Youthok Traditional and Herbal Medicine Center

I am observing at the Youthok Traditional and Herbal Medicine Center as the site of my practicum placement and working on building a website for it. The purpose of this clinic is to provide primary care using gSo-ba Rig-pa traditional medicine, one of the oldest surviving medical arts. gSo-ba Rig-pa, literally translating to ‘the science of health‘ is fundamentally based on an interlocking knowledge of the ‘Three Humors,’ air, bile and phlegm, that collaborate to allow the systems of the body to function correctly (Wangchuck et al:163). The traditional medicine practiced at this practicum site also incorporates aspects of acupuncture and ayurvedic medicine.

Youthok Trraditional and Herbal Medicine Center is a private traditional medicine clinic run by Dr. Choedag Singye, a licensed and acclaimed traditional physician. An interesting fact is that, according to both Dr. Singye and two separate pharmacists, Dr. Singye runs the only private traditional medicine practice in Thimphu. Being an entirely private practice, the clinic operates independently from any organization, including the Bhutanese government. In fact, Dr. Singye manages all aspects of the practice by himself, and has never taken on an assistant or additional doctor.

Dr. Singye was born in Trashiyangtse district in eastern Bhutan. He received an Honorary Doctorate in Buddhist philosophy from the Cultural Language School in Semtoka, Bhutan in 1991. In 1993 he began the schooling required to become a traditional doctor. Dr. Singye first attended Tibetan Medical College in Nepal. After two years he was transferred to Tibetan Medical School in Dharamshala, eastern India. Dr. Singye concluded his studies in traditional medicine at Bhagwan Buddha Homeopathic Medical College in Bangalore India. Upon graduation in 2000, he was certified as a physician of traditional medicine by the Indian Board of Alternative Medicine. After being certified to practice traditional medicine, Dr. Singye opened a private practice in Phuentsholing, Bhutan on May 1, 2000. He practiced in this clinic for eight years. In May of 2009, Dr. Singye moved to Thimphu and opened his current practice in the Karma Khangzang plaza on Thimphu’s main street, Norzin Lam.

The majority of my work at the Youthok Traditional and Herbal Medicine Center consists of conducting research. I am in the process of writing my senior thesis in Anthropology, so I busy myself with cataloging the 90 herbal medicines that are used in gSo-ba Rig-pa, observing and recording the healing techniques that Dr. Singye uses on his patients, recording the information that Dr. Singye tells me on a regular basis, and reading the literature that he provides to teach me about his practice. To get the most out of this practicum, Dr. Singye suggests that students have a previous knowledge of common diseases and medical terminology, as well as a basic understanding of Buddhism, as he often does not explain key terms, and talks about medical concepts without explaining what he considers to be general knowledge. Occasionally Dr. Singye will involve me directly in his practice as an assistant. Thus far he has asked me pass him medicine and clean counters and his desk. Because he is taking time out of his schedule to take me on as his pupil, I have made myself entirely available to help him in any way. This, however, is a relationship that is very common in the medical community, and is something that should be expected as a part of a medical practicum.

Working at the Youthok Traditional and Herbal Medicine Center is both challenging and rewarding. The most challenging aspect of this practicum is that Dr. Singye has trouble understanding and speaking english, so there is a significant language barrier that can be frustrating at times for both parties involved. Further, because this practicum site does not involve direct work in the field of traditional medicine, and is primarily observational based, there is a significant amount of down time between patients. As a researcher, I greatly appreciate this chance to talk to Dr. Singye and read the articles that he provides to better acquaint me with his practice. However, this down time might be boring for someone who is not conducting research.

If a student can overcome these challenges, observing and assisting at the Youthok Traditional and Herbal Medicine Center can be extremely rewarding! Observing at this clinic provides a unique and very interesting view into the practice of gSo-ba Rig-pa traditional medicine. Thus far I have been able to observe and learn about how acupuncture can be used to cure a wide variety of diseases, such as gout. I have also been able to observe how Dr. Singye prescribes combinations of the 90 herbal medicines to treat a variety of illnesses and diseases. Further, being in his office has allowed me opportunity to talk to a variety interesting patients who are often very receptive and interested in both traditional medicine and other traditional aspects of Bhutan, specifically Buddhism. In fact, Dr. Singye involves Buddhist teachings in much of the information that he provides for me, and in this way imparts an outstanding representation of how these two traditional aspects of Bhutan work in harmony to heal the body and the mind.

In order to glean as much from this opportunity as possible, my advice for future students that are interested in observing at the Youthok Traditional and Herbal Medicine Center is to bring an open mind, a humble respect for Dr. Singye as your teacher, and an honest fascination with traditional healing.
– Ben Kragen

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National Biodiversity Center

We are interning at the National Biodiversity Centre (NBC) Herbarium in Serbithang, Thimphu, Bhutan for the Spring 2013 semester with the Wheaton College Bhutan IV group. The NBC is approximately a forty minute walk downhill from the Royal Thimphu College campus. The NBC was founded in 1998 to address the needs of the Biodiversity Action Plan of the same year; a plan that outlines the policies and practices used to promote sustainable use of natural resources in Bhutan. This was part of a larger movement spurred by the International Convention on Biological Diversity that Bhutan joined in 1995.

To paraphrase the mission statement of the Centre: the NBC strives to ensure that
biological resources are effectively and sustainably conserved, and that ecological benefits are equitably shared for the enhancement of the livelihood, food security and environmental well-being of the country. The NBC falls under the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests of the Royal Government of Bhutan. Within the NBC is the Botanical Diversity and Collection Division, which houses the National Herbarium, where we intern specifically.

The Herbarium was initiated by the Department of Forests and Parks Services as part of Flora of Bhutan project in the mid-1970s. This project aims to document the floral diversity of Bhutan; it is ongoing and incorporates specimens in house at the National Herbarium as well as those taken from Bhutan to international herbariums. For instance, British collectors started surveying the flora in the mid-19th century. Bhutan is now compiling these specimens from abroad in order to have a complete record in the domestic collection. After the National Biodiversity Centre was established, the Herbarium was moved to its present location in Serbithang, which opened in 2002, and currently houses over 10,000 specimens and counting. Among its primary goals, the Herbarium aims to: “Strengthen [the] botanical knowledge base through exploration, collection and documentation of floristic diversity in the country” ( It also promotes international coordination in taxonomy and biodiversity assessment.

The Royal Government of Bhutan provides the NBC’s budget via the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. This funding covers the basic financial needs of the institution such as the facilities and employees’ salaries. For projects that require more resources and time, the Centre relies on outside funding. One such project was a survey of Bhutan’s 20 Dzongkhags, or regions. The government only provided enough funds to complete surveys of 12 Dzongkhags, leaving outside sources to cover the remaining eight.

Ms. Sangay Dema is the Chief Biodiversity Officer of the NBC. She is the administrative head of the Centre, but Ms. Rinchen Yangzom is our primary supervisor. Rinchen is a botanist and the curator of the Herbarium. She studied forestry and completed her bachelor’s degree in India in 2004. Upon receiving her diploma she began working as a botanist at the NBC. In 2008 she pursued her master’s in the Netherlands, after which she completed a research internship studying invasive species at Cornell University before returning to her current position at the Herbarium. She is now heading a three year project to assess the biodiversity of the country by systematically placing permanent survey plots at increasing altitudes in Western, Central, and Eastern Bhutan.

