Bhutan: Moments from Punakha
As much as I wish it were so, I haven’t secretly escaped from Covid-ravaged Indonesia to seek refuge in the foothills of the Himalayas. Bama and I remain cooped up at home, occasionally snatching glimpses of brilliant blue sky through the windows, imagining the places we’d have gone and long-distance trips that have been deferred indefinitely. But there’s also a realization that we are the lucky ones: despite all that has happened in the past 18 months, both of us still have a regular income, food on the table, a roof over our heads. So many people in this country have seen their livelihoods evaporate and are struggling to make ends meet.
For now, as we ride out the tail end of a catastrophic second wave, much of our weekends are spent sifting through thousands of photos taken on various pre-pandemic journeys. It seems as good a time as any to post more stories from our weeklong sojourn in Bhutan. While the out-and-back hike to Tiger’s Nest is indeed a must-do, Bama and I agree that the highlight was exploring the fertile Punakha Valley, about a three-hour drive via winding mountain roads from Thimphu, the kingdom’s high-altitude capital.
The year is 2018, and a fine October day finds us traveling down a narrow Bhutanese highway inside a minivan, with trusty driver Phuntsho behind the wheel and our guide Kinga in the passenger seat. We’re in good hands. Phuntsho navigates every bend and switchback with a quiet confidence; not once do we feel queasy or perilously close to the edge. When the Punakha Valley eventually comes into view, Bama and I are struck by its timeless storybook appearance.
Spread out below steep hillsides cloaked in chir pine – and flanking a calm, powder-blue river named the Puna Tsang Chhu – lies a gleaming patchwork of rice paddies more beautiful than any I’ve seen outside Indonesia. Village houses built of stone or rammed earth, all with timber-framed trefoil windows, dot the landscape; tall prayer flags adorn the fields and hillsides, fluttering in the breeze. This is Bhutan’s “rice bowl”, a land of plenty where both the red and white varieties of the grain flourish, where farmers can grow all kinds of fruits and vegetables less suited to the colder conditions of Thimphu. The sweaters we wore earlier that morning at cloud-wreathed Dochula Pass, perched 3,100 meters (10,171 feet) above sea level, feel wholly unnecessary.
It’s practically midday by the time we reach Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang, a hilltop nunnery with a whitewashed Nepalese-style stupa. Bama and I wander the flagstone courtyard, admiring the handsomely carved eaves and bow-shaped capitals decorating the main prayer hall, as crimson-robed nuns sit conversing on the shaded porch of the same building. Following a hearty lunch of momo (steamed Himalayan dumplings) and empanada-like shabale in the nearby town of Khuruthang, Phuntsho and Kinga take us to Sobsokha. This tiny village is where we first encounter the larger-than-life penises that pop up on countless trip reports about Bhutan. Graphic depictions of tumescent male genitalia, some with fangs and comic eyes, grace the walls of farmhouses, restaurants, and souvenir shops – the latter selling carved wooden wieners painted in every color of the rainbow.
Bhutan owes its obsession with the phallus to Drukpa Kunley, a controversial Tibetan monk and poet who lived more than five centuries ago. Known as “the Divine Madman”, he arrived here after crossing the Himalayas to spread an unusual form of Vajrayana Buddhism. The bawdy missionary quickly became infamous as a promiscuous saint who loved both women and wine. Loathed by the clergy of the time for his shocking, unorthodox ways (such as having sex with followers and urinating on sacred thangka paintings), Kunley proved immensely popular with the ordinary layperson. It’s said that the yogi also battled fearsome demons with his “thunderbolt of flaming wisdom” – in other words, his mighty member. To this day, phalluses are revered in Bhutanese folk culture as a protective symbol for warding off evil spirits and repelling bad luck.
One of Drukpa Kunley’s most legendary exploits involved subjugating a shape-shifting demoness who terrorized travelers at Dochula Pass. The supernatural being could not fool the powerful monk by transforming herself into a dog, and she was soon trapped, killed with his penis, and buried in a great mound overlooking the Puna Tsang Chhu. Atop this hillock, which Kunley said resembled a woman’s breast, his cousin built a modest sanctuary dedicated to the sex-loving saint in 1499. Chimi Lhakhang got its name because the Divine Madman cried “Chi mi!” (“no dog!”) upon defeating Dochula’s demoness.
