Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Wheaton in Bhutan

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Punakha

Posted on September 6, 2010

While the rest of the group hiked up to Phajoding with Tsewang, we (Emilia, Elana, Lina, Bianca and Sue) headed to a relaxing weekend in Punakha with our guide Sonam, the brother-in- law of Tsewang. During the two and a half hour drive to Punakha, we had the opportunity to stop and see the 108 chortens at the top of Dochola Pass which is 3,050 meters (10,000 feet) above sea level. ChortensThese chortens, called Druk Wangyal, were built by her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo in gratitude for the safety of her husband King Jigme Singye Wangchuk when he led the nation’s army against Indian insurgents who were camped in southern Bhutan in 2003. Unfortunately, the pass was covered in a cloud, and while we had been told that it is a spectacular view, we were not able to witness this ourselves.

On Friday night, after checking into our hotel, we drove up the steep mountains to visit Nalanda Monastery. Nalanda has over 100 monks living there. When we arrived, we were greeted by the abbot. He told us about the retreat the monks were just about to finish. The monks believe that during the summer months, insects and small animals are the most active, so leaving the monastery and potentially stepping on insects greatly risks upsetting the balance of nature. Hence they spend the summer months indoors in retreat. We also met Casper, a Geman, who was living in the monastery and helping to teach English. There were four English classes— each at a different level. Casper was going to teach the older monks that night so Elana, Emilia and Lina each taught English to a group of 10- 20 monks, who ranged in age from 9 to 23. We found that teaching a class with limited materials was an intense cultural experience. Elana ended up singing with her class of younger monks, while Lina, who was teaching a more advanced class, conversed with her students about American culture. We left the monastery in the pitch dark, walking along the ledge of a cliff to get back to our car. It was a harrowing ride down the winding road in the pitch black darkness.

Punakha dzongThe next morning began with a delicious feast of eggs, cereal, potatoes, and toast with jam. We are surprised and happy when we can have familiar foods for breakfast. We started our tour of Punakha by visiting the Punakha Dzong, the second oldest dzong in Bhutan, beautifully positioned at the juncture of two rivers.

Punakha dzong is the resting place of the body of Ngawang Namggyal, often referred to as Shabdrung, the 17th-century ruler who is described as the unifier of Bhutan. He is credited with building the dzongs across the country and with the establishment of the dual system of government with the JeKenpho as the head of the clergy and the Desi as the head of the political system. Both the government offices and monasteries are housed in dzongs to this day. In 1651 the Shabdrung went into retreat at Punakha and he died soon afterward. However, his death was kept a secret because people feared that there could be disruption and turmoil in the country if word of his death came out. People were told that he was in retreat and everyday food and water was placed outside of the temple where it was believed he was meditating. News of his death was not released until 50 years later. His body is preserved in one of the dzong’s temples Machen Lhakhang. To this day, food and water are left for him outside the lhakhang every day.

RachuWe went dressed in kira with the ceremonial rachu (a sash worn on official occasions) that Sonam borrowed from the women in our hotel. Inside the dzong, Sonam told us the story of the life of the historical Buddha. We also saw the courtyard and went in to the main temple where they saw a workshop that had been set up for young monks to make decorative butter flowers and ritual cakes called torma. Special torma are made for each deity and torma are placed on the altars for various celebrations and rituals. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures.

BridgeNext, we made a quick stop at the only suspension bridge in Bhutan, which spans the river that runs through Punakha. The bridge was clothed in prayer flags and we fearlessly crossed the length of the bridge.

We stopped for lunch at a beautiful restaurant that overlooked the valley leading up to Chime Lhakhang. To get to Chime Lhakhang, we walked through a village full of rice paddies.

Chime lhakhangDrukpa Kinley, also known as the Divine Madman built a chorten at Chime Lhakhang and he is associated with this place. People who are having fertility problems come to Chime Lhakhang to ask for help from Drukpa Kinley. When we arrived at the temple, we were blessed by a young monk with a wooden phallus as well as a bow and arrow that supposedly belonged to Drukpa Kinley. While in the lhakhang, we were lucky enough to witness the naming ceremony of newborn child. The parents had come here before to seek help in having a child and they and the grandparents traveled all the way from Thimphu with their new 20 day-old infant bearing offerings in appreciation. They also came to receive a name for the child from a little slip of paper presented to them by the young monk.

On the way home, we saw the flashing lights of a government procession as the king biked down the road to Punakha right past our vehicle. After this short moment of excitement, the rest of the ride home was relatively uneventful.

From the non-trekking team, Elana, Emilia, Lina, Bianca and Sue

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