Our main task is assisting in compiling a complete digital record of the Herbarium by entering all specimen data into a computer database. We transfer the information recorded on the specimens’ mounting sheets into digital files, which includes species name, locality, collector, collection date, latitude, longitude, altitude, and any other relevant information such as the plant’s use or growth habit. Once this data is entered, we will analyze it in order to find gaps in the scope of the collections. One element of this analysis will be to create maps; these will guide future collectors in determining what areas of the country still need to be surveyed. Our work occasionally includes helping with field collections of future specimens. Time permitting, we may also work in the Royal Botanical Gardens at the NBC after completing the Herbarium data analysis.

This internship is rewarding because it gives us a great sense of contribution to such an international project. By digitizing these records, we are helping to create a more accessible dimension to the data, making analysis more comprehensive and consistent. The computer database will also serve as a secondary permanent record of the specimens’ information. It is also genuinely interesting to learn about the plants, their uses, and where and when they were collected. One of the most exciting tasks of the job is the field work, where we have learned about methods and selecting specimens for the collections. There are a few small drawbacks to this job. Doing the data entry is a mostly independent task, allowing for little interaction with the other staff. Also, the Herbarium specimens are preserved using naphthalene (mothballs), giving the collection room a strong chemical smell. The walk to and from the site more than makes up for these snags, with great views of the Ngabiphu valley, forest, and farms.

Rinchen suggested that when considering this internship it is most important to have a strong interest in Bhutan’s plants and the goals of the Herbarium, though expertise is not required.
Carrie Decker and Annie Bennett

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Royal Institute of Heath Sciences

The full name of our practicum site is the Royal Institute of Health Sciences: Royal University of Bhutan. RIHS is located uphill, next to the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH) in Thimphu; it is a convenient 20 minute ride by taxi from R.T.C and offers a quick walk to Norzim Lam. It is about a 20 minute walk from the Changlam plaza bus station. The school offers classes and clinical observations in the areas of nursing, public health, midwifery, and clinical sciences. Attending RIHS provides a great experience for people interested in medicine, public health, and health care in Bhutan.

The school’s mission statement is a follows:
“The Royal Institute of Health Sciences as the only health training institution in the country is dedicated to fulfilling the health human resource requirements of the country and beyond to meet the health needs of individuals, families and communities and be able to face and adapt to the emerging challenges. We strive to contribute to the realization of Gross National Happiness through improvement and maintenance of the health of the Bhutanese people,” (

The various programs offered at RIHS are Nursing, Midwifery, Public/ Community Health, Basic and Clinical Sciences, and Continuing and Professional development. Additionally, there are various departments in the school, they include: Senior Management Team, College Academic Committee, College Disciplinary Committee, Research and Innovations Committee, Program Board of Examiners, and a Sports and Cultural Committee. It is also interesting to note that “This is the only health institute in the country where mid-level health workers, nurses and technicians are given pre-service training.” Recently, RIHS has introduced a bachelor’s degree that focuses in both Nursing and Midwifery.

RIHS was established as the Health School in January 1974 with the assistance of UNICEF and WHO. The school is committed to preparing and training students with adequate skills, motivation, and competence to provide comprehensive health care services to the people of Bhutan. The Health School was later upgraded to the Royal Institute of Health Sciences on September 25, 1989. The Institute was under the Medical Education Division with the Ministry of Health until 2007 and eventually became a founding member institute of the Royal University of Bhutan in 2003; as of 2008, RIHS became part of the Royal University of Bhutan. However, RIHS became autonomous after the Royal University of Bhutan separated itself from the Civil Service, (

Dr. Chencho Dorjee is the director and the head of the Royal Institute of Health Sciences. Prior to becoming the director in 2002, Dr. Dorjee worked as a lecturer at RIHS, in addition to also working as District Medical Officer in Bhutan’s hospitals. Dr. Dorjee has several degrees, including a Master of Sciences in Health Development from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and a MBBS, an equivalent to a Doctorate of Medicine, with a specialty in Sexually Transmitted Diseases from Christian Medical College in India.

The director of our practicum program and also the Dean of Research and External Linkages is Dr. Neyzang Wangmo. Dr. Wangmo is very friendly and accommodating, always asking us about our experience in the classes we attend and often mentions being open to suggestions or changes; she does not want us to hesitate about asking to try different experiences of interest. Both Dr. Wangmo and Dr. Dorji have been very enthusiastic about our involvement at the school and appreciate our American perspectives.

Our work at RIHS thus far involves attending various classes, while adding our perspectives to the classroom environment. Eventually, we may be accompanying nursing students at the hospital to shadow their works on rounds. Primarily we observe and find ways to contribute to the class; moreover, we are learning through observation and participation. Because we have only been at RIHS for a total of three days, we have attended three classes. The first class was for first-year nursing students and the other two classes were with the same students, who have already finished nursing school, but have returned to earn a bachelor’s degree in Public Health. We are not however, limited to any particular branch of the school. In fact, to our understanding, we are encouraged to explore all the branches that RIHS has to offer.

One of the most rewarding aspects about our site is the fact that the students and faculty are so accommodating and interested in our perspectives and presence at the school. Not only are we served tea and samosas during our class break, but the professor directly asked students to speak in English so “Our foreign guests can understand the presentations.” Additionally, it is interesting to be in a class with people who have spent at least ten years in the health care field who choose to come back and refresh their skills while continuing with a higher degree; this really shows the dedication of the students as well as the investment of the staff to teach their students.

For future students who are thinking about attending RIHS, they should be flexible and open-minded. Classes in Bhutan function differently than in America, in addition to a sometimes major difference in their knowledge of medicine and the health care system. Many of the products and benefits we take for granted in America are not found in Bhutan, something that we have learned during our three days of classes. Another major yet obvious factor is that the students should have an interest in medicine or health; much of our experience has been sitting in the classroom and learning how medicine is practiced in Bhutan. Students should not only be focused on traditional medicine or a hospital experience, rather they should be interested in the methodologies of the Bhutanese practices of allopathic medicine. They should also be aware that Bhutan does not have the surplus of medical supplies or doctors that America has and because of this, we suggest students to be open-minded. There is also a lack of medical doctors in Bhutan and we have learned that in many hospitals throughout the country, there are technicians working and performing medical procedures that we would never trust anyone except a certified medical doctor to perform. Along with a lack of medical doctors, there is different medical technology. For example, during a presentation on diabetes we asked about the use of insulin pumps in Bhutan and, to our surprise, the teacher and students did not know about their existence.

The examples and information given in the previous paragraph also demonstrate some of the challenges with this practicum. Although attending RIHS classes is extremely interesting, the lack of medical information and technology can be found challenging, especially by Americans who are used to living in a world with almost endless medical supplies and thousands of medical doctors. Because we have grown up with elite medical care, having an open mind due to the less-developed health care system in Bhutan may prove to be frustrating for some students.

