From Punakha, the road led us back to the Dochula Pass and then the Wang Chu and Paro Chu river valleys before arriving at our lodge in Paro. En route we visited the 17th century Simtokha Dzong about 5 km outside of Thimphu. Simtokha Dzong was built in 1629 by the great lama Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who unified Bhutan. It is the oldest surviving dzong in Bhutan and is the first castle monastery with both monastic and administrative facilities. Legend has it that the dzong guards against a demon which disappeared into a rock and hence its name Simtokha with “simmo” meaning demoness and “do” meaning stone. Today it houses the premier Dzongkha or Bhutanese language school. The utse is 3-storeys high and surrounded by large prayer wheels as well as 300 slate carvings of saints and philosophers. We arrived during a prayer session and sat on the side to appreciate the calming chant of the monks.
From Simtokha Dzong, we made a pit stop at Amankora Thimphu for lunch before continuing on to Paro. Amankora Paro Lodge is set in a pine forest with nearby ruins and religious monuments. You have to walk through a path in the trees to get to the lodge. Amankora Paro is the largest lodge with 24 suites and a large spa which we took advantage of after our hike to Tiger’s Nest (which I will talk about in the next post).
After a restful night, we started our morning with a visit to Dumtse Lhakhang. This temple was built in 1421 and is in the form of a chorten which is extremely rare in Bhutan. Legend has it that the temple was built to subdue a “serpentine force” that was located under the chorten. Others believe that the temple was built on the head of a demoness. There are three floors in Dumtse Lhakhang with each floor corresponding to the different levels of initiation: hell, earth, and heaven, as in a mandala. Be careful going up the steep and narrow staircases. The temple has many paintings showing the progressive stages of Tantric Buddhist philosophy which is unique in Bhutan and worth a visit.
Next stop was Paro Dzong or Rinpung Dzong (Fortress on a Heap of Jewels) which is built on a steep hillside overlooking the Paro Valley. Like most dzongs, it was originally built to defend against Tibetan invasions and now serves as both a temple and government offices. It is considered to be one of the more beautiful dzongs in Bhutan and has especially outstanding woodwork. Unlike most other dzongs, Paro Dzong was built using stones and not clay. The dzong can be accessed by crossing a beautiful wooden bridge roofed with shingles called Nyamai Zam. There is a watchtower on the hill above the Paro Dzong that houses the National Museum of Bhutan. Some of the finest examples of Bhutanese art over 1,500 years including costumes, masks, and religious artefacts are displayed here. We were told that the museum is quite small and we have already seen similar artefacts at the various temples so we decided to give it a miss. Every year the Tsechu of Paro Dzong is held from the 11th to 15th day of the second month of the traditional Bhutanese lunar calendar. Unfortunately, our trip did not coincide with this annual festival where monks donning masks dance and perform various religious stories. We did get an idea of what the dances would look like one evening at Amankora where they put on a cultural show for us.
We we told that before sunrise on the 15th day of the second month of the Bhutanese calendar which is the last day of Tsechu, a huge silk thangka of Guru Rinpoche is hung on the wall of the Paro temple and displayed to all. There is a tradition of not allowing any sunlight to fall on it. Even though we did not see this specific thangka, we were in Paro during Zhabdrung Kuchoe day which marks the passing of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of Bhutan, in 1651. It is a holiday and locals take the opportunity to visit the various temples in town. On this occasion, a large thangka was hung and displayed for a short period of time on the town temple wall as part of the religious festival.
Because it was Zhabdrung Kuchoe day, all the temples were packed with devotees especially Kyichu Lhakhang which is one of the most important Himalayan Buddhist monasteries in Bhutan as well as being the oldest. It is believed to have been built in 659 by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo and is one of the 12 main temples of the 108 temples built across Tibet and the Himalayas in an attempt to defeat the giant demoness that lay across the lands and prevented the spread of Buddhism. You will see many elderly devotees walking around the temples while spinning the many prayer wheels. You will find at Kyichu Lhakhang the original 7th-century statue of Jowo Sakyamuni believed to be cast at the same time as its famous counterpart in Lhasa. There are two orange trees in the courtyard which are said to bear fruit throughout the year. We arranged to light 108 butter lamps here. The offering of butter lamps has a long history in Tibetan Buddhism as the symbolic offering of enlightenment by dispelling the darkness of ignorance for all beings.
Next post will be on our hike up to Tiger’s Nest which is one of Bhutan’s most revered and most photographed monuments. Stay tuned!