well as the type of shawl and accessories he wore. Although the rules are more lenient today, some still exist.
We entered the bridge that crossed the Mo Chhu river. The original bridge had washed away in a flash flood in the 1950’s. A steel suspension bridge had been built as a temporary measure, and this new cantilever bridge was finally completed earlier this year with financial assistance from Germany and innovative designs from a Swiss engineering firm. The new bridge is 55 meters long (180 feet), and represents the longest unsupported span with the traditional cantilever architecture in the world.
Crossing the bridge were people with heavy loads on their backs:
The Mo Chhu river:
Inside the dzong walls, we saw some monks going about their daily business:
The wooden stairs leading to the interior of the dzong were steep, and were designed so that they could be pulled up in times of an invasion.
The entrance was still guarded:
A huge golden prayer wheel greeted us at the top of the stairs:
As with many temples in Bhutan, the Punakha dzong contained many symbolic paintings.
Here is a favorite of mine, called the “Four Harmonious Friends”, which provides a lesson for people to live in harmony with nature, to co-operate with each other even with cultural differences, and to work together.
The story behind the painting of the four friends is as follows:
Once in a forest in India, four animals were arguing about the ownership of a tree where all of them had fed.
The elephant claimed, “Well, this is my tree because I saw it first.”
To this the monkey replied: “Now, elephant do you see any fruits on this tree?”
The elephant agreed that the tree was without any fruit.
The monkey continued: “That’s because I had been feeding on the fruits of the tree long before you ever saw it.”
Next the rabbit spoke up: “I fed on the leaves of this tree when it was just a small sapling before the monkey ate its fruit and way before the elephant ever saw it.”
Finally the partridge, who had been watching the argument, came forward and asserted: “The tree belongs to me because the tree wouldn’t have grown if I hadn’t spit it out as a seed. I helped plant the seed that grew into this huge tree before the rabbit fed on it, or the monkey ate its fruit, or the elephant saw it.”
The elephant, monkey, and rabbit, conceded that the partridge was the first to know the tree. So all of them bowed to the partridge and regarded him as their elder brother.
The four animals became friends and decided to share the tree together in peaceful harmony, enjoying the beauty of the tree’s fragrance, the nourishment of its fruits, and the bounty of its shade.
They worked together to obtain fruits: The fruits on the ground and on the lowest branches were found by the joint effort of the partridge and rabbit. The monkey climbed the tree and dropped the fruits for everyone to share, but only the elephant could reach the highest branches with his trunk. The four animals worked co-operatively and with their combined strength, each one benefited and no one went hungry.
Other animals in the forest often saw them together with the partridge on top of the rabbit, who was held up by the monkey, who rode on top of the elephant. They were called “The Four Harmonious Brothers,” and were looked upon as an example of peace, harmony, co-operation, interdependence and friendship.
The first inner courtyard of the dzong held the administrative offices, including the Royal Court of Justice.
Dorji explained that on special occasions, a huge banner would be unfurled from the top of this wall and would extend to the ground:
Another courtyard held this giant pot:
The traditional Bhutanese woodwork was incredibly detailed and beautiful:
As usual, the doors intrigued me:
I could only imagine the hours that it took to carve all of the creatures around us:
Dorji was a superb storyteller and educator:
I had read a lot about Bhutan before arriving, but actually standing on the spot where “history happened” made Dorji’s stories come alive:
I was tempted to ring this pretty bell:
But I was not tempted to lift this rock (which had instructions just in case the urge came upon me):
Here was the entrance to the temple:
On each side of the temple doors was a symbolic painting:
We went inside the temple, which contained many wonderful paintings and statues, including three large statues of the past, present, and future Buddhas.
Before leaving, we visited the restrooms, which were located on the side of the dzong:
I am not picky about bathrooms and find the different “styles” around the world to be fascinating. The bathroom configuration here was very interesting, and new to me. It consisted of a row of stalls with a trough cut into the cement floor so that the trough ran through each stall; the trough had a slant to it, with a hole at the lower end against the far wall, for all of the waste to ultimately flow into. There were no seats or footprints; you just “hovered” over the trough. There was also no paper (it wouldn’t have flowed down the trough anyway) and no bucket of water with a scoop. There was a wall between the men’s and women’s sections, but the top of the wall was open, and the sound in each section was easily heard in the other. (I was thinking that this bathroom was not designed by a woman . . . .)
Some men were working under the cantilever bridge:
Back in the parking lot, I noticed this fire station across the street.
