On April 19, the eleven Wheaton Students of Bhutan IV left for our spring week trip at eight in the morning. After about an hour of being on the bus we made our first stop at Dochu la: at 3,000 meters, the first mountain pass on our way to the Bumthang region. Situated at the top of the pass is a monument consisting of 108 chortens arranged on a mound-like structure, each of which is a rectangular structure standing about nine feet tall with a slate roof trimmed with metal filigree edging, and featuring slate bas-relief images in niches located on each of its sides. Chortens, the most ubiquitious of Buddhist shrines, typically contain relics and are used as places for meditation. The monument was constructed by the Queen Mother in memory of those who had died on both sides of the 2003 conflict in which Bodo insurgents from India were expelled from Bhutanese soil after failing to respond to several personal requests from the King to leave. Dochu la is surrounded by forests and views of the Himalayas. The day we were there was cloudy , so the view was obstructed, but it was nevertheless amazing being there. All around the monument there were prayer flags hanging from trees. We got to walk around and soak into the magical feeling of the place before getting back on the bus.
When we got out again around lunchtime to walk to Chimi Lakhang, a temple at the top of a hill in the Punakha Valley associated with Drukpa Kunley – one of Bhutan’s most respected and radical Buddhist teachers from the 15th-16th century – we were greeted by a clump of buildings all adorned with enormous paintings of penises. Drukpa Kunley is known for spreading Buddhism, subjugating demons, and helping others achieve enlightenment in ways that Westerners might consider a little strange; most of the folktales about him concern his penis and the various ways he wields it. (Examples include spinning it like a helicopter to get from place to place, using it to hit demons in the face and break their jawbones, breaking boulders, teaching women tantric sexual practices to help them become enlightened, and so on.) So the closer we got to Bumthang, where Drukpa Kunley left his biggest mark, the more phallic-related iconography we encountered. People hang wooden flaming-winged penises with angry faces from the four corners of their home to ward away evil spirits, or paint huge phalluses on the sides of buildings, or dangle miniature carved penises from their rear-view mirrors. We walked through a little village to a footpath between cultivated fields of crops. The day was hot, sunny, and breezy as we wound our way up the path, able to see the green Punakha valley stretching out far in the distance.
When we reached the temple, we sat on benches outside and listened to our tour guide Tsewang explain a few things about Drukpa Kunley and this particular temple. Chimi Lakhang means “Dogless Temple” and it’s where Kunley subjugated a demoness who had been haunting Dochula in the form of a dog. After the story, Professor Owens pointed out that we’d just received a teaching from Tsewang under a Bodhi tree – the same type of tree under which the historical Buddha became enlightened. In fact, this particular Bodhi tree had been a cutting from a tree in Sri Lanka which itself had been taken from a part of the original, historical Bodhi tree. We seem to find this theme often in Bhutan – not only meeting human reincarnations of famous spiritual leaders, but also botanical reincarnations of famous trees.
Inside the temple, the walls were covered with paintings representing Drukpa Kunley’s adventures. A young monk came to each of us with a wooden phallus and a bow and arrow (two symbols of Drukpa Kunley) and blessed us with fertility by touching us on the head with the objects. Tsewang announced that we’d each be blessed with a hundred children (yikes) and that they would already be on the path to Nirvana when they were born. Since this temple is associated with fertility, many couples who are trying to conceive visit the temple to be blessed. They may even spend a night sleeping on the floor, and often select a baby name from a registry kept in the temple, symbolizing that Drukpa Kunley has named the child himself.
We walked back through the fields, now concentrating a lot more on our hunger than on the beautiful views, and lunched at a restaurant with a wooden phallus almost as tall as Catherine is standing by the entrance. After everyone got a picture with the penis, we got back on the bus and headed to Punakha Dzong.
Punakha Dzong is the second oldest and second largest Dzong in Bhutan. It is located at the meeting place of the Po Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers in the Punakha valley, where large jacaranda trees blossom by the riverbank. Everybody was excited to explore this Dzong because we had passed by it on our way to Gasa and it is majestic. First we went through a bridge that brought us to the entrance where we were all shocked to see bee hives at the very top of the structure. These were enormous, probably the biggest most of us had even seen. Some of us couldn’t even identify what they were until a breeze came along, making the bees move and ripple in unison.
Inside the temple was an open area with an enormous tree and a stupa. We took our shoes off outside the main shrine room and went inside. Everything in that room had been worked to the detail. The statues were several meters tall and covered in fabrics and quilts. The wood work was detailed and painted. Everything including the roof was decorated. The columns were very tall and made out of single tree trunks and were covered in metal work. Thankas hung around the room were painted with the images of gods and symbols, and some were finely and elaborately embroidered. There were very big tormas (butter sculptures) that had been made for the ceremony observing Shabdrung’s death which was to be the following day. Shabdrung was a famous saint who unified Bhutan in the 17th century, and his body remains in a building in the Dzong where very few people are allowed – only the Kings, the Je Khenpo (the head spiritual leader of Bhutan, like a Buddhist pope), and the temple caretaker. We couldn’t visit Shabdrung’s remains, but we could walk around the temple which was open to the public, watching the monks prepare the room for the ceremony.
After the visit to the Punakha Dzong we went to a hotel in Phobjika where we spent the night. It was a nice place to stay in the middle of the mountains. We had a nice dinner and went to bed, to find the beautiful surprise of an amazing view of the Phobjika Valley next morning.
– Catherine Perkins and Ana Brenescoto