These days, the place enjoys continued popularity as a fertility temple that draws newly married and childless women from all across Bhutan and other countries like Japan and the United States. British royals Prince William and Kate Middleton are rumored to have paid Chimi Lhakhang a visit some time ago, while Bhutan’s current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and his queen Jetsun Pema are more likely candidates. If either of those pairs really did make the journey, they would have walked there from Sobsokha on a dirt path between the rice fields, passing through another tiny village before treading up the hill.
We’re more than halfway to Chimi Lhakhang when a passing pilgrim returning from the temple stops to hand Kinga a bottle wrapped in a woven carrier. Our guide tells us it is an offering of ara, the local moonshine, and the friendly man had forgotten to deposit it at the altar. In view of the main building and a small chorten (shrine) marking the exact spot where Drukpa Kunley vanquished the demoness, we sit beneath a large bodhi tree as Kinga tells us more about Buddhist beliefs. A departing devotee emerges from the temple doorway to spin rows of prayer wheels set into small, shoulder-height niches in the thick walls of Chimi Lhakhang. Inside the dimly-lit sanctuary, women who seek children are tapped on the head with a ten-inch wood-and-ivory phallus, believed to have been brought from Tibet by the mad saint himself.
Clouds fill the sky over Punakha the next morning as we cruise past the junction with the road leading down from Dochula Pass. We’ve come at just the right time. The fields at Sobsokha appear barren after the harvest, but those up the valley tease our eyes with thousands upon thousands of rice plants, blanketing the landscape in glorious shades of yellow and green: from lemon and lime to moss and chartreuse. Bama and I are so captivated by the scenery that we ask Phuntsho and Kinga several times if we can pull over to take pictures, a request they graciously accept. Then, after descending to a small parking lot on the riverbank, it’s time to cross the glacier-fed Mo Chhu (Mother River) on foot.
Kinga leads us over a chain bridge draped in prayer flags to begin an hour-long hike. Our destination is Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, a pagoda-like shrine on the crest of a forested hill up ahead. En route, we stop to admire chilies on the branch, ripening rice stalks laden with fat grains encased in their golden husks, a bubbling brook with crystal-clear water, then pine trees soaring above the steeper sections of the trail. Every step yields an even better view than the one before it. Ultimately, our efforts are rewarded with an arresting panorama of the surrounding countryside – bisected by the meanders of the Mo Chhu – from the chorten’s rooftop terrace. It’s not just these vistas that catch the eye; the carvings and elaborate interiors of the four-story shrine are a testament to the skill of Bhutanese craftsmen (the chorten only took shape in 2004). But of all the religious buildings in this secluded valley, none are more magnificent than the nearly 400-year-old landmark downstream.
Punakha’s historical significance as the old capital of Bhutan is encapsulated in its namesake dzong, an imposing fortress-monastery that functioned as the center of both religious and secular power. First built in 1637 on the site of a major victory over an invading army from Tibet just a few years before, this was the brainchild of Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan Buddhist lama who resettled in Bhutan and united the warring local fiefdoms into a single country. Punakha Dzong served as the ruler’s seat and a home base for 600 monks; Ngawang Namgyal gave it the name Pungthang Dechen Phodrang – the Palace of Great Happiness. Over the centuries, several earthquakes and floods wrought heavy damage, while fire partially destroyed the dzong on at least six occasions, most recently in 1984. But each time that happened, the massive structure was carefully rebuilt using traditional methods.
To this day, Punakha Dzong functions as the winter residence for the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot), Bhutan’s spiritual leader and head of the Central Monastic Body or Zhung Dratshang, an institution formed in 1620 by Ngawang Namgyal. (The entire Zhung Dratshang usually spends the coldest six months of the year in Punakha.) The complex also has a special significance for the House of Wangchuck, Bhutan’s royal dynasty. Its first king was crowned within the dzong’s sturdy walls in 1907, and the fortress-monastery naturally became the venue for all subsequent coronations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the wedding ceremonies of both the current and previous king and queen were conducted here.
Punakha Dzong stands alone, just above the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu (Father and Mother rivers, respectively) in an auspicious but flood-prone location. There was once a time when this compound, the second-oldest and second-largest dzong in the country, was flanked by a pair of roofed cantilever bridges (as this historical photo attests) known in the local Dzongka language as bazam. But the 18th-century bazam across the Mo Chhu was swept away in a 1958 glacial flood that literally reshaped the valley – the freak event tore away so much earth from the river bank that the channel was widened by 20 meters (65 feet). Only the original bridge tower nearest the dzong survived. No traditional bazam could span the now 55-meter (180-foot) gap without intermediate supports, and so a steel-cable suspension bridge was quickly built to reconnect the dzong with Punakha village.