This morning we had another treat—a visit to the local market:
There were mounds of colorful chili peppers everywhere, as well as many other types of fresh produce:
This man was selling a special type of horn; he gave a demonstration to Ben on the proper blowing technique.
Ben was a quick learner and astounded the seller by loudly producing the sound on his first attempt.
We saw a lot of dried fish:
Everything was weighed with hand-held scales:
This woman, with her vibrant eyes and big smile, was so incredibly beautiful:
Dorji explained that her nose ring is a custom of one of the hill tribes in Bhutan, and that some of the younger women are refusing to carry on the tradition.
My senses were full of the market sights, smells and sounds. After a short but wonderful visit, we continued on our way. Our destination today was the capital of Bhutan—Thimphu.
After winding our way through some twisty roads, we stopped for a break in front of the Pema Hotel and Bar.
The large penis painted on the left side of the front door is a common Bhutanese symbol that is believed to promote fertility and provide protection against evil spirits. Some also believe that by painting it outside of a home, the symbol promotes peace and keeps the people inside from having arguments. Many Bhutanese people trace its symbolic origin back to one of Bhutan's most revered saints, Lama Drukpa Kuenlay (1455-1529), who was known as the “Divine Madman” for his outrageous pranks, womanizing and drinking; he used his penis to subdue or tame evil spirits, and also to challenge established social inhibitions. However, some Bhutanese scholars have found that the phallic symbol was used in religious rituals well before Durkpa Kuenlay arrived.
Over to the right of the hotel, was the small town of Lumisawa:
I noticed a woman walking up the hill toward us. She stopped in front of me, watching for a while. We started talking, and she asked me where I was from. She spoke excellent English. She said that her husband works as a transportation truck driver, and she lives in the home of her husband’s family.
After talking for a while, she asked if I wanted to come and visit her house, which was about 50 yards down a short hill. Ann joined us as we headed off—she and I shared a lot of mini-adventures together on this trip.
This was the woman’s home, where she lived with numerous members of her husband’s family. Her young sister-in-law is in the doorway.
The house was built with the front door facing up the hill, and we had to walk across a plank-board bridge to reach the front porch. She invited us inside, and showed me her living quarters—the small room in the front right (you can see the window on the right side of the photo), to the right of the dark entryway. Her room was very small and sparse, with a low bed in the corner. The walls were made of unpainted wooden planks, decorated with magazine and newspaper articles. The windows had no glass panes to block out the outside air.
Ann and I looked around and told her that she had a nice home. She went over to one wall and pulled off a postcard of the new king; she then insisted that I take the postcard as a gift. She explained that in Bhutan, all of the people are one big family, and that the king is like her big brother, and that everybody loves the king. She then searched and found a second postcard of the king, which she insisted that Ann take as a gift. I felt very honored that she had shared with us what were obviously very prized possessions. Ann had some small crystals in her pocket, and she found a beautiful clear crystal that she gave as a gift from both of us.
Then the woman reached down into her food cupboard and presented us with two small tomatoes, saying that now she must give us a gift in return for the crystal. Ann and I both said, “Oh, no, no, you have already given us the postcards of the king; that is our gift.”
Here is the “kitchen area” of the woman’s room:
This woman’s open heart, and her eagerness to share with us her home as well as items that she truly treasured, provided a lesson on the true meaning of "generosity."
We continued our ride through the mountains. The northern Himalayas were much closer now, and we could see their snow-covered peaks. On the other side of those peaks was Tibet.
We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that was being expanded on top to provide more viewing space for the fabulous scenery:
I decided to pass on the buffet lunch; instead, I sat outside on my bike and looked at the snowy peaks and all the beauty all around me. I could see the road that we had just traveled, . . . :
. . . the valley in the distance, . . .
. . . a temple on a nearby hill, . . .
. . . and some houses below.
After lunch, we continued our upward climb.
We reached the mountain pass of Dochu La (10,300 feet high). I had read about this pass and the 108 chortens that had been built here by one of the former queens of Bhutan. I had expected a more “peaceful” setting for the chortens and was a bit taken aback to find them surrounded by a very large parking lot. The parking lot had been constructed in the last 5 years or so to accommodate the busloads of tourists who visit this site from Thimphu. I have to admit that the vast stretch of asphalt diminished the magical appeal of the chortens.
There was a small building being constructed, and I watched the painter decorate the wood with the traditional Bhutanese designs.
Some construction workers were busy near the small building. A small Indian man was watching me; next to him were several children and a Bhutanese woman. The man nodded at me and smiled, so I introduced myself. As we were chatting, I asked him if the woman and children were his family. He looked at me and said very carefully and slowly, “Ma’am, I am Indian, and she is Bhutanese. We do not marry.” Oh.
