Bhutan: Paro and Thimphu

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When we were in Nepal last year we also visited Bhutan. Reviewing posts recently, I noticed that I never wrote about this trip. I think Bhutan is of interest to many travelers, but is not nearly as visited, mostly because, I think, that the cost is so high; for Westerners, you are required to book your travel with an agency, and the mandatory cost is more than $200 per day per person. We booked a four-day tour, and were very happy to have done so, even though it put a big dent in our travel budget.

I hope to show some of what this fascinating place is like in these posts. There will be four posts altogether.

We left from Kathmandu, Nepal. We can see our flight to Paro, Bhutan, on the departures board. It is on Druk Airlines, the national airlines of Bhutan.

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For most of the short flight all we could see were fluffy clouds.

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We arrived in Bhutan after about one hour.

Bhutan (from wikipedia and wikitravel)

To give you some background on Bhutan:

Bhutan ("Druk Yul") is a small country in the Himalayas between the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and India.

Besides the stunning natural scenery, the enduring image of the country for most visitors is the strong sense of culture and tradition that binds the kingdom and clearly distinguishes it from its larger neighbors. Due to its pristine environment and harmonious society, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan has been called "The Last Shangri-La." Bhutan is the only Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world, and the profound teachings of this tradition remain well preserved and exert a strong influence in all aspects of life. (Vajrayana Buddhism is said to have started in India about 400 AD, but since about the 13th century has mainly been associated with Tibet.)

Bhutan is a unique country both culturally and environmentally. Perched high in the Himalayas, it is the world’s last remaining Buddhist kingdom. It has developed the philosophy of “Gross National Happiness,” where development is measured using a holistic approach of well-being, not just based on gross domestic product.

Bhutan’s landscape ranges from subtropical plains in the south to the sub-alpine Himalayan heights in the north, where some peaks exceed 7,000 meters (23,000 ft). Its total area was reported as approximately 38,394 square kilometers (14,824 sq mi) in 2002. Bhutan has a small population, 672,425 per the 2005 census.

Bhutan History

Stone tools, weapons, elephant bones, and remnants of large stone structures provide evidence that Bhutan was inhabited as early as 2000 BC. Much of early Bhutanese history is unclear since most records were destroyed when fire ravaged the ancient capital, Punakha, in 1827. We do know that Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan in the 7th century AD. Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo (reigned 627–649), a convert to Buddhism, who actually had extended the Tibetan Empire into Sikkim and Bhutan, ordered the construction of two Buddhist temples, at Bumthang in central Bhutan and at Kyichu (near Paro) in the Paro Valley.

Buddhist saint Padma Sambhava   (often called Guru Rinpoche in Bhutan) came to Bhutan in 747, and is still highly regarded to this day as the founder of Buddhism in Bhutan. By the 10th century, Bhutan’s political development was heavily influenced by this religion. Various sub-sects of Buddhism emerged which were patronized by the various Mongol warlords in China. After the decline of the Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century, these sub-sects vied with each other for supremacy in the political and religious landscape, eventually leading to the ascendancy of the Drukpa sub-sect by the 16th century.

Bhutan existed as a patchwork of minor warring fiefdoms until the early 17th century, when the lama and military leader Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, fleeing religious persecution in Tibet, unified the area and then cultivated a distinct Bhutanese identity. Namgyal built a network of impregnable Dzong (fortresses), and promulgated the Tsa Yig, a code of law that helped to bring local lords under centralized control. Many such dzong still exist and are active centers of religion and district administration.

In 1720 a Chinese imperial army invaded Tibet and established suzerainty (the control of the country in international affairs but allowing the country it own domestic sovereignty) over both Tibet and Bhutan. Control over Bhutan changed several times thereafter, and the country’s exact territorial extent was not clear. The British intervened in Bhutan in 1772–73 and again in 1864–65, at which time the defeated Bhutanese signed a treaty ceding control of their southern border passes to the British. The Bhutanese also agreed to accept British mediation in any future disputes between Bhutan and its neighbors in return for an annual British subsidy.

During the 1870s, power struggles between the rival valleys of Paro and Tongsa led to civil war in Bhutan, eventually leading to the ascendancy of Ugyen Wangchuck, the ponlop (governor) of Tongsa. From his power base in central Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck defeated his political enemies and united the country following several civil wars and rebellions during 1882–85.

The British intervened in Bhutan in 1772–73 and again in 1864–65, at which time the defeated Bhutanese signed a treaty ceding control of their southern border passes to the British. The Bhutanese also agreed to accept British mediation in any future disputes between Bhutan and its neighbors in return for an annual British subsidy.