After the first four weeks of our practicum placement, we extended our placement location to the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital (JDWNRH), which is located next to the RIHS campus. The hospital was established in 1972 as a general hospital and was later expanded in 1994, when it was given the name Jigme Dorji Wangchuck national Referral Hospital in honor of the third King of Bhutan. JDWNRH is located in Thimphu and most of the patients are from the area, but the hospital does take referred patients from the other Dzongkhags in the country. The hospital also serves as the clinical training location for the nursing students at RIHS, (Introduction, bt/?page_id=14).

The vision of JDWNRH is “To develop into a state-of-art modern center of excellence for health care and medical education,” (Vision & Mission, and their mission is to
Provide holistic healthcare incorporating all four dimensions – promotive, curative, rehabilitative, and preventive services; excellent centre for supra-specialty care and; collaborative institute of medical education and training for medical students and health personnel, (Vision & Mission
The hospital also offers services in: “outpatient and inpatient treatment, emergency care, preventive and promotive care, rehabilitation, and special clinics,” (Services, bt/?page_id=20).

During our time at JDWNRH, we have visited all of the wards and service wings in the hospital. There are ten clinical departments including Medical, Surgical, Dentistry, Gynaecology/Obstetrics, Anaesthesia, Paediatrics, Orthopaedic, Ophthalmology, Psychiatry, and Emergency; of these departments, we visited the Medical, Surgical, Maternity, Paediatric, Orthopaedic, and Emergency wards. Additionally, the hospital also has a Physiotherapy wing, Intensive Care Unit (ICU), Paediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). There is also a pathology lab and a haematology lab, as well as a Dialysis Unit, X-Ray, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and Computed Tomography (CT) services.

Each ward is arranged in a similar fashion, whereby there is a front desk and Nurses’ Station at the front of the wards and then a long hallway with six large rooms, three on each side. The rooms are all connected by a single doorway each contains eight beds; there is a single toilet in the last room, at the end of the ward for patients use. At the Nurses’ Station, there is a front desk with all of the patients’ charts and a medicine room where the nurses gather the various medications and fill syringes for the patients. The medicine room was a shock for us at first because none of the medications are locked up and they are all arranged in an open wooden box.

At JDWNRH, our duty is to observe any and all of the clinical work and procedures performed by the RIHS nursing students. The way in which nurses work in Bhutan is very task-oriented, as opposed to the American emphasis on patient assignment and taking care of all of that particular patient’s needs. Each day we were at the hospital, we shadowed and observed different nurses and nursing students. These two factors proved to be a bit of challenge because we never really got a patient history for any of the patients on the various wards we visited due to the task-oriented work; a nurse is assigned one task and performs that task on whichever patients are in need, such as IV changing. For this reason, the nurses don’t know the patients’ histories unless they look up their chart. Shadowing different nurses everyday was challenging because the two new nurses we met didn’t fully understand why we were at the hospital and we would have to explain this on a daily basis.

Observing at JDWNRH has been very rewarding, regardless of any challenges. We are both interested in medicine and we couldn’t have been exposed to the medical system in Bhutan in a better way than visiting the hospital. We have seen different procedures, child birth, and the ways in which nurses and doctors work in Bhutan, creating an eye-opening experience. The hospital is modern and has the equipment with which to help patients, however some procedures are somewhat out-of-date from an American perspective; for example, the surgeons in Bhutan do not do laparoscopic surgeries nor do they have the technologies to be able to so. The nurses and other medical personnel were glad to have us in the wards and to provide a perspective of how medicine is practiced in the United States in relation to the ways in which medicine is practiced in Bhutan.

In conclusion, RIHS is a very accommodating location with a wonderful faculty and staff. We have never felt unwelcome on the campus or in the classroom and the students and faculty enjoy having guests in their classrooms. We are greatly encouraged to ask lots of questions and contribute in any way that we can to offer advice and suggest changes in various areas.
Nick Emard and Ariel Eaton

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National Institute of Zurig Chusum, Thimphu

The practicum site I intern at is the National Institute of Zurig Chusum Thimphu. It is located at Kawang Jangsa, Tashi Gephelling, above the National Library (about a thirty minute taxi ride from R.T.C., or a twenty minute walk from the Changlam plaza bus stop). The vision of the institute is as follows: “A pioneer institute that produces high end skilled Arts and Crafts artisan to be gainfully employed and to promote culturally and traditionally enriched diversity of arts and crafts products striving towards socioeconomic development in achieving the GNH.” Their mission is to “strive to preserve the traditional arts and crafts by reviving and sustaining the old traditional arts and crafts and continually improving on it with value addition to meet the emerging market needs through quality training delivery and endless research and product innovation activities.”

It was established in 1971 as a painting school under the Ministry of Development to preserve and promote traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan. In 1985 the institute was transferred to the Ministry of Finance, then to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Then in 1999 the National Technical Training Authority took over control of the administration. Come 2003 the National Technical Training Authority became the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR). It is this Ministry that is at the top of the organizational structure of National Institute of Zorig Chusum (NIZC). Under it is the Honorable Minister and Dasho Secretary. Under them is the Directory of Department of Human Resources. Then under this position is the Principal of the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, Thimphu, Jigme Dorji, who is my supervisor. Under the Principal fall the Institute Advisory Board and the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources/Departments and other agencies. The next tier under this consists of a Research and Development Section composed of Training/Market needs analysis, Product innovation and designing, and Course diversification; AFD consisting of Administration section, Accounts section, Store management and Support staff; and Training Section Coordinator. Under the Training Section Coordinator fall the regular courses and short courses. Currently offered in the regular program are the courses lhadi (mural painting, 4 years), shing tshonpa (house painting, 1-2 years), jimzo (sculpture, 5 years), tsemzo (tailoring, 2 years), tshemdup (embroidery, 2 years), patra (woodcarving, 2 years), and babzo (mask carving, 2 years). When there is the staff for it, courses in trezo (silver, gold smithery 4 years), thagzo (weaving, 2 years), slate carving (2 years) and black smithery (2 years) are available. The teaching learning system practiced by NIZC follows the Competency based Training System, undertaken through development of National Occupational Skills Standards, Curriculum Development, and Capacity building of Instructors. This means that the student can only move on to the next level of training if they have mastered the level that precedes it.

In addition to the aforementioned courses there are some compulsory courses that all students must take. These are Drawing, English, Dzongkha and mathematics. There is presently no math teacher, so it is not being taught. My job is to teach English. I teach two classes on Saturday to the students and on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays I teach English to the Dzongkha instructor, Peldon Wangchuk, and he teaches me Dzongkha. These lessons take place after the school day, while the rest of the students are at evening prayer. When I’m not teaching, I sit in on the first year embroidery class. I also attend drawing class with them on Mondays and Tuesdays. This drawing class is one of the most challenging aspects of my internship. I have never excelled in drawing. I have to try really hard to create something that mildly resembles the example he has drawn for me to replicate. My biggest challenge at this internship is not letting the people down. I feel so privileged to be allowed to learn their traditional crafts that anything less than the best I can do is shameful. Another facet to this internship I find challenging is my relationship with the students. I feel like I have to choose between being their friend and being their teacher. Should they call me Sara or Miss? Can I joke around with them without compromising their respect in the classroom?

