Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Destination Punakha L'hakhang

Remember the Divine mad man Sir Lam Drukpa Kuenley (1455-1570). Well, in his quest to define himself, one day landed at Dochula pass. And who does he meet there but a Demon and no prizes for guessing a female Demon. The smart she Demon turned herself into dog but unfortunately could not save herself from the Sir Kuenley's " flaming thunderbolt of infinite wisdom " . So  our mad man decided to bury the dog , uttered the words " Chi -Med(no dog)"and built a black stupa over it. In 15th century a temple was built at this site and was called Chime Lhakhang or " no dog temple".

The itinerary promised a short walk through paddy fields to get to the hillock. But what was not informed us was the in your face "graphic" for lack of  a better word wall paintings. We got a taste of it earlier at Thimphu as we walked through the arts and crafts stores. As I had not read up about Chime Lhakhang or its significance, I actually had look at  the key chains, post cards, table art magnets twice and make sure I was seeing it right. But lets get back to our hike first.

Tintin promised that we will not come across any snakes and luckily we didn't. But the highlight of the short hike was the multiple birds we spotted. Also making it an unforgettable experience was the walk through the lush green carpet of rice and mustard fields.




 So what I didn't know till our visit to the souvenir shops at Thimphu was that Chime Lhakhang was also a fertility Temple. I couldn't see the connection between a slayed demon and children but when there is a divine Mad man involved anything is possible. No disrespect to the belief of Bhutanese, but our whatsapp group when into an over drive because of the representation of the belief and the fun comments did not stop for a long time. No, No baby announcements in our group so far though all of us were blessed in the most unique way possible at the temple. An unforgettable moment and I strongly suggest everyone take this hike and get blessed by Kunley, Zhabdrung, Shahkyamuni Buddha and Chenresig.


After the short 30 minute one way hike to "No Dog" temple, Tintin informed us the next hike would be a little more difficult than this one. And My God, No doubt about it, one of most amazing 60 minutes I have spent in amidst nature, Don't don't don't ... don't miss this one. Yes we had already hiked through paddy field but this one  was indescribable. The picture below was our first sight of Khamsum Yulley Namgyal from the road which had the parking lot. See the small building at top left hand corner. My reaction was " Are we seriously going to try this one?"



From the parking, we had to cross the Mother river through a suspended bridge enveloped with prayer flags. This point also happens to be the starting point for white water rafting Mo chhu.

  

The previous day's rains had made what was left of the hiking trail, a stream at most locations. It made the hike through the rice fields a little more difficult but the amazing varieties of butterflies we spotted made up for it. One of the most beautiful butterfly I have ever come across  is pictured below. This guy posed for us but rest of his companions were not so supportive. After the drive through migrating butterflies at BR hills, I would rate this place as a Haven for butterflies. Unforgettable. Yes, I will be using this word time and again in this post. It was truly amazing! Unforgettable.



After the short hike through the fields, we started our climb to the temple on the hillock. The light drizzle just made it more fun. The hike through the pine trees lead us into an immaculately clean enclosed courtyard. One of the reasons I loved Bhutan was that it was not only pristine but  crisp, fresh and uncluttered at all the locations we visited or stayed.





 The three storey temple houses Vajrakilaya, the most wrathful of the protective deities. The 15 feet statue is a marvel with the 103 manifestation of the deity integrated into the main sculpture. The colorful,  garish and complex mass comes together in perfect harmony.

Statues of deities, gods and goddesses and other prominent religious figures exemplify clay work in Bhutan. While statues are modeled by men, the women are into pottery and this art is called Jim Zo.

Though Tintin was letting us know more about the temple, I was eager to climb up the narrow stairs to the third floor. I came across two more deities at each floor but without giving them a glance, I headed out to the balcony .Tintin had promised amazing views and he did not disappoint us!
Statues of deities, gods and goddesses and other prominent religious figures exemplify clay work in Bhutan - See more at: http://www.tourism.gov.bt/about-bhutan/jim-zo#sthash.bwl3cVPs.dpuf




On the bottom left hand corner is the bridge where we started the lovely hike and the first photo of the temple was taken from the road along the river. A place not to be missed! A place where like the Lotus flower, another of the auspicious symbols, can purify mind ,body and speech and blossom us into a beautiful being.

Date : September 2014
Place : Punakha, Bhutan

Tip : Wear appropriate shoes for the Hikes
First : Hike in the rain!
The travel connection : Feeling of Bliss!