The Bhutan Dragon Kings

In 1907, an epochal year for the country, Ugyen Wangchuck was unanimously chosen as the first hereditary king, the Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) of Bhutan, of the country. This was done by an assembly of leading Buddhist monks, government officials, and heads of important families. The British government promptly recognized the new monarchy, and in 1910 Bhutan signed the Treaty of Punakha, a subsidiary alliance which gave the British control of Bhutan’s foreign affairs and meant that Bhutan was treated as an Indian princely state. This had little real effect, given Bhutan’s historical traditions, and also did not appear to affect Bhutan’s traditional relations with Tibet.

In 1953, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established the country’s legislature – a 130-member National Assembly – to promote a more democratic form of governance. In 1965, he set up a Royal Advisory Council, and in 1968 he formed a Cabinet. In 1971, Bhutan was admitted to the United Nations, having held observer status for three years.

In July 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended to the throne at the age of sixteen after the death of his father, Dorji Wangchuck. King Singye Wangchuck introduced significant political reforms, transferring most of his administrative powers to the Council of Cabinet Ministers and allowing for impeachment of the King by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly.

The term "Gross National Happiness" was coined in 1972 by King, Singye Wangchuck, who opened Bhutan to an age of modernization soon after the demise of his father.

In 1999, the government lifted a ban on television and the Internet, making Bhutan one of the last countries to introduce television. In his speech at this time to the country, the King said that television was a critical step to the modernization of Bhutan as well as a major contributor to the country’s Gross National Happiness (Bhutan is the only country to measure happiness), but warned that the "misuse" of television could erode traditional Bhutanese values.

A new constitution was presented in early 2005. In December 2005, King Singye Wangchuck announced that he would abdicate the throne in his son’s favor in 2008.

On 14 December 2006, he announced that he would be abdicating immediately. This was followed by the first national parliamentary elections in December 2007.

On 6 November 2008, 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, eldest son of King Singye Wangchuck, was crowned the fifth Dragon King. Below is a picture of the young king. His father stepped down, thinking that a younger king would be better for the changes that face Bhutan. The young king is known as more of an advanced thinker. An example of this is that he has ordered that Bhutan convert to 100% organic farming over the next ten years.

I am impressed, as I have come to know something about Bhutan, that the Dragon Kings have been such a power for modernization and democracy in the country. That King Singye Wangchuck would step down in favor of his son is a great example of this.

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In 2006, based on a global survey, Business Week rated Bhutan the happiest country in Asia and the eighth-happiest in the world.

In 2008, Bhutan made the transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy and held its first general election.

Bhutan has a long history of influence from Tibet. Its languages, religion, and vital historical figures, like Padma Sambhava are very closely related to Tibet. It might actually be the place remaining in the world with the most Tibetan influence.  Since Tibet has been taken over by China and irrevocably changed, maybe visiting Bhutan is the most like visiting Tibet before it was destroyed by China?

Bhutan’s economy is based on agriculture, forestry, tourism and the sale of hydroelectric power to India. Agriculture provides the main livelihood for more than 80 percent of the population. With abundant potential for hydroelectric power, they plan for this to be a major export in the coming years. The king is interested in preserving what is special about Bhutan and does not want it to become overdeveloped and lose what is unique. For this reason, it is required that when you build a house or building, Bhutanese style elements be used. Also school children and those in the tourist trades are required to wear national dress. So when you are visiting Bhutan, you know you are in Bhutan, not anywhere else.

As we get closer to our destination, we can see the ground, a valley surrounded by high mountains, typical for Bhutan.

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A mosaic of rice fields is seen below, with a river running by.

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We arrive at Paro International Airport, the only such airport in the country.

Paro

Paro is a small city, with a population of about 5000. It is home to Paro Airport, Bhutan’s only international airport.

The most prominent feature of Paro is the Rinpung Dzong a fortress-monastery overlooking the Paro valley. It has a long history. A monastery was first built on the site by Padma Sambhava in the eighth century, and in 1644 Ngawang Namgyal built a larger monastery on the old foundations. For centuries this imposing five story building served as an effective defense against numerous invasion attempts by the Tibetans.

Here is the airport terminal. Already we can see the unique style of the country.

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Driving to our hotel we go through rice fields. I notice that the houses are on the hillside, not on agricultural land.

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Ahead, on the other side of a river, is the Rinpung Dzong.

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Looking through rice fields towards Paro.

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Out hotel while in Paro, the Khangkhu Resort. Very nice. The tour company booked us in first-rate places.

