Bhutan: Attractions in and around Thimphu


This day we will see some of the major sights around Thimphu (most of which we know nothing about): the Druk Wangyal Chortens at Dorchula Pass, the Royal Bhutanese Silversmith, the Memorial Chorten, the giant statue of Sakyamuni Buddha, and finally the Motithang Takin Preserve. This is our third day in Bhutan. I wrote about the first two days in these posts: Bhutan: Paro and Thimphu, and Bhutan: Traditional Arts and the Tashichhoe Dzong in Thimphu.

Dochula Pass

Dochula Pass, the most well-known pass in the Bhutan, is about 30 odd Km from Thimphu, on the way towards central Bhutan. Dochula Pass is around 3150 meter from sea level, about 900 meters above Thimphu. It is mostly covered with white clouds, but if you find a clear day you can see spectacular views of the Himalayas.


Along the way there are a number of small prayer wheels alongside the road.


We start to see many small cones, maybe two inches high, carefully placed high in the mountains along the road. We were told that these are made from the ashes of departed souls. Researching, I find that these are called tsa-tsa (pronounced with a silent t) offerings. They are small stupa-like (“chorten-like,” in the Bhutanese terminology) cones made of clay, pressed into a mold, and sometimes colored, particularly white, gold or red.

These tsa-tsa are commissioned by the bereaved family, and made by monks in special religious ceremonies that have been passed down for hundreds or thousands of years. Many are made of cremated ashes, and distributed in the high mountains and in holy spots throughout Bhutan. Tsa-tsas serve to memorialize those who have passed on. One specific benefit of the tsa-tsa is to achieve a perfect rebirth – with perfect body, senses, limbs, and so on. When you see them you should treat them as holy objects. Use them to help you towards the path to Nirvana. And do not disturb them!


Druk Wangyal Chortens

Dochula Pass is located on the way to Punakha, east from Thimphu. The pass is a popular location among tourists as it offers a stunning view of the Himalayan mountain range. The view is especially scenic on clear, winter days with snowcapped mountains forming a backdrop to the tranquility of the 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens that grace the mountain pass.

The construction of these 108 chortens was commissioned in 2004 by the eldest Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk to honor the victory of the Bhutanese army in the 2003 war of Southern Bhutan, against Assamanese rebel guerrilla camps in southern Bhutan (in coordination with Indian armed forces who lined the border to the south to prevent the guerrillas from returning back to Assam). During the war many army men and guerrillas lost their lives, so to liberate their souls from suffering this monument was built. The site of the 108 Druk Wangyal Khangzang Chortens brings multifold merit to all sentient beings.

His Holiness the Je Khenpo, The 70th chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan, formerly called the Dharma Raj, said that the Druk Wangyal Khangzang Chortens was a celebration of the stability and progress that His Majesty the King had brought to the nation. Just as the Zhabdrung unified Bhutan after defeating all its foes in the 17th century, the kingdom was going through another reminiscent chapter of Bhutanese history. It embodied a new era of peace and prosperity.

"The Druk Wangyal honors His Majesty the King," His Holiness said. "And, as long as our rivers flow down our mountains, this aura will protect our country and all sentient beings from the world of suffering.”

The pass is also a popular spiritual destination for both locals and tourists because an important temple, Druk Wangyal Lhakhang, is located on the crest of Dochula pass, next to the 108 chortens.

Approaching from the road.


The array is of 108 smaller chortens that spiral up to a main monument chorten. The monument fits into the contour of the terrain and blends with the natural environment. It rises in three-tiers in the shape of the auspicious dungkar ekhil (rare conch shell with its coil reverting to the right).


We enter and follow the stairs.


Each chorten contains images of Buddha as well as religious texts.


In the middle of the chortens.


Within and around the Dochula Pass there are many prayer flags. It is believed that the breeze blowing past the flags gathers their spiritual power and brings it to all the sentient beings. People from all over Bhutan come and offer prayer flags, which will help protect their family members from the attack of spirits and provide for the wellbeing of all the families.


Rising in the background is a magnificent Himalayan peak. The weather when we were there was pretty cloudy and chilly, but the sky cleared for a brief time and we could take the following two photos.


Here is a better photo of it.


Here is the central chorten. It has the same design as all the others, but it is bigger, with more elaborate decoration below the roof. This monument is dedicated to His Majesty the King.


Carol at work with her camera.


Intricate work on the top of a chorten.


Looking through the chortens towards nearby hills.


Druk Wangyal Lhakhang

The Druk Wangyal Lhakhang (temple) was built in honor the courageous service of His Majesty the fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who personally led the troops against the insurgents in 2003. Construction of the Lhakhang began in March 2004 and finished in 2008. The temple was consecrated on 7 June, 2012. It is also an expression of gratitude for resolving the militant problem in 2003 which further strengthened the security and sovereignty of the kingdom.