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Monday, 29 September 2014

Destination Punakha Dzong

If I had to choose my favorite structure, It would be the bridges without any hesitation. Bhutan renewed my fascination for bridges with their traditional cantilever bridge called the Bazam. Tintin's knowledge about architecture was limited. My questions on the location of  the toilets, kitchens inside the Dzong  or how the water supply/ drainage worked  and other queries must have driven him mad or made him think that the mountain air had made me go bonkers. So my hopes of understanding the bridge through Tintin was futile.

Punakha Dzong is undoubtedly one of the most elegant structures in Bhutan.  To get to the main building , one has to cross Mo chhu through one of the most beautiful bridges I have come across so far.




Most buildings in Bhutan are a replica of their ancient self. Due to natural calamities or fire, almost all the prominent sites in Bhutan have been rebuilt in the recent years. The Punakha bridge is no different. You can read more about it here.
http://www.probhutan.com/lib/Info-Bridge_10-05-08_e.pdf
http://www.waltgalmarini.com/projektbeschriebe/Punakha_Bazam_Pages_27-30.pdf

Architecture dominated most popular sites but as mentioned earlier , it was the mythical stories that made it exotic. Now only if Tintin could spin stories! But lets start with the visuals of the Palace of great happiness.


Can you visualize a sleeping elephant's trunk at the confluence of Po Chhu and Mo chhu? I couldn't!

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal built the Dzong in 1637

 The entrance to the Dzong


The 6 storey Utse or the central tower

The kuenrey or the assembly hall houses 35 feet high Buddha Shahkyamuni, 28 feet high Guru  Padmasambava(Rinpoche) and Shabdrung


Machey Lhakhang-the temple where the remains of the terton , Pema Lingpa, and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal are preserved.





Now the architect ( incarnate/divine carpenter) of the dzong was  Zowe Palep/Balep. Like with most clients, Mr Balep was given detailed instructions on how the dzong has to be designed leaving little scope for his own creativity. Unlike the long boring meetings architects go through to in this day and age, Zowe was ordered by Mr Shabdrung (This guy was the Sobha or DLF of his times) to fall asleep for 3 night. I know we fall asleep every night. But the architect was ordered to fall asleep in Shabdrung's presence.That made it magical!

Since the walk through concepts was a couple of centuries away, Truelpie Zowe's dreams became the 3D max presentation by Shabdrung. He was shown the visuals of the copper clad mountain , the palace of  Guru Rinpoche's and voila ...we have the most incredibly beautiful Dzong. But it was a build up of dreams, a slow and steady process. So the first night it was a dreamless snooze, the second night was a trip to the seat of Ralung ( Tibet), on the third night it was Zangdo pelri the palace of the Guru. Talk about  time travel!

One of the vendors for this mega project was  Tsochen/Tshomen, the queen of Nagas . Tintin told us she was a mermaid but Google proclaims she was the queen of spirit of snakes. So is she a half woman half snake or Half women half fish?  Tsochen supplied the stones mined from the river and some of it is enshrined in the temple dedicated to her. Other vendors not to be forgotten were Goendrap and Ap Kachep who supplied the cypress timber. Unfortunately though these guys are the local deities there is no shrine in the Dzong dedicated to them.I guess they were full human.

Like the queen, the women of Bhutan use ornaments made of silver,gold,turquoise , corals and the craft of making them is called Troe - Ko. I am sure it is the second most important craft for women considering the desire for jewelery is universal.

Punakha Dzong is a very important places for the royalty, the monks and the commoners. Here's wishing them the vase of treasure which symbolizes an endless rain of long life, wealth and all the benefits of this world and liberation





Punakha Dzong today and how it looked in 1905

Date : September 2014
Place : Punakha, Bhutan

Tip : look at the structure of the assembly hall to understand the concept of nail less construction
First : Wooden cantilever Bridge
The travel connection : Royalty

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Sunday, 28 September 2014

Destination Dochula Pass - Around and about

If ever Alfred Hitchcock made " The birds" in Bhutan, he would have to use Oriental Turtle Doves. Not that there is anything scary about them, but the peace mascots are out there at every nook and corner. Giving them company are the sparrows and pigeons.We never spotted the handsome cousin of the crow, the raven which is  the national bird. But Bhutan is indeed a birder's paradise.

Oriental Turtle Dove

Sparrows at Dochula Pass

Like the golden fish which is one of the eight auspicious symbols, we decided to fearlessly migrate from Thimphu without danger of drowning in the ocean of suffering . Just as a fish that swims freely and spontaneously through the water, we embarked  onto Punakha. To make it even more memorable and spiritual ,Sangay our driver promised us a well deserved massage. This is what i call life.

