Fortresses, Monasteries & Captivating Scenaries
One of my dreams came true last month when I visited Bhutan that boasts of a high Gross National Happiness. We were a group of 11 school mates.Though I had initiated the idea I almost did not make it because my air ticket from Calcutta to Paro in Bhutan was not confirmed by the travel agent, though others in the group had confirmed tickets. When I had almost given up hope he managed to get me a Business Class ticket, just the evening before the departure date and I was off on my dream trip with my group
On day one of our arrival at the beautiful Paro International airport we were met by our guide `Tashi`-a knowledgeable, friendly and articulate young man. The first impression of Bhutan is the peace and tranquility that you experience when you come out of the Paro airport and weather only adds to the ethereal experience. Unlike my experiences of visiting Himalayas on pilgrimages to Badrinath or Mukthinath, when I felt a fear of the unknown dogging me all through, the visit to Bhutan was a very pleasant and relaxing experience.
The guide` told us that we would be visiting a few interesting places before reaching Thimphu, the capital city. Our first halt was at the National Museum located in the watch tower (Ta Dzong) of Paro Dzong. On display were many artifacts used by the Bhutanese over the years.
After the Museum we were taken to Paro Rinpung Dzong a fortress built by the founding father of Bhutan, S N Namgyel, in 1646. The fortress houses the administrative seat of the district Paro and the district Monk body with about 200 monks. The central tower of the fortress is one of the most beautiful in Bhutan known for its excellent wood work.
The winding road to Thimpu following the famous Paro River offers some breath-taking scenery. We also stopped at Tamchhog Lhakang, a private temple for Buddha owned by the residents of the famous Tibetan bridge builder Thongten Gyalop.
At Thimphu our first visit was to see the impressive Trashichoe Dzong. This massive Fortress located close to the Bhutanese Parliament and the Palace of the King (closed to public) houses part of the government ministries, office of the King and the Throne Room. A part of the fortress also houses the State monastic body, the office and the living quarters of the Chief Abbot. Since it was late evening, the beautifully illuminated exterior of the fortress was like a scene from a dream world.
On the second day, post breakfast, we visited Kuenselphordang to see the 169 ft high sitting Golden Buddha statue weighing 40 tons. It was made in China and imported in several parts which were assembled together at the site. This imposing statue built a decade ago has become the new tourist attraction in Thimphu.
Next was an Institute offering training in Bhutanese arts and crafts. With the slogan `Get skilled. Be somebody`, the Institute teaches tailoring, painting, carpentry, silver smithy and sculpturing.
This was followed by a visit to the local Zoo to see the national animal of Bhutan -Takin. A local legend talks about how the Bhutanese national animal was created from the remains of a lunch eaten by the Divine Madman. He combined the skeletons of a cow and goat and brought them back to life with a loud belch; the animal came to be known as Takin. This Divine Madman called LAM DRUKPA KINLEY was a Buddhist saint who lived in 15th Century Bhutan. He claimed to have powers to drive away evil spirits and also bless childless couples with children. He is worshipped even today as a `Divine Madman`. His symbol is a `Phallus`. Like the `Lingam` is the symbol of Lord Shiva. There were large size `Phalluses` on display at the `Simply Bhutan` pavilion we visited next. Simply Bhutan` is an attempt to transplant a typical village home at the pavilion portraying ancient Bhutanese architecture and displaying age old life styles of the Bhutanese people.
It is in this venue that we also saw in action 35 years old Pema Tshering, a cerebral Palsy person without hands, creating beautiful paintings using his feet. Scores of his paintings were on sale in the shop where he was creating his master pieces! It seems he has also won medals in Archery competitions for disabled; a very inspiring story. The second day ended with a visit to the Memorial Chorten, a tall stupa built in memory of the third King of Bhutan, located in the heart of the city.
On third day morning we were off to Punakha, the old capital city, driving through Dochu La, a 3140 meters high street pass. This location is also the venue of a collection of 108 miniature chortens (stupas) built in 2005. These stupas were built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in thwarting an incursion by Bodos who were trying to occupy some of Bhutan's territories. Later we visited ChimiLhakang, a temple founded by the `Divine Madman` and built in 1499.
Another place on the way to Punakha was Punakha Dzong (Fortress) that lies between the two rivers known as Pochu & Mochu or ` Male River & Female River`. Built by the founding father of Bhutan, Punakha today is the winter residence of the central monk body and holds the famous relic known as `RajungKhasarpani`, where there is informative display of paintings depicting the life story of Sakayamuni Buddha.
Next morning we were on our way to visit KHAMSUM YULLEYNAMGYAL CHORTEN (Stupa).To reach this four storey temple we had to cross a suspension bridge and walk through rice fields before we started climbing a moderately inclined trail surrounded by Pine trees. This temple stands majestically on a strategic ridge over the Punakha valley. In building this temple, considered a splendid example of Bhutanese architectural and artistic traditions the Bhutanese craftsmen consulted holy scriptures rather than engineering manuals! Built by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, the temple is dedicated to the well being of the Kingdom and its people. We proceeded to Paro, a three hour drive, very close to the Paro Airport.
On the fifth day in Bhutan, we were originally scheduled to visit `The Tiger`s Nest`-referring to the gravity defying cluster of buildings housing the historical Takshang Monastery, perched on a rocky ledge with a sheer drop of nearly 800ft. Built in 1692, around the Taktshang Samdup cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months in the 8th century and introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. In view of our group`s ( all septuagenerians) reluctance to take the risk involved in the steep climb to reach the venue, the Guide took us to a point on the road from where we could have long distance view of the` Tigers Nest` seen as three white dots on top of the mountain. We used the free time available to go to `Chelela` the highest point on Dantak Road located at an altitude of over 12,000 ft.. We returned to Paro city centre and visited the oldest Buddhist temple located in the heart of the city.
Though Bhutan is famous for its pungent food, because of the prior arrangements made by the guide, we were offered specially cooked meals with less chilly in all the restaurants we visited.The icing on the cake for our group was the availability of a cup of curd with every meal. What more does a Tambrahm group need - getting `Thayir Sadam` with every meal, in Bhutan!
The official tour ended with all of us shopping for curios in memory of our visit to `Beautiful Bhutan`
Some useful tips for the tourists:
Indians don`t need Visas but have to carry a valid Passport which is checked at the Airport by Immigration & Customs officials in Bhutan.
Indian Rupees are accepted in Bhutan at par value. You can carry only up to Rs. 25,000 in cash. This rule is not strictly enforced. All credit cards are accepted. Limited number of ATMs is also found.
Not allowed to take photos inside any of the Buddhist temples.
Druk Airways & Bhutan Airlines are the only two airlines operating in and out of Paro International Airport.
March-June and September-December are the best time to visit Bhutan. Good to carry an umbrella as sudden rains are common even during peak seasons!