The walkway up the hill is lined with prayer flags.


The stairs up to the temple.


The 108 chortens as seen from the temple. This is one of the best views of them.


Such wonderful wood work and painting.




Underneath the eaves of the roof is a row of painted animals.


We were most fortunate. When we came to the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang there was a very special Tibetan Buddhist ceremony going on inside the temple. We were able to enter and watch and listen. There was chanting, drums, and the blowing of the deep, long horns that the Tibetan Buddhists use. This was transporting, and felt like a scene from another time and place.  It was led by a very senior lama, in his yellow robes. I wonder if it could have been His Holiness the Je Khenpo, the chief Abbot? We were not allowed to take photos inside the temple, so I am sorry that we could not show this to you.

I was able to photograph some paintings in a side room, though.

This shows, I think, holy spirits coming to bless this temple.


Here are the same spirits, blowing their horns, while a procession of lamas walks around the floor-plan of the temple.


Dancers, I think, celebrating the opening of the temple.


Afterward we walked down the flag-lined walkway to return to our car and head down the hills back to Thimphu.


We stopped and got some apples on the way down the hill.


Water Wheel  Prayer Wheel

Next we stopped to look at one of the prayer wheels we saw on the drive up. 

I wanted to get a closer look and take some photos.


Inside you could see a very large prayer wheel.


Tsa-tsas lined the walls of the prayer wheel.


The wheel was driven by the water flowing down this small stream. As long as there is water, the wheel would continue to put out its prayers and influence into the world (and into the tsa-tsas).


Below, another group of people selling fruit. Because we were on this arranged tour, I felt like this was as close as we ever got to ordinary Bhutanese people during this trip. Most of the time we were in a kind of packaged environment and situation. We enjoyed the tour and our guide very much, but it can be great to get out on your own. We were not able to do this on this trip.


Nearing Thimphu.


Now the city is laid out below us.


We make a couple more stops to see Bhutan arts and crafts.

Weaving, Thagzo

We stopped briefly and saw a woman working on a hand loom. This is one of the most basic forms of weaving. This is a slow process, though.

Weaving holds a special place in Bhutanese society as an income-generating source to supplement the agricultural income for rural people. Weaving is done always by women.


Silversmith, Troe ko

Next we visited the Royal Bhutanese Silversmith.

In Bhutan, products made from gold and silver are made both for religious and secular use. Religious items include all ritual objects, such as offering cups, vases, plates, bowls, butter-lamps, short and long trumpets and so on. Those within the secular use category include all ornaments and containers such as brooches, necklaces, bracelets, bangles, earrings, finger rings, betel nut containers and others.

A master silversmith is known as Troe ko Lopen. At the Royal Silversmith, I think most were master craftsmen. All were men. The best silversmiths in the country were probably trained by the Royal Court Smith. The training period is 4 – 6 years. Their work environment is mainly outside, I think where they have the best light.

The initial item will be made by casting or metal fabrication. Then the final decorative work starts by using a torch to embed the item into tar, so that it is fixed in place. This gives the silversmith something that he can hold and work.


Here is a bowl. You can see the pattern starting to take form.


The way of working the silver is very basic, with a hammer and a punch.


Intricate designs are worked into the silver in this way.


Here is a partially finished box, probably for storing betel nut. You can see the intricate work shaping up.


These men are cleaning items that have been removed from the tar.


Sparks shoot from the grinder as this smith works on a blade, probably an ornamental sword.


Memorial Chorten

Next on our agenda is a trip to the Memorial Chorten.

The Memorial Chorten, also known as the Thimphu Chorten, is located on Doeboom Lam in the central part of the city. The chorten, built in 1974 to honor the 3rd King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1928–1972), is a prominent landmark in the city, with its golden spires and bells. It is popularly known as “the most visible religious landmark in Bhutan.” It was consecrated by Dudjom Rinpoche, a prominent tulku (an honorary title given to a recognized reincarnated Lama) of the Nyingmapa order of Tibetan Buddhism.

This chorten is unlike other chortens as it does not enshrine the mortal remains of the King. Only the King’s photo in a ceremonial dress adorns a hall in the ground floor. When he was alive, the King wanted to build “a chorten to represent the mind of the Buddha.” This is it.

The entrance.


When we entered the Memorial Chorten there were many people here, including a number of Tibetan Buddhist monks dressed in dark red robes, and many prayer flags. All the prayer flags indicate that this is a special day. I am not sure what this was.


Here is a good photo of the Chorten.


To the left of the entrance is a building housing five large prayer wheels.


Many elderly people are sitting here near the wheels. Some of them are keeping the wheels turning and putting out their beneficial influence to all sentient beings.


