Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Bhutan: Punakha

Our trip from the Phobjika valley to Punakha began with a winding descent to lose over 5,000 feet of altitude. Our first leg-stretch was at the small roadside stop of Nobding, best known for some exuberant wall paintings.
The tourist is supposed to place himself or herself such that the camera sees him or her grasping the item on the left. I did not, but found a nice snapshot of a turquoise-background scene.
We had lunch in Khuruthang, a new town just a handful of miles downstream from the Punakha dzong. After lunch we walked about. Joan and I spent most of the allotted time inspecting a stupa and temple complex, between the main road and the river, that was built through donations of the local community and not royal or monastic support. Here the large stupa is in the Nepali style, with a Bhutanese chorten in the right background. Joan and I circumambulated the stupa (clockwise of course) and spun all the prayer wheels.
Here is the adjacent temple.
And a closeup of one of the front pillars.
Then we drove to the Punakha dzong. Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the first unifier of Bhutan and designer of the dual system of civil and religious administration, had Punakha Dzong built in 1637. Upon his death, his advisors maintained the fiction that he was alive but in retreat. This was the official story for 54 years, by which time surely nobody believed them. (The Shabdrung's preserved body is kept in Punakha Dzong to this day, attended by two high lamas who are the only persons allowed to see it.) The district governors grew stronger and more independent until the country was reunified under the current monarchy (originating from the governors of Trongsa) in 1907. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan until 1955, when it moved to Thimpu. It is still the winter residence of the main monk body and the religious head, the Je Khenpo.

Punakha is a big deal, in other words. The dzong, whose full name is Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong, has been central to the country for hundreds of years. Here is the view as you come around the river to the confluence where it sits.
A closer view shows the dzong and the cantilever bridge giving access to it.
Here's a closeup of the bridge.
The dzong and town have suffered from glacial lake outburst floods -- where pent-up glacial lakes burst free and rush downstream along either the Ma Chu or the Pho Chu -- in 1957, 1960, and 1994. When Joan and I were here in 2005, access was by a temporary suspension bridge, so the cantilever is quite new.
Here's a final closeup of the outside.
Here is the entrance to the main temple within the dzong. I love the artwork panels, including the Wheel of Life. Inside, the hall was a single open area, two stories high, large enough for the main monk body to hold ceremonies. Three walls were covered in illustrations of the life of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. The fourth wall was a multi-story shrine whose centerpiece was the Buddha flanked by his two chief disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana (spellings may vary.)
Are you dzonged out yet? Stupa-fied?

Our group left the dzong for a short walk to a very long suspension bridge. On the way we encountered a woman of one of the nomadic tribes, down from the north to trade for supplies. She wanted to sell us some of her jewelry handicraft, but Jen wanted her hat. The one she was wearing. The price was too high with all the beads, but they struck a bargain for the hat with fewer strands of beads. Here the woman is removing the unbought strands.
Jen has taken possession of the hat. Quite jaunty, I think.
Continuing on, we soon reached the suspension bridge.
A view from the start. I especially noticed the anchoring cables that keep the bridge from swaying too much over such a span.
Two older gentlemen came across as our group reassembled before embarking. They were pleased to have their picture taken, and both proud at their longevity and amused at their condition.
At the far end, construction was continuing on a new building.
Part of the construction technique is rammed-earth walls. The damp earth is poured between forms and then pounded. Here, two ladies pound, singing. It is traditional for them to invent lyrics about the passers-by.

We took leave of the construction team and recrossed the suspension bridge, to rejoin Tshering and the bus. Our overnight would be at a hotel just beyond and above Khuruthang.
Now, dear reader, we will dash on to the next morning. On our way out of the Punakha valley we pass by the temple dedicated to the Divine Madman, Drukpa Kunley. According to tradition, he defeated an ogress that was harassing people near Dochu La, and the ogress transformed herself into the form of a dog and fled to this spot, where she disappeared down a hole in the earth. Drukpa Kunley built a chorten on the spot to make sure that she never escaped, and later a full temple was built on the hill. Here is a view from near the main road. To get there, we have a short walk on paths through rice fields and clusters of houses.
One change from 2005 is a new cafe, open but not quite finished, near the start of the path.
Here we are closer and have a good view of the hill entombing the ogress.
Here is an old chorten in front of the temple.
The light was better on the other side of the temple, though.
A ceremony or instruction was going on within the temple, with a lama/teacher and young monks. We were allowed in to view the art on the walls of the temple, particularly the bits relating to the many stories of the life of the Divine Madman, to make any offerings at the shrine, and to receive a blessing from one of the youngsters. As at other shrines, the monk would pour a splash of water from an elegant silver pitcher into your cupped hands. You would pretend to put it to your lips and then rub it in your hair.

After leaving the temple and walking back to the bus, it was time to drive on over Dochu La and have our time in Thimphu.

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