Pema Lingpa’s stamping grounds

Bumthang district is associated with the founding stories of the Bhutanese state and religion. The first kings arose around the Trongsa region, and defeated the Tibetan kings in the White Bird’s Castle. Padmasambhava is said to have come to mKurje Lhakhang to meditate, and left many treasures which are said to have been found later by Pema Lingpa.

View of Kurje Lhakhang, Tang, Bhutan

We arrived at the massive complex of Kurje Lhakhang late in the day. In the photo above you can see this complex, and in the background you have a view of the nearby Jambey Lhakhang. The two massive buildings you see on the right were built in the 20th century CE. The older, low, building on the left is called Guru Lhakhang, and dates from 1652. Apparently the local king, called Sindhu Raja, called Padmasambhava to help him when he fell ill. On arriving, the Guru meditated inside a cave (now inside the Guru Lhakhang), and realized that the illness was due to a local demon. An imprint of the Guru’s body is said to be found on the stone of the cave. A carving of a Garuda fighting a white lion in the building is said to depict the story of the Guru subduing the deity. The king recovered, converted to Buddhism, and the deity is now supposed to guard the religion. Unfortunately the building was closed when we arrived.

Mist in the Tang valley from Kurje Lhakhang, Bhutan

We had a lovely view of the surrounding valley from the Lhakhang. It was evening and mist was settling into the valley. There were occasional gusts of rain. We walked around the complex and met a young monk who could speak Hindi well. He told us the story of the place. He told us that we could walk either to Jambey Lhakhang or to Tazhing Lhakhang. We’d not read about Tazhing Lhakhang. When he realized this, he told us a little about the place, and about Pema Lingpa.

The Bhutanese name Pema is a cognate of the
Sanskrit word Padma, meaning lotus. Men and
women can have this name.

Pema Lingpa is one of the biggest names in Bhutanese Buddhism, next only to Padmasambhava, who brought Buddha’s teachings to the Himalayas. He was born in the Tang valley of today’s Bumthang district in the year 1450 CE. I learnt that he practised as a blacksmith till he was in his mid-twenties, and then turned to discovering religious scriptures. He is now known as a terton, a treasure hunter, because of such discoveries. Numerous sites in Bumthang district are connected to him. We’d already visited the Mebar Tsho the day before.

View of Tamzhing Lhakhang, Bhutan

Tamzhing Lhakhang was built between 1501 and 1505 CE at the behest of Pema Lingpa, who lived and taught there until his death in 1520. Following the monk’s advice, we crossed the river and walked to this Lhakhang. This was also closed, and we did not see the paintings which are now, a decade later, apparently in dire need of restoration. Our two days in Bumthang resulted in three hits and four misses. I thought that was not very good. But The Family looked at our bird list and declared that it more than made up for the art work that we missed. Not so bad, I guess. This gives us a reason to go back.

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The Road to Ura

Ura was not a long drive, so we decided to start late. We were not in any hurry to reach our destination, since the purpose of the day’s journey was to spot as many birds on the way as possible. My memory of this trip is jogged by the many photos I took on the way. The road rose quickly from Bumthang. In the mellow sunlight of mid-morning, we saw a patchwork of farms behind us. The featured photo shows a little farm surrounded by tilled land. The white flags of mourning signify the death of someone in the family in the recent past. The flag poles are surmounted by a small disk with a pointy thing above it. The disk is a representation of the sacred lotus flower, and the part above it signifies a dagger of wisdom which cuts through ignorance. The prayer flags are never taken down.Scarlet Minivet on the road to Ura, Bhutan The wind eventually erodes it to nothing. This signifies the impermanence of everything, even memory. That’s a lot of meaning to pack into a little cultural artifact.

We passed by, and soon reached higher ground with lots of conifers lining the road. Dinesh, who was driving, had initially been very sceptical about bird watching, but now he began to point out birds. My camera had a 10X optical zoom, which today sounds like a toy, but was a wonder then. A farmer's hut in Ura, Bhutan In the photo above you see a Scarlet Minivet, which, along with Verditer Flycatchers, were The Family’s favourite birds at that time.

I have a distinct memory of the farmer’s hut in the photo here, and of being able to spot and identify a Grey-backed Shrike for the first time. Memory being terribly fallible,View of a pine forest near Ura, Bhutan it reassures me that I have a photo of the bird with a time stamp seconds after the photo of the hut.

I remember this morning’s drive as a calm and unhurried time. We stopped once when Dinesh spotted a bird which turned out to be the bright yellow female of the Scarlet Minivet. The sun was warm and the air was cool. We seemed to be the only travellers on this route at around noon. The mixed pine forest around us was full of birds.

