The sky was gray and it was drizzling as we left Thimpu en route to Punakha this morning. Punakha, Bhutan’s capital city until the mid-1950s, is home to the Punakha Dzong, one of Bhutan’s most architecturally significant buildings. Located in the very scenic Punakha Valley, a visit to Punakha is standard for most tourists who visit Bhutan.
As fortune would have it, today Bhutan’s chief Buddhist monk, Je Khenpo, and the Dratshang, the high council of Bhutanese monks, were en route from their winter residence in Punakha to their summer residence in Thimpu. This procession is an annual ritual accompanied by great fanfare in which a car caravan slowly proceed along the road as the faithful gather along the roadside to seek the blessings of the Je Khenpo. We initially drove to Simtokha Dzong, where the religious party had spent the night en route to Thimpu, in an attempt to catch the start of the day’s procession there, but the procession had already left. Thereafter we drove back toward Thimpu and found the procession, which we were able to observe. The procession had a police escort, followed by numerous Toyota SUVs carrying the most senior monks, and thereafter, by buses shuttling the less senior monks en route to Thimpu. Bhutanese lined the streets to seek the blessing of the monks, and in advance of the procession, monks handed out small religious amulets to everyone, including us. As this area had few residents, there were few crowds to deal with, so we had front row positions as the procession rode by. While the affair turned out to be relatively low key, it was nevertheless interesting to watch.
Subsequent to the procession, we continued our drive toward Punakha, climbing steadily through the valleys and rolling hills and passing through Hongtsho, a village populated primarily by ethnic Tibetans, en route. On a clear day, there is purportedly a beautiful view of the Himalayas from the highest pass at Douchu La, which lies at an elevation of 3140 meters. However, as we had completely overcast skies and a lot of fog, we saw nothing.
We stopped at Douchu La to check out the 108 chortens and the numerous prayer flags on the hills immediately overlooking Douchu La. Moments later, we took a tea break at a roadside restaurant which again purportedly offers great views. As we will retrace much of our route tomorrow, I hope that the weather is clear in order that we can have a look at the panoramic views offered here.
After Dochu La, we drove almost solely downhill along scenic windy roads until we reached Punakha. After checking into our bungalow at our hotel, the Zangdopelhri, and eating lunch there, we drove over to Punakha’s most famous attraction, the Punakha Dzong. The complex is absolutely astonishing. The Punakha Dzong is a giant wood and stone fort-like structure - parts of which are some six stories high - which has been beautifully painted. Set alongside the Pho Chu “Male” River lined with jacaranda trees about 100 meters away from the confluence of the Pho Chu “Male“ River and the Mo Chu “Female“ River, the Punakha Dzong appears to tower over much of the beautiful natural surroundings. Entry to the Punakha Dzong necessitates crossing the Pho Chu “Male” River, and a wooden covered bridge that reminds me of a bridge over a moat to a castle is the primary means to enter the complex. The interior of Punakha Dzong is equally impressive. This had functioned as Bhutan’s capital building until the 1950s, and today it continues to serve as a regional administrative as well as religious center. The Punakha Dzong continues to function as the winter residence of the Je Khenpo and central monastic council whose procession we had witnessed this morning. An impressive sight to visit, the Punakha Dzong exceeded my expectations by a long shot!
After leaving the Punakha Dzong, we drove to the nearby city of Wangdue and visited Wangdue Dzong. The Wangdue Dzong had a much more rustic and decadent feel to it than the highly visited Punakha Dzong, but it was also a beautiful structure. Here live a number of monks, and a large number of local young monks - whom i've heard referred to as monklets - board here as well. We observed for a bit some of the young monks - I would estimate the ages of the entire lot to be between 9 and 12 - before exiting the Wangdue Dzong. Thereafter we visited the central shopping square of Wangdue, where a series of small shops lined the roadways.
Today’s drive to Punakha hammered home that fact that Bhutan is uncrowded. The country has 600,000 citizens, and everywhere people seem to move about with plenty of personal space, the hillsides seem covered with forests and even the settlements seem to pop up only sporadically. Having come overland from India - from West Bengal no less, the state in India with the highest population density - , where human activity appears nearly omnipresent in most areas, Bhutan’s sporadic settlements and extensive natural cover sharpens the contrast.