Mainly women are in the hall with the prayer wheels.


Some have prayer wheels of their own.


A group of men sit just outside the building.


In the courtyard, a small pavilion on the main walk to the chorten contains the Goddess Ihamu, rising from a lotus flower. I have not been able to find out anything about this goddess. Can someone tell us more? 


More women sat at the base of this pavilion.

I was told that the old people would come here for the day. Many of them have moved from their village home to live with their now-adult children. Without the village life around them in this big city (for Bhutan) they have little to do. So they come here each day to sit and talk with friends in the holy atmosphere of the Memorial Chorten.


An elderly couple walking around the Chorten.


Mother carrying a young child on her back.


To the left side of the chorten is a hall filled with oil lamps. You can see them burning though the window. The woman outside on the bench is praying with her prayer beads.


One side of the rows of lamps was being refilled and relit.


The other side was all lit.


There is a building at the far side of the chorten. It seemed to be occupied by monks.


And monk children, too? I know that becoming a monk is a life-long commitment, and that monks should be celibate. Are these shaved-headed young boys monks, perhaps given to become monks by their families? Maybe one is a child-monk and the other visiting?


Here is the back side of the chorten. Two windows into it are seen.



In one can be seen this Bhutanese Buddhist figure that we have seen previously.


This is the entrance to the Memorial Chorten, on the back side. Because this is a special festival day we were able to enter it and see what is inside. Sorry, but no photos were allowed.


The chorten is decorated with richly carved annexes facing the four directions, and contain mandalas and statues dedicated to the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. It also has a shrine dedicated to the third king.

The ground floor of the chorten is consecrated to the teachings of the deity Phurpha, beloved by Padma Sambhava. Dorje-phurpha (Tibetan)  or Vajrakilaya (Sanskrit) means “Irreducible depth truth piercing through like a dagger-spike”. It is written of Vajrakilaya:

What if life were like a dream, and in that dream you forgot how truly powerful you were? What if in that dream you forgot how helpful you could be? What if you forgot how much everyone is counting on you to find your way to authentic power and purity? What if you forgot your duty to find and offer your song?

Through Vajrakilaya practice you wake up and realize you are not some small ordinary being.

The lower level has four shrines, each with different pictures of the king. The eastern shrine houses a Buddha image.

From the ground floor, a staircase leads to two more stories, and each floor has four shrines. We did not find any peaceful and serene-looking statues of the Buddha inside these next two levels. The statues are all of the tantric tradition; wrathful in form, and gory in detail. A huge wooden carving occupies the center of the building, reaching up through all three levels, behind the shrines. The carving displays hundreds of protective deities, some wrathful, and scenes from the bardo, the short stage in which the spirit is judged and awaits reincarnation. The roof of the chorten is accessed from the second level and a protective railing covers the terrace on the third floor.

The second floor is dedicated to Kagyu teachings, to subdue eight varieties of evil spirits. What differentiates the Kagyu from the other schools of Himalayan Buddhism are primarily the particular esoteric instructions and tantras they emphasize. The top floor is dedicated to the teachings of Lama Gondu, “The Condensed Enlightened Mind of the Lama,” an 18-volume book from the 14th century which is one of three fundamental teaching cycles of the Nyingmapa school (the others being Kagyu and Phurpha). Combined, these three floors form the esoteric teachings of the Nyingmapa sect. All of the texts were once hidden by Guru Rinpoche (Padma Sambhava) and were rediscovered by tertons in the 19th, 12th and 14th centuries respectively.

Above the top floor there is a gallery around the circumference of the chorten, which offers spectacular views of the city.

Here are Richard and Carol on this gallery.


Outside the chorten, incense is burning in a typically Bhutanese way.


People walk round the Chorten, always clockwise. Some carry prayer beads, and are, I think, counting them.


A tent set up on the grounds. Buddhist symbols decorate the tent.


A man sitting with his beads.


Food is being brought to the old people sitting on the grounds.



We ate our lunch, too. Nice food and good place. One of the foods that was served every time was a dish of green chili peppers cooked in a cheese sauce. The cheese didn’t keep it from being very, very spicy!


We could even have a Druk 11000 beer! Nice and cold.


Statue of Buddha Dordenma: Shakyamuni Buddha

Buddha Dordenma is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue under construction in the hills outside Thimpu. The statue will house over one lakh (one hundred thousand) smaller Buddha statues, each of which, like the Buddha Dordenma itself, will be made of bronze and gilded in gold. It symbolizes indestructibility. Buddha Dordenma is being built to become a “major pilgrimage center and a focal point for Buddhists all over the world to converge, practice, meditate and retreat.” The Buddha Dordenma is sited amidst the ruins of Kuensel Phodrang, the palace of Sherab Wangchuck, the thirteenth Desi Druk, overlooking the southern approach to Thimphu. Upon completion, it will be one of the largest Buddha rupas in the world, at a height of 169 feet (51.5 meters).

