After a good night’s sleep, we were ready for an early start the next day as we had to move on to our next stop, Punakha. We were forewarned by Lachman our guide that we need to warm up as we were going to Punakha through Dochula Pass which is at a height of 3150mts. The distance from Punakha is only 30kms but the hairpin bends and the climb upwards took a little longer.
It was an exquisite day with azure blue skies and we were loath to load on the warm clothes and just held on to them. We were ascending and the foliage was changing. Lachman pointed out the oaks, pines, conifers, jacarandas, magnolias, junipers, orchids, rhododendrons, giant ferns fluttering in the wind, the blue poppy which is the national flower; all heralding spring, a visual treat and a feast for the soul.
And then we reached Dochula pass and the sight was breathtaking; the green mountains were enveloped in a mist of angel-white clouds. As we stepped out of the van the cool mountain air sent us scurrying back into the van for our jackets, muff and caps. As we gazed at the panoramic view of the Himalayan Mountains, the streaks of mist curled around us like pearly white necklaces. This vista was the backdrop of the 108 Chortens that grace the pass.The 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens were commissioned by the Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. It is the site of a war memorial; the 108 chortens were built to commemorate the soldiers who lost their lives while putting down a rebellion. We walked up to the top and took loads of pictures against the amazing Chortens.The pass is also a popular spiritual destination for both locals and tourists because an important temple is located on the crest of Dochula pass.
The Druk Wangyal Lhakhang
There is The Druk Wangyal Lhakhang, Temple right opposite and again we had to trudge up to it, struggling to catch our breath in the thin and cold mountain air. The mythology is intertwined with history at this place. Inside the temple the sanctum sanctorum is beautiful and there is a huge diamond embedded in the front of the idols. It was so serene and the harmony of the mountains, trees, cottony clouds with the humans around was so palpable and meditative. I was literally dragging my feet and was the last person to board the van as I didn’t want to leave the heavenly environs.
The next pit stop was the Punakha Dzong also known as the “Palace Of Happiness”. It was the capital previously and was gutted in a fire. It was since restored and is still the palace where the coronation takes place. The first national assembly was hosted here in 1953 and the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck with Jetsun Pema, was held here on October 13, 2011. The picturesque location of the Dzong on the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Po Chhu rivers is ethereal and the entrance to the Dzong is through a wooden bridge which is intricately carved and traditional. The open courtyard, the temple and the prayer room inside had the whole life history of The Buddha painted on the walls and Lachman took us through the whole journey. A Bhutanese couple were throwing popcorn into the river and suddenly the fishes jumped up to eat them.
The monks were chanting inside the prayer room and I had goosebumps with the intonations. Amidst drums and clanging cymbals, the monks trooped out in single file, out to the riverside. We were lucky to witness this spiritual spectacle. We had lunch at a quaint restaurant on the hillside and there were many souvenir shops selling all kinds of knick-knacks. Sitting at the window and eating I could see a woman working in the terraced farms. Rice grows very well and is the main crop in the valley of the two rivers.
Chimi Lhakhang monastery was the next stop. Built, in 1499 by the 14th Drukpa, Ngawang Choegyel, Chimi Lhakhang stands atop a round hillock. It is also known as the fertility temple as it famous for blessing childless couples with a baby. There is a captivating history surrounding the Divine Madman, Drukpa Kinley who preached Buddhism through singing, humour and sexual overtures. He was just going against convention by his outrageous actions and sexual antics in order to incite the people to abandon their misconceptions.And when I heard his story he reminded me of our very own Osho! He was a maverick and introduced the phallus as a lucky symbol and it was hung from the eaves of the houses to ward off the evil eye. Women who come to the monastery seeking a child are hit on the head by the presiding monk with a 10-inch ivory, wood and bone phallus as well as the bow and arrow, used by the Divine Madman – Drukpa Kuenley himself hundreds of years ago. Many couples from far and wide have been blessed with a baby after getting the fertility blessings.
