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By this Author: rsherry

Pilgrimage to the Seat of Enlightenment

By Becky, Nov. 8-10

So far, we have made one foray out of Bhutan and into India, Nov. 8-10. DrukAir flights to Bangkok stop in Gaya, in the Indian state of Bihar. The tiny airport serves pilgrims on their way to Bodh Gaya, the town that has sprung up around the site where Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. We took advantage of this to make the trip our selves. The nearly empty, four-gate terminal may be the only airport in this predominantly Hindu country with a large Buddha inside the main entrance (also the exit) of the terminal. The music from their loud speakers is a very haunting chant; I never was able to figure out what it was.

The tree at the centre of this UNESCO World Heritage site is a Ficus religiosa, or sacred fig, commonly know as the Bodhi tree. A temple complex has grown around it over the years. The first temple was built here about 250 BCE, about 250 years after Buddha, by the Emperor Asoka. Some of the railing around the tree date from this time. Asoka’s daughter is said to have taken a branch from the tree and planted it in Sri Lanka, where another famous temple complex was built. Asoka also placed a stone seat beneath the tree on the spot he thought Buddha sat, which has become known as the diamond throne. Legend says that Asoka’s wife grew jealous of the time Asoka spent at the tree in prayer and meditation and killed the tree by stabbing it with a knife. A cutting from the tree in Sri Lanka was sent for and planted on the same spot, which is believed to be the navel of the world by some Buddhists and Hindus.

The current temple was built on the site of Asoka’s temple in the 6th century and fell into decline in the 12th century when Muslims invaded the region. Although some repairs were attempted, the largest and last renovation occurred in the 1880s. The temple is built of brick and rises to an impressive height of 55 meters. Words really can’t do it justice, so here's a picture:


Although we had to take our shoes off at every temple, they didn't bother to prevent picture taking because of the large numbers of tourists and pilgrims.

Inside the Mahabodhi Temple

Inside the Mahabodhi Temple

Today both Hindus and Buddhists revere the spot and come on pilgrimages. Flocks of monks are in constant attendance, some chanting around the tree, other doing prostrations in the gardens that surround the temple.

Every Buddhist country in Asia has built a temple or monastery nearby. These are fascinating in themselves, reflecting the culture and style of their home country. We found the Veitnamese temple to be the most peakceful.

Vietnamese Temple courtyard

Vietnamese Temple courtyard

The population of the town includes many Tibetans, who have their own market at one end of town. At the end of the street down from the Tibetan temple, the Dalai Lama built a giant Buddha statue, 25 m high, containing inside 20,000 smaller Buddhas, and surrounded by statues of Buddha’s disciples.

Tibetan Temple

Tibetan Temple

Giant Buddha

Giant Buddha

To see more of my pictures from Bodh Gaya, visit https://www.travellerspoint.com/gallery/users/rsherry/

Posted by rsherry 05:29 Archived in India Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Taktshang, The Tiger’s Nest

Becky, Sunday November 1, 2009


RIM has finished training another group of Japanese volunteers. To cap off their orientation, they took a field trip to the famous Tiger’s Nest (Taktshang Lhakhang), the temple to Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava that hangs on the edge of a cliff 900 m (2,950 ft) above the valley floor, and we were invited to go along. The RIM bus picked us up at 7am Sunday morning, then went to the south end of town to pick up a few RIM staff and students, then to RIM to load up a picnic breakfast and lunch, and meet the Japanese volunteers and a few more RIM staff and students.

After the one and a half hour drive to Paro, the bus stopped at the Paro Sunday market. Some of the Bhutanese bought prayer flags and food items to leave as offerings when we reached the temple. The base of the trail to Taktshang is a bit further up the Paro Valley, starting at 2,600 m (8,530 ft) in a shady pine forest. Here folding tables and our breakfast of egg rolls, momos, carrot and mayonnaise sandwiches, and tea was served. Most people started up the trail immediately after breakfast, but we had arranged for a horse to carry Noah most of the way up the mountain.


After the horse leader arrived, Mike took off ahead of us and I didn’t see him until two hours later when we had all reached the temple. A bit deeper into the forest we crossed a narrow stream that kept a row of three large prayer wheels continually turning; each was in a small house.


The trail is a bit steeper and has fewer switchbacks than a constructed trail in the US would have. I huffed and puffed to keep up with horse. We soon overtook the slowest of our group, one 74 year old Japanese man, two other Japanese in their sixties, a 70 year old Bhutanese woman, and a couple of young women from RIM who choose to walk with them. The rest of the hike I huffed and puffed to stay ahead of them!