The most rewarding experience is the feeling that I am seeing a more traditional side of Bhutan, where the classes are all taught in Dzongkha and the focus of the school is the preservation of the culture whereas my RTC class is about waste management, something that hasn’t been a problem until modernization. As I mentioned earlier I feel privileged to be learning these arts. Also, I feel more accepted and less like a foreigner. A friend at my internship said, “At first I thought you were a tourist and didn’t want to give you the time of day.” But now that they see I’m not coming in here to snap photos but actually to learn, they have a different opinion of me. The Bhutanese really appreciate that I am trying to learn their language and their crafts, and this is a rewarding feeling. It is sort of like I’m trying to express my gratitude for being allowed to see this side of Bhutan.

I asked the principal what he would want future interns to know. He said it was all very new and couldn’t think of a response. My advice to students in the future would be to not take for granted the opportunity that this internship provides. Learning the traditional crafts of Bhutan to me is the best way I can be spending my time at an internship. Try hard with the work you’re doing because it would be insulting not to.
Sara Mitsinikos (aka Sara Wangmo)

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Hike to Phajoding

Dear Blog,
We had a namisami jigs (totally awesome) weekend. We hitchhiked into Thimphu and got out at the base of our trek to Phajoding with our friends Dorji, Deki, Jimba, Tom Chu, Kinley and Tshewong. It was fifteen minutes in before our first tea break. We were expected to reach our destiny within three hours. The actual duration was five hours because when the going got tough, we stopped. And we ate. Traditional medicine tip: chocolate is good for mountain sickness which is caused by either high altitude or breathing the smell of poisonous plants. We had a run in with some yaks and picked up rochi charo (dog friends): Blackie and Brownie. Then night fell and we decided that the closest monastery was close enough to where we were actually supposed to go. We were immediately served tea while we prepared dinner in the kitchen: a small tin enclosure with a fire in the middle and wooden benches. We learned how to make ema datsi, which we ate with to marp and more tea with ginger. There was no silverware so we used “five Bhutanese chopsticks,” our hands. It was a mess, but fun. That night we slept on the floor in the workers’ tin roofed shanty.
The next day we woke up and made breakfast: fried rice with kopi ezay. We also made our lunch, which we packed in plastic bags. We looked at the lake nearby our shanty where a mermaid is believed to reside. You must be respectful around the lake (don’t shout or throw things in it) or else she will retaliate and you will get lost in the mountains. We started our hike to the lake Duntsho. We hiked until we got to a chorten in an etho metho (rhododendron) forest where the mountain plateaued, and we stopped for lunch. We continued when a hailstorm hit and we almost turned back. It was short-lived though and we decided to keep trekking. Then one of our friends started feeling sick. The Bhutanese are very religious and saw these two events as two warning signs. Not wanting to see the third, we had tea and turned around. It was a good thing we did so because shortly after a thick fog rolled in that clearly would’ve obstructed our vision, making navigating the rocky path difficult.
On the way back to our campsite we stopped at three temples. At the first one, Thuji dra, we were given tea and zao and we gave them a bottle of juice. Outside there was what looked like a chorten burning etho metho inside as offerings. This temple was made in the 13th century by Phajodrugomzhipo, who spread Kagyupa Buddhism all over Bhutan. We visited his meditation room, a room with an altar and cushions. Our friends collected some holy water dripping from the mountain and we continued on. The second temple was called Chana Dorji, after a local deity. Chana Dorji is the god of power and is blue in color and holds a thunderbolt in one hand and a vajra in the other. The third temple, under construction, was for Jampelyang, known for wisdom and knowledge. He is depicted holding a flaming sword in his right hand that cuts through ignorance. This flaming sword is the emblem for RTC. Our friends said that as students it was important for us to go to this temple. Next to Jampelyang was the God of song Hama Yanchen. Kinley told us that in assembly in school as part of daily routine the students have to do a song-type prayer to worship this deity. These last two temples that we visited were built in the eighteenth century.
We returned to our shanty and relaxed a little before making dinner. After dinner we went to sleep, or so we thought. We were awoken by Dorji’s call: “Sara, get up! Chung is on the way!” Ara with eggs: a midnight snack. We’ve drunk before with these girls, and never before were they so much in their element. They ate it up. We cringed but obliged.
The next morning we brought butter and incense to a temple dedicated to the future Buddha. When this world ends he will be born to spread the Buddhist teachings in the next world. On his lap he held a small begging bowl, the volume of which can’t be exceeded in one day’s begging.
On the hike back down we took every available shortcut, which was always the steeper and narrower path. This however did not compensate for the number of breaks we took. When we reached the road, we walked to the Takin reserve, a home for Bhutan’s national animal. It is believed that Takins originate from Bhutan’s eccentric lama Drukpa Kunley. Before performing any miracles he demanded a cow and goat to eat. After eating them he attached the goat head to the cow’s body and it came to life. Today taxonomists can’t find a close related family so they placed it in a category of its own. Spooky takin! The stockiest of the goat antelope family!
We caught a cab back into town and ended our night in our dorms eating, with our hands, a pack lunch we made that morning.
Sara Mitsinikos (aka Sara Wangmo) and Annie Bennett (aka Chillip Tseldon)

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Re-building Koenchog Sum Lakhang and other Bumthang Adventures

We awoke for our final morning at “Farmhouse 3” with muscles ready for work, having been able to soak them in the hot stone bath at the farm, and strengthen them with the delicious home cooking of our hosts. We were heading back to the heart of Bumthang to begin our three-day volunteer work at the Koenchog Sum Lhakhang. In the early morning sunlight mountains were shining and crisp, and closer to the intermittent clouds than most places in the world. It was a welcome and breath-taking sight after the many days of rain prior. We departed after breakfast, leaving behind the farmhouse and the apple tree in bloom in front of it. The muddy road took us the hour’s drive back out of the Chokhor valley, past the Swan Temple where we ate lunch on the 23rd during our hike through the pastures and forest paths to Dramtse Dzong and site of the GNH Centre.

With a round of applause for Leki Dorji, our driver, for successfully navigating us through the rutted and difficult new road, we arrived at our work site, where the Koenchog Sum Lhakhang is being rebuilt and expanded. Construction is expected to be complete in 2018. This monastery burned in a fire in 2010 when a curtain blew into the flame of a lit butter lamp; these buildings are highly combustible, given the importance and everyday use of butter lamps and the immense amount of fabrics and wood in the shrines and rooms of the temples. Our guide Tsewang predicted a switch someday to electric lamps instead of butter, because fires are all too common. He sadly noted that once a fire starts, there is generally no chance of stopping it.

