Our Orientation to Bhutan
Posted on August 3, 2010
The next day, we met our guide Tsewang Nidup. He helped with our orientation to Bhutan and proved to be a great source of knowledge. He took us to the National Museum, an amazing building built of stone and mud high above the Paro Dzong. It was the original watchtower for the Paro Dzong and was built around 1650.
At the Museum, we first went through a hall where there were pictures of the Kings of Bhutan. Here Tsewang explained the history of the Monarchy to us. Then we met a museum guide, who took us through the five circular galleries where we learned that it was important to walk around the museum in a clockwise fashion. Because of the numerous religious artifacts housed there, the museum is considered a temple. We went through the five floors of galleries, which included thangkas (huge embroidered images of Buddhist iconography), a hall of bronze statues, as well as the chapel, which introduced us to the main lineages of Buddhism in Bhutan. We learned about the animals of Bhutan and saw the major crafts of the country, including huge metal pots dating back hundreds of years. We visited the armor galley and we spent a few minutes in the jail. We were particularly impressed by the walls and windows of the watchtower and marveled at how this could have been built so long ago.
We then stopped at Dungtse Lahkhang which is built in the form of a chorten. The lahkhang has some of the most remarkable paintings in all of the Himalayas. As we pulled aside the hangings covering each picture, Tsewang explained what they represented. Here, we had to climb the steep and narrow ladders in the dark but luckily, Devon was prepared with a headlamp. Between his headlamp and Tsewang’s flashlight, we all made the steep ascent (and descent) safely.
Over lunch in a local Bhutanese restaurant, we had a great conversation with Tsewang about “night hunting”, a practice in some rural villages in which men crawl into the darkened rooms of women to have sex (this can be particularly difficult, since in many houses, all the family members sleep together in the same room). He explained that if the man stays for breakfast the woman and man are considered married. We also talked about the tradition of painting phalluses and hanging wooden phalluses from houses for good luck. This raised some eyebrows from people at the next table since such sexual matters are not discussed in Bhutan.
We then visited the Paro Dzong, which like all Dzongs in Bhutan houses both governmental offices and a monastery. Each of the 20 regions in Bhutan has a Dzong which serves as both the administrative and monastic centers for the Dzongkhags (the regions of Bhutan). Here we saw the amazing mural of the wheel of life, while Tsewang used taught us about the basic Buddhist beliefs regarding karma and reincarnation. We also went through the two courtyards one for the administrative offices and the second lower courtyard houses the monks. We visited the large hall where the monks eat, study, and sleep and we saw the ancient “books” that they use.
Our final stop that day was at Kyichu Lahkhang, perhaps the oldest lahkhang in Bhutan. The original lahkhang was built in the 7th Century to subdue a giant demoness who was lying over Tibet and part of the Himalayas. A total of 108 temples were built to pin down all parts of her body. Kyichu Lahkhang was supposedly built over her left foot. Here we saw the imprints of feet left by the devoted who prostrate themselves in front of the altar.
Buddhism in Bhutan is a interesting mix of religion and superstition (remants of the Bon religion). Some of our group threw the three dice given to us by a young monk to see if our wish would come true. (If you don’t get an auspicious number the first time, you get to try again.). We turned the numerous prayer wheels, which contain small pieces of paper containing prayers. It is believed that when you spin the prayer, wheel you are sending out prayers for the benefit of all sentient beings.
The next day, we set off on an ambitious trek up to Taktsang Monastery known as the Tiger’s Nest. It is believed that Guru Rimpoche came to Taktsang on the back of a flying tigress—the form one of his consorts took. He meditated in a cave in the place on which the monastery was later built. He then converted the people of Bhutan to Buddhism. The walk up the mountain was very strenuous. It was sometimes hard to talk because of the lack of oxygen in higher elevations, but Tsewang would often stop to point out something interesting so we could catch our breath. Bianca claimed old age and stopped at the teahouse halfway up and watched our ascent.
What an amazing experience! On the way up, we came to a cave. It is believed that if you crawl into the cave all your sins will be forgiven. How could we pass up that opportunity? The last part of the trip was quite harrowing with a steep drop to our right. We later learned that some people are so frightened that they literally crawl so that they don’t have to see the fall. However, we all made it and on the way down stopped for delicious lunch that Tsewang had arranged to be brought up on a horse.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the yak herders restaurant and saw a yak herders’ tent. We also had our first experience with buttertea, a tea made with butter, tea, and salt that many claim keeps you warm in winter.
Until next time,
Raffi, Yuri, Devon, Atsu, Lina, Emilia, Elana, Sarah, Bianca and Sue