I knew that the trip to Bhutan from 30th January 2014 to 5th February 2014 would be memorable for more than just one reason- my first venture into the hills of the North East ( though technically its not a part of North East India), my first tour with friends that included overnight stay, the first stamp on my passport (which unfortunately did not happen :( ) and of-course my first article on a travel experience.
A place where every building has a story to tell through the exquisite paintings on its walls, where serenity prevails even in the busiest traffic,where strangers greet like they've known each other for ages and man lives in complete harmony with nature despite the progress in technology - that in a nutshell is Bhutan for you. In the five days I spent in Bhutan with my friends, a number of intricate details touched me more than the natural view, Dzongs and trekking experiences, without a mention of which my account of this trip would remain incomplete. In our 8-hour journey from the border town Phuentsholing to Paro, we could not hear a single horn blowing, even in the twists and turns of the hilly path. In fact, it was the sudden outrage of vehicle sounds that made me aware that I've crossed Bhutan on our way back to Kharagpur. Another impressive thing about the Bhutanese, according to me was that "Formals" to them mean their own traditional attire, rather than the conventional western suits- be it in the monastery or in administrative offices. This trip to Bhutan seemed like a time travel to the period that our parents often talk about- when people were much closer to the nature around them, when kids spent a bulk of time playing outdoor games on the streets without their parents running behind trying to protect them from "calamities" like catching cold or tripping off and injuring their knees; when people were less worried about future and more indulged in enjoying the present. For the old-world dreamer that I am, the tour was really the much needed break from the mundane mechanical life of ours.
Day 1: 31st Jan 2014, Friday- Enter the land of the Thunder Dragons
It was a surprisingly warm day when we reached Hasimara at 1p.m. After immigration formalities and lunch at Jaigaon we set off for our 8 hour long journey to Paro, a beautiful town in the lap of the Paro valley that is home to hundreds of legends from the Bhutanese and Buddhist history. What we were not aware of despite the research we did prior to our tour was that , 31st January 2014 was the 1st day of the last month of the Bhutanese calendar, which according to their tradition was the Day of Offering, similar to the Thanksgiving day of the US and Canada. We were rejuvenated after the long tiresome journey by the warm reception given by the proprietor of our hotel at Paro, who told us about this day celebrated as Buelwa Phuewi Nyim – the Traditional Day of Offering.
Day 2: 1st February 2014, Saturday- Exploring the mystical Paro Valley
We were late by an hour on our first day of sightseeing and we set off for Chelala Pass, which at 3988m elevation is the highest point on the famous Dantak road. It was a 2 hour uphill drive to this point, a path speckled with scenic beauty of the densely covered forests and view of the snow covered mountain peaks of the Himalayas. The point is marked with colorful flags fluttering in the wind, which are believed to keep demons away and colorful rhododendrons that shine under the bright sun. We found patches of snow-covered areas glittering in the sunlight on our way to Chelala pass, however the place itself was warm and sunny, and to our little disappointment, devoid of snow :(
|Way to Chelala pass|
|As we leave Chelela for our next stop|
We spent a great time there enjoying tea and making futile attempts of capturing the spotless beauty of nature in our high resolution cameras, after which we set off for our next destination, the Rinpung Dzong - the ancient court of justice and administrative building of Bhutan.
At this point I would like to pause and put a note on Dzongs. Loosley translated as "fortresses", the Dzong architecture is typical to the Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas. Every valley of Bhutan has atleast one Dzong which is considered to be the most elegant building and a trendsetter for all the building architecture in that area. Every Dzong has an administrative part and a monastic part which are separated from each other. Bhutan homes the world's oldest and most spectacular Dzongs, each of which is an architectural wonder. [Courtesy: National Library, Thimphu]
Built in the early 17th century on the foundations of an ancient monaestry of the 10th century, by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the first spiritual ruler of Bhutan, the Rinpung Dzong consists of the office of the Dzongda ( the district administrative head) and the court of justice of the Paro district. People are supposed to wear full sleeved outfits and remove any kind of scarf off their head before entering these dzongs.
