Bhutan is a small kingdom wedged between two mighty countries, India and China, in the shadows of the Himalayas. It is a country steeped in Mahayana Buddhism, myths and legends under the sovereign rule of the Wangchuck Dynasty. The magnificent landscape is picture perfect with majestic mountains sweeping down to lush valleys carved by cascading rivers.
Locals still wear their national costumes as their daily attire with pride and success is measured via the Gross National Happiness index because here the welfare of the people is paramount.
Bhutan has never been big on tourism and slow to progress. The internet only arrived here in 1999 and it’s infrastructure is still a work in progress.
Thimphu – the capital of Bhutan
Thimphu the capital city has no skyscrapers or traffic to blot its cityscape. The mini roundabout is a pavilion with statues of goddesses while policemen physically conduct the traffic instead of traffic lights.There are hints of modernity creeping in slowly with new buildings but this is tightly controlled by the government who insist that they be inkeeping with Bhutanese tradition.
On a hill overlooking the city, the colossal Dordenma Buddha statue of 51.5m high cast in bronze and gilded in gold is like a spiritual beacon to the people. Dzongs (a type of fortress), which are found everywhere in the country, were built in ancient time as fortresses and monasteries. Today they are used as monasteries as well as government administration offices.
Punakha District – the heart of Bhutan
Travelling into Punakha, the old capital, the heart of Bhutan, is on bone-shaking unfinished road hewn out of the mountainside. The scenery is the jaw-dropping natural beauty of the country which unfolds at every turn of the road. Prayer flags are installed everywhere to send prayers to the universe.Punakha Dzong, also known as Palace of Great Happiness, was built in 1637 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. He was a Tibetan Lama, who unified Bhutan as a nation-state and instilled a unique cultural identity. The mighty fortress has glorious allegorical frescos, intricate artwork and carvings and houses the most sacred relic known as Ranjung Karsapani and the resting place of Zhabdrung’s embalmed body.
The most esoteric temple in the Punakha District is the fertility temple of Chimi Lhakhang where the phallus symbol is worshipped notably by women to beget children. We walked through the village amidst rice fields where every house has a phallus image painted on the walls for good luck. The gift shops sell penis talisman for fertility much to the amusement of tourists.
Valley of Phobijkha – flight of the cranes
The valley of Phobjikha is a breath-taking vista where the wide sweeping valleys are flanked by lofty mountains. It is a vast wetland that welcomes the annual winter migration of the rare and endangered Black-Necked Crane where hundreds flock in from the Tibetan Plateau in late October till mid February for their winter roost.This natural wonder is celebrated with the Black-Necked Crane Festival in November every year with crane-themed dances, folk songs and drama performances in the Gangtey Monastery. The ancient monastery sits atop a spur overlooking the stunning valley and houses a Buddhist school and prominent religious iconographies. It is said that the cranes circumambulate three times in their flight over the monastery on every arrival before landing on the wetland nearby and do the same on their return flight as if to pay respect to Gangtey Monastery.