Reconstruction was well under way when we arrived, thanks to the generosity of the many funders of the project and the help of volunteer laborers such as ourselves. Tsewang mentioned that sometimes if the nearby hotels have no guests, the staff come and put in some work. Unlike in the States, where it seems that sites like this would be worried about liability, here, anyone and everyone was welcome to help out in whatever capacity they could. We piled out of the bus, donned our work gloves, and met the Lama in his red monk’s robes and the master mason in his black baseball cap and muddy Western work clothes. The Lama led us over the piles of stones around the left side of the building (keeping the temple to our right, of course) to the rear where we would do our work that day.
The site consisted mainly of a central building that surrounded a shrine housing a spectacular statue of Vairocana. Although the three precious jewels- in this case the Buddhas of the past, present and future -that give the Lhakang its name will not be placed in the shrine until the temple’s completion, the shrine room held many beautiful and fascinating relics, such as half an iron bell the other half having been taken away to Tibet by Tibetan invaders. This shrine was fairly unusual because of its portrayal of Vairocana with a flame-ringed mirror. Vairocana is one of the five meditation Buddhas who emanated from the primordial Buddha. The first story of the outer four walls of the Lhakhang were mostly complete upon our arrival, and many of the beams and window cases already displayed elaborately sculpted woodworking, all of which had been done with simple chisels. For our part, we had two tasks before us: to haul stones into the temple on the second level where they would be used to build the walls, or to pound mud into a fine powder to be used for mortar and plaster. When working with the mud in the “sandbox” as we jokingly called it, we used large wooden mallets to break up the dirt clods. The pounded dirt was then sifted and proportionally mixed with sand to be made into the finished product. When working with the rocks, our hands and hardy bodies were our only tools.

Most of us elected to begin with the rocks, keen to prove our strength and eager to earn some karmic merit. We were instructed to move the rocks, some of which were very large, up a ramp to the back door of the temple, across the rough plank floor and a very rickety plank bridge to the left flank of the building where the rocks would be piled in the open air for the skilled workers to refine their shapes and place them in the wall with the mortar. At first, this journey, even when unladen by the granite blocks, seemed pretty intimidating. We were about 15 feet above solid ground, and many of the planks wobbled or turned to see-saws when stepped on. We were cautioned to keep our thoughts on safety at all times, but, for Carrie, it seemed easier to put the danger out of mind, and imagine what kind of being she might come back as in her next life. Perhaps her sins, she thought, would not be so bad as to warrant coming back as a leech, but rather one of the stray dogs of RTC that gets all the lunch scraps. (Professor Owens can’t help but note that, from a Buddhist perspective, this is a rather unusual aspiration, as dogs and other non-human animals occupy one of the hell realms from which one cannot achieve release from the cycle of rebirth. On the other hand, such modest aspirations do befit a modest ego.) One of the supervisors shared our concerns, and laid more rough hewn planks on the ramp, making it much more solid and better suited to supporting relatively large chillips (foreigners) carrying rocks.

When the lunch bell rang, we followed the workers to the building that served as a temporary extension of the monastery. We were quickly ushered into the monk’s assembly room and away from the mess yard that served the work force chilies and dried beef. The assembly room was spacious, wood paneled, and had an incredible view of the Choekhor valley and Kurjye Lakhang. Because our packed lunch had not yet been brought from our hotel, we took a tea break instead. We drank milk tea and ate tsao, a deliciously addictive fried rice snack food. Our tea break wrapped up about ten minutes before the bell rang, marking the end of the workers’ lunch break. In this interim time Ben found a group of workers playing football. Unable to resist this opportunity to interact and bond with these guys, he tagged in and kicked the ball around for five minutes or so. When the bell rang, we trudged back up the hill to the construction site. Eager to help in any way that we could, Ben followed his new friends to a rock pile and helped to load rocks that had been cut to be cornerstones into a wheelbarrow. He and his new friends then transported these stones to a pile of similar rectangularly cut stones inside the lhakhang, while the rest of us carried on with our assigned task of hauling rocks with our hands.

In what seemed like a very short time the bell rang again, calling the workers in for another tea break. Passing by the dining yard where the workers were happily collecting tea, Ben saw one of his new friends, Sonam. Sonam waved, and in response Ben ducked over and joined the line to get tea. Alec followed him, and they tried their best to act like they fit in with the tough atmosphere of the yard. They quickly realized that, as per the custom, every worker had their own cup, and that these two chillips would have to blow their cover and ask for cups if they wanted to have tea. Sonam took them into a back room where cooks were stirring steaming vats of dried beef and chilies, and asked where they could find an extra cup. But preferring not to inconvenience these working men, Ben instead invited Sonam to come and have tea with the rest of the Wheaton group in the guest room. Although Sonam declined (knowing that Wheaton students had been granted the special privilege of using space usually reserved for monks and guests) and this attempt at meshing with the culture of these Bhutanese workers failed, Ben felt he learned a valuable lesson. The next day he was back at the yard for tea, this time carrying a cup that he had borrowed from the hotel.

After the tea break, we all went back to moving rocks, now on the right side of the second level of the lhakhang. A light rain had started to fall, and the rocks and the ground were both getting wet and slippery and the going gradually became treacherous. Despite Tsewang and Prof. Owens’ worries about casualties, the floorboards bore us without injury and the floor did not cave in, even from the impressive weight of the rock piles we had transported. After about half an hour more, Professor Owens made the call to wrap it up before anyone did hurt themselves. We finished the day having exhausted all possible rock puns, and with an immense sense of accomplishment, both in the muscular feeling of bodies put to good use, and the knowledge that we moved these stones to where they will sit for centuries. We piled into the bus and went back to enjoy hot showers, good food, and a sound sleep at the Wangdicholing hotel.

The second and third days at the construction site were similar to the first, except that we switched from moving the rocks to the scaffolding on the second level to moving smaller rocks in through the side windows to make piles inside the bottom level of the lhakhang. These stones would be used to build the temple courtyard floor. We built a series of ramps from the outdoor rock piles up to the windows, and then formed human chains. One by one, we tossed the stones to each other until they made their way inside the building. After we had completed two days of this task, our indoor rock pile was above the window sill and extending almost all the way along the inner wall. While in the middle of loading the rocks along our human assembly line, we noticed a slim, bespectacled woman in a fashionable kira walking toward us with a notebook and voice-recorder in hand. Somehow, the Kuensel newspaper had heard about our volunteer work and reporter Sonam Choden was there to cover the story. The group sat down to answer questions, and Prof. Owens, Ana, and Carrie were personally interviewed. Although contributing to the Lhakhang was a reward in itself, it was fun to get some publicity too!

When the work was ended on the second day we visited the neighboring Tamshing Goempa, where many young monks were practicing reading aloud in efforts to memorize their texts. We went past them to the inner chamber where a corridor surrounded the shrine. While we circumambulated the shrine, Tsewang held up a 50 lb. chain-mail cloak made by Pema Lingpa in the 16th century. Amazingly the chains had not tarnished or rusted at all since their creation. Tsewang told us that we were to drape it over our shoulders in turn and make three laps around the shrine, wishing all the while not to be reborn in the lower three realms of the Wheel of Life. Since there were eleven of us, he said, we would have to run. Alec took the winning time with 55 seconds, though we were all left panting by the end. The shrine at this temple was particularly special because it depicted Guru Rinpoche looking up into the sky. Legend has it that this statue was constructed by Dakinis(tantric female deities), but before they could complete Guru’s hat, they flew away into the night sky, Guru’s eyes following them as they departed.

We visited another monastery, Lhodrak Kharchu Goempa, after completing our third day of work. Built to house monks fleeing the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the mid-twentieth century,this one was much larger than Tamshing Goempa , and overlooked downtown Jakar. In the courtyard, tarps were covered with drying juniper used to make incense. At the far end of the monastery, an enormous surprisingly sunny hall was filled with rows of hundreds of chanting monks. On the flanking walls, the shrines were illuminated by multicolored blinking lights, giving the temple a modern twist to its decorations.

