The Wonderland called Punakha

Punakha the erstwhile capital of Bhutan still holds the status as the religious capital of the kingdom. The sleepy town of Punakha is located by the river basin of the two tributaries called the Mo Chhu (mother river) and the Pho Chhu (father river) uniting to form the Punatsangchhu river. The rich alluvial plains and the low altitude favours the perennial green cover of the valley. Within this tiny green hamlet lies the magnificent Punakha Dzong, around which revolves all the activities in Punakha.

Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu
Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu

We were moving from the present capital of Bhutan to the ancient capital of the nation. (Read my previous post on Thimphu). I was so excited to pass through the previously seen pictures of the beautiful Dochula Pass. Dochula pass is mountain pass on the artery way from Thimphu to Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang. This mountain pass at an altitude above 3100 meters provides the panoramic view of the snow-covered Himalayan ranges with the highest peak of Bhutan called Mt Gangkar Puensum, on clear sunny days.

Stupas of the 108 memorial chorten in Dochula Pass
Stupas of the 108 memorial chorten in Dochula Pass

I was grateful to mother nature to show its varied mood while we passed through the Dochula Pass. While we were on our way towards Punakha we were welcomed by the mist and cloud covered view of the Dochula Pass. So dense was the haze that nothing around was visible. It was a surreal world with the 108 Chortens and the surrounding road floating on the clouds. While on our way back we were blessed with a bright sunny day. Who could have imagined that this was the same place? With all the misty shroud lifted there was the breathtaking view of the white Himalayan ranges all around. I am at loss of words to describe the beauty of Dochula Pass. I hope if my photographs can do some justice to the place.

108 Memorial Chorten on a cloudy day
108 Memorial Chorten on a cloudy day

The thick forest cover on the surrounding slopes consists of Cypress, Junipers, Rhododendron and other varieties of mixed conifers. This forest cover is home to a variety of wildlife. I was happy to spot the yellow-billed blue magpie here for the first time in my life. (Read my post on Birds of Bhutan.) As said in my previous post, Bhutan is a smooth amalgamation of man-made structures perched within the beautiful natural settings. Thus, within this serene natural backdrop, the picturesque Druk Wangyal Chortens is located. It is also known as 108 memorial Chorten.  

An elderly man chanting hymns
An elderly man chanting hymns

The 108 memorial Chorten was built with the support from the eldest Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck to honour the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the war against the Assamese insurgents from India in 2003. The memorial marks the victory of the fourth King His Highness Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The Druk Wangyal Lhakhang (temple) is built near the memorial in honour of the king and the completion of 100 years of monarchy.

The snow-covered Himalayan ranges from Dochula Pass
The snow-covered Himalayan ranges from Dochula Pass

The 108 Chortens are built on a hillock in between the road. The Chortens are arranged in a circular pattern in three layers on the hillock. The base level has forty-five Chortens followed by the second layer comprising of thirty-six and the final layer having twenty-seven Chortens and the topmost single central Chorten. The Chortens were built following all religious rituals as per the Vajrayana Buddhism.

108 memorial chorten on a sunny day
108 memorial chorten on a sunny day

Religious rites are a part of daily life for people here. People love to carry on their ancient tradition and rich culture. The king makes sure that the citizens maintain their respectful attitude towards their ancient culture and tradition and carry it forward to the next generations. Thus there is a peaceful coexistence of nature and the human who harness the natural properties in a controlled way. These Chortens was again an example of harmony between man-made structures and the beautiful nature.

Himalayan Range
Himalayan Range

Then through the forest of many known and unknown trees, we moved on. Some freshly bloomed Rhododendron were seen peeping through the greens while some trees were covered with unknown flowers. A few houses of some tiny village and the barren farms were interrupting the forest scenes. Thus we went past the beautiful village with its adjoining terraced paddy fields near the Chimi Lhakhang. This temple is also known as the fertility temple. Devotees mostly flock here to be blessed with a child. The temple is situated close to Lobesa, where the Drubchhu resort within a vast valley with serene ambience and an enchanting garden became our home for our days in Punakha and around.

The beautiful Drubchhu resort
The beautiful Drubchhu resort

The comparatively dense locality of Wangdue Phodrang lies by the Punatsangchhu river which runs parallel to the road. A few kilometres ahead on this curvy roads gave us the first glance of the majestic Punakha Dzong. As said before Punakha is all about the Punakha Dzong. The ancient, magnificent dzong beside the river is the hub of this sparsely populated region. The dzong is locally known as Pungtang Dewa Chhenbi Phodrang (palace of happiness). Bhutan is a mystical land of legend and prophecies. Every place has a legend and prophesies associated with it.