That ungainly crossing no longer exists. Thanks to the efforts of a German NGO called Pro Bhutan, Punakha’s long-lost bridge was reconstructed from 2006–2008 as Puna Mochhu Bazam. Their solution fused age-old Bhutanese aesthetics with modern technology; Swiss engineers overcame the challenge of an overly long single span by concealing steel elements within the wooden structure to guarantee strength and stability. Around the foundations of the new bridge tower, vertical concrete pipes and interlocking “toskanes” blocks (more often used in sea walls) provide flood protection, though you won’t see them as they are hidden beneath hundreds of natural boulders. The entire project was financed by private donations from Germany totaling 850,000 Euros, or just shy of a million U.S. Dollars.
Bama and I have just stepped onto the bridge when we see a familiar face: it’s the friendly traveler from Sydney who sat next to us on the final leg of the flight from Singapore. Because most visitors to Bhutan are often funneled to the same places of interest in a specific geographical order, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll bump into certain travelers again and again. Just that morning, we encountered the guy while taking pictures of Punakha Dzong from across the river. At a chance meeting on the edge of Thimphu’s Clock Tower Square two days earlier, the Sydneysider kept remarking that everything in Bhutan was “weird.” At the time I wanted to counter that Australia was weird in its own way, not least because of vegemite and marsupials and its rather endearing accents (“No” in Australia is pronounced nah-oouu). But it was clear that the magic of Bhutan was lost on him. “I’m not interested in the history, culture, or religion,” he told us. “I told the tour agency that I only wanted to do photography.”
Now, he leans in close with a smirk, and half-whispers within earshot of Kinga, “There’s not much to see inside.” Our guide politely chuckles as the man from Sydney takes his leave. The glib Australian is wrong, of course. Anyone who has even the tiniest appreciation of architecture will find much to admire in this masterpiece of Bhutanese craftsmanship. Exquisitely carved geometric patterns grace the timber facades; look closely and you will spot the faces of mythical creatures like snow lions and dragons peering out from lintels, cantilevered beams, and wooden bas-reliefs. We cannot decipher the swirling patterns on the bow-shaped timber brackets (zhu) above the sturdy columns (kachen) encircling the first of Punakha Dzong’s three courtyards. Even railings (jadhang tazi) have been embellished with cloud-like motifs, dragon heads, and Dharma wheels; their vertical posts are capped by lotus bud-shaped norbu tog, or wish-granting treasures.
One of the few interior spaces accessible to tourists is the Kunrey, the dzong’s “100-pillar assembly hall”. Our jaws drop when Kinga leads us inside after we leave our shoes below the entrance steps. No surface, except for the wooden floor, has been left undecorated; the finery and level of detail surpasses even that of Beijing’s Forbidden City. I feel as though I’ve been enveloped in the deep religious devotion of hundreds and hundreds of Bhutanese artisans. The walls depict the 12 episodes of Buddha’s life in vivid, exuberant colors, while soaring cypress pillars sheathed in gilded brass plates guide the eye upwards to the painstakingly carved zhu. Straight ahead, a 10.6-meter (35-foot) image of the Buddha Shakyamuni commands the sacred space, flanked by 8.5-meter (28-foot) statues of Guru Rinpoche (a.k.a. Padmasambhava) – the eighth-century vajra master from India credited with bringing Tantric Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan – and Ngawang Namgyal. (This photo gives you an idea of what we saw, as does this one taken during the king’s coronation in 2008.)
Bama and I float back out of the Kunrey and return to the dzong’s innermost courtyard. Between the main prayer hall and the three-story Machey Lhakhang, the temple housing the embalmed remains of Ngawang Namgyal himself, we see pine trees and fields cascading down a verdant hillside across the Mo Chhu. Long shadows trail the fellow visitors milling about on the flagstones as the walls of whitewashed stonework glow like marble in the late afternoon light. Kinga says nothing but I instinctively know there’s still time to linger. Bathed by the warm October sun in this magical place where Buddhist spirituality intersects with artistic brilliance, I feel wholly and utterly at peace. ◊