Into the Land of Thunder Dragon : Bhutan Travelogue - Thimphu

Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan is a valley on the west bank of Wang Chhu. In 1961 the capital was shifted from Punakha to here. Thimphu is the pampered child of proud parents who doesn’t like to get up early. Although the offices start by sharp 9 o’ clock, most of the shops and restaurants remain closed until 10 – a phenomenon that was received with utter bewilderment by us. I would kill to become the residence of a place like Thimphu where nobody would ask me to move my limbs before 10 in the morning. S and I are both hardcore gluttons and we were both feeling ravenous. So instead of sitting on the windowpane enjoying a morning view of the city, we decided to haul our bottoms and go out to find a nice place to have breakfast. S was complaining about a large regiment of dogs that apparently barked all night on the street just underneath our room and ruined his sleep. However when it comes to dogs we both are surprisingly quick forgiver and soon found ourselves admiring and wooing the last night’s culprits.

Wherever we travel to, I do a thorough research about the place beforehand – including the best places to eat there. When we discovered that all the famous breakfast joints on our list were either closed or could not be located, we felt slightly disheartened. Time was also running out as our driver, Kenchen was supposed to pick us up by 10 for our extensive Thimphu tour. Then I saw it. Just where the Norzim Lam took a right turn from the four point crossing, a small staircase brushed past one of those expensive hotels where Bhutan’s ‘250 dollars’ (a nickname for the foreigners that we invented) check in, I saw the red signboard and a hint of a small gateway leading towards it. The name of Swiss Bakery of Thimphu did not come up in any of the ‘where to eat in Bhutan’ articles that I went through. Again the imprecision of others worked out in my favour. Swiss Bakery surprised me with its picturesque interior and the best Swiss roll that we both had ever had till date.

Our day trip started with a visit to the National Memorial Chorten – built in the memory of the third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in 1974. A humongous stupa built with the backdrop of a mountain surrounded valley of Thimphu.

Our next stop was the Buddha Dordenma, a humongous 169 ft tall statue of Shakyamuni Buddha sitting in Padmasana with a smile on his face that I reckoned to be ruefully sarcastic with a touch of indifference– which was not surprising given the condition of the mankind. Looking at the Thimphu city with a bird’s eye view he was probably observing the fact that since his day of enlightenment the stupid, self-destructive petty humans hadn’t learned anything at all and rather heading for an inevitable fall. The project Buddha’s projected cost is more than $100 million. Apparently, it fulfils the prophesy of an ancient yogi Sonam Zangpo who visioned a large statue of either Guru Rinpoche or Buddha would be built in the region. Even Guru Rinpoche himself predicted the same phenomenon in one of his terma or the hidden treasures that dates back to eighth century. The idol and the temple built under it had been finished, but the surrounding area was still under construction. People of Bhutan are apparently very proud of this great project. I told Kenchen that I had a feeling that someday this Buddha idol would be construed as the Eiffel Tower of Thimphu – a signature point of the city visually accessible from anywhere of the city.

The view from the Buddha point was exquisite. We could spot the entire valley of Thimphu from up there – it looked like a vast, miniature version of the life sized city itself. I could spot the Simtokha Dzong on a hilltop. We saw the Tashichho Dzong, the administrative headquarter of Thimphu and the Royal Palace. A football match was going on at the Changlimithang stadium – the players looked like small insects buzzing over a piece of green field. Changlimithang stadium was built in 1974 to commemorate the great victory of the first Druk Gyalpo Ugyen Wangchuck in 1885 battle that was held on the sports ground. We stood there for a while basking in a false sense of all seeing omnipotence.

On our way we went to a small nunnery that no other tourist was going in. By now Kenchen had comprehended the focus of my enthusiasm and was trying his best not to disappoint me. Thangtong Dewachen Dupthop Nunnery was established 1976 by Dupthop Jadrel and named after Thangtong Gyalpo, a great Buddhist yogi and blacksmith of fourteenth century who happened to be a pioneer in civil engineering. He was known as Chakzampa or the ‘iron chain maker’ and the founder of the Iron Chain lineage Shangpa Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Three identical puppies playing on the yard welcomed us with much enthusiasm. Inside the temple was a large idol of of Thangtong Gyalpo. After having a brief conversation with one of the young nuns I realised that the monastery was unique in one aspect – it follows Shangpa Kagyu as well as Nyingma sect of Buddhism.

