Into the Land of Thunder Dragon : Bhutan Travelogue - Punakha

Usually on a sunny day Dochula is the perfect place to experience the vista of mountains ensconcing Bhutan. However, our luck wasn’t so good. It was sunny but the entire range was covered under a thick blanket of cloud. All we had was a sneak peek of one of the peaks and made futile attempts to capture the moment in our cameras.

Dochula is famous for 108 Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang Chortens built in the memory of martyred Bhutanese soldiers killed in the battle against the Assamese insurgents in 2003. There is a monastery of the same name adjacent to the chortens built in honour of the fourth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Tourists are allowed to enter the main prayer hall, but forbidden to go further inside. No offense, but I had a feeling that the Bhutanese people are a bit paranoid about the outsiders. As an Indian, I can’t say I have much respect for my fellow citizens. Indians are famous for breaking rules and showing disrespect to even their own culture, so the paranoia is not quite irrational.

The monastery
The majestic gentleman
The weather at Dochula was quite chilly – cold, hard wind was blowing continually that would send a shiver through the spine. But the temperature started to drop drastically as we headed for Punakha. The overall climate of Bhutan I found to be quite dry, but now the dryness was more evident. When we reached Sopsokha, the sun was just above our head and the heat coupled with the aridity of air had made it unbearable inside the car. However, it was not as bad outside the car as the crazy wind somehow eased the intensity of the scorching temperature.

Sopsokha is a small village in the Punakha district. People might wonder why we would halt at a small village for no reason. If one stood on the main road and looked beyond the stretch of green paddy fields and the cluster of houses, one would see a hillock and a temple just on top of it. That temple is called Chime Lhakhang or more popularly known as the temple of fertility. Now my readers, if Taksang Monastery was the most important destination for me in the entire trip, Chime Lhakhang definitely turned out to be the close second. And no, I wasn’t seeking fertility there – Chime Lhakhang was special to me for a very different reason. And in order to explore that reason we must go back in time before the temple came into existence.

Once upon a time, an extraordinary man was born on this planet amidst the flock of regular, boring people. His name was Drukpa Kunley. He was not only an enlightened Buddhist yogi, but also a very unusual man of his own accord. Despite being a monk, he never supported the concept of monastic living and celibacy. He preached Buddhist teachings as well as the importance of having a healthy appetite for sex. He was anti-establishment long before it was cool. He earned himself the title of ‘The Saint of 5000 women’ as the women would come to seek his blessings in form of sex. I know, it sounds irresistibly sexy. He started using penis as a symbol of fertility and life to ward off evil that has become an integral part of Bhutanese culture. In fact, Kunley’s penis was referred as the ‘thunderbolt of flaming wisdom’. But guys, do not mistake him for a sex-addict pervert like our Hindu gurus or paedophile church elders. Penis or no penis, he had the one thing that made him stand out in the crowd – an honest disposition so raw yet charismatic that put a halo around his head and turned him into a legend. And thank god Bhutan has no Vatican – no one came to hack off Drukpa Kunley’s proverbial thunderbolt and made him a regular religious teacher.

To reach Chime Lhakhang one has to trek all the way across the paddy fields to reach the base of the hillock. The trail becomes narrow and slippery at times as the irrigation water flows through it from one side to another. I tried to open my umbrella to keep the heat at bay but the strong wind almost blew it away along with me clutching it desperately. Not to mention I almost fell off the trail into the field at least twice owing to the dicey mounds of wet loam every now and then.

Chime Lhakhang was built in 1499 by the Drukpa king Ngawang Choegyal. Legend says that Drukpa Kunley subjugated a demon of Dochula and trapped it where the Chime Lhakhang now stands and built a chorten above it. He called the hillock the breast of a woman owing to its round shape. Alright, I am in love with him. The temple houses the idol of the Divine Madman Drukpa Kunley along with the wooden phallus he brought with him from Tibet. I couldn’t help but trying to picture the flesh and blood ‘Thunderbolt of wisdom’ of Drukpa Kunley while prostrating in front of his idol. And given his rebellious nature, I’m pretty sure he would feel amused by my wish. It is customary that the pilgrims (mostly women who wish to have children) who come to seek blessings in the temple are struck on the head with the wooden phallus. However, we missed that great opportunity as the temple was empty when we went in – a few little lamas were playing outside. Perhaps Drukpa Kunley could sense that I am far from ready to have kids and procreation is the last thing on my mind at this juncture – so he spared me the trouble. Nevertheless Drukpa Kunley had won my heart. And I would remember him as the charming Buddhist teacher who taught his people to stand against the orthodox beliefs and.. was also a fireball in bed.

Almost every house in the village comes with a souvenir shop on the ground floor and wooden ‘Thunderbolt of flaming wisdom’ was selling like hotcakes everywhere.

We stopped for lunch on our way to Punakha Dzong at a village named Khuruthang. It was so unbelievably hot and arid there that it felt like we had descended back to the plain. We couldn’t spot any decent place to eat nearby so we headed to a small restaurant cum bar that I have mentioned in my previous posts is a common site in Bhutan. We took freshly cooked noodle soup, pork patties and chilled Druk beer to wash it all down.

Punakha Dzong is the administrative block of the entire district and hence it opens for the tourists from 3 pm onwards till 5 pm. It was built in 1638 by Zhabdrung Rinpoche and remained the most important Dzong of Bhutan until the capital of Bhutan was shifted to Thimphu from Punakha in 1961.

The confluence of Pho Chhu (right) and Mo Chhu (left)

The Dzong is situated at the confluence of two rivers – Pho Chhu (Father River) and Mo Chhu (Mother River). The colours of the two streams are so different that they could easily be distinguished from distance.

Punakha Dzong took my breath away from the very moment I crossed the famous cantilever bridge and entered the main arena. The almost vertical wooden twin staircases at the main entrance reminded me of the Potala Palace I had seen so many pictures of. After entering the courtyard I stood there for some time just to have my sensory organs get accustomed with my surrounding. The majestic grandeur of the fortress was absolutely mesmerising. And for the next half an hour we spent at the Dzong, all that escaped our gaping mouths were ‘Oh my god’ ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes’ ‘Oh did you check out that curving?’ etc etc.

Like every other Dzong, Punakha also comes with a separate building dedicated to the resident gods. Our luck did not betray us for a second time. The afternoon prayer session was still in progress. Tourists are allowed to be present at the ceremony, but photography is strictly forbidden. Like most other monasteries in Bhutan, Punakha also houses three main deities – Sakyamuni Buddha, Zhabdrung Rinpoche and Guru Padmasambhava. However in this case, they were colossal.

Kuheli and Kenchen on the Cantilever
I have attended a few Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies on my previous trips to Sikkim and Darjeeling. The rhythmic chanting coupled with the baritone of Tantric ritual instruments creates a mystical ambience that would put the audience in a state of meditative trance. It does so to me at least. However, Punakha monastery was too crowded to be able to create that magic. After the ceremony was over, the monks offered dried pepper seeds and holy water to the devotees.  One of the monks handed me a yellow thread blessed by the gods. I bet the gods smiled at my futile attempt at redeeming the gigantic pile of sin. Sin, after all, leaves its shadow behind even after the sinner is long gone.

To be continued