The statue alone is being built at a cost of US$47 million, by Aerosun Corporation of Nanjing, China, while the cost of the total Buddha Dordenma project is well over US $100 million. The interior will accommodate 100,000 8-inch-tall and 25,000 12-inch-tall gilded Buddhas respectively. Names of sponsors will be displayed in the meditation hall which forms the throne of the Buddha Dordenma.

Apart from commemorating the centennial of the Bhutanese monarchy, it fulfills two prophecies. In the twentieth century, the renowned yogi Sonam Zangpo prophesied that a large statue of either Padmasambhava, Buddha or of a phurba would be built in the region to bestow blessings, peace and happiness on the whole world.

We drove up into the hills that surround Thimphu. It is about a three mile drive.


The site is not finished. We have to park, and then walk to the Buddha.


Nearing the statue we can really see how big it is. With its base, it is over 200 feet high!


The statue and its base will contain more than 100,000 various Buddhist relics and smaller statues, so that the spiritual power that it radiates out into the world is powerful.


Here is a close-up of the Buddha.


Another view. The Buddha reminds me of a small bronze one that we had at home with I was still a child. (My Oklahoma-born mother was pretty advanced for her day and age to have such a statue in our home.)


The valley and city of Thimphu, looking down from the statue. It’s a great view!


Motithang Takin Preserve

The last part of our Thimphu visit is to see an animal we had never heard of, the Bhutanese Takin.

We visited the Motithang Takin Preserve, a wildlife reserve area for takin, the National Animal of Bhutan. Originally a mini-zoo, it was converted into a preserve when it was discovered that the animals refrained from inhabiting the surrounding forest even when set free. The reason for declaring takin as a National Animal of Bhutan on 25 November 2005 (Budorcas taxicolor) is attributed to a legend of the animal’s creation in Bhutan in the 15th century by Lama Drukpa Kunley.


The local mythology related to declaring takin as the National Animal of Bhutan is dated to the 15th century. A Tibetan saint by the name Drukpa Kunley, popularly called “The Divine Madman” is credited with creating the takin with unique features. Drukpa Kunley, who was not only a religious preacher but also a proficient tantric, was requested by the people of Bhutan during one of his religious lectures to conjure a miracle before them. The saint agreed to do so provided he was first fed for lunch–a whole cow and a whole goat. Once served, he devoured the food of both animals and left out the bones. He then took out the head of the goat and fixed it to the skeleton of the cow and uttered magic words. And the magic worked. With a snap, he created a live animal, which had the head of the goat and the body of the cow. The animal sprang up and moved on to the meadows to graze. The animal was then given the name dong gyem tsey (takin). Since then this animal has been a common sight in the hills of Bhutan. Because of this magical creation with high religious connotation, the animal has been adopted as the National Animal of Bhutan.

Here is a sign at the site that tells of the legend.


When a small number of takin were confined in a "mini-zoo" in Thimphu, the King of Bhutan felt that it was improper for a Buddhist country to confine animals for religious and environmental reasons, so he therefore ordered the release of the animals and the closure of the mini-zoo. To everyone’s surprise, the takin, known for their docile behavior, refused to leave the immediate area, and strayed in the streets of Thimphu in search of food.

Given that the animals had become virtually domesticated, it was decided to keep them in an enclosed, forested habitat at the edge of Thimphu and thus the Takin Preserve came to be established.

Carol and our guide, Lhendu, walk up the road to the enclosure.


There is a takin.


Look at this beast! Mitochondrial research shows the takin are related to sheep; its similarity to the muskox is an example of convergent evolution.


Takin, grazing. They get enough visitors that they are not at all afraid of people, and we were able to get quite close.


Back to Paro

To end the day, we needed to drive back to Paro for the final day of our Bhutan adventure.

During most of the day it was cloudy and threatening rain.


As the rain began, you could see that it would be a disaster for the rice farmers. The year’s rice crop had ripened, the harvest had started, and rice stalks had been laid out to dry. And now the rain starts.

Here a woman is trying to deal with the problem.


We have enjoyed our trip to Bhutan so far! So much of what we have seen was unexpected, and the culture of Bhutan is different enough from all the Hindu places we have been to that there is very much that is new and interesting for us. I also give the King great credit for the work that he has done to preserve the culture. Because of this, the visit to Bhutan is quite special. Tomorrow will be our last day in this “Shangri-la.”

Related Posts

Bhutan: Paro and Thimphu 
Bhutan: Traditional Arts and the Tashichhoe Dzong in Thimphu


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