Tashichho Dzong opens for the tourist from 5 o’ clock in the evening for an hour only so we headed for the other Dzong in the city which chronologically is much senior to the former one. Dzongs are a unique characteristic of Bhutan which are basically administrative headquarters as well as monasteries. Simtokha Zabdhon Phodrang Dzong means ‘The Palace of the Profound Meaning of Secret Mantras’ in Dzongkha – the official language of Bhutan. Simtokha was the first Dzong of Bhutan, built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal – a man to whom Bhutan owes the most.

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal was born in 1594 at the Ralung monastery of Tibet in the Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He was enthroned as the prince of the Drukpa seat and the estate of Ralung. However, in the wake of a war between Drukpa and its contemporary rival sect, Karma Kagyu, Ngawang Namgyal fled Tibet in 1616 to establish his new base in Bhutan. And he built Cheri monastery in Thimphu. Later in 1629 he built Simtokha Dzong and started pacifying all other rival sects of Bhutan. Eventually he unified the entire Bhutan and established Drukpa Kagyu as the state religion of Bhutan which holds until this day. Although he allowed the oldest Nyingma sect of Vajrayana Buddhism to continue in some parts of Bhutan and this sect can still be found in today’s Bhutan. A huge portion of his life, Zhabdrung spent to protect Bhutan from Tibetan invasion as well as from internal turmoil. After his death in 1651, the penlops or the local governors of Bhuatn kept his demise a secret for the next 54 years – in a desperate attempt to keep the internal stability of Bhutan intact. Later they came up with the ingenious idea of splitting the incarnation of Zhabdrung into three categories to avoid any further trouble – mind incarnation, body incarnation and speech incarnation.
However Bhutan remained troubled with the issue of succession for the next few centuries and it wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century Bhutan finally found its new monarchic lineage in Ugyen Wangchuck, the penlop of Trongsa province – the first Druk Gyalpo or the Dragon King of Bhutan. The lineage of Zhabdrung still continues today and their history is veiled with the rumours of conspiracy, murder and power struggle. Significantly, the four queens of the fourth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singe Wangchuck are the descendents of the mind and speech incarnations of Zhabdrung Rinpoche.
From the oldest Dzong of Bhutan we headed for the oldest temple of Bhutan – Changankha Lakhang. Established in twelfth century by Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo it houses Chenrezig, an eleven headed, thousand armed manifestation of Avalokiteshvara (The Buddha of Compassion) as its main deity. As I have mentioned earlier that Bhutan owes its Buddhist origin to Tibet. Everything came from Tibet here. Even the official language of Bhutan, Dzongha is originated from Tibetan. And here, at the Changagankha Lakhang Bhutan’s Tiebtan connection is once again evident. Chenrezig is the patron deity of Tibet. It says that he made a vow to free Tibetan people from their violent ways and help them achieve Nirvana. The Tibetans claim their descent from Chenrezig. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is none other than the reincarnation of Chenrezig himself. However to the locales, Changangkha Lakhang’s significance lies elsewhere. The temple is the home for Tamdrin – the protector deity of the children. Parents bring their newborns to seek the blessings of Tamdrin. In Tibetan texts Tamdrin is considered to be the wrathful Hayagriva – an extremely wrathful deity that purifies sentient beings and cures all diseases. He is the wrathful manifestation of Avalokiteshvara.

S is not a spiritual man himself so I had gone alone to visit the temple. The moment I lifted the curtain of the main temple it felt like I was transported back to another time - a simpler time when people would believe in mystical, tantrik deities and the miracles performed by them. A time when people were modern enough to conjugate carnal pleasure with spiritual attainment. A time when women weren't considered to be as gateway to hell but the compulsory other half to achieve Nirvana. The chorus of the monks chanting ancient mantras combined with heavy smell of burning incense created a mystical ambience inside the prayer hall.

The traces of the aromatic coffee and Swiss roll were long gone from our stomach and now it was time for lunch. We wanted to have Bhutanese lunch and hence chose the most popular destination – The Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant. The museum was closed anyway so concentrated on the food. From the wooden interior to the overall ambience the place was oozing a homely but royal Bhutanese vibe that made the experience more savoury.

However the best part of the day was yet to come.

To be continued