I was learning, through bits and pieces, about the hierarchy in Bhutan based upon class, ethnicity, and religion. I would continue learning more throughout the trip.
Here are those sweet children:
Before leaving, we took a group photo. From left to right, top row: Dorji, Glynn, Ann, Dave, Rob, Larry, and Dale. Bottom row: Marian, Gyan, Sono, Fred, Kathy, and Ben.
(Paul is missing from the photo; he wasn’t feeling well today and rode to Thimphu ahead of us in one of the chase vehicles.)
We began the long descent into Thimphu. As we got close to the capital, we came across a woman and her children working hard to clean the pine needles and debris from the gutters along the road.
The girl in the pink shirt pulled at my heart—the intensity and intelligence in her stare, combined with her age, reminded me very much of my own inquisitive and dynamic daughter back at home.
Here is our first view of the outer edges of Thimphu:
With a population of approximately 100,000, Thimphu is the largest city in Bhutan and has experienced enormous growth over the past 10 years.
Our hotel was in the downtown area:
Across the street:
The energy of the city was definitely more fast-paced and less intimate than that of the small towns and mostly unpopulated mountain areas that we have traveled through during the last week.
We piled into the chase vehicles to do some sightseeing. Our first stop was the National Memorial Chorten, which was built in 1974 by the Royal Queen Mother to honor the deceased third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. The architecture reflects three different sects of Buddhism. It is an integral part of the daily spiritual practice for many people of all ages, who come throughout the day to walk around the chorten and spin the large prayer wheels.
Dorji, in front of the entrance:
We joined the steady stream of visitors who were circumambulating the chorten (always clockwise, and always an odd number of times around!)
This golden woman, with her Barbie-doll waist, was in front of the chorten:
The memorial was also a place for the locals to socialize and hang out:
We then drove up into the hills behind Thimphu to a lookout point called Sangaygang (also known as “Lover’s Point” for its popularity with young couples).
We had an extensive view of the city:
There is a lot of new construction among the edges of Thimphu, and we could see a gated community with large deluxe homes being built right next to what looked like the shantytown area. Dorji explained that the new homes are for the government officials.
Another view of the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty:
We drove back down the hill and took a short hike in the Takin Preserve.
The Takin is an animal found in the Eastern Himalayas; it is the national animal of Bhutan.
The Takin is a unique species—not a goat or antelope or any other existing animal—and taxonomists have put it in a category all by itself (budorcas taxicolor).
The Bhutanese have a story to explain how the Takin was created by one of their favorite saints, Drukpa Kuenlay (the Divine Madman). The story is found on a plaque at the Takin Preserve:“One day [Drukpa Kuenlay’s] devotees were gathered to witness his magical powers and they asked him to perform a miracle. Before complying, he demanded that he be given a whole cow and goat to eat. Having devoured both, leaving only the bones, he stuck the goat’s head on the bones of the cow. To everyone’s amazement, upon a command uttered by Drukpa Kuenlay, the animal came to life, arose, ran to the meadow and began to graze. The animal came to be known as the dong gyem tsey (Takin) and can still be seen grazing in mountain meadows of the kingdom.”
Dorji explained to us that Thimphu used to have a zoo at this site. However, the previous king decided that keeping animals in captivity was inconsistent with Buddhist convictions and environmental philosophies, so all of the animals were released. The Takin, however, are very slow-moving animals. Instead of running into the natural landscape surrounding Thimphu, they wandered around the city streets looking for food and blocking traffic. In order to protect the animals, the king created the Takin preserve.
Our last sightseeing stop was above the Tashichho Dzong, which is the seat of government for Bhutan; it contains the throne room and offices of the king, as well as the offices of the secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance. The Dzong is also the summer headquarters for the religious and spiritual leader of Bhutan (the chief abbot) and his accompanying monks.
This evening we enjoyed dinner at a Bhutanese pizza parlor—a refreshing change from our usual buffet. I decided to splurge by ordering a “chocolate milkshake”. I am always curious to see how a particular food/drink is prepared in different places around the world. Here, I was served a room-temperature brown thin liquid (I think that it was powdered milk mixed with a form of chocolate flavoring) with a scoop of chocolate ice cream floating in it. Hmmm—very interesting! The ice cream was good. And the pizza was surprisingly delicious.
<< Day 8: High Road to Wangdi Phodrang | Day 10: Living Like Royalty in Paro Valley >>
Back to Bhutan Index Page
Back to Home Page