View of Ura valley, Bhutan

Soon after this the view opened up to a lovely sun-dappled valley. We had arrived within sight of Ura. This was to be furthest east we travelled in Bhutan.

Wandering through Bumthang

Past Trongsa we had entered eastern Bhutan. It had been a while since we had seen any tourists.Bumthang, Bhutan Our experience in Chakhar Lhakhang told us that there are seldom any Indians who venture this far east. Dinesh was now our guide. He said he knew a hotel in Bumthang. We drove there, found three rooms, dumped our bags and decided to take a look at the town’s market before it closed down. We’d spent the whole day in the car and a little walk was welcome. Also, since we were going to stay in these rooms for two nights, we could eat in the market today, and try the hotel’s dinner the next day. Our rooms came with balconies. I opened the door, went out and took the photo you see alongside.

Shop window in Bumthang, Bhutan

The market was close to shutting down. The evening’s last shoppers were hurrying in to finish shopping before dinner. We had a leisurely time doing some window shopping. Shoes were clearly in demand. So were recharge cards and SIMs for B-Mobile; strange considering that along most of the road we had no signal. DVDs were another hot segment of the market. Most offers were current Bollywood hits, with a dash of very well known older ones. Children at the Bumthang market, , BhutanI could see a few Nepali movies, but there were no Bhutanese movies on display.

The Family and I watched two children for a while. They were busy jumping into a puddle, with their school books in hand. Their father came out of the shop behind them to tell them to sit and do their work. He had quite a few customers, so as soon as the two sat down he went back in. Instantly the girls were up and at the puddle again. We laughed, and I tried to take a photo. They realized this immediately and sat down in a big show of studying their books.

We turned round and realized that the Sullen Celt had disappeared. As we walked around looking for her, she emerged from a store with a brown bag in hand. It was a brandy from a smaller Bhutanese distillery. Bag in hand we began a search for a place to eat in. A small restaurant just off the main square had rainbow trout on the menu. This is another atrocity that the British left in this part of the world; they seeded trout in the local rivers, created a disaster and a class of people who love to "conserve" this monster for future generations of fly-fishers. Quite as much of an atrocity as the industrial product that passes for brandy in this part of the world. We had a satisfying dinner with two things which the Himalayas would have been better off without.

An unexpected welcome

Dinesh had been very silent during the few days of the trip. But now, he was the local expert and began to talk to us. On the way from Trongsa to Bumthang, he said we might want to stop on the main road to look at a very nice monastery. Since it was on the way, we agreed. I thought we had seldom made a better decision on this trip.

Reading about the place later, I think we had reached Chakhar Lhakhang. It must have been close to five in the evening, because a large crowd was leaving. The mist rising from the valley behind, and the deep calls of ravens in the gathering dusk gave the place a wonderful feel.

The novice monk at the gate told us that the main shrine was closed, but we could still walk around the garden if we hurried. The place was small, and there seemed to be little to do. Monks were busy closing up, and we turned to go. As we were stepping out of a gate, a novice came running and told us that the master wants to talk to us. Anything for the master, of course. We followed the monk to an upper floor of the building, where a fairly young master waited for us.

He asked us where we were from, and when he heard that all of us were from Mumbai, he nodded. "I thought you were Indian", he said. "The Guru came here from India. Would you like to see more of the monastery?" We were happy to. The master told us that we could not take photos of what he would show us. We passed through galleries with paintings dating back from the 15th century: beautiful panels in luminous blue and gold showing the Buddha meditating on a lotus, interspersed with those of Padmasambhava on a tiger.

We passed through the passages connecting the monks’ quarters to the main shrine. The shrine had a statue of Padmasambhava, the original Rinpoche, and his wife, Tashi. She was the daughter of the local King who had called Padmasambhava to Bhutan. The hall was lined with masks and hats used in the tsechu. When I started to ask him about the masks he seemed a little annoyed. I realized my gaffe, and let him tell us about Padmasambhava.

He offered tea which we declined, saying we still had to go and find a hotel. He gave us his blessings, and we walked out feeling we had left the last homely house.

People of Bhutan

Thinking of Bhutan brings back memories of a wonderful country with gentle and friendly people. As tourists we probably saw a larger proportion of monks than there actually are in the population. Also, we saw much more of the countryside than the city. Still, I hope the slide show below captures a not-unreasonable cross-section of the people of Bhutan. Click on any of the photos to start the slide show.