|Our little Bhutanese friend at Ta Dzong|
We then visited Ta Dzong- the national museum of Bhutan situated on the hill above the Rinpung Dzong, which was built as a watchtower during the wars of the 17th century to defend the Rinpung Dzong. The place took us on a memorable journey through the histroy of Bhutan- the small country with a population of less than 6.5lakhs, its rich cultural diversity and the faunal biodiversity. Outside the gate of the Dzong we met a little Bhutanese girl who couldn't understand a single word that we spoke but stuck around us while we posed for photographs.
|Posing under the wonder trees|
2nd February 2014, Sunday- Tiger's Nest Trekking
Here comes the day that we were most excited about- a 3 hour hike to the famous Taktshang Lhakhang- more commonly known as the tiger's nest. It enjoys the status of being one of the most sacred sites for the Buddhists all over the world. Located on the side of the cliff 900m above the floor of the Paro valley overlooking the Paro river, trek to the Tigers' nest was a rough thrilling path inlaid with thick vegetation all around. It being my first trekking experience, I was full of zeal and started climbing up the rocks energetically despite not being in my best health. On the way to the monastery is a small Lakhang (a small village level monastery) and a temple. This is a viewpoint from where the copper-colored rocky mountain on which the Taktshang Lhakhang is built looks like the face of a fierce demon (a fact cited by one of our fellow Bhutanese co-travelers on our way back). There is a cafeteria on the path below this viewpoint for relaxation of the tourists. Being the naive trekker I am, I was stupid enough to carry a fully loaded sidebag during the trek that caused me a lot of pain in the journey. After covering three-fourth of the journey that was mostly uphill, it was a relief to find the way downhill laid with with broken stone-made stairs.
It was at this time when I was happily marching my way to the destination that I suddenly blacked out and tippled on the stairs to sprain my ankles that is hurting even today:(. Thanks a lot to my most lovely friends who helped me out and most importantly to the God who gave me the power to cover the remaining distance left, only to find out that the monastery was closed for lunchtime. However, the waiting time in the monastery came as a blessing in disguise, that allowed us to enjoy the chilly breeze in the warm sunny day, amidst the sound of waterfall and chirping of birds all around. We spent our time chewing on the snacks we carried with us and chatting among ourselves as well as with the other travelers from different parts of the world like Bhutan, China and Finland- some of whom visited the place for religion while some simply for the joy of trekking. Once again I was touched by the warm, jovial nature of the Bhutanese people, who climbed the hills like it was cakewalk and offered help to others in every possible way.
The monastery comprised of eight temples each of which housed hundreds of mystical stories. Legends hold that Guru Padmasambhava (popularly known as Guru Rinpoche) arrived at this point from Tibet on the back of a tigress and meditated in the caves for 3 years, 3months,3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours in the 8th century. The monastery was first built in 1692 around those 13 caves, but were destroyed in fire twice, latest being in 1998 and the reconstruction was completed in 2005. One of the disciples in the monastery spoke to us about the various legends associated with the place and took us to each of the temples. We were awestruck at the splendor of this ancient building and the stories encompassing the mystical caves. The thrill and wonder of this amazing place made me forget the pain in my ankles and we returned with our hearts filled with awe at the mystery of the land.
3rd February 2014, Monday- Experiencing the rural Bhutan at Punakkha
Punakha, the former capital and still the winter capital of Bhutan is endowed with warm temporal climate and the Punakha valey is the abode of the richest soil in Bhutan owing to the natural drainage provided by the two main rivers, Pho-chu(father river) and Mo-chu (mother river).