Horses only carry people up the mountain; it is too steep for people to ride down. On our way up we passed lines of empty pack horses and mules that had carried people up earlier that morning. About halfway up was a large, relatively flat, open area with a huge prayer wheel, a few vendors, and a small restaurant (a bit off to the side of the trail). I caught up with Noah here and we rested for a short time.


After another 30 minutes, we passed a small building marking the birth place of the last Je Khenpo (religious head of the country) and reach another relatively flat area. Here the wide dirt trail ends and we can see Taktshang below us about 150m away on the other side of a deep gorge.


We had to leave Noah’s horse there. A series of steep, winding, narrow steps with a sharp drop on the right side leads us down into the gorge. Noah runs on ahead, but I am reminded of the steep steps that Bilbo and Sam must climb on their alternate route into Mordor. I go slowly and carefully.


The steps widen after a bit and my dizziness is relived. About 70m down the gorge, a bridge crosses a spectacular waterfall.


Just after the waterfall, a small house is tucked into a crevice, covering the entrance to a meditation cave.


Then a last set of stone steps leads back up the gorge to the temple.

At the beginning of the temple complex is a shrine to the local goddess.


At a flat terrace we have to leave our backpacks and cameras. Inside the gates of the temple, Noah becomes disheartened at the sight of another flight of wide, deep steps, each about double the regular height of a regular step, but on the walls above us are fantastic old paintings of Jampelyang (lord of wisdom), Channa Dorji (god of victory), and Chenresig (god of compassion). We are first lead to the most important chapel, though it is one of the smallest. Here is a statue of the Guru Rinpoche in one of his fierce forms, standing on the back of a tigress. When Guru Rinpoche was first called to Bhutan, one of his two consorts transformed herself into a tiger. On her back he flew to this spot where the temple now stands. To the left of the altar, covered by a golden door, is the entrance to the cave where the Guru mediated for three months after his arrival. Then he emerged to subjugate the eight categories of evil spirits and convert the Paro Valley to Buddhism.

We are lead in succession to other small temples, one to the Guru in another of his manifestations, one to the Buddha of long life, one to Tara, one to Ganesh, and others. The last temple I visit is the largest, dedicated to the founder of the monastery. A trap door in the floor allows a look down into the Guru’s cave. I am too late to visit the other large temple, which contains a chorten with the bones of the Guru’s main disciple, because the caretaker has gone to lunch.

On my way back down the gorge and up the other side, the steps don’t seem bad at all. I notice a shack that which I thought was a tea shop when I first passed. It turns out to be a temple to the consort who changed herself into a tigress. Guarded by an old nun, it also houses the butter candles associated with the temple complex.

As many dzongs and temples have been destroyed by fires over the years, it has become the custom to house the 108 butter candles that used to surround the main altar in a separate building, usually in the courtyard. Taktshang itself was destroyed by fire in 1998, meticulously restored, and reopened in 2005. The site had been considered holy even before the arrival of Guru Rinpoche and many famous Buddhist masters have meditated here. The first temple was built here in the 14th century, with more temples added individually until 1692.

There are hermitages on the top of the mountain above the temple,


but we hurry back down the mountain to our picnic lunch in the trees.


Posted by rsherry 23:48 Archived in Bhutan Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Travels in Central Bhutan

Oct. 23 - 26, written by Becky

We all made a trip to the district of Bumthang in central Bhutan Oct. 23-26. Bumthang is rural area, famous for its cheese and festivals, and its own style of food. We choose to go on a weekend to minimize absence from work and school. Only one of Bumthang’s many festivals was scheduled for a weekend, that of the village of Shingkhar.

We started by making the now familiar drive over Dochu La Pass into the district of Punakha, where it is lower and warmer than Thimphu. This time we saw a troop of macaques and a muntjac deer in the lower forest!


After a short drive south, we meet the Dang Chu River, with Wangdi’s impressive dzong stretched out along a ridge overlooking the river and the picturesque village of Rinchengang opposite it.



We proceed further east into the district of Wangdue Phrodrang and begin the climb to Pele La Pass (3,420m, 11,220 ft). It is during this climb, still in the forest, that I see my first yak!


There are many more yak in the dwarf bamboo pastures around Pele La. The top of the pass is marked with a chorten and a few villagers from the local towns of Pele 1 and Pele 2 (really!) have set up tents to sell their wool textiles.


Mike buys a scarf. Descending again, we eventually reach Trongsa, a town with no flat ground at all and another impressive dzong.


Then it’s up switchbacks again to another pass, Yontong La (3,425m, 11,235ft), the entrance to Bumthang District.
From Yontong La, the descent is gradual; there is even a 500m stretch of straight road, said to be the longest piece of straight road in Bhutan. The main town of Bumthang, Jakar, lies in the broad Chokhor Valley. A relatively small dzong sits on a hillside overlooking the town.


