Bhutan

Monday 10/15/07 - Khamsum Yuly Namgyal Chorten, Punakha Dzong, Temple of the Divine Madman

We woke up at 6:45 am and we went to breakfast for 7:30. I wrote in the journal while at breakfast, since I had fallen asleep without doing it last night. Breakfast was chum thup, fluffy scrambled eggs made to order, and toast with strawberry jam. Dorji came and sat with us and we chatted for a while. At 8:30, on our way out the door, we looked around in the gift shop. They had some interesting things for sale and we would have to return later when we had more time.

Jigme drove us toward Khamsum Yuly Namgyal Chorten, a 30 meter tall chorten built by Queen Mother Ashi Sonam Choden for her son, the 5th king. On the way, we passed some beautiful farmland, as well as the Punakha Dzong, which sits majestically at the confluence of two rivers. It seemed wrong to drive past it, but Dorji assured us that we would be visiting it later in the day.The chorten sits perched on a hill overlooking the Mo Chhu (Chhu means river). It is a relatively new chorten, having been consecrated in 1999. We could see it from a distance, looking like a squared off pagoda, shining in the sun above us. Jigme parked the van, and we crossed the river via a suspension bridge. There were some large spiders on their silken webs attached to the bridge and we stopped to admire them. When we got to the other side, it was a 30 minute hike up a nice trail with a lot of switchbacks to get to the chorten. The elevation wasn't bad here, but the heat of the sun made it feel like a death march. There is zero humidity and the sun just bakes you. The thought passed my mind that who ever thought that heat stroke could be a danger in the Himalayas?

We got to the top of the hill and walked around. It was gorgeous. Facing the chorten were prayer flags and two large prayer wheels. Behind it, a very pretty statue of a goddess served as a fountain and was silhouetted against a gorgeous view of the river valley and rice paddies. We greeted a Bhutanese man seated on the steps leading into the chorten. We took our shoes off and stepped inside the doorway. We were immediately overwhelmed by what we saw. The first story had very high ceilings. In the center of the room was a glassed-in area with gorgeous carved brightly painted deities. The walls were covered with incredibly ornate paintings. We walked around clockwise, seeing the statues from every angle, trying to soak it all in. Since photos are not allowed inside chortens or monasteries, we felt we needed to imprint the sights in our brains to be able to accurately distinguish and describe them after the fact. We could have spent hours studying the artwork, but after about five minutes we climbed a staircase to the second floor. Here the statues weren't glassed-in. There were sculptures of what looked to be colored wax. We had seen these on the altar in Shelmakha during the festival. We asked Dorji about them and were amazed to find out that they weren't wax at all, but butter! We climbed the stairs to the third floor. There were musical instruments and another altar. We learned that the phallic flutes we had seen in Shelmakha were actually made of human femurs. There were doors which led to a narrow balcony, where a monk was using a broom to sweep up. When he was done, he came in through the doors and went downstairs.

We climbed up a final staircase and Dorji pulled back a metal hatch door. We climbed through and emerged in the sunlight directly below the shiny golden pinnacle of the stupa. The finial was stabilized by cables with bells on them, which tinkled softly. The view of the valley below was breathtaking. Punakha's landscape is particularly fairy tale-like. The serpentine ice blue Mo Chhu river wound its way through gold and green terraced fields, while the surrounding mountains were a deep green, covered in trees. We could see the suspension bridge across the river, and on the other side, our van, where Jigme dutifully and patiently waited in the shade of a large tree. After fully absorbing the storybook view from our vantagepoint, we circled around the perimeter of the terrace 3 times clockwise, in the Buddhist tradition. We descended the staircase as Dorji chanted prayers. We walked back down the trail, crossed the bridge, and met Jigme at the van.

As we drove toward Dorji's mother's house for our 12:30 lunch, we passed many Indian laborers manually working on the road. We stopped at a Nepalese-style stupa near the center of Punakha to get some photos. As we passed the dzong again, we got a few pictures of it as well, in the bright midday sunlight. We arrived at Dorji's mother's house right on schedule. Dawa was supposed to meet us, but he wasn't able to make it after all, and young Pema Rabgay was in school. Dorji led us to a sitting room on the left side of the house. There was a 3/4 height turquoise colored Toshiba refrigerator sporting a sticker that declared "Direct Cool" with a picture of a green apple. A doily was draped over the screen of a small TV which was sitting on a chest of teacups. Dorji explained that his mother hired day laborers to help her in her fields, and she would be serving them lunch in the other sitting room across the hall. We felt a little awkward to be seated separately, as we would be interested to meet the day laboreres and felt that we didn't warrant special treatment. Luckily, Dorji's mother felt the same way, and told Dorji that we would all eat together. So we migrated to the other sitting room, and were joined by three women and a man. We smiled at each other, and they seemed to be not quite sure what to make of us.