Before visiting Lhodrak Kharchu Goempa, on our last day of work, Ben pursued his interest in masonry at the Koenchog Sum Lhakhang . He left the group and went to find out how the mortar, consisting of mud and water, was made. Ana and Catherine had been hard at work pounding and sifting the dirt used to make the mortar, so Ben joined their ranks. This process of pounding and sifting insures that the dirt is all uniform and contains no rocks or clods that would compromise the integrity of the mortar. Ben then brought the fine dirt up to a mud pit where two experts were mixing a precise amount of water with the dirt to make a mud that had the consistency of thick porridge. After observing this process for half an hour or so, he carried the fresh mortar up the scaffolding to the masons who were using it to paste together rocks, forming the wall.

Conscious of his novice knowledge of masonry, Ben sunk into the scaffolding and watched the masons expertly place rocks and build the wall. After a while, a mason called him over to help provide the plaster. After about ten minutes the mason told Ben he was taking a break, and said that Ben should take over placing rocks. He was reluctant at first, and asked the mason to observe his work to make sure that it was sufficient. Though Ben says he was slow and timid at first, the mason was receptive of his work and told him that he was doing a good job! He learned that building the wall involves two types of rocks. First, large rocks are planted as pillars to give structure to the wall. Second, small rock bits are broken off with chisels or sledgehammers and added to fill the cracks between large rocks. Ben stuck to filling in the cracks and breaking rocks for the first hour of this work. Eventually the head mason, the man in the black baseball cap, came over and told Ben that he was ready to place large rocks. He taught Ben how to break the rock with a hammer in a way that would produce a stable flat side. Nearing the end of the work day the head mason asked Ben to help him with a project. Eager to repay him for all of his teaching, Ben hurried over. They spent ten minutes shaping a large piece of granite into a perfect rectangle. He then proceeded to show Ben how to measure, re-measure and set the corner stone that would provide a necessary structure for the new layer of wall. This experience is one that Ben will hold dear for the rest of his life.

With semi-laundered clothes, and exhausted selves, we boarded the bus to return to RTC at six a.m., and attempted to sleep off much of the eleven hour bus ride back to school. In time, the now-more-familiar views of the valleys and mountain passes flew past us, and we made it safely back to our dorm rooms. Perhaps we were not thrilled that our spring break trip was over, but we were certainly glad to be back at this place that has started to feel like a second home, albeit its location half way across the world.

– Ben Kragen and Carrie Decker

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Drapham Dzong Hike, Lasphel Lhakhang Puja, and Dancing the Night Away

On the fifth day of our Spring Break excursion, the entire Wheaton group along with Professor Owens and Tsewang ventured off to begin our first and only collective hike of this trip. With numerous activities on today’s itinerary, we had an early start to the day. Our gracious host family had a delicious breakfast prepared for us; fried rice, eggs, pancakes, and honey were on the menu. After we had our fill, we began our daylong hike.

We started off walking through the woods and arrived at a river that extended for kilometers on end. Attached to one of the trees elevated near the river was a basket with an iron-wrapped zip line that extended to the other side of the river. Having seen pictures from friends who have gone to Bhutan previous to me, I was deeply anticipating this part of the trip; we would be taking the basket across the river. In groups of four, we all got across safely and soundly although some would argue the dismount to be quite inconvenient for the shorter crowd. Nevertheless, the experience met its high expectations. Once we all got across, Tsewang informed us that the grassy area that we were standing on was to become the future GNH center.

Once we got across, we continued trekking along the river and through the enclosed canopy of over-towering trees. Finally, we emerged from the forest and came to a beautifully open pasture. We stopped every so often to take pictures of the rugged landscape dotted with grazing cows. A photo opportunity was necessary. A simple group photo surely would have sufficed but to commemorate Ana’s 22nd birthday, we decided to tackle the unruly task of building a human pyramid. It was tough but successful in the end and Professor Owens got some pretty great money shots.

Levitating with G.N.H.

G.N.H. Pyramid Scheme

We continued on along winding dirt roads through the Bhutanese countryside. The small valley was filled with patchworks of green fields and scattered farm houses. The occupants of the small villages we passed paused from their daily duties to give us a friendly wave or utter a quiet “Kuzuzangpo-la”.

The country road continued past a small village, gradually becoming narrower until it reduced to a simple dirt trail through the forest. The trail began to ascend, switch backing up a steep hill. We passed by a small complex of low buildings, which served to house the archeologists studying the ancient dzong. No archeologists seemed to be about today however, either they had the day off or were just sleeping in really late. At the top of the hill there was a network of crumbling stonewalls, with the ruins of the ancient Drapham Dzong at the center. The scene had a hushed air of antiquity about it. Faded and torn prayer flags draped from gnarled trees and flapped in the wind. The dzong itself had seen much better days long ago; time had reduced it to a fragmented shell of its former self. Cracked stairs led into the dzong, where old timbers and plants poked out from between the stones of the walls.

Drapham Dzong Ruins

Carefully climbing to the top of the crumbling ruins allowed for an enhanced view of the surrounding countryside. The dzong was strategically located, with a commanding view of the greater river valley. It must have been an imposing sight long ago, visible up and down the valley atop a steep hill. However, the prime location had not saved the dzong from destruction, as Tsewang informed us that it had been on the losing side of some ancient conflict, its name meaning “fortress of the defeated enemy”.

After we had had sufficient time to explore what remained of the dzong and admire the surrounding country, we descended the hill and returned to the small village we had passed through earlier, where our hosts from the farmhouse met us with our lunch. After a hearty meal consisting of enough of Bhutan’s famous red rice to feed about fifty people, we paid a visit to a nearby temple. The temple, when its name (Ngang Lakhang) is translated into English, is known as the temple of the swan. This temple stands out in Alec’s memory from the multitude of others that we visited over the course of our week-long adventure. Intricate and colorful paintings lined the walls, depicting scenes of the wrathful and peaceful deities along with other Buddhist saints. The figures in the paintings appeared slightly warped due to the uneven surface of the temple’s stonewalls. A statue of Guru Rinpoche flanked by his two consorts dominated the main altar. Two other figures sat on the periphery of the altar, one a likeness of a Tibetan king and the other a Tibetan Buddhist lama and teacher, both of whom played a role in the Guru’s coming to Bhutan. Among other religious artifacts in the temple was a stone bearing the foot impressions of the Guru’s consorts. Rocks with body impressions of holy historical figures are a common sight in Bhutanese temples; we observed a multitude of them over the course of our week-long excursion.

When re-emerged from the temple we discovered that a group of village children had gathered in a field outside to play football. We happily joined them and kicked the ball around for a bit before we had to continue on our way. Instead of taking the same route back to our lodging, we crossed over the river, this time by bridge, to the other side of the valley. I must say that walking through the countryside was a very welcoming break to our usual automotive mode of transport, our tour bus.

