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.

Birdwatching in the museum

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The first time I encountered realistic Indian miniature paintings of birds was in the museum of the City Palace of Jaipur, a long time ago. Since then I have found little examples hidden away in galleries across the world. They are not as famous as the paintings of court life, but there seems to be a dedicated band of collectors and curators who love to acquire and display these.

2015-05-28 16.17.54From almost the earliest times, Chinese painters have delighted in depicting nature. The most famous subjects which the paintings deal with are grand vistas of landforms, and hidden away somewhere a few people, houses, boats, and domestic animals. They are beautiful.

Now, with a month of visiting museums and collections of paintings, I see that there is a less well-known stream of work: nature in the small, beautifully observed and rendered. The Shanghai Museum had two remarkable paintings: one of a praying mantis done almost calligraphically, with a minimum of brush strokes, and one of a lotus seed pod. I found later that the lotus seed pod is a staple, every master seems to try his hand at it. But also, over the weeks, I began to notice birds. Mandarin ducks are ubiquitous because they represent marital fidelity in the Chinese culture. But there are so many other birds which we saw.

2015-05-28 16.21.46Today, walking through the National Museum in Beijing, our birdwatching instincts came to the fore. We stalked through the galleries looking for birds, and we hit a jackpot. There are lovely pieces in the collection, but photographing them is not easy. There are multiple layers of glass between the painting and you. As a result, you can see my reflection in many of the photos here.

I wish I could have shared more details about the painters and their times. Unfortunately, many of the galleries in the National Museum only have labels in Chinese. There is an audio guide, but I could not get any information on them from the information desk.

The photos here show only the paintings. The jade and bronze galleries hide more birds. Herons and peacocks abound in the pieces of jade, but there are also other birds. A popular genre of jade carving was a scene in a forest. These are usually full of animals and trees, and, hidden in the trees, birds. Hidden among the displays of ritual bronze vessels are small figures of birds.

I wish there were good quality reproductions which one could buy, and information in English.