Dorji's mom had made a wonderful meal of delicious mustard oil soup, red rice, green beans, chilis and cheese (so hot!!), spinach, and potatoes. Dorji ran to the store to buy a Druk 11000 beer for Craig and a Mirinda for me, which was very thoughtful. Dorji's mom served us tea. Klutzy me hit the ornately carved table with my foot and spilled tea all over everything. I was very embarrassed but they were very nonchalant about the whole thing. We all enjoyed the delicious food as well as each other's company. The workers prepared betelnut when they were done with their lunch. Dorji's mom gave us a pear for dessert. It was much more sour than the pears we are used to. As we sat on the couch, we noticed a piece of paper stuck to the wall. It was Pema Rabgay's daily schedule, which he had written out. It was so cute: "Morning 6.00 work up, 6:30 dress up, 7:00 go to school, comming home 3:30, 3:30 to 35 eating rice, 4,00 to 5,00 studing, 5:00 to 6:30 playing, 6:30 to 7:30 tv time, 8:00 sleeping." What an organized kid! We used their bathroom (which was located in an outbuilding). I laughed when I noticed that the latch on the bathroom door was shaped like a phallus. I hadn't noticed that when we were here yesterday. We had siteseeing scheduled for the afternoon, so we thanked Dorji's mother for her hospitality and delicious food, and we said our goodbyes to the field laborers.

We left at 2:00 to visit the dzong, which had been teasing us with glimpses since yesterday. We were excited to be able to finally explore this grand fortress/temple. It is the 2nd largest in the country and is situated at the confluence of the male and female rivers (Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, respectively). Dorji had actually helped to repair the lower parts of the dzong's exterior walls when he was in high school. Leading up to the entrance was a wooden staircase divided into three equal sized sections. Different social classes of people used different staircases. Once we passed through the entryway, we emerged in a beautiful courtyard which was dominated by a lone Bodhi tree. Artisans were touching up the elaborate paintings which adorned every possible surface except for the whitewashed walls, and monks were cleaning corridors and staircases. We went inside the monastery and were greeted by an enormous statue of Guru Rinpoche, who was surrounded by smaller statues depicting his consorts and followers. Everything was elaborately painted, even the ceiling beams. The walls were lined with statues of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche and various saints. Near the ceiling, windows let in light and there were seemingly infinite paintings of Buddha. The columns supporting the structure were wrapped in canvas which was elaborately painted, in a form of age-old wallpaper. After marveling at the temple, as we were exiting the dzong, we took some photos of a beautiful painting of the Wheel Of Life, much like the painting we had purchased on Dochula Pass. A young monk caught my attention. "Miss?" I turned and he was washing a flight of stairs. I asked if I could get a photo and he tilted his head in the manner that we have learned means yes. I took the photo, which pleased him.

We then went on a short walk behind the dzong to the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan. The unbelievably long bridge spanned blue-gray river waters and had very strong stabilization wires supporting it (for which we were thankful). We walked across its immense length, looking down at the river waters below us. Prayer flags were attached to one side of the bridge, and we looked around at the green mountains surrounding the Punakha Valley. When we got to the other side, we turned around to come back. On our way back we encountered a cow. It shouldn't have surprised us too much as there was cow dung on the bridge, but meeting it face-to-face purposefully crossing to the other side seemed surreal. Her herd was below on the opposite riverbank, and she was on her way to join them.

We walked quickly back to the van, as we had to rush to get to our next stop before it closed at 4:30. We could have easily stayed here longer, as with any of the sites we had visited in Bhutan, but we had a schedule to keep. We didn't want to sacrifice any stops on the itinerary, so we needed to make a concerted effort to be brief where necessary. We knew that there was a "temple" out behind Dorji's mother's house, and that we were going to visit it today, but we had no idea that this temple was the famed Temple of the Divine Madman. The so-called Divine Madman is a Buddhist saint by the name of Lama Drukpa Kinlay. He was a Tibetan monk with an unorthodox way of teaching Buddhism to the masses. He thought that the traditional Buddhist curriculum was too stuffy and couldn't easily be grasped, so he presented the teachings of Buddha with off-color jokes and stories. He was renowned for his sexual prowess, and once even tied a katak (white silk scarf) around his penis in the hopes that it would help him gain favor with the ladies. The iconic phallus which is represented in paintings and carvings throughout the country is an homage to him. He is one of Bhutan's most beloved saints, and his temple is a very sacred place.

At 4:15 pm, we began our walk to the temple, which is not accessible by road. We walked between houses and then along paths through rice paddies. The weather was cooler now, so the walk was quite pleasant. The late afternoon sun was low in the sky, and was casting a beautiful golden glow throughout the fields. After a short walk, we reached the temple. The temple itself was a lot less imposing than I had expected - a small temple whose paintings were dingy and obviously quite old. It was a stark contrast to the brand new Khamsum Yuly Namgyal Chorten we had visited earlier today. It seemed so authentic and old-school. Canvas "wallpaper" depicted the events of the life of the Divine Madman. Here is the story: A demon haunted the Dochula Pass (the same pass we had crossed yesterday), and attacked and ate any travelers who were caught on the pass after dark. The Divine Madman was camping on the pass one night (just looking for trouble, it seems!) and was attacked by the demon. He subdued the demon with his organ ("with his ORGAN", Dorji underscored) and turned the demon into a dog, which he subsequently banished. This is where the Bhutanese name Chimmi comes from (it literally means "dog driven away").