On our hike back to the farm stay, Tsewang was quick to usher us back into our farm stay to change into “Dzong appropriate” clothing. He informed us that today marked the death anniversary of his teacher and that a ceremony would be going on. Some of us were tuckered out after the long day of hiking and decided to stay behind, while the rest of us tagged along with Tsewang for a brief hike through the village and up the mountain. Although short, the walk proved to be a little difficult because of the extensive rainfall that occurred over the course of two days. Within twenty minutes, we finally made it with no casualties. Once there, we were greeted by the family of the late teacher and they took us to the alter room where we were treated with our group favorite; tea and crackers. We sat there momentarily, soaking in our surroundings. The room was captivating; every spectrum of color seemed to be present and it was easy to spot some of the masks that we saw at the Domkhar Tsechu a few days ago. As we socialized, the monk brought ara (a traditional alcoholic beverage from Bhutan) to the group; some hesitantly took while others eagerly declined. Afterwards, we were taken to the room where the ceremony was being held. There were four monks situated at the front of the room, each with an instrument. The wife of the deceased was sitting near them, holding prayer beads and murmuring prayers. The ceremony began and the monks started to recite their prayers. While this ceremony progressed, a monk put out a table of candles and each individual our group received the opportunity to light one. Food that was previously sprinkled with holy water was passed around and we each took the one that attracted us most. We were surprised by the informality of the ceremony; the monks would occasionally stop in the midst of their prayer to cough or speak to their neighbor. It was clear; the informalities only emphasized the fact that the ceremony was taking place solely to remember the life of a great individual. After the ceremony, we were taken into the shrine of the protective deity. This was an honor for us to enter because we usually are not allowed to enter such shrines. But Tsewang’s teacher believed that if Guru Rinpoche’s consort went with him wherever he went, then his consort should be able to as well, and by extension, the shrine should also be open to us. We were all pretty surprised by the opportunity and realized that we will probably never be able to walk into a room like this again.

After we got a few hours of relaxation in, our host family cooked up a dinner for champions; red rice, ema datsi, carrots, potatoes, and pork. After having second and third plates of food, our hosts’ decided to engage us in several forms of traditional Bhutanese dances. While the girls of the group instantly shot out of their seats to join in, the guys sat back and looked at one another nervously, not knowing what to do. Eventually, everyone joined in on the festivities as we spent hours that night, learning traditional choruses and making complete fools out of ourselves (sadly with pictures and videos to prove it). It was a wonderful way to wrap up the night and the end of our farm stay.

Tianna Lall and Alec Jeanotte

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Jakar to the upper Chokhor valley

Spring Break trip was not your typical go-to-a-warm-climate, imbibe a bunch of sprits, and run streaking across the beaches screaming, “I love College.” In fact, this spring break trip, as many of the other trips that we have taken, involved visiting many dzongs and lhakhangs. In fact, most trips that we have taken since the beginning of our stay have included visits to lhakangs and dzongs. We may even become lhakhang “masters” by the end of our stay.

It was a rainy, murky day, with the portentous fog lurking through the mountains tops exhibiting the signs of an auspicious day. It should be noted that Bumthang is considered the cultural cradle of Bhutan because it is where Guru Rinpoche went to spread his teachings. Having obtained this knowledge, we were off to bask in the good karma that the lhakangs could offer us.

Jampa Lhakhang
Our first stop was Jampa Lhakhang, which is one of the most sacred Lhakhangs in Bumthang. This Lhakhang is said to have been built by the Tibetan King, Songten Gampo on the left knee of a demoness that was obstructing the spread of Buddhism in the greater Tibetan region. Jampa Lhakhang, along with Kyerchu Lhakhang in Paro, which we visited on our second day in Bhutan, was one of the one hundred and eight lhakhangs that he is said to have built in a single night. Though originally built in the 7th century, other parts have been annexed over the years. Of course, the lhakang was surrounded with prayer wheels on the outside pillars. Each of the four corners of the lhakang had four different colored chortens. Once inside, still dripping with rain, happiness, and enthusiasm, we enter the sacred shrine. We saw a shrine of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Three Buddhas (of the past, present and future). We spent some time inside looking at the different paintings on the walls trying to recall the stories that they told. Given that we didn’t remember much of the stories, this took some time. Once sufficient time had been spent in mental meditation and contemplation, it was time to leave. There were more religious institutions to be seen; time could not be wasted!

Kurjey Lhakhang
Next on our whirlwind tour was Kurjey Lhakhang, which is one of the sacred places of Guru Rinpoche (as mentioned by the sign outside the building). Upon entering, we crossed over the muddy road and went over the wooden ramp into the monastery where three towering white buildings stood in front of us; an auspicious number, might I point out. A coincidence? I think not.

The first building was built in the 17th century and according to Tsewang (our tour guide), the first temple is most sacred and “a must see”. Once inside, we were requested to crawl through a small rock structure with a dirt cave inside before we entered our first shrine. We were told that going though this dirt hole would: “resolves us of our sins.” The theme of resolving our sins seem to be a reoccurring one for Bhutan IV; leading me to question our professor’s judgments of us. We are also under the assumption that Tsewang is worried about our existence in this life and the next. So being the devilish bunch that we are, we all crossed through the dirt cave; cleansing our souls. Of course, this was just to entertain Tsewang’s requests, not that we needed to do it…

Once inside the shrine, we saw images of the Buddhas of the past, present, and the future. The shrine room included a statue of Guru Rinpoche and his two consorts. Behind the figure of Rinpoche, there was an imprint of what was said to be Guru Rinpoche’s body. Each of us took a turn looking at the imprint. Tsewang was adamant that we be sure to see it, not only to correct our ever-deviating moral compasses, but also because this is one of the most holy places in all of Bhutan. Also around the walls were one thousand statues of Guru Rinpoche. Additionally, there was a clay structure of Guru Rinpoche that was said to one day come and speak when it felt there was a need to do so. We also spent our time in this shrine soaking up all the holiness that was offered. Even with the ice like nature of the floor, we could not manage to leave his holy sight without much contemplation. Behind the first building stood a rather large Cyprus tree that was said to have sprouted from Guru Rinpoche’s walking stick.

The second building was located in the middle of three lhakhangs and was built by the first king. It was prophecized that if the soon-be-king could build a shrine for Guru Rinpoche, he would become the king (hence the temple). Inside, it held a two story high monument of Guru Rinpoche. Though we could not enter the room that held the giant statue, we could look down on it from the second story and admire the jewels, cloth, and offerings that adorned the giant statue. From the second story shrine we could see that there were one thousand miniature statues of Guru Rinpoche that encased the room. They were donated from a man who used his pension funds for the up keeping of the lhakhang. The statue of Guru Rinpoche was the biggest that we had ever seen in Bhutan, however we unfortunately could not get a closer look at it because the first floor was locked.

The third building was constructed by order of the royal grandmother of the present King. We were told that no one other than royalty could enter the third building, so unfortunately, that was off limits to us.

Thangbi Lhakhang
Our third lhakhang visit that day, an auspicious number of course, was Thangbi Lhakhang. We hustled through the courtyard dodging the bullets of rain to enter the shrine room. Upon discovering that the caretaker was not in, we let ourselves in. Once again this room led to images of the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, as well as a statue of the Lord of Compassion and another of the Lord of Confession. Being the adventurous group that we are, we let our selves out and headed toward the bus.