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Looking across the valley at night. The Rinpung Dzong is illumined with blue lights.

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The next morning, the view from our hotel room shows a day that is bright and clear.

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Store fronts in Paro. You can see that first is the Bhutanese style. The signage for the stores is relatively insignificant.

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A farmer’s house near the city. Quite nice, seems pretty prosperous.

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One of many large Buddhist prayer wheels that we will see while in Bhutan. This is the first that we see.

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Our main activity in Paro today will be to visit the Rinpung Dzong.

Rinpung Dzong

Rinpung Dzong is a large Drukpa Kagyu Buddhist monastery and fortress. It houses the district Monastic Body and government administrative offices of Paro Dzongkhag.

The Rinpung Dzong is one of Bhutan’s most impressive and well-known dzongs (“fortress”), and perhaps the finest example of Bhutanese architecture you’ll see. The massive buttressed walls that tower over the town are visible throughout the valley. The dzong’s correct name, Rinchen Pung Dzong (usually shortened to Rinpung Dzong), means “fortress on a heap of jewels.”

In the 15th century local people offered the crag of Hungrel at Paro to Lama Drung Drung Gyal, a descendant of Pajo Drugom Zhigpo. Drung Drung Gyal built a small temple there and later a five storied Dzong which was known as Hungrel Dzong. This was built on the foundation of a monastery built by Guru Rinpoche, several hundred years earlier.

In the 17th century, his descendants, the lords of Hungrel, offered this fortress to the Drukpa hierarch Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, in recognition of his religious and temporal authority. In 1644 the Shabdrung dismantled the existing Dzong and laid the foundations of a new Dzong. In 1646 the Dzong was re-consecrated and established as the administrative and monastic center of the western region and it became known as Rinpung Dzong.

A great annual festival, or tsechu, is held at Rinpung Dzong from the eleventh to the fifteenth day of the second month of the traditional Bhutanese lunar calendar (usually in March or April of the Gregorian calendar). On this occasion, holy images are taken in a procession. This is followed by a series of traditional mask dances conveying religious stories which are performed by monks for several days. Before the break of dawn on the morning of the fifteenth day, a great sacred Tongdrol banner depicting the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) is displayed for the public in the early morning hours, to keep to the tradition of not allowing sunlight to fall on it

An interesting side note: scenes from Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1995 film Little Buddha were filmed here.

Looking down on Rinpung Dzong from the road.

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The four-level tower atop the main building of the Dzong.

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Monks near the entrance, wearing traditional Tibetan Buddhist robes of dark red. (Since dark red was the cheapest color in Kashmir and areas north of India, the Tibetan tradition has red robes.)

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The stairway at the entrance.

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An elderly woman climbs up the stairs.

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After the stairs, a short bridge. Easy to defend and hard to attack, good design for a fortress.

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In the entry hallway are a number a paintings of traditional Tibetan Buddhist images.

Below is a guardian demon, holding a sword and guarding the entrance to the Dzong. I tried to identify him and could not. Perhaps a reader can let us know his name and story?

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The next image is the famous Tibetan Buddhist Wheel of Life. The Wheel of Life (Bhavachakra in Sanskrit) represents the cycle of birth and rebirth, and existence in samsara and liberation.

The main sections are the hub and the six "pie wedges" depicting the Six Realms. There are Buddha figures in each of the six panels. Yama, the God of Death, is the fearsome creature holding the Wheel.

Many Buddhists understand the Wheel in an allegorical, not literal, way. As you examine the parts of the wheel you might find yourself relating to some of it personally or recognizing people you know as Jealous Gods or Hell Beings or Hungry Ghosts.

The outer circle of the Wheel is the Paticca Samuppada, the Links of Dependent Origination. Traditionally, the outer wheel depicts a blind man or woman (representing ignorance); potters (formation); a monkey (consciousness); two men in a boat (mind and body); a house with six windows (the senses); an embracing couple (contact); an eye pieced by an arrow (sensation); a person drinking (thirst); a man gathering fruit (grasping); a couple making love (becoming); a woman giving birth (birth); and a man carrying a corpse (death).

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A tiger on a chain held by some figure. I don’t know who. lt looks Chinese-style to me. Maybe this is Guru Rimpoche, who is said to have ridden a tiger to found the famous monastery called “The Tiger’s Nest”?

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The inside of the dzong.

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The central tower, the Utse. This is a common feature of all Bhutanese dzongs.

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The large courtyard is typical of dzongs.

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These windows are typically Bhutanese, as is the array of decorated post ends sticking out of the wall above and below the windows.

