Punakha Apr 2018

We left Thimphu early in the morning heading over the 3,050-meter mountain pass of Dochula towards Punakha.  There are 108 memorial chortens here known as “Druk Wangyai Chortens” built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the eldest Queen Mother.  They were built in memory of the soldiers who died in the December 2003 battle against the Assamese insurgents from India.  Chortens are stupas important to Tibetan Buddhism and are usually tombs of saints or distinguished lamas or monuments to the Buddha.  The chortens at Dochula Pass are built in 3 layers with 45 chortens in the lowest level, 36 in the second layer, and 27 in top layer surrounding the main chorten.  Nearby is the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang built to celebrate 100 years of monarchy in Bhutan.

DSCF0407The 108 chortens at Dochula Pass

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After a seemingly endless drive (about 2 hours) up and down windy mountain roads, we arrived in Punakha which lies at the junction of the Mo Chhu (Female River) and the Pho Chhu (Male River).  Punakha was the capital and seat of the government until 1955 when the capital was moved to Thimphu.  It still retains the feel of its regal past and is still used for momentous occasions in Bhutanese history such as the marriage of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck in 2011.  The Amankora here in Punakha only has 8 suites and is reached by crossing a suspension bridge and then being shuttled by golf cart up to the lodge.  We were actually a tad worried that our luggage would fall into the river during the transfer across the bridge.  There is a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse at the lodge that has been converted into the main dining room and library.  Amankora Punakha is probably my favorite lodge out of the three we stayed at in Bhutan.

DSCF0171Suspension bridge leading to Amankora Punakha

DSCF0184Amankora Punakha farmhouse where the main dining room and library are located.

DSCF0178Dining area out on the patio.

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DSCF0180There are a total of 8 suites here with construction going on to build an additional 2 suites and a swimming pool.

DSCF0235You can arrange for a private BBQ by the river at Amankora

DSCF0236Views of the Mo Chhu River and people rafting from the Amankora BBQ area.

One of the more interesting stops near Punakha was the village of Lobesa near the Chimi Lhakhang.  The village buildings all have paintings of penises on them.  It was said that Drukpa Kunley advocated the use of phallus symbols to ward off evil spirits.  Hence you can find phalluses of all sizes painted on houses and sold in souvenir shops around here and in the rest of Bhutan.  One story was that on a particular occasion, Drukpa Kunley was gifted a sacred thread to tie around his neck.  Instead he said he would tie the thread around his penis so that it would bring him luck with the ladies.  Because of Drukpa Kunley’s unconventional methods in imparting enlightenment to others, his penis has been referred to as the “Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom” and he himself, the “Divine Madman” or the “Fertility Saint”.  Some of the stories about him are so whacky it was hard to keep a straight face.

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DSCF0132Good luck totems for sale next to rolled up prayer flags.

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After a short walk through the village and crossing some rice paddies, we arrive at Chimi Lhakhang.  Chimi Lhakhang is the auspicious fertility monastery built in 1499 and dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kunley or the “Divine Madman”.  Many women apparently come from all over the world to seek blessings from this monastery to bear children.  There is a photo album on display with pictures of both Bhutanese and foreign happy couples and their babies.  For pilgrims seeking blessings, there is a wooden phallus decorated with a silver handle used to strike pilgrims on their heads.  The tradition is to receive the name of your newborn from a lama at one of the more famous temples and Chimi Lhakang is one of them.  There are bamboo slips inscribed with names of boys and girls for pilgrims to get the name of their newborn.  In Bhutan, there are no family names except for the royals.  To make it even more complicated, there are only about 50 or so names to choose from so you can imagine the number of people having the same name in the nation of 800,000+ citizens.  Our guide, Pema, also came here to get the name for his child.  In Amankora Punakha, we came across four Pema’s, three were ladies, and the fourth was our guide, and I am sure there are more Pema’s at the other four lodges.  How confusing!

