The Burning Lake and other Stories

The day we visited the enigmatic village in Ura, we collected a few local stories. One of them was of Mebar Tsho, a name which translates as Burning Lake.View of Mebar Tsho, Bhutan From the name I imagined something quite different from what it is: a widening in the river Tang, as you can see in the photo here.

Dinesh knew that there were caves around here, and took us off the highway at the correct place. The last bit is a little climb. One thing I like about Himalayan Buddhism is that you have to walk to these holy places, so they retain their air of calm and peace. We were the only people at the “lake”.

The road led up, and we followed. It was an easy climb, but soon we had a lovely view down into the gorge which the Tang Chhu had cut for itself. View of Tang Chhu ner Mebar Tsho, Bhutan We reached a little clearing at the end of the road, where there was a cave. This was full of offerings left by visitors, which you can see in the featured photo.

The story of this place is famous in Bhutan. In the 15th century the holy man Pema Lingpa dreamt of hidden treasures in the lake, as Padmasambhava had prophesied before. The Tang king did not believe this. So Pema Lingpa took a burning lamp in his hand and dived into the dark water. He searched the waters with his lamp, and emerged holding a scroll and a chest of treasure, with the lamp still burning. Pema Lingpa is known as a terton, loosely translated as a treasure finder.Prayer flags at Mebar Tsho, Bhutan He is believed to be a reincarnation of Padmasambhava.

The “lake” was festooned with colourful prayer flags. I’ve talked about this before. They are made of flimsy cloth and have prayers and other holy writing on them. There is a magical belief that as the flags fray and disappear in the rain and wind, the prayers and good wishes are released into the flowing water and wind and are carried into the land. The belief is enough to keep Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness high.

View of Ura valley, Bhutan

The other story from this region was something we heard from the women who gave us lunch in Ura. The Ura temple dance, Yakchoe, carries a little relic around the valley. It is not owned by the Dzong, but by a family there. Once an old woman was at home when a beggar came asking for water. She asked him to sit and went into her house to fetch water. When she came back, the man was gone, and there was a little sack left in his place. She opened the sack and found a little figurine of a yak. This holy relic is the centerpiece of the temple dance.

An empty village

We reached Ura around noon. The air was just beginning to warm up as we drove into the village. Horses grazing around Ura, Bhutan The surrounding fields were green. We saw cattle and horses grazing nearby. Some of the fields were tilled. Although we didn’t pay much attention to it, we did not see anyone out on the fields. The houses were clean and well painted, but as we passed by, we did not see anyone. We could hear music playing somewhere, either a radio or the tape recorders which were common here at that time. But there was no sign of a person.
Dzong in Ura, Bhutan

Someone voiced the most practical course of action, “Let’s go to the Dzong.” At breakfast in Bumthang we’d been told about the paintings in the Dzong, and we did want to see them anyway. The monastery occupied the highest point in the village. We drove there and parked outside. The large courtyard was empty. The doors were locked. We wandered around looking for someone to talk to and eventually a young villager appeared. Communication was difficult, because we did not speak Dzongkha, nor did he speak Hindi or English. Calf spotted in a field in Ura, Bhutan Even our concerted efforts at charades did not convey the message that we wanted to enter the Dzong.

Defeated, we walked back. Dinesh drove back to the highway, and we followed on foot. The houses were very neat, but the road was covered in dung. Villages in remote Bhutan do not have much drainage. Waste water from houses flows through gutters alongside roads and peters out in some fields. Ura was no exception.

Walking through the village we saw women in a couple of houses. They were friendly and waved out at us, but we couldn’t find anyone who knew the languages we could speak. Maybe all the Indian movies which are shown here are dubbed in Dzongkha. There were cows in the fields.Beetle on a fence in Ura, Bhutan Bhutanese villagers seem to tend cows as well as yak.

The fences between properties were made of wood and bamboo. They were weathered to a lovely grey colour, as you can see in the photo here. It made it very easy to spot the colourful insects which were everywhere. Of course, there have to be many insects to feed the enormous numbers of birds that we had seen on the way.

It was time for us to think of food. We walked back to the highway. Parathas being rolled in an eatery in Ura, BhutanIt was getting warmer, but at the pace we walked, a sweater was still comfortable. When we reached the highway we saw that Dinesh had located a little eatery. The women who ran it were very welcoming, and spoke a little Hindi. We got a lovely meal with fresh made parathas, and two wonderful dishes made of fresh vegetables from the fields. The meals we had in Bhutan were not particularly different from what we are used to, but everything was made with absolutely fresh ingredients which left a remarkable impression on me.

I remember the dining hall as full of local artwork, some hand-made, others printed. The calendar was Bhutanese, and there were a couple of large posters, at least one of which was the kalachakra. Masks were hung along the rafters. These are used in the temple festival. One of the ladies told us that during the festival a dance starts at the Dzong and comes past their shop and returns. The central part of the dance is a black yak, and there are others in various masks. I’d seen most of the masks on display, but the tiger mask (in the featured photo) was new to me.

I guess winter is the time to go back to Bhutan to see the temple festivals. All except Ura’s, which is in May. We seemed to have just missed it.

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.