August 5, 2010

Digital Postcard: Punakha Dzong

I met Beth Whitman at the New York Times Travel Show where we were both on a panel about independent travel. She's a kindred spirit, a fellow guidebook writer, a wonderful wanderer and the founder of Wanderlust & Lipstick--a travel company for women. Beth knows Bhutan very well (so I'm jealous) and she sent me this about one of Bhutan's famous dzongs (the fortress-monasteries in this Buddhist kingdom). Thanks Beth!

Punakha dzong is easily the most beautiful of all the dzongs in Bhutan and has a storied history to boot.

First, you should know that a dzong is a combination of both a fortress and monastery and one is located in every district of the country. Dongs serve several purposes including protection for the region, an administrative seat for the government and they house the local monk body. Annual tsechus (festivals) are held in the courtyard of dzongs and villagers from the entire region walk for hours to attend, dressed in their finest traditional outfits.

Punakha dzong served as the seat of the country’s government up until 1955 (when it moved to the then new capital, Thimphu). Today, it is the winter home to the head abbot (called the Je Khenpo) and houses 600 or so monks. It’s here that the monks study Sanskrit scriptures and perform chants throughout the day.

The interior of the main temple is dominated by a large gilded statue of Buddha, flanked by Guru Rimpoche, Bhutan’s most revered lama who founded Buddhism in Bhutan, and Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who unified the country in the 1630’s. Sitting behind glass and completely filling the side walls are a thousand small Buddha statues. Photography is forbidden in this sacred interior but stories linger and have been passed down through the generations.

One of the most fascinating legends concerns the near invasion of the Tibetan army in 1639. The Bhutanese army guarding the dzong was well outnumbered by the Tibetans – however they were quite clever.

While the Tibetans kept watch over the dzong in preparation for an attack, the Bhutanese marched out of one door of the dzong, walked around the corner and entered a secret entrance in the back, away from the eyes of the spying Tibetans. They then marched themselves out the front door once again. The Tibetans, thinking that they were too few to fight such a large army, fled without invading. This is an excellent example of how Bhutan has managed to stay independent for so long – despite being surrounded by both China and India.

The best time to visit the Punakha Dzong is in early spring when the purple jacaranda trees are in full bloom, the two rivers that merge right next to the dzong are raging and all of the monks are in residence. You might even have a chance to listen to the monks chant if you arrive by mid-morning.

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