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DSCF0145Heading up to Chimi Lhakhang

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DSCF0135Huge bodhi tree in front of the small and unassuming temple.

DSCF0137The demoness in the form of a black dog was supposedly subdued by the Divine Madman and buried here.  Hence the black chorten.

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DSCF0148Chimi Lhakhang is surrounded by beautiful rice paddies

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Another stop we made outside of Punakha was at the Sangchen Dorji Lhundrup Lhakhang Nunnery near the village of Talo which is home to the Queen Mothers of Bhutan.  Four sisters from the village of Talo Nobgang all became equal wives of Bhutan’s 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who chose to stand down and pass the throne to his eldest son in 2006.  Polygamy is not unusual in Bhutan and legal marriage is still not widely practiced.  We were told that couples move in together and are already considered “married”.  The nunnery itself is fairly new and not extremely interesting.  If pressed for time, one would not miss much by skipping this.

DSCF0159Sangchen Dorji Lhundrup Lhakhang Nunnery

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DSCF0161Nepalese style stupa

The morning of our second day in Punakha, we hiked to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten on the hill above Punakha valley.  This chorten was built by the Queen Mother not for community worship but for heading off evil forces and bringing peace and harmony to the people.  Unlike other Buddhist temples, there is a 15-feet high sculpture of Vajrakilaya who is famous for being the most powerful deity for removing obstacles and destroying forces hostile to compassion.  The sculpture has 108 reincarnations emerging from the main body.  Vajrakilaya is the most wrathful of protective deities.  Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside any of the temples.  The views from the rooftop of the surrounding rice paddy fields, mountain ranges, and the river valley are not to be missed.

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DSCF0194Traditional Bhutanese farmhouse

DSCF0197Apparently, this old man comes here everyday to chant and spin the large prayer wheel.  My friend has a similar photo of this man taken 5 years ago!

DSCF0202Trail leading up to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten

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DSCF0216Views of Punakha valley from the top of the chorten

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There is no doubt the highlight here in Punakha is the Punakha Dzong.  It is considered the country’s most beautiful dzong constructed in 1637.  Because of Punakha’s location, it is warmer here and the Punakha Dzong is used as the winter residence of Bhutan’s Central Monastic Body.  This dzong has endured numerous fires and an earthquake and was fully restored several years ago.  The splendid views of the Himalayas, the sounds of the rushing water of the river, and the colors and architecture of the dzong paints a beautiful picture of one of the last Shangri-Las in the world.  Not far is one of the longest suspension bridges in Bhutan spanning 160 meters over the Po Chhu River and is covered with prayer flags fluttering in the wind.

DSCF0240The 160 meter long suspension bridge over the Po Chhu River.

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DSCF0247Prayer flags are often hung on bridges over water with the belief that the wind and water will bring the mantras and blessings to the surrounding areas.

DSCF0168The magnificent Punakha Dzong with the purple jacaranda trees in front.

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DSCF0383Entrance to Punakha Dzong

DSCF0379It is quite a steep climb up.

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DSCF0373The four friends or four harmonious animals is a famous Bhutanese folktale underlining the virtue of cooperation and interdependence between all creatures large and small.

DSCF0285The first courtyard is for administrative use

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DSCF0296The second courtyard is the monastic quarters

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DSCF0350Monastic quarters in the second courtyard

DSCF0303The third and southernmost courtyard is where the main prayer hall and temple where the remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of Bhutan, are preserved

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DSCF0331Monks leaving the prayer hall after their afternoon prayers.

DSCF0333Inside the main prayer hall are colorful murals and large golden statues of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche who brought Buddhism to Bhutan and Zhabdrung who unified Bhutan.

DSCF0337Signalling the end of the afternoon prayers

DSCF0341The main prayer hall of Punakha Dzong where important festivals as well as events like royal weddings and coronations still take place.

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We bid farewell to the ancient capital of Punakha after our brief two days and head towards Paro.  Stay tuned!

 

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