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On the inside wall of the dzong, wide windows and narrower slit windows climb up the wall, three stories above the entrance.

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The rooms inside the dzong are typically allocated half to administrative function (such as the office of the penlop, or governor), and half to religious function, primarily the temple and housing for monks. This division between administrative and religious functions reflects the idealized duality of power between the religious and administrative branches of government.

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A woman in traditional dress walks along a wall, spinning prayer wheels.

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Looking out the front windows of the dzong into Paro Valley.

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A nice building, built in the Chinese style with a four-tiered roof as seen from the Dzong.

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The bridge across the Paro Chhu River.

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On this roof is a grid of stones, I guess to hold down the roof in a wind.  They are laid out in a attractive pattern.

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A workman carrying in boards to be used in the renovation of a room.

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Stairs in the courtyard. In the photo below, Carol is talking to our guide, Lhendup. The white shawl over his traditional black dress indicates that he is operating as a tourist guide. Other people had other colors of shawls, depending on their role.

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Monks, sitting and talking.

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Here is that Chinese-looking man with a tiger on a chain again.

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The Four Friends. (More about this motif later.)

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Another view of the tower on top of the dzong. In this view you can see the intricate construction of the roof.

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On the four corners of the tower are these figures, some kind of protective demon, I guess.

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We left the dzong and are walking around it. There is a garden with items built from stones.

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This looks like some kind of stone stupa.

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The red stripe around the top of the dzong wall is typical.

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Below the dzong is a traditional wooden covered bridge, called Nyamai Zam, spanning the Paro Chhu River. This is a reconstruction of the original bridge, which was washed away in a flood in 1969. Earlier versions of this bridge were removed in time of war to protect the dzong.

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The cantilevered bridge is shown here. I think this is another special Bhutanese construction approach.

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Walking over the bridge.

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The Paro Chhu River. Notice the stone walls on its side, to control flooding when the water is higher.

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To Thimphu

We then drove to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, a drive of about one hour.

Prayer Flags

Prayer flags are ancient in the Himalayas, probably originating with the Bon, in Tibet. Bon predated Buddhism in Tibet and Bhutan. There is no clear historical record, though some legends say that Bon dates back 17,000 years. Ancient Bon, like many ancient belief systems, was rooted in the divinity of nature and the spirits that inhabited Tibet’s wild landscape. There were shamans and priests called Gshen and Bon, who were links to the unseen world, who controlled the forces of nature. Prayer flags were a part of Bon practice.

There are several types of prayer flags, used for different purposes. The one thing that they all have in common is that their prayers are spread by the wind to all sentient beings, so even if you use them for a personal reason, their benefits go to all. As far as I can tell there are five types of prayer flags:

  • Lungdhar, which are square or rectangular in shape, made of the five colors, are connected along their top edges, and hung horizontally or diagonally on a string.
  • Darchor, also made of the five colors, are very tall vertical flags attached to poles planted in the ground.
  • Lhadhar, the largest, are also very tall vertical flags. They are white in color, usually have no text.
  • Goendhar, the smallest prayer flags, are located in the middle of a rooftop of a home. Rectangular in shape, they are white with ribbons of green, red, yellow, and blue attached to the edges.
  • Manidhar, very tall white prayer flags, vertical and attached to poles.

Driving out of Paro we see these white flags up on  hillside. There are many of them, probably (as I learned) 108 of them. These are Manidhar flags. They are raised on behalf of a deceased person, as a way of remembering the person who died. It is believed that there are benefits from hoisting batches of 108 (an auspicious number) of Manidhar prayer flags.

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A farmer’s house, behind a ripe field of rice, about ready to be harvested.

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Red chilies drying on a roof. This is a common sight.

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The road follows along this river, the Paro Chhu, until it meets the Wong Chhu River, then follows this river to Thimphu.

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Farm house built above the river, with mountains behind.

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Pedestrian bridge over the Paro Chhu. 

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Flags over the Paro Chhu, near a bridge. These are mainly Lungdhar, square flags of five colors, and always in sets of multiples of 5, always in sequence: blue, white, red, green and yellow. The colors represent the elements. They are mainly offered to increase people’s spirit, success and luck. They have a meaning not dissimilar to Hindu’s Ganesh, the remover of obstacles.

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This is the place where the Paro Chhu joins the Wang Chhu. A place where two rivers joined is called Chhuzom.

For many traditional Bhutanese, this confluence is considered the union of a father and mother river. Paro Chhu represents the father and is sometimes called the Pho Chhu. Wong Chu represents the mother. Because Bhutanese traditions regards such a convergence of rivers as inauspicious, there are three chortens (stupas) here to ward off evil spells in the area. Each chorten is in a different style – Bhutanese, Tibetan and Nepali.