Legend has it that Drukpa Kunley subdued a demon of Dochu La with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” i.e. his penis! And trapped the demon in a rock at the location close to where the chorten now stands. Another legend says that when Drukpa Kuenley first visited Bhutan, a demoness named Loro Deum resided on a high pass which is now known as Dochu La. People in the valley were frightened of her and two other demonesses who lived on two smaller passes also joined her and caused lots of misery to the people. Drukpa Kuenley heard of them and hunted them down and drove them away. Loro Deum transformed herself into a dog to avoid being detected but Drukpa Kuenley When she reached the plains of Lobesa, she transformed herself into a dog to avoid detection but Drukpa Kuenley recognized her and killed the dog. He buried it under a mound which he said resembled the breast of a woman. Before killing and burying her, he made the demoness to pledge to the Buddha and she is now the local deity called Chhoekim who is the guardian deity of Chhime Lhakhang. The phallus can be found in various forms within Bhutanese houses and restaurants and as souvenirs in many shops.
It was a long and tiring day and we trooped to our new lodging for the night; the Drubchuu Resort.It was a resort with a captivating view and the mountains were a perfect backdrop for the interesting garden blooming with blossoms. The bar here was named as The Madman! The food left a bad taste in the mouth but the ambience was fine.
We woke up to a divine morning and the POA was an adrenaline rush for sure; we were going rafting!
Rafting on the Mo Chu River
We were a group of ladies with an average age of 50 and rafting evokes images of crashing through precarious rapids and towering waves; both don’t fit too well, isn’t it? But to our pleasant surprise, we were informed by Lachman our guide that rafting down the Mo Chhu River is just a gentle drift down the mild rapids. Our families and friends at home had conjured up images of us screaming and falling off the inflatable boat. During the off-season, the Druk Rafting Service charges INR1500 which is quite reasonable for the 10km ride equipped in safety gear like a life-jacket, helmet, paddle and even crocs to get into the boat. We took two boats and stepped in with much trepidation and excitement. Our rafting guide, Pasang, put us through the paces before letting us on to the boat. He was a storehouse of information and pointed out all the buildings, the birds, ducks called love birds and even pointed out some cute little otters that popped up. He even sang a romantic Bollywood ballad for us. Other than an adrenalin rush the spectacular visual extravaganza of the verdant alpine mountains with the awesome flora and fauna that unfolds downstream is worth every penny. Pasang told us that between the two rivers-“Mochuu and Pochuu, the Pochuu or male river was more aggressive and when it meets Mochuu downstream it is subdued as usual, as most women dominate the male”, the much-married Pasang shared his wisdom!
We just had to paddle a bit, got a little wet and we reached downstream below the Punakha Dzong Bridge where tourists were surprised to see so many women rafting and then they went ballistic with their shutterbugs. We even encouraged the women tourists to go ahead and raft.
Lachman had arranged for a riverside picnic lunch for us and we saw many Bhutanese families too picnicking there with the kids playing. A European tourist was learning archery and he was getting quite adept at it. The sand and the smooth pebbles on the river banks were almost white and we collected few pebbles as souvenirs. Lunch was simple and wholesome and the mountain air does work up an appetite.
Suspension Bridge, Punakha
The next place to visit at Punakha was the suspension bridge which is the longest in Bhutan. You have to walk up a bit to reach the bridge and to get across it depends on your pace as the bridge moves and being high up can work up your vertigo. I went across slowly trying to capture everything, a mother carrying her baby on her backpack, a scarlet-robed monk, kids walking home after school, scared tourists rooted to the spot, the river flowing below. The other side has a massive prayer wheel, a tea canteen and washrooms. Each one of us turned the prayer wheel and made our way back.
The Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang nunnery
There was one more stop before we called it a day in Punakha.The Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang nunnery for female monks is a rare thing in Bhutan. The chorten is visible from a distance as it is built on a cliff. A winding road amidst bright and vibrant blossoms leads up to the nunnery. In a small prayer room overlooking the cliff, I saw a female monk lighting about 200 butter lamps. Another was ringing the gong, calling all for the evening prayer. It has a temple, a meditation centre and provides higher learning for nuns where, apart from religious training, they also get life skill training such as tailoring, embroidery, statue making and thangka painting.
You do not realize how tired you are until you reach the room and fall exhausted on the bed. After all, Things to do in Punakha, most of us headed to the spas in the evening to get rid of all the aching muscles and to relax. Well, tomorrow is another day another city; Paro!