Yes, We got what we deserved!
We were whacked,thumped,knocked,smashed,jolted,smacked,rapped,walloped in the Toyota Hiace or was is it our Dobhi ghat washing machine. Was it the Bhutan's way of telling our life is messed up, Clean it! We will spin you till you are crisp and fresh! 
Please, somebody, let me off the hook! I don't want to be the fish anymore!!! I have been unfairly reeled in!

              Simtokha Dzong Thimphu

Drive to Punakha
Chu- Rivers of Bhutan

After crossing Khardung la pass in 2013, Dochula pass seemed like an ant hill at 10300 ft. As you must have already guessed getting to the pass and going down the other side is no easy task. Not because of the altitude but due to the ongoing infrastructure development. Now Dochula pass is the place where you get 360 degree view of the Himalayan ranges and we knew we weren't going to be lucky as the landscape started to change and the fog started to envelop us. Just fog...so boring! We the wanderers in the sea of sublime misty fog became one with it. Now that sounds more lyrical and interesting!


Dochula Pass is the home to 108 chortens in memory of the soldiers who lost their lives against the Indian rebels in 2003. Each one of the stupas contains effigies of Buddha and religious texts.   A quick walk around and we were ready for the second spin in our washing machine!




Date : September 2014
Place : Dochula Pass, Bhutan

Tip :  Check the road conditions before planning a holiday!
First : Dochula pass ;-)
The travel connection :The journey and not the destination!

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Saturday, 27 September 2014

Destination Thimphu - The city and beyond




Bhutan is as rustic as one can get. It's conscious decision to isolate as much as possible has made it a  Shangri La. The willingness to continue its traditions not just when it comes to religious festivals, customs, food but also  the national dress Kira,the Gho and architecture makes it a "not to miss" country. But it was the mythical stories that made it exotic.




On our itinerary were the other popular attractions in Thimphu. One of them was the King's chorten. The memorial chorten in Tibetan  style is a hot spot for the elderly of Thimphu.Look closely at the some of the deities and you will find some interesting figures. After a quick pit stop at the stupa, we checked out the National textile museum.It had some amazing antique and contemporary pieces on display. The short video leads you to  appreciate the effort that goes into the art of weaving  or as it called " Thag - zo". Weaving is the most popular craft among Bhutanese women and the physical labor, long hours must take a toll on their spine and eyes. But i don't think they complain like us, the urbanites.






The Guinness book of world record must be bombarded with many claims for a place in their book. Do you think they would be interested in largest collection of air guitars or loudest silence? Maybe not. But they were certainly interested in " Bhutan: A Visual odyssey across the last Himalayan kingdom". It weighs 133 lbs/60 kg and is 5 ft/1.52 m high and 7 ft/ 2.13 m wide making it the largest book. It is housed in the national library of Bhutan seen above.

 Traditionally religious scriptures were written on Dezho which is paper made of bark of daphne tree and craft of paper making " De- Zo" is the sixth of the thirteen crafts. We got to be part of one of the schools that train students in these crafts.National Institute for Zorig Chusum is the place where one can observe students under training.

The place we took a break at was Hotel Pedling. It's location, recently renovated interiors and decent food makes it an ideal place. But be prepared to wait for the cheese , no i meant food! More about it later.

It is a cow! It is a goat! No it's spider..... man,oops!  No it's a Takin.




Takin is supposed to be the creation of the Divine mad man. Now doesn't the name say it all. Here was this guy with tantric powers and what better way to prove his divinity than to hybrid animals. You sniggering pure bred connoisseur, step aside. Mutts are in! And what a beautiful Mutt !

So if you had to create a hybrid, what would it be? I would go with two of favorites. No, No, Its not the one below.  That cutie pie is just a mountain goat . He is not a mix of German Shepard and antelope. What were you thinking?






It's this cute little thing! How adorable is this one!. Are you listening Divine mad man?

Picture credit: http://www.clickypix.com/freaky-photoshopped-animal-hybrids/hybrid-animals-made-with-photoshop-2/




Date : September 2014
Place : Thimphu, Bhutan

Tip :  Enjoy every moment!
First : Takin
The travel connection : Animal kingdom.

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Sunday, 21 September 2014

Destination Thimphu - The capital city

Thimphu is a bustling capital city with 5 storey buildings packed like sardines. It is the rolling mountains beyond the building line that makes it different. The first thing I noticed as we drove in was the multiple car showrooms right from Toyota, Hyundai to Maruti and many others and cars of all sizes on the road.  The second thing that was pointed out to us by Tintin was that Thimphu is a signal free city. My immediate reaction was to admiringly assume Bhutanese were disciplined enough to follow rules without traffic lights. But then we came across a junction manned by a police man.