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The Wang Chhu to Thimphu.

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Rock cliffs along the way.

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Terraced fields and a lonely farm house.

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Small farm community nestled on a bluff on the side of a hill.

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These are Darchor, five-color, very tall vertical flags attached to poles. Darchor translates as “to increase life, fortune, health and wealth for all sentient beings.”

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More farm houses on the hill above well manicured fields next to the river.

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Thimphu

Thimphu became the capital of Bhutan in 1961. As of 2005 it had a population of 79,185, with 98,676 people living in the entire Thimphu district. It is Bhutan’s largest city.

New apartment buildings being built. The construction is similar to what we see in India, cement and bricks, using scaffolding made of wooden poles as needed.

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Nearing the city.

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Changangkha Lhakhang

We first visited the Changangkha Lhakhang. Built in the 12th century, the Changangkha Lhakhang is the oldest temple in Thimphu. It is on a ridge above the city. Lama Phajo Drukgom Zhigpo, who came to Bhutan from Tibet, chose this site to build this lhakhang. The lhakhang houses Chenrizig: an 11-headed, thousand-armed manifestation of Avolokitesawara, the Buddha of Compassion, as the central god.

The front of the temple.

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The many-tiered roof top.

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Interior construction and décor.

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The inner courtyard. This reminds me of the dzong which we first visited.

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Here there any many niches with paintings of holy figures behind glass.

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They are hard to photograph due to the reflections.

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Carol got a pretty reflection-free shot of these.

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The Four Friends

You see paintings and sculptures of Four Harmonious Friends, popularly known as Thuenpa Puen Zhi, almost everywhere you go in Bhutan.

As the story goes, the bird finds a seed and plants it. Then, the rabbit waters it, and the monkey fertilizes it. Once the seed sprouts and begins to grow, the elephant protects it. After some time, the small plant grows into a big, beautiful tree full of healthy fruit. By working together and using their individual talents, the four friends are able to reach and enjoy the fruit.

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Close-up showing the yellow, long-necked bird, white rabbit, and monkey, all sitting on the elephant.

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I do not know who this figure is. I saw him again and again while in Bhutan. Reminds me of St. Francis. Does anyone know?

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Another demon. Who?

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Below is a cloth piece, showing, in the center, a double dorje, called a “Viśvavajra.” This symbol is on the flag of Bhutan. I have heard the dorje called a “thunderbolt.” Symbolically a dorje represents the “thunderbolt of enlightenment,” that abrupt change in human consciousness which is recognized by all the great religions as the pivotal experience in the lives of mystics and saints. In Advaita Vedanta this is called “Self-Realization” or “Self-knowledge”

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To the Inner Sanctum. These temple interiors were very interesting, with god figures and colorful decoration. The gods were often offered flowers and other things, made of colored butter. It is cold here, so the butter won’t melt. No photos are allowed in the inner sanctum, the same as in India.

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Though I could not photograph this in the inner sanctum. Here is a photo a found on the internet of a Tibetan Chenresig, the primary God in this temple:

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Parents traditionally come to this temple to get auspicious names for their newborns or blessings for their young children from the protector deity Tamdrin, a figure placed next to Chenresig.

Below is a bronze statue of Tamdrin, again taken from the internet, since we weren’t allowed to take photos in the Inner Sanctum. You can see this is a fierce protector. There are other pictures I have seen without the consort. Maybe that version is what they show the young children. This is the most common form we saw of this deity.

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Street-side view in Thimphu.

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Lunch

Prayer wheels at the entrance.

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Lunch at at typical restaurant for tourists.

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Flags on the street outside the restaurant.

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So far we find Bhutan very interesting, and a different place from all the Hindu places we have visited in and around India. There will be three more posts coming soon to cover the rest of the trip.

Related Posts

Touring and Travel in India Our travels within India.
Touring and Travel outside India Our travels outside India.

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5 Responses to “Bhutan: Paro and Thimphu”

  1. Venkateswara Rao K Says:

    Thanks. Very well written with full of information.

  2. Pelber Tshewang Says:

    since everyone knows about thimphu and Paro.

  3. Pelber Tshewang Says:

    how about Haa district? next time ask your tour operator to about Haa.

  4. Bhutan: Paro and Thimphu | Living in the Embrace of Arunachala | ThisRightNow Says:

    […] Bhutan – Google Blog Search | Bhutan: Paro and Thimphu | Living in the Embrace of Arunachala […]

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