Punakha: Mothers, Fathers

Approaching the Dzong at Punakha

Approaching the Dzong at Punakha

Punakha is famed for its Dzong or castle. It is massive and beautiful, strategically located at the union of the Mother and Father rivers, accessed from a cantilevered bridge over the Mother.

Approaching the Dzong at Punakha

Approaching the Dzong at Punakha

Wide stone steps lead steeply up to a portico sheltering 2 massive golden prayer wheels. Inside are three courtyards, the first administrative and secular and the last strictly religious, and at the end of the last courtyard is a temple accessed through two simple curtains. You are asked to remove your shoes and refrain from photography, and enter a hall filled with golden columns and light filtering down from a second story in the center. Every surface is intricately carved or embossed or painted, the walls depicting the life of the Buddha in intricate pictograms. Gleaming in the semi-darkness at the end of the room are a series of massive golden statues, thrones for king and monk, lines of bowls with water offerings, and alters lined with money left by supplicants. The floors are dark wood and the smell is of wood. Among the golden columns are low carpeted platforms for seating. Monks wander in and out, as do tourists and a cat. Two Korean monks surreptitiously snap pictures.

Cantilivered Bridge over the Mother

Cantilivered Bridge over the Mother

This temple is so strangely moving. I thought about the 10 years of work it took to restore the temple after the flooding that almost destroyed it, a glacial lake bursting through its ice dam in the 1990s. I thought about being a craftsman producing just a tiny piece of the intricate work inside. I can’t explain this awkward feeling of sadness in there, a feeling I last felt at the delicate singing of the nuns at a Catholic Center in Benin. Leaving I felt wrung out, and sure I would neither capture the experience in words nor ever forget it.

The entrance to the Dzong at Punakha

The entrance to the Dzong at Punakha

Bhutan is described as a tripod: a governance of consensus between an electorate, a king and a religious leader. I asked what the politics was actually like to witness, and our guide described it as very English, with laughing and passionate debate and nose to nose confrontation, and with an aggressive clap thrown at your opponent when a point is considered made. That description at least felt more real than a tripod.

Prayer Wheel inside the portico of the Dzong at Punakha

Prayer Wheel inside the portico of the Dzong at Punakha

Later in the day we hike up to the monastery at Chimi Lhakhang, the rituals there designed to promote fertility. We walk among the rice fields below, slipping here and there on the muddy and narrow berms between them. The fields are flooded and everywhere there is mechanized tilling and hand planting. The monks are chanting inside the monastery, women are receiving blessings, and I feel like an intruder.

Looking down from the monestary

Looking down from the monestary

Many of the buildings on the walk back to the hotel are painted with huge pink phalluses and hairy testicles, and the prices in the trinket shops are very high.

Market at Lobesa

Patrolling the market at Lobesa

Hotel Vara at Lobesa

Hotel Vara at Lobesa, the valley from my balcony

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