Yesterday was a very bad WiFi day, and our new hotel is only marginally better, so bear with us till we get to Nepal, where I hope things will improve in a few days. Here’s the news from yesterday, Friday:
Around Punakha, Bhutan. Religion is the center of a Buddhist life, and it was the center of our day today.We started on a high hill above our hotel, visiting the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakkang Nunnery. We were able to listen to them chanting in the temple and walked around the lovely grounds. Those shaved heads make them resemble Buddhist monks, but there are certain give-aways. At any rate, what a special place to spend your life dedicated to your god. This nunnery is relatively new and was built to honor the father of the four sisters who became the wives of Bhutan’s fourth king, referred to as K-4. Across from the nunnery is the home of K-4’s father-in-law.
Our next stop was the Punakha Dzong, constructed in 1637. It is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan and one of its most majestic structures. The Dzong houses the sacred relics of the southern Drupka Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and is a very sacred place. Like all Dzongs, it has an administrative and religious section.
Punakha Dzong was the administrative center and the seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimphu. The Dzong is still the winter home of the religious leader of Bhutan. Later this month, the leader will be moving, along with his entourage, to his summer home in the Dzong in Thimphu.
Today is a special religious day (connected to the phase of the moon – and Easter/Passover perhaps?) and a private ceremony was being held for the Queen Mother — the mother of currently reigning K-5 and one of the four wives (and sisters) of K-4. King Four abdicated the throne to his son in 2008. The kings of Bhutan have all died at young ages and it is considered a curse on the lineage. That is the reason given for King Four having taken four wives, whom he married on the same day in the same ceremony. There was a fifth sister, but she was considered too young to be married.
Besides the current K-5, K-4 had ten other children among the four wives. We couldn’t enter the temple until after the special ceremony for the Queen Mother. But she emerged from the temple, and came over to speak with the gathered tourists, asking different people where they were from and finally announcing to everyone in very elegant English that she welcomed us all to Bhutan and hoped everyone would enjoy their visit. It was a shame that we had been told we couldn’t photograph her. It was like the crowd in front of the Good Morning America studio in New York before the stars come out — just with no signs, yelling, or selfies. The Queen Mother was impressively charming, poised and very lovely. Later in the day, we passed her car and guards as she was traveling up to the home of her father across the street from the nunnery.
The afternoon featured a steep climb up what Don – who made the trip – would call a mountain to a spectacular stupa built to honor K-4. The climb started with a walk over a suspension bridge over a river featuring white-water rafting, and then a winding walk through paddy fields and past old farm houses high on the hill that are not accessible in any other way except on the same rugged path.
Not an easy climb. But the landscape views, says Don, were breathtaking and the glimpses into small farming life were revealing reminders of how little has changed on these mountain slopes for generations. The higher the climb, the more spectacular the views became.
According to the intrepid Don, the climb, which took well over an hour with only a few stops for short rests, was well worth the effort. The stupa and the temple inside was as elaborate as any we’ve seen. (No photos inside, of course.) The stupa is actually a complex of buildings that include housing for the monks who tend to the temple and property and a staff for a royal residence that is kept ready in case any member of the royal family happens to want to visit for an overnight stay.
He saw no helicopter landing anywhere, so they’d have to take that same steep twisting dirt path up the hill. It must be meant for the younger members of the royal family. On the way down, he bumped into a French family near the base of the steep climb. The father of this family told his young son, who was already complaining about the effort of the climb, that it wouldn’t be far and it wouldn’t be that steep. He was glad he wasn’t around that French father about a half hour later. The young boy might not have been as impressed as he was with the magnificent payoff at the top.