Snow Lions and lotus: a gallery of paintings from Bhutan

Bhutan’s traditional religious paintings appear in many places. Trucks bear the image of the lotus (padma or pema). The tiger, the snow lion, the dragon and the Yamantaka are seen in murals in temples as well as people’s homes. Dzongs, monasteries and temples contain magnificent murals. A sampling of these is in the gallery below (click to see a slideshow).

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.

Chimi Lhakhang and Tantric Buddhism

Rice fields are easy to cross: there are narrow embankments along the edges, meant to trap the waters. We took these easy paths to cross stretches of fields, and reached the hillock below which Chimi Lhakhang stands. The monastery was built in 1499 and is dedicated to the "mad monk" Drukpa Kunley.

This disciple of Pema Lingpa is said to have subdued the demoness of Dhochu La with his Magic Thunderbolt of Wisdom and trapped her in a rock near the monastery. If you think about the fact that this is a place where women who want children come for the monk’s blessing, then you don’t need to see the wooden copy of the thunderbolt to figure out what it is.Gilded wooden Buddha in Chimi Lhakhang, Bhutan In any case, if you are interested, you can be blessed with a tap on the head with it.

The main shrine had interesting paintings and statues, including one of Drukpa Kunley and his dog. Unfortunately it was too dark, and the exposure required tested the steadiness of my hands. The only photo which I managed to take was of this gilded wooden representation of the Buddha.Monk, Punakha, Bhutan The lobby, on the other hand, was very well lit, and the monk at his rosaries there was clearly interested in our party of six. I should have paid more attention to the paintings on the walls. My memory is that they depicted monks and celestial beings surrounded by animals, being serenely cruel towards demons and other powerful evil creatures. I’m sure the old monk would have explained the meanings of these paintings. We were to see more such paintings later in the day.

Butter lamps in Chmi Lhakhang, Bhutan

Most holy places in Bhutan have burning lamps, and stores of ghee for lighting new lamps. The rooms are nice and warm when you come in from the outside, but also, because of that, smells of rancid ghee. We left the shrine and walked about the monastery. It was full of young novices at work making candles and the lotus-and-dagger wooden pieces which go on top of poles holding prayer flags. They seem to be pretty fired up by the teaching of Drukpa Kunley.

In her on-job avatar, The Sullen Celt had been bringing tour groups to Thimphu and Punakha every year. She was the one who had read up about Chimi Lhakhang and its tradition of Tantric teaching. Drukpa Kunley was a Tantric master who taught that sex and religion were inseparable. The oldest Tantric story I knew was of Kapalika, who, after her lover died and was cremated, smeared his ashes over her body as a mark of their union. In India the tradition remains mainly in temple sculptures showing sexual acts, but in Bhutan it is very alive. Phalluses were painted on walls of huts in villages nearby. The refusal to separate different aspects of life is a very healthy attitude.

However, Drukpa Kunley lived in medieval times, and his poems reveal that his attitude towards women was of his times. As tourists we met few urban people socially, so I was unable to find out how his teachings are interpreted today.

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.