We started off early in the morning at 7a.m from Paro to the capital city Thimphu, where we needed to get the permits. For this first time in the 3days, we found ourselves in a usual urban atmosphere that we are more accustomed to- shopping malls, marketplaces, lots of restaurants, cafes and small shops. While our driver went off to take the permits, we went to the textile museum on the other side of the road. The museum was built in 2001 by the Mother Queen Ashi Choden Wangchuk, with the objective of sustaining Bhutan's traditional textile art and showcasing the cultural diversity of Bhutan on an international platform. We were shown an interesting AV that described the different styles of outfits worn in various parts of Bhutan, accessories distinct to people of a certain region or section of the Bhutnese society, the unique way in which the textiles are woven and the way the traditional formal attire are worn. The museum is divided into 6 parts- Achievements in Textile Arts, the role of textiles in religion, textiles from indigenous fibres, The Royal Collection, warp pattern weaves, and weft pattern weaves.
We then drove our way to the enthralling Dochula Pass, the famous pass between Thimpu and Punakkha that gives a 360 degree panoramic view of the Himalayan Range. The pass is decked by 108 chortens known as Druk Wangyal Chortens built opposite to the temple Druk Wangyal Lhakhang. The snow-covered Himalayan mountains provide the perfect backdrop to the pulchritudinous pass that is a center of attraction for locals and tourists alike.
Our next stop was the Punakkha Dzong, the second largest and second oldest Dzong of Bhutan built at the confluence of Pho-chu and Mo-chu rivers on the Punakhha- Wangdue Valley. This majestic building stood the test of time and was rebuilt and restored its past grandeur by the present King, after being destroyed four times in the past due to fire and earthquake. This is the Dzong where the royal wedding of the present King of Bhutan took place in 2011.
We were standing before a temple inside the Dzong listening to the mystical chants, when all of a sudden we heard the cries of some monks and found some of them rushing out of the temple with canes in their hand hitting hard on the grounds. For a moment we were stunned and fled like a bunch of terrified kids, but soon we discovered that it was a part of an annual ritual that is performed at this Dzong, and felt lucky to have witnessed it.
Our last destination for the day was Chimi Lhakhang- the fertility temple located on a hill top in the farmlands of Punakkha.
It is believed that couples who don't have children get their wishes fulfilled when they worship at this temple. When we reached the temple through the dusty road with lush green fields on both sides, the evening puja was going on, and an occult ambience was created inside the temple. A guide was depicting the various legends associated with this temple to some foreign tourists, about how a demoness camouflaged as a dog to fool the Lama Kunley but was ultimately pointed out and subdued. Lama Drukpa Kunley, was a monk who preached Buddhist philosophy in form of simple tales and was known as the "Divine Madman" for his unconventional ways- a personality that we can very easily relate to our very own saint Sri Rama Krishna. The temple is decked with frescos and statues depicting the legends associated with it. Outside the temple were two Shivlings, a huge Peepal tree and lines of colorful flags fluttering in the pleasant breeze in the evening. The mountains far away shimmered like gold during the twilight as we made our way downhill back to the cab.We stayed overnight at a small hotel at Wangdue.
Illustration of legends inside temple
Our last day at Bhutan was dedicated to the capital, Thimphu that exhibits an unique juxtaposition of modern developments with the ancient traditions. Born in the lap of the Wang-Chuu valley, Thimphu is the abode of the historically and politically important buildings and is the center of economic and government activities of Bhutan.
We started off from our hotel at Wangdue at 8.00a.m. and drove through the scenic Dochula pass to reach the Thimphu valley. Our first destination for the day was the National Memorial Choeten. It was built in 1974 by Her Majesty Queen Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck in memory of her royal son the 3rd Druk Gyalpo, King Jigme Dorji Wanchuck, popularly accepted as the Father of modern Bhutan. Also known as the Thimphu Chorten, it is considered to be the "most visible religious landmark of Bhutan" the frescos and statues inside which gives an insight into the Buddhist philosophy.