There was no artificial light in the temple, and it had few windows, so it was rather dark inside as the afternoon light waned. The altar of the temple had a statue of the Divine Madman himself, butter carvings, a bow and arrow, drums, etc. The walls were lined with shelves of old prayer books in individual silk pouches. These prayer books can be read by monks in times of drought to pray for rain. Due to the Divine Madman's reputation for sexual prowess, we learned that couples who have trouble conceiving a child can get a blessing from a monk here to help them to conceive.

At 4:40, the monks of the temple needed to take their supper, so we exited the temple. We stood outside under a Bodhi tree for a few minutes. Knowing that Craig's brother Steve was interested in Buddhism, Dorji plucked a leaf from the Bodhi tree and told us to give it to Steve from Dorji. I took photos of the prayer wheel and the paintings of the deities of the four cardinal directions.

We walked back down the path through the paddies toward the van. The sun would soon set and workers in the field were packing up their crops and getting ready to go home. In front of a small chorten we met two girls on their way home from school. They were very friendly. I got a photo of them and showed it to them. They asked our names and theirs were Chimmi (dog driven away!) and Tshering. We later came upon two young boys at a small chorten singing and dancing, practicing for a school performance. I took a movie of them and played it back for them, but they weren't all that interested and remained focused on their rehearsal. They waved goodbye as we walked off.

When we reached the van, we stopped at the Village Restaurant for tea and biscuits served to us by 19-year-old Sonam who engaged us in conversation. She hovered around us to make sure we had everything we needed (we were her only customers as Jigme and Dorji were hanging with the other locals). Then she told us politely but clearly that she was ready to go home, so we wrapped things up. On the way back to the hotel we passed a snooker billiards hall, and Dorji said he had lost 150 ngultrum to Dawa there last night. He intended to win his money back tonight in a rematch. Craig asked if we could go with them and Dorji seemed a little surprised that we wanted to, but readily agreed.

We freshened up at the hotel and had dinner at 7. We had vegetable soup as a starter. In his continued quest to sample local beer throughout the world, Craig got a Flying Fox beer and I got my usual Fanta. The buffet consisted of red rice, beef curry,Chinese vegetables, dahl, and avacado for dessert. Two men were seated near us, and I kept thinking that one of them looked familiar. Craig didn't recognize him, but I thought he might be a broadcaster of some sort. Craig thought I was crazy. The proprietor, YT, came into the dining room with his little grandson. He had the child say, "Hi auntie and uncle" and blow us kisses to us. It was adorable. Dorji joined us and he and Craig talked about Buddhism.

After dinner we stopped at Dorji's mom's house to get some ibuprofen for Jigme, who had a boil that was bothering him and making it uncomfortable for him to drive. Then we went to "Koffee House Bar and Snooker". From the parking lot, the place didn't seem open. We walked through a seemingly abandoned dark first floor, stumbling over doorway thresholds that we were unable to see. Dorji explained that Bhutanese buildings are built this way in an attempt to keep ghosts from being able to enter. We thought to ourselves that this renders pretty much any Bhutanese building wheelchair-inaccessible. We groped our way to a steep staircase and ascended to the second floor, which was dominated by a snooker table. I was surprised to see that it was significantly larger than a traditional American pool table. Dorji had "arranged" a Druk 11000 beer (which, curiously, all Bhutanese call "Druk eleven hundred") and a Fanta, which were sitting on a little table in the corner. We sat down and Dorji explained the rules. He and Dawa played while their friends watched. Dorji won the rematch, and won 150 ngultrum minus the 50 ngultrum cushion fee (which he paid to Dawa). They were about to play some more, but one of their friends arrived and hired Dawa to drive him to Thimpu and the evening came to an abrupt halt. We said goodbye to Dawa, who is very sweet, and headed back to the hotel. I wrote in the journal and we went to sleep at 10:15.
Khamsum Yuly Namgyal Chorten

Khamsum Yuly Namgyal Chorten


View from atop Khamsum Yuly Namgyal Chorten

View from atop Khamsum Yuly Namgyal Chorten


Dorji's mother's house

Dorji's mother's house


Dorji, Mom, and a field hand eating lunch

Dorji, Mom, and a field hand eating lunch


Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong


Courtyard of Punakha Dzong

Courtyard of Punakha Dzong


Cow approaching Dorji on longest suspension bridge

Cow approaching Dorji on longest suspension bridge


Craig and Dorji crossing the fields to visit the Temple of the Divine Madman

Craig and Dorji crossing the fields to visit the Temple of the Divine Madman


Monks study beneath a Bodhi tree, Temple of the Divine Madman

Monks study beneath a Bodhi tree, Temple of the Divine Madman


Temple of the Divine Madman

Temple of the Divine Madman


Dorji teaches us the rules of snooker

Dorji teaches us the rules of snooker


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