The Exquisite Punakha Dzong

If there is only one Dzong that you have time to visit when in Bhutan, there is no question that it should be Punakha. The wonderful location at the confluence of the Po Chhu (Papa river) and Mo Chhu (Mama river), the beautiful Jacaranda and Magnolia trees surrounding it, the exquisite woodwork and paintings (featured photo), and its renowned history, make this undisputedly the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan. Don’t take my word for it. The present King was married in this Dzong, and all the kings have been crowned here.

Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

The Punakha Dzong was constructed in 1637 at a site where an older and smaller Dzong stood since 1326. Construction was completed in 1638, and the gold dome was added in 1676. In the second courtyard (dochey) I saw several buildings with beautiful paintings. The one above shows a monk with his left hand, holding a lotus, extended in a gesture that wards off evil (karana mudra). I liked the painting because of the detailed study of black-necked cranes at the monk’s feet. I’, not able to identify who this could be. I guess he is a monk and not a celestial being by the fact that he has a halo, but it is brown in colour.

To reach this place we had to climb a steep set of stairs. It seems that this is protection against invaders as well as flood waters. Entrance to the main buildings in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan The ladder that you see in this photo is apparently pulled up at night and the door behind it is locked. The ladder is so steep that I had to hold the handrail to climb up. The height is a protection against floods. Since Po Chhu is snow-fed, melt-water often floods in early spring. Even so, the Dzong has flooded several times in its history. The waters eventually cross the border into India and feed the Brahmaputra river. We spent a long time in the halls around the second dochey, admiring paintings and statues.

Mural in Punkha Dzong, Bhutan The two images here were taken because the light was good. They depict celestial beings of great power. This is clear from the green halos that surround their heads. Apart from that I’m clueless about who they can be. They are neither the Sakyamuni (since they do not hold a begging bowl) nor are they depictions of the Maitreya Buddha (since their feet do not rest on lotus flowers).

They are not Avalokiteshwara (since they are looking forward), nor are they Tara (since they are male). They do not hold a sword, so they are not Manjushri. They are not surrounded by flames, so they cannot be Mahakala or Vajrapani. Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan Both are bearded, so they could be Padmasambhava. But I have no idea whether the Guru is depicted holding a musical instrument, as the one on the left does, or a prayer wheel, like the one on the right. The identified images of the Guru that I have seen show him with the Sakyamuni seated on the crown. That is not the case here. These could be someone else, but I like to think of them as the 8th century sage who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas.

View of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

This was the second time we visited the Punakha Dzong. Both times we arrived in May, and found the Jacaranda in bloom. The beautiful purple colour looks wonderful against the white walls of the Dzong. It would be nice to come back here in another season to see what it looks like.

Sangti valley

motherandchildAcross the Dirang river and over the hill that we could see from our hotel room is the Sangti valley: famous as the wintering spot for the endangered black necked crane (khroom khroom karmu, ख्रूम ख्रूम कार्मु). Before starting on our journey I’d found that it arrives in early November. We should have been able to see it in a normal year. But this is a high El Nino year; the weather is warmer than normal. Vikram, who manned the reception in our hotel, more or less said that we were out of luck. In any case, we started too late for birding.

Avatar Singh had never gone to Sangti Valley before, and he was petrified of losing the way. Vikram explained the route to me, and then again to Avatar. It was easy: reach Dirang bazaar, turn left and down at the main cross road, turn hard right immediately, cross a bridge across the river, turn right and go on. We entered Sangti valley less in less than half an hour. The Family spotted a grandmother with a child and asked her about the cranes. As she told us they hadn’t arrived yet. A decade ago we’d missed them in Phobjika valley in Bhutan. I took a photo of the pair. See the stacks of firewood behind her? We found every house in Arunachal has huge stacks of firewood hoarded up for the winter.

sangtiWe drove through this village which straggled through the long valley. The road was a little way up on one side of the mountain, above a sudden drop to a very flat valley. Maybe the river floods in the monsoon; that could be one reason why the people here cultivate and eat rice. We drove past the village to a chhorten at the far end. The Victors took their usual record shots posing in front of the chhorten. We turned back towards the village.

maniBuddhist prayer technology was everywhere in the valley. There were many of the small square stupas along the road, with tall prayer flag fixed on poles near them. We came across this collection of prayer wheels called a mani. When I read the inscription on it, I realized how deep the conviction in nirvana went here. This was a little glimpse into an aspect of belief that one doesn’t usually discuss with strangers.

rice

As we got to the village, I hopped off the car because I wanted to take photos. I agreed to meet the others across the river near the bridge we’d seen. My first stop was to photograph this family group as they separated the chaff from rice. My attempts to talk to them were not successful. They lived too far from the road to understand either English or Hindi (if the idea had struck me then, I would have tried Assamese or Bengali). Further on I met a bunch of teenagers sitting and chatting at a store. They understood my request to photograph them perfectly; the girls refused and the boys posed as if for a fashion shoot.

villagehouse

A typical village house looked something like the one above. Most of the living seemed to occur on the upper floor. The lower was reserved usually for firewood. The living space and as much front space as is available is covered with flowers. The flowers and the beautifully chosen colours on the walls made the whole village look very picturesque. The need for a two-storied house was not clear to me: the valley is low (maybe a little over 1000 meters high) and snow should not be an issue. The village was raised so far above the river that the danger of flooding was non-existent. Could it be that the style in housing was brought by the locals from a higher altitude as they wandered down?

girls

I passed through the village and found the road leading down to the river. Avatar was napping in the car parked by the road. I followed my fellow travelers on foot. The village was less picturesque along this lower road, although the houses were larger. Children were at play all the way to the river. As I came to the bridge a group of three young girls came tripping across it. They were willing to be photographed; they formed up in a row and smiled for the camera. The Victors and The Family were waiting for me at the edge of the water on the far side. I walked down there and dug into a backpack for an apple. The sunlight was warm, although the air held a chill.

boys

The Victors wanted to get back to the car. The Family and I followed them slowly without exploring the river. On the way back we saw a bunch of boys playing together. They agreed to be photographed. But the gender difference was stark. As you can see from the photo above, they were not going to sit still for a photo. They tried out various poses. I especially like the child in the middle, who’s got distracted by what he can achieve with his fingers. We got back into the car and drove out of the valley. We had hardly seen any birds; in fact we’d hardly stopped for any. On the road we found a couple walking: one with a large scope, the other with a camera. I stopped the car to talk to them. They were from Spain and were there to look for ibis bills and other water birds. Clearly we had missed out completely.

Bird list for Dirang and Sangti (8 November, 2015)

unknown

  1. Oriental white eye
  2. Long tailed shrke
  3. Long tailed minivet
  4. Mountain bulbul
  5. Common kestrel
  6. Yellow-billed chough
  7. Bank mynah
  8. White collared blackbird
  9. The unidentified bird in the photo

The Family and I want to go back to Dirang and Sangti valley, perhaps late next November. We are now officially in search mode for a pair of birders who might want to join us.