September 13, 2014 – Day 12 – Punakha, Bhutan

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This was the day that I chose to stay at the hotel to work on the blog and rest up. However, I did manage to sneak in a spa treatment, which was wonderful.

After reading the Lonely Planet and other guide books I discovered that much of Bhutan’s history has been based on legends, stories and folklore because it’s original records were destroyed in fires and earthquakes over the years.

Bhutan’s Buddhist history begins with Guru Rinpoche, who was a Tibetan monk, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the first Century around 746 AD. Previous to this the Bon religion was practised in Bhutan. The Bon religion was much like Shamanism where people worshiped the sun, earth, water, trees etc. Guru Rinpoche was responsible for bringing the Red Hat Buddhism or Nyingma Buddhism to Bhutan. (Today’s Dali Lama belongs to the Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism).There were many stories of Guru Rinpoche saving kings of different territories in Bhutan from demons by using his supernatural powers. Guru Rinpoche had 8 different manifestations. He was said to have been born from a lotus flower and was also to have been the reincarnation of the first Buddha, Sakyamuni.

In 1616, the monk who united much of Bhutan through Buddhism was Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan monk who was being challenged in Tibet by another religious leader. Fearing for his safety he eventually left Tibet at age 23 and moved to Bhutan. He soon established himself as “THE” religious leader in Bhutan and gave himself the title of Zhabdrung Rinpoche. It was this monk who built the first Dzong, which housed both the religious and administrative facilities as well as being a fortress or citadel for the protection of the locals. This same system of Dzongs was still being used in Bhutan today.

The Tibetan religious leaders were jealous of Zhabdrung and eventually there were 7 invasions by Tibet on Bhutan between 1656 and 1730. Luckily the Tibetans were unsuccessful in their attacks against Bhutan. (Probably because it is much easier to shoot arrows down than up a mountain).

Zhabdrung wanted to establish a Bhutanese identity separate from Tibet to preserve Bhutan’s culture. It was he, who defined the traditional dress still used today. The Gho for the men and the Kira for the women. He also established a code of laws for the layperson and the Buddhist community. He set up a system of taxes and free labour, which was in place until the 3rd King eliminated them in 1956!

In December 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was crowned King of Bhutan. This was the beginning of the monarchy system in Bhutan. Britain and Bhutan had good relations during this time because Bhutan’s King wanted protection from China. This first king was decorated with the Knight Commander of the Order of the Star of India. K1 died in 1926 and was succeeded by his 24 year old son. After India received its independence from Britain in 1947, India and Bhutan signed a treaty. K2 died in 1952 and K3 became the king. K3 was known as the father of modern Bhutan because he reformed the society and it’s economics by abolishing serfdom, reorganized land holdings, established an army, a police force and a court. K3 died at the age of 44 and his son at the age of 16 became K4. King 4 continued with his father’s modernization of Bhutan including education and health services and he also established the GNH, Gross National Happiness Ministry.

In 1998 K4 gave up absolute power by sharing authority with the National Assembly and Council of Ministers. In 2006 K4 brought in democracy, much to the dismay of the Bhutanese citizens who loved the monarchy. But the king said, “I do not know how my son or grandsons will govern over Bhutan; therefore, I want to put in a system of democracy to protect the population”. A compromise was reached where both monarchy and democracy would work together hand in hand. Democracy was started in 2007 at the same time as K4 abdicated his throne to his son who is now, K5. King 4 is quoted as saying “Monarchy is not the best form of government because a king is chosen by birth and not by merit”.

Although known as Bhutan to the outside world. The locals call the country Druk Yul, land of the Thunder Dragon and they call themselves Drukpa. A white dragon is shown on the Bhutanese flag because of this. The Wangchuck Royal Family have certainly shown themselves to be good dragon leaders!

September 12, 2014 – Day 11 – Thimphu, Bhutan to Punakha, Bhutan

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Today we said goodbye to Brad, Bea, Terry¬†& Gillian¬†and drove to Punakha from Thimphu. But before we left Thimphu we all went together to visit a local school. It was the school that our guide, Jas’s children went to. This school had 1,074 students from age six to grade 10. We arrived at the school before it was to start for the day and all the students were in the courtyard by class, lined up ready for assembly. It was Friday and their tradition was that one class stood at the front and sang to the rest of the school. Then the principal spoke to the children before allowing them to enter their classrooms. It turned out to be an examination day so we could not visit a classroom but the principal gave us a tour of the school and we did get to visit a special needs classroom because they did not have exams.

The school was very neat and tidy. All the children wore uniforms and it was a very disciplined and proud environment. Apparently, when the principal was talking to the children at the assembly, he told them that some children had picked flowers in the village and they knew who they were and the children were not to behave like that. Each classroom had their own garden area with herbs, vegetables and flowers. The classrooms would compete with each other on growing the best garden.

Leaving Thimphu we drove up the mountains of Bhutan and it reminded me a lot of British Columbia’s mountains. It was 19 degrees Celsius and a beautiful day. The roadside venders were selling apples and vegetables.

Farmers were not allowed to convert wet land into dry land but they were allowed to convert their dry land into wet land to grow rice. The maximum number of acres a person could own was 25 acres. This prevented the wealthier people from buying up all the farmland. If a family divided it’s wetland to another family member that family member could build a house on their wet land but if someone purchased wet land they could not build a house on it. If you purchased wet land you could only grow rice on that land. The king was trying to make everyone in Bhutan self-sufficient and from what we noticed it was working. If a citizen was poor with no family or land the king would give them 5 acres but they would have to keep that land for 10 years minimum.

There was no litter to speak of in Bhutan. There were signs everywhere reminding people to use the trash bins and to keep Bhutan green! The signage was working because Bhutan was green and very clean. We loved what we had experienced to date in Bhutan. The Bhutanese people were happy, everyone appeared to have a purpose and it was clean, friendly and very peaceful.

We stopped to visit the temple of The Devine Madman. Prince Sangay had talked about this Devine Madman and we were curious to see it for ourselves. The actual name of the temple was Chimmi Lhakhang, it was built in 1499 and was famous for the worshiped Phallus symbols. It was a temple of fertility. Phallic symbols were everywhere, painted on village houses, hanging from door frames and hanging from the eaves of rooftops. Souvenir shops sold wooden phalluses of all different sizes and colours. It was believed that phalluses kept evil spirits away from the local’s houses and brought fertility to the families. Many barren women from around the world came here to be blessed by the head monk with a wooden phallus, hoping to get pregnant.

The Devine Madman was actually Lama Drukpa Kunley, who came to Bhutan from Tibet and there were all kinds of stories about him. How he saved the locals from threatening demons by killing them with his penus! One story told how he pretended to be asleep and when a demon stood over him, the Devine Madman hit the demon in it’s mouth with his phallus and knocked out the demon’s teeth. The demon ran away holding his mouth. The inside walls of the Chimmi Lhadhang temple were painted with stories all about this Devine Madman and how he saved the villagers from their demons using his phallus. A famous quote from Drukpa Kunley (1455 – 1529) “The best wine lies at the bottom of the pail, and Happiness lies below the navel”.

That night we stayed in another Uma hotel, which was lovely. Slightly different than the Uma in Paro but it was also located high in the mountains overlooking the valley and the river below. I love these Como chain hotels they added a little magic to our stays in Bhutan by their locations high above the villages in their quiet settings.

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