[My below post was published in the March–April 2017 edition of Druk Air’s in-flight magazine Tashi Delek. All proceeds from my fees went to support the Ability Bhutan Society, a charity supported by Her Majesty the Gyaltsuen in aid of persons living with moderate to severe diverse abilities.]
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Deep in a valley in Western Bhutan, on the banks of the Paro Chhu river, lies a town suspended in time. The emerald green fields glimmer in the sun, punctuated with scraggy scarecrows. A lone woman in a purple kira tills the soil under an azure blue sky.
Lao Tzu’s words, from way back in the 6th Century BC, echo in my mind:
Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity.”
My reverie is broken by hollers and laughter in the distance. The farmers have started setting up their produce in the local market comprising a string of wooden tables piled high with fresh and sun-dried vegetables. The latter help carry the Bhutanese over the cold dry sterile winters. A line of red-robed monks file past me, a gentle smile on their lips.
It’s the crack of dawn, and I am in Paro. The main street I am walking down is lined with traditional buildings and was paved only recently, in 1985.
Scattered outside this street, across the fields, huddled in the valley, is an anthology of sacred and secret gems of Bhutanese heritage. They range from ancient dzongs to lhakhangs to chortens, filled with fantastical Buddhist effigies and Tantric art, living unhindered, a centuries old way of life.
This has been possible because of Bhutan’s high-value low-impact tourism policy based on the tenets of Gross National Happiness. The pay-off is a glade, inhabited with merely 20,000 people and hemmed in by the Himalayas, where time stands still and allows you too to be still and relish the present moment, one breath, one experience, at a time. The ambient rule being, to Just Be. 🙂
Unlike Thimphu, Paro does not inundate one with a long list of to-do’s. There is but a handful of sights, but each more poignant than the other, unblemished and virgin.
My explorations start with the valley’s most ancient archaeological site 14 kilometres from town, at the end of the paved road in the upper Paro Valley: the deserted ruins of Drukgyel Dzong.
Built in 1649 by Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651), 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche [Great Lama] and founder of the Bhutanese State, as a strategic defence base, the Drukgyel Dzong was in use till 1951 when it was burnt down by a fire. “Druk” is the local name for Bhutan, and “gyel” means victory. An appropriate christening for the dzong since it commemorates the victory of Bhutan over Tibetan invaders in 1644. A climb up the ruins offers magical views of Mount Jomolhari [7,326 metres].
Midway on the road to Drukgyel Dzong is Taktsang Monastery, more commonly known as Tiger’s Nest (1692). Perched on a cliff face at a height of 3,120 meters with a nearly 5 kilometre long trail leading to it, it is the valley’s most famous, visited and guaranteed-to-give-you-an-adrenal-rush site.
Experts claim you need half a day for the trek. Someone like me needs a full day, which, yes, I took! 😀 I write about the trek from a non-trekker’s perspective here.
Bhutan’s iconic attraction: Taktsang Monastery perched high up on a cliff
The intimate, inner courtyard of Kyichu Lhakhang contains Bhutan’s most sacred treasure, an original 7th Century effigy of Jowo Sakyamuni
My next stop is Bhutan’s oldest temple, Kyichu Lhakhang, said to have been built in 659 AD by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. One of his four border-taming temples, the Kyichu Lhakhang pinned down the left foot of a gigantic monster who was impeding the spread of Buddhism in Tibet. The temple was restored, added to and re-consecrated by Bhutan’s chief abbot in 1838.
Inside the inner courtyard lined with prayer wheels, blue wooden railings, and deep yellow door hangings is the valley’s greatest treasure—an original 7th Century effigy of Jowo Sakyamuni cast at the same time as the Jowo Sakyamuni in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.
I spend a good half an hour in the main shrine, seated on the floor, cross-legged and grateful. ❤ Wouldn’t you do the same?
An equally sacred and covert treasure in the valley is the Dumtse Lhakhang, an unusual chorten-like temple built in 1433 decorated with some of the finest murals in the Tantric Buddhist world. Its three floors, representing hell, earth, and heaven, are navigated through steep ladders and narrow dark corridors around a central core, and resemble a mandala.
According to legend the lhakhang was built by a saint to suppress a demoness. Covered with colourful, detailed paintings of Buddha, Avalokiteshvara, Guru Rinpoche, Vajrabhairava, Hayagriva, and Mahamaya, to name a few, they together create an astoundingly rich repository of Buddhist iconography. Be prepared for lots of awestruck moments, as the torch reveals one highlight after another.
And back to the secular are the two dzongs which form the somewhat ethereal view from my window: Ta Dzong, now the National Museum, and Paro Dzong.
Ta Dzong, an unusual round building with 2.5 metre thick walls, started off as a watchtower in 1649 to protect the undefended Paro Dzong below it. It was renovated to house the National Museum in 1968, a wonderful collection of thangkas, festival masks and a natural history gallery.
A downhill walk leads me to Paro Dzong, or to be more correct Rinpung Dzong, which I enter as dusk is just about to fall, and the gates about to close. The fortress is deserted and a grey windy air rips against me as I amble through its mammoth buttressed walls.
Rinpung Dzong translates as “Fortress on a Heap of Jewels” and was built on the orders of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1644 over the foundations of a monastery founded by Guru Rinpoche. Formerly a meeting hall for the National Assembly, it now houses government offices and a monastic body of about 200 monks. It is late, and most of the chapels and meeting halls are closed. But that does not take away its grandeur; in fact it merely adds to its impregnable inscrutability.
In between exploring the above, at no hurried pace for they demand to be experienced in leisure, I wander the bylanes of Paro town and sip coffee in accompaniment to my ruminations. It would also be fair to perhaps add that I almost start to comprehend the mysteries Lao Tzu refers to. The Paro Valley does that to you. 🙂
- Paro Valley’s sights are not at walking distance from its main town and are scattered in different directions. Taxis are readily available outside the market place.
- My favourite place to chill, and which serves awesome coffees and hot chocolate is Champaca Cafe on the main street.
- Caps, shorts, or sleeveless attire is not allowed inside the dzongs or lhakhangs [temples].
- You need to remove your shoes when entering a temple.
- Photography is allowed inside the dzong but not in the temples.
- Photography is not allowed inside the National Museum at Ta Dzong; Museum timings: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm, 7 days a week.
- Paro Tshechu is a 5-day annual festival held in the Paro Dzong in spring, introduced by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It has been held annually since the 17th Century. The dates for 2017 are: 7-11 April, 2017.
Note: My road trip to Western Bhutan was done with Doreen D’Sa, Doe’s Ecotours.