The Punakha Dzong by the river
The Punakha Dzong by the river

As per the prophecy of Guru Rinpoche, a man named Namgyal will arrive at a hill resembling an elephant and will construct a dzong. Fulfilling his prophecy the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal arrived at a hill that looked like the tip of an elephant’s trunk and ordered the construction of the dzong on that site. The architect named Zowe Palep had the clear vision of the dzong in his dream and also the order of the holy Zhabdrung to build the Dzong. As per the dream vision the dzong was built in a year. The Zhabdrung establish a monastic clan here and stayed here with his 600 disciples until his death.

The central tower of the dzong
The central tower of the dzong

The Dzong is situated at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu river which acted as a natural barrier against invasion. The second layer of protection came in the form of a steep wooden staircase that can be pulled up and a heavy wooden door which is closed at night. The Dzong was not the same when it was built initially. There were new additions in later phases during the reign of other rulers. The covered wooden cantilever bridge over the river connecting the dzong was rebuilt after it was destroyed in flood. A prayer hall was also added after a major fire incident.

Wooden cantilever bridge to the Dzong
Wooden cantilever bridge to the Dzong

The Dzong is made of stone, mud and clay, and doors and windows are made of woods. The highest central tower is a six storied structure. There are three courtyards within the dzong. The administrative offices, the bodhi tree, the large white Chorten and a shrine dedicated to the queen of the nagas are housed within the first courtyard. The first and the second courtyard has the central large tower in between.

The first courtyard with the Bodhi tree
The first courtyard with the Bodhi tree

The second courtyard is the residential quarters of the monks. There are two halls within this courtyard, among which one was where the first king of the Wangchuck dynasty, Ugyen Wangchuck was bestowed the Order of Knight Commander of the Indian Empire by John Claude White.

The third is the holiest of all, with the Machey Lhakhang within this courtyard. Machey Lhakhang means the temple of the preserved body or the mummified body (machey). In this temple, the holy remains of Pema Lingpa (a saint from whom the Wangchuck clan has descended) and Ngawang Namgyal (the holy Zhabdrung Rinpoche or the bearded lama) are preserved. The chests containing the sacred embalmed bodies are sealed never to be opened but the King and Je Khenpo have the permission to visit this place to take blessings before they take over their office.

Third Courtyard of Punakha Dzong
Third Courtyard of Punakha Dzong

Now, this was a lot about Punakha Dzong and its history and related people. But as much as I understand Punakha Dzong is the iconic destination of Punakha with much relevance and importance attached to it. This is the holy place of coronation of every king since Ugyen Wangchuck. This is also the place where the kings and the queens get married with the latest of the wedding of the present king and the queen.

Chimi Lhakhang in within the valley

The idyllic destination of Punakha is full of wonders. While the natural wonders mesmerise you, the man-made structures amaze you. Every turn keeps your mouth wide gaped in the awe of amazement. The Nomadic people with their unique headgear (see the picture of the nomad lady with the headgear), the lovely kids walking down the long distance from their school to home, the pristine waters of the female and the male river (Mo and the Pho Chu), the green vegetation around, the pretty structures and anything and everything in Punakha is wondrous just beyond words.

The valley in Lobesa
The valley in Lobesa

Almost every river I have seen in Bhutan has a suspension bridge over it. So does Punakha has one over the Pho Chu. This suspension bridge is the longest of all within Bhutan and is again a delightful location – a perfect example of harmony between man and nature. The strong winds were rocking the bridge like a swing. It was exciting, adventurous and tough walking across the bridge. We hold the prayer flag attached handle tightly to walk through the bridge it was undeniably one of the best experience of my life.

The suspension bridge
The suspension bridge

I can still feel the thrill of being in this wonderland. The enchanting locale with beautiful structures and interesting people was not just all. Our stay near Lobesa was yet another best part of Punakha. Even being a popular destination among the tourist Punakha has the charm to awe the visitors and thus I was in the wonderment within this wonderland.

Morning mist on the bright flowers
Morning mist on the bright flowers
The dzong and the bridge
The dzong and the bridge
Inside Punakha Dzong
Inside Punakha Dzong

Punakha at a glance, with travel information.

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