Till date, license plates have never caught my interest. Bhutan changed it. I was drawn to the private vehicles with red license plate immediately. The number has prefix of "BP". Taxis are yellow in color with "BT" written on them. The diplomatic vehicles are green/blue with "CD". Royal Bhutan police have  blue license plate with RBP. The government vehicles have "BG" written in yellow on a red plate. So do the royal Bhutan guard vehicles with "RBG". The present King of Bhutan is driven in a Range Rover and Mini Cooper and the license plate say "BHUTAN" and is in red color. Only the royal family have "BHUTAN" on their license plate with the exception of the chief abbot.  Fascinating, right? Time to pay attention to license plates across the world.

"Happiness is a place". No doubt about it. Bhutan is the place. One of the places that introduced us to the Bhutanese culture, architecture and civic sense was the Tashichho Dzong. The fluttering yellow orange flag in front of this part administrative part religious building immediately draws you to it. The yellow is representative of civic tradition and the orange the spiritual tradition and the dragon unifies both.

The experience as you walk by the fortress with the serene immaculately clean surrounding, is enhanced by the gushing sound of Thimphu river by its side.  The cypress which is their national tree and the maple  were among the many trees, plants and shrubs around the Dzong. The silence was occasionally broken by the red billed choughs  with their call "Chee-ow". I was indeed in the place of happiness.

What you see at the present day is the rebuilt dzong of 1962 but with the traditional architectural style intact and the construction technique followed as per the tradition without nails or plans drawn by architects. The splendid proportion, the perfect composition with not one element out of the place is inspirational.
                                         









South side of the fortress of glorious religion 


East side of the fortress of glorious religion


The entrance to the fortress on the east side is through a series of steps which culminates against a blank wall with paintings or sculpture. There are more steps on the side to reach the inner courtyard which is close to 4.5-5 m above the outside ground level. I wonder why this was done . Is there a hidden basement with no windows.  Or could there are hidden tunnels connecting the different dzongs and the spies use them all the time. Or is there buried treasure waiting to be unearthed. Maybe there is a laboratory where secret experiments are taking place. Or is it the closed quarters where the mysticism becomes reality. Interesting right?

The exit from inner courtyard

The northern assembly hall  houses Shahkyamuni Buddha,Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal , other protective deities that i cannot recall and thrones of fourth king,present king and the chief abbot. The wide red strip along the roof signifies a religious building.


Lhakhang Sarpa (new temple) is one of the buildings that separate the administration side from the religious side. Its ornate doorway, bay window "rabsey" with the auspicious symbols and ravens supporting the four corners is breath taking.





Utse or the central tower beyond the new temple which typically separates the two sides




Tashichho Dzong today. Click on the link to see how it looked in 1905

The inner sanctorum was off limits for my faithful companion Sony. So let me describe in brief. The entrance porch has paintings of mandala and the statues of the deities tower us in the inner room. Bowls of water line up in front of statue. Butter lamps are integral part of the altar. Also placed are the offerings of food like puffed rice, biscuits, sweet crisps, fruits etc along with the ritual cake torma. The side walls  are lined with multiple Buddhas. Ceiling had more mandala painting and decorated with colorful silk kafens ( vertical strips of tailored fabric)  embroidered to perfection.

Tzhem zo or the art of tailoring is a popular art amongst the Bhutanese - See more at: http://www.tourism.gov.bt/about-bhutan/Tshem-zo#sthash.Vph3iQDP.dpuf
Tshem - Zo or art of tailoring is one of the popular crafts in Bhutan. It includes art of embroidery Tashem Drup, art of applique Lhem drup and art of traditional Bhutanese boot making Tsho Lham and of course sewing. The practice of any of these 13 crafts by itself is a form of connecting with Buddha. The Royal family is literally holding a parasol or dug  which is an auspicious symbol and protecting the local culture from illness, harmfulness and any obstacles. Respect!!
Tzhem zo or the art of tailoring is a popular art amongst the Bhutanese - See more at: http://www.tourism.gov.bt/about-bhutan/Tshem-zo#sthash.Vph3iQDP.dpuf


Date : September 2014
Place : Thimphu, Bhutan

Tip :  No t shirts or 3/4 pants allowed in the dzong. Use a jacket or wear full sleeved top with collar and wear only pants or full length skirts.
First : Fascination for license plates
The travel connection :  Architecture!


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