We visited the Changankha Lhakhang, a fortress-like temple standing high amidst the ruins of it past splendor, where young children in Bhutan are named. Established in the 12th century, the temple houses a splendid statue of Chenrezig with 11 heads, a group of three very large prayer wheels and rare large scriptures. The courtyard of the temple provides an amazing bird's eye view of the Thimpu valley.
We then reached the Buddha Point, a place at an elevation of 300 ft above the Wang-chuu river bed where stands the grand bronze statue of Gautam Buddha under construction, known as Buddha Drodenma. The 169 ft statue is going to be the tallest statue of Buddha and is envisioned to become the probable eighth wonder of the world. Overlooking the capital town Thimpu, this temple will have 1,00,000 8-inch idols and 25,000 12-inch idols of Buddha inside. We were spellbound at the view of the city from the courtyard of the temple. Later, from our hotel far away from the Buddha point we could still see the majestic spiritual body, the first thing in the morning when we woke up to bid farewell to the kingdom of Bhutan.
On our way to the Takin preserve, we catched a glimpse of the one of the most important Dzong of Bhutan, the Thimpu Dzong which has served as the seat of Bhutan's government since 1952. The pompous beauty of the Dzong thrilled us, but we came to know that the Dzong is open to visitors of for 1 hour from 4pm to 5pm, after the flag is pulled down ceremoniously. so we went past the Dzong and arrived at the Motithang Takin preserve that is a safe abode of the national animal of Bhutan classified under "vulnerable" species. It is the largest and sturdiest goat antelope in the world that can be found only in the Himalayan regions in and around Bhutan. Legends have that this animal was created by the great Buddhist Lama, Drupa Kunley- the reason Takin was declared the national animal of Bhutan in 2005. This place was originally a mini-zoo but was converted into a preserve where the animals could roam about freely, under the orders of the King of Bhutan who considered it was not right for a Buddhist country to keep an animal confined in artificial shackles. The rare animal was seen living in harmony with other herbivores like deer and goats in the large open space of the preserve. Here we also found a small house outside which a local weaver was weaving the traditional colorful Bhutanese Scarfs on a machine that had a striking resemblance to the Indian charkha.
From this place we headed to the Folk Heritage Museum having exhibits of ancient Bhutanese artifacts, instruments, domestic equipments and documentation of the rural Bhutanese lifestyle. We took a stroll into a model 3-storeyed rural Bhutanese house, wherein each of the storeys is dedicated to a specific household activities, and the stairs to the upper storeys are unusually steep, probably to save the ground space. The museum is dedicated to provide a sustainable life to the underprivileged through the revenues earned from visitors.
Near the museum there was the Institute of Zorig Chusum, the Art&crafts school which we saw on our way to the National Library. Rare exhibits of Indian Pattachitra art depicting Hindu Mythology, printing blocks for prayer flags and ancient Buddhist manuscripts dating back to centuries alongside the modern academic books, were the biggest attractions of the library.
After this we headed to the city where we reveled on Indian and Chinese delicacies, and did some shopping at the throbbing marketplace till 4pm, the time at which the Thimpu Dzong would be open for visitors. To our disappointment, we got late to see the daily closing ceremony, but the Dzong was still open so we could go inside and relish on the amazing visual treat provided by the paintings and intricate sculptures in the interiors.This being the center of political affairs in Bhutan was under strict security and visitors are restricted entry to many parts of the building. We could catch a glimpse of the golden palace of the King peeping beyond the thick forests, from the courtyard of the Dzong, during the sunset and enjoyed the joyous dance of colors in the sky that quite made up for the closing ceremony that we missed out.
Thus we completed our tour for the day and returned to our hotel at Thimphu full of wonder and with a lingering note of melancholy in our mind as we knew the tour to the mysterious land of Bhutan ended here.
5th February 2012, Wednesday- Bid Adieu to the world's happiest country
|View from our hotel at Thimphu during the dusk|
Special thanks to:
Himalayan Travels for planning everything for us - the itenerary, hotels, all permits and car.
Recommend them to everyone planning a trip to the Himalayas for all kind of budget