High-flying mountains, vibrant dzongs, peaceful monasteries and perfect surroundings; Bhutan brings a smile to my face. Best known to the world for propagating “Gross National Happiness,” the world has much to learn from them.
This dzong was the second dzong to be built in Bhutan and it served as the capital and seat of government until Thimphu was promoted to the top job in the mid-1950s. It’s arguably the most beautiful dzong in the country, especially in spring when the lilac-coloured jacaranda trees bring a lush sensuality to the dzong’s characteristically towering whitewashed walls. Elaborately painted gold, red and black carved woods add to the artistic lightness of touch.
Guru Rinpoche foretold the construction of Punakha Dzong, predicting that ‘…a person named Namgyal will arrive at a hill that looks like an elephant’. When the Zhabdrung visited Punakha he chose the tip of the trunk of the sleeping elephant at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu as the place to build a dzong.
Punakha Dzong is 180m long and 72m wide and the utse is six storeys high. The gold dome on the utse was built in 1676 by local ruler, Gyaltsen Tenzin Rabgye. Many of the dzong’s features were added between 1744 and 1763 during the reign of the 13th desi, Sherab Wangchuk. One item he donated was the chenmo (great) thondrol , a large thangka depicting the Zhabdrung that is exhibited to the public once a year during the tsechu festival. A brass roof for the dzong was a gift of the seventh Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso.
Frequent fires (the latest in 1986) have damaged the dzong, as did the severe 1897 earthquake. In 1994 a glacial lake burst on the Pho Chhu, causing damage to the dzong that has since been repaired.
This splendid dzong, north of the city on the west bank of the Wang Chhu, seems to fit seamlessly into the valley, lending the city both regal splendour and monastic weight. The dzong was the site of the lavish formal coronation of the fifth king in 2008 and hosts the city’s biggest annual bash, the colourful tsechu festivities.
The building you see is actually not the original Thimphu dzong. In 1216 Lama Gyalwa Lhanangpa built Dho-Ngen Dzong (Blue Stone Dzong) on the hill above Thimphu where Dechen Phodrang now stands. He arranged to house both monks and civil officials in the dzong, but it was too small so he built another dzong lower down in the valley for the civil officials. The 13th Druk Desi, Chhogyel Sherab Wangchuck (1744–63), later enlarged Trashi Chhoe Dzong so that it could again accommodate both civil officials and monks.
When he moved the capital to Thimphu in 1962, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck began a five-year project to renovate and enlarge the dzong. The royal architect performed the repairs without touching the utse, Lhakhang Sarpa or any other of its chapels at the centre. Other than these structures, the entire dzong was rebuilt in traditional fashion, without nails or architectural plans. The dzong once housed the National Assembly and now houses the secretariat, the throne room and offices of the king and the ministries of home affairs and finance.
This commanding dzong, high above the roaring Mangde Chhu, is perhaps the most spectacularly sited dzong in Bhutan, with a sheer drop to the south that often just disappears into cloud and mist.
Trongsa Dzong has a rich history dating back to the 16th century. The first construction on the site was carried out by Lam Ngagi Wangchuck, son of Ngawang Chhojey, who established Pangri Zampa near Thimphu. He came to Trongsa in 1541 and built a tshamkhang (small meditation room) after discovering self-manifested hoof-prints belonging to the horse of the protector deity Pelden Lhamo. Trongsa (‘New Village’ in the local dialect) gets its name from the retreats, temples and hermit residences that soon grew up around the chapel.
At the top of the hill above Paro Dzong is an old watchtower that was renovated in 1968 to house the National Museum. The unusual round building is said to be in the shape of a conch shell, with 2.5m-thick walls; it was completed in 1656 and was originally the ta dzong (watchtower) of Paro Dzong, which lies undefended below. An underground tunnel is said to lead from the watchtower to the water supply below.
The route through the museum ensures that you walk clockwise around the central images. Cameras are not allowed inside the museum itself but you can photograph the grounds. The museum is an attraction for locals as well as tourists and you may be accompanied by groups of school children on an outing.
Established in 1978, this interesting government facility researches, prepares and dispenses traditional herbal and other medicines. The small museum details ingredients that range from herbs and minerals to animal parts, precious metals and gems. The institute collects medicinal plants from remote corners of the Bhutanese Himalaya such as Lingzhi, Laya and Lunana and then distributes pills, tablets, ointments and medicinal teas to regional health-care units around the country.
Of particular interest is yartsa goenbub (cordyceps), the high-altitude cure-all ‘Himalayan Viagra’ that is actually a worm that has been killed and mummified by fungal spores. The curious worm-root sells for between US$600 and US$5000 per kilogram in China.
The weekend market is crammed into a set of stalls on both banks of the Wang Chhu, just north of Changlimithang Stadium. Vendors from throughout the region arrive on Thursday and Friday, setting up evening stalls in Norzin Lam, and remain until Sunday night. The most interesting selection is upstairs.
Wander around and you’ll find a pungent collection of dried fish, strips of fatty pork and balls of datse (home-made soft cheese). During the winter you can even pick up a leg of yak (with the hoof still attached). The incense area is one of the most interesting sections, full of deliciously pungent raw ingredients, as well as pink cubes of saffron that look like dice but are used to flavour the holy water given to pilgrims in all lhakhangs. The special bags of mixed grains and grasses are for throwing in the air during religious rituals.
One of the most popular sections sells doma (areca nut wrapped in betel leaf to chew; Indian name paan ) kits (Nu 5 for four pieces) complete with paney (banana leaf) and tsune (lime). The bricks of tea provide the main ingredient for suja (butter tea), whereas the locally made yeast patties are used to brew chang (barley beer).
This commanding dzong was founded by the Zhabdrung in 1638. It sits atop a high ridge between the Punak Tsang Chhu and the Dang Chhu, clearly chosen for its commanding view of the valleys below. Legend relates another reason for choosing this spot: as people searched for a site for the dzong, four ravens were seen flying away in four directions. This was considered an auspicious sign, representing the spreading of religion to the four points of the compass.
Wangdi is important in the history of Bhutan because in the early days it was the country’s second capital. After Trongsa Dzong was established in 1644, the penlop of Wangdue Phodrang became the third most powerful ruler, after the penlops of Paro and Trongsa. The dzong’s strategic position gave the penlop control of the routes to Trongsa, Punakha, Dagana and Thimphu.
Chorten Kora is large, but not nearly as large as the stupa of Bodhnath, after which it was patterned. It was constructed in 1740 by Lama Ngawang Loday in memory of his late uncle, Jungshu Phesan, and to subdue local spirits. The lama went to Nepal himself and brought back a model of Bodhnath carved in a radish. He had it copied here so that people could visit this place instead of making the arduous trip to Nepal. The reason that Chorten Kora is not an exact copy of Bodhnath is because the radish shrank during the trip and distorted the carving.
During the second month of the lunar calendar there is a kora here, whereby people gain merit by walking around the chorten. It is celebrated on two separate dates, 15 days apart. The first day is for the people from the Dakpa community in Arunachal Pradesh, India, who make the three-day pilgrimage here to celebrate the sacrifice of an eight-year-old girl from Arunachal Pradesh who was enshrined in the chorten during its construction to appease a troublesome demon. The second kora is for the Bhutanese, who come from all over eastern Bhutan. A month before the festival the chorten is whitewashed anew, with funds earned from rice grown in the fields immediately surrounding the chorten.