With the rain at our backs and our hearts filled with the dharma (Buddha’s teachings) it was time to head to our next destination, our second farm stay in Bumthang. Little did we know that more lhakangs and dzongs would once again be a part of our spring break quest…
Nick Emard and Tianna Lall

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Domkhar Tsechu and on to Jakar

On Sunday, 21 April, as we continued on our Spring Break Excursion through Bumthang, we visited the Domkhar Tshechu festival; this tshechu continues for four days. Upon arriving, the atmosphere was very different than the Paro tshechu festival we attended back in March. This tshechu had more western visitors (chillups) than Bhutanese people, who were of course taking photographs of the people and dancing, and was significantly smaller and more intimate.

The first thing we saw as we were walking up to the tshechu was tent after tent of vendors selling food and lots of various trinkets and clothing items; there were also many tents with gambling and carnival-like games. To see the main portion of the tshechu, we had to walk through a gate into an open area, surrounded on three sides by a lakhang and two other buildings with a wide grassy area for dancing, and people stood and sat around the edge to watch. As we walked in, there was a group of women already performing a traditional dance in which they wear their full kira and rachu, while dancing in a circle.

Domkhar Tsechu

Drametse Nga Cham, with Distinguished Observers

After this dance, came a more familiar mask dance which is danced only by men, where each dancer wears a traditional mask shaped as various animals and a bright-colored costume, while holding and playing a drum; we also saw this dance, called the Drametse Nga Cham, during the Paro tshechu. For the duration of this dance, the Atsara, or clown was going around and shaking hands with all of the chillips, collecting donation money which then goes toward helping the community. This Atsara wore pin-striped pants and a patterned shirt, both bright-colored, and, as usual, a red mask with a devil-like appearance and a large nose.

Following this dance, was another traditional dance, also danced only by men, in the first part of which the dancers wore long, brightly colored robes and traditional Bhutanese boots and fearsome masks that did not resemble animals, but were almost human-like with fangs, three eyes, and five small skulls along the top. This dance was a lot more interesting because it was the first time we had seen it, and involved a kind of battle. The main dancers in robes were later were joined by a smaller group of shirtless men who wore tiger-print skirts and another piece of embroidered fabric around their neck and draped over their shoulders. These men danced with masks that had flags sticking out of the top, fan-like projections to the sides, and fangs similar to those on the other dancers’ masks. The shirtless dancers used the drums with which they were dancing to torment and chase away the dancers in robes; in response, the robed dancers would try to “fight” back, dramatically twisting and twirling and jumping in the air. The dance continued in this battle-like scenario until one by one the fearsome dancers in long robes were driven back into the lakhang.

The two major dances we saw danced to the music played by a small group of monks, playing traditional horn instruments and drums in combination with the drums played by the dancers. The Domkar tshechu was much smaller than the Paro tshechu, but it was very interesting to compare and contrast the two festivals. Because the Paro tshechu was well-attended, we didn’t get to interact with the Atsara due to the large crowd standing and sitting around the dancers and at the Domkar tshechu, the Atsara was hugging everybody, especially the chillips, as he made his way collecting donations from the other attendees.

After leaving the tshechu we continued on our journey to Jakar. We ate lunch at Wangdicholing Resort, where we would be sleeping for the night, then got back on the bus and headed to The Burning Lake. Much to our disappointment, we were informed by Tsewang on the bus that there would be no fire, flames, or pyrotechnics of any sort seen hovering above the lake. According to the legend Terton Pema Lingpa had a vision of the sacred treasures that Guru Rimpoche had hidden within the lake centuries earlier. However the people of Tang and the local ruler were cynical of his claims. In order to prove his claims, Pema Lingpa held a butter lamp in his hand as he jumped into the lake. After remaining under water for a long time he re-emerged holding a chest and a scroll of paper with the butter lamp held in his hand still burning bright. Thereafter, the lake came to be known as Mebartsho (the burning Lake).

It was a very short walk from the bus to get down to where the lake actually is. After crossing a narrow walking bridge we could see the lake underneath an amazing interweaving of prayer flags. The water had perfectly carved and smoothed out its path among its rocky barriers. Once we were there it was a pretty spectacular sight.
Ben Gagnon and Ariel Eaton

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Phobjika to Chumey Valley via Trongsa

It was a beautiful 4/20 morning when our day started with breakfast at the hotel in Phobjika. Phobjika is known to be home to the Black neck cranes during the winter when they migrate from Tibet. The valley was finally visible in the morning haze. It was raining when we got on the bus to go to Gangtey Goempa, a temple with a thousand Guru Rinpoche statues; one grand, that’s a lot of Guru Rinpoches! You can make your wishes here: _____________.

Gangte Goempa

We got back on the bus and headed for the huge choeten (stupa), Chendebji. Chendebji was modeled after a turnip that a pilgrim had carved in the shape of Bauddhanath, the most important chorten for Tibetans in Nepal. We circumambulated in the rain and happened upon a wishing stone. We put our heads to the stone and wished for the benefit of all sentient beings (except for Ana, who wished for ice cream). At lunch Ana’s wish was sort of granted when we got yoghurt and fruit for dessert, kadrinche bumo!

Chedebji Choeten

Photo Op in the Rain at Chendebji

Making a wish at the wishing stone

From lunch we had a beautiful view of our next destination, Trongsa Dzong, and it was back on the road. When we got there we were greeted by a flood of monkeys from the woods. Our arrival auspiciously coincided with the monks’ annual ritual for the death anniversary of Shabdrung. We had the opportunity to sit among the monks as they chanted and played drums, horns, bells, and conch. The instrument that stood out to us most, however, was the trumpet made from a human thighbone, the bigger the thigh the better! We tossed rice when they did for auspiciousness and received blessed ara, Bhutanese rice wine, from a human skull. We also received a blessed fruit. Because of our donation, the lama gave us blessed granules, each of which is a norbu, or jewel. They are small, round pellets that may contain the cremated remains of lamas. Our contribution was compared to a drop in the sea, small but will never dry out. You dissolve the granules in hot water or tea and ingest to restore your body’s health, but only if you believe in its power.

Then we came to our final stop of the day where we would rest our tired bodies. It was a Bhutanese farmhouse! We stayed in the altar room. Every Bhutanese home has a room with a shrine with burning butter lamps for pujas, religious rituals. We were advised by Tsewang not to fart in this room. We gathered around the wood-burning stove (careful, its hot!) in the kitchen, the hub of the Bhutanese home, and were served ngaja (sweet tea) with zau (puffed rice). We watched as one of our hosts made puta (buckwheat noodles), pushing with all their weight on the wooden press from which the noodles slowly emerged. Those in the other room watched the second annual bodybuilding competition (looks like someone had an extra serving of rice)! A thighbone donation from these beefcakes would be greatly appreciated. The other women who were not making puta, were busy at work twisting the threads of our kabnes and rachus. We had brought them out to prepare them for the following day’s tsechu at Domkhar but the women quickly confiscated them and took over. In no time at all they twisted the threads into fringes, a task that would’ve taken us all night.

That night we feasted, hard. We had kewa datsi (potato and cheese), ema datsi (chili and cheese/national dish), peas and paneer, to marp (red rice) and cauliflower and carrots. It was by far the best meal ever. We watched Mr. Beans and called it a night eager for tomorrow’s Domkhar Tsechu.
Sara Mitsinikos and Annie Bennett

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