Published: May 11th 2011May 10th 2011
Holly at the confluence of the Pho and Mo Chhus
Saturday morning, we visited Punakha Dzong, one of the most important and, indeed, beautiful in Bhutan. We all felt so fortunate to be in Bhutan this time of year as the dzong was surrounded by mature blooming jacaranda trees whose soft petaled purple blossoms were utterly magical. We arrived to witness a slew of monks, with their robes up to their knees, using a fire hose to wash off the very high wooden steps leading into the main entrance into the dzong. Not something you see everyday! One reason that the stairs needed cleaning was the presence of several enormous bee hives, larger than any we've ever seen, suspended from the eaves of the dzong entrance. Apparently, as the bees naturally die off, they essentially litter the steps with their bodies, thousands of little bee corpses washed down the very high steps to the stone courtyard below.
The cleaning went beyond the stairs as the entire monk body was preparing for a major festival, hanging colorful banners from rooftops, adorning every area of this very large dzong, and excited to be anticipating the king's arrival in a few days. The main temple at Punakha is truly breathtaking. The sheer scale
Beautiful jacaranda trees in bloom
of the space with enormous statues, beginning with a giant Buddha in the center, painted gold with such beautiful detail, and dressed in exquisite fabrics. In the case of these statues, size does matter! Their presence was awesome. The interior walls all told the story of the life of the Buddha. Words cannot adequately express the Bhutanese sense of color, in every media, be it painting, textiles, butter sculpture, statuary, and whether it's in personal dress, religious adornment, home or temple decoration.
Punakha Dzong is located at the intersection of the Mo and Pho Chhus (Rivers). Mo is "the mother" and Pho is "the father". When they join, they become the Puna Tsang Chhu. There is a great observation point across from the confluence where this relationship of the 2 rivers joining and the dzong lying on "the elephant's trunk while the elephant is sleeping" can be discerned.
We had lunch in a tiny village about 20 minutes from Punakha, overlooking the templke built by Drukpa Kunlay, known as "the Divine Madman". Drukpa Kunlay was a "crazy wisdom" kind of teacher around the 14th century, who loved challenging "the establishment" whether secular or religious. We read a book
Stairs leading to main entrance of dzong
of stories about him in preparation for our trip. It is his inspiration that results in the wild phallic art that is so prevalent in Bhutan. This tiny village near his temple was full of examples of protective phalluses.
After lunch, we enjoyed a beautiful walk through rice fields just being planted and wheat fields being harvested, en route to Drukpa Kunlay's temple, built by him in the 14th century. In Bhutan, monasteries, temples and gompas are built on high places, so some exercise is generally in order to access these sacred sites. Inside, rituals for the 14th day of the bardo, the 49 days between death and rebirth, were going on for a local person who had died. Their family brought food while the monks chanted the prayers. The image of Drukpa Kunlay was the dominant statue, along with the relics of his bow and arrow, as well as a wooden and metal phallus. Outside, young monks played a lively game of soccer. It was fun to see their robes tossed aside as the boys got to be just boys.
En route back to our hotel, we stopped in "Old Town" Wandue Phodrong. Unfortunately, "Old Town" is
Gigantic bee hives along eaves
slated to be moved by December to a location down below by the river. We much preferred the character and atmosphere of the old town, perched high above the river. There is a military installation here which is probably why the government wants to widen the road through "Old Town", as otherwise, it is certainly not in keeping with Bhutan's cultural preservationist sensibilities. The new town by the river looked awfully like a housing project to us.
We were glad to see "Old Town" while it is still here, and especially as part of our mission which was to buy prayer flags under the guidance of our monk guide, Rinchen. He took us into a funky little shop and got us the "local" prices. The following morning, he also blessed the prayer flags which feels very special. When we returned from "Old Town", we had a special ritual honoring Rinchen and all the richness he has brought to our group, as Saturday night was our last night with him. In the morning, we moved on to Paro and Rinchen stayed behind to participate in the festivities at Punakha Dzong and rejoin his monk life after a couple of weeks
Monks on roof preparing for festival
with some interesting Americans. True to form, when we opened our ritual of honoring him, he interrupted and presented us all with gifts! He is certainly a man of integrity and heart. We all missed him during the rest of the trip and hope he will come to the States where we'll give him the tour of Buddhist monasteries stateside!
There are more photos below