We make our way across the valley to our stop for the night, the Swiss Guest House. Just to show how small Bhutan is, we meet the father of one of Noah’s school friends in the hotel restaurant, sampling the locally made beer on tap. Before we leave we will buy 2 rounds of emmenthal-style cheese and some local apple juice. They also make a gouda-style cheese, but that is readily available in Thimphu.

The next day we begin visiting the local temples and monasteries. The first is Tamshing Goemba. Several young monks are in the large, green courtyard. The oldest are cutting up pineapples; the youngest appear to have just finished some cleaning.


We pass through an inner courtyard to the temple, built in 1501. In the small assembly hall are three thrones for the three incarnations (body, mind, and speech) of Pema Lingpa, the great terton (treasure finder). Guru Rinpoche is said to have left behind many hidden “treasures,” sacred texts that would be revealed when the people were ready to understand them. Pema Lingpa, a reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche born in Bumthang, uncovered many of these. He also visited Guru Rinpoche’s paradise where he learned many dances from the celestial deities and taught them to the monks on his return. These dances are still performed at many of the tsechu festivals across Bhutan. An inner sanctuary holds a statue of Guru Rinpoche between statues of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, and Jampa, the future Buddha. We walk around the inner sanctuary clockwise, admiring ancient murals on the walls. Before arriving back at the assembly hall, a large stone on the floor holds a pile of 500 year old chain mail made by Pema Lingpa himself (who was also a blacksmith).

A short way down the road, back toward Jakar, is Konchogsum Lhakhang, dating from the 6th or 7th century, and restored by Pema Lingpa in the 15th century. A weekend turns out not to be the best time to visit Bumthang; this temple (and many others we tried to visit) was closed. We could only admire the outside of the building and the nearby monk’s quarters.


Next we visit Jampey Lhakhang, the oldest temple in Bhutan, said to date to 659. At each corner of the temple is a chorten, one red, one yellow, one blue, and one white. Inside, the major figure is Jampa, the future Buddha, behind a curtain of chain mail made by Pema Lingpa. The alter in front of the Buddha sits on three stone steps; the lowest step, representing the time of the historical Buddha, is beneath the floor boards, and the second step (representing the present) is level with the floor. When the top step sinks to ground level a new age will arrive. The most unique and spectacular of Bhutan’s festivals (with a large component of fertility rites) is held outside this ancient temple each year.


Next, we visit the recently completed Zangto Pelri Lhakhang, which is closed, and the fabled 3-temple complex of Kurje Lhakhang. The oldest of the temples is built around a cave holding a body print of Guru Ripoche, left after a battle with a demon. But these temples too are closed. However, outside the fence of small chortens, are two women selling jewelry, brass religious items, and more samples of the local woven arts. We buy some more woolen items.



After a late picnic lunch, we head over another pass to the southeast into the lovely Ura Valley. We spend the night in a smoky room in the only hotel, on a slope above the town. The wood smoke is preferable to the cold. In the morning, we take a rough 8km road to Shingkhar, were a festival is to have begun the day before. The festival, with its unique yak dance, has been postponed. But the village is lovely. Most houses have a small solar panel on the roof for nighttime lighting. Each house has a fenced yard; the lower halves of the fences are made of stone, the upper halves of stacks of fire wood laid in for the coming winter.


We walk narrow paths between yards and outbuildings to find the village temple. Interesting, but locked.

Back in Ura, we wander around the town. It’s empty. Most of the people are out on the main road. The King has been out in the eastern part of the country, visiting areas damaged by the September 21st earthquake and speaking at the Sherubtse College commencement. He is heading back to Thimphu today and should pass by within a couple of hours. Everyone wants to catch a glimpse of His Handsomeness (yes, he is young, unmarried, and attractive). Those villagers not on the road are out in the fields with oxen and wooden plows, turning under the remains of the harvest.


We return to Jakar to visit one last monastery and the Jakar Dzong. We expect the Dzong to be closed, but the gate is open and unguarded. It has an unusual long, thin shape, and the first courtyard is very narrow. We continue through each courtyard until we reach the last and largest. A group of well-dressed women are lined up, singing a folksong. They soon finish and file out. Then a single monk begins to dance to a drum beat coming from inside one of the rooms along the cloister. Mike and I, the only audience, watch with fascination. His dance is followed by four young monks dancing in unison; then by a pair of monks. They are practicing for the Jakar Tsechu, which starts the next day. Without their masks and colorful costumes, we can pay closer attention to their graceful, expressive movements.


After a last night at the Swiss Guest House (where there are hot showers!), we head back to Thimphu the same way we came. Now and then, there are small groups of people on the roadside, waiting for the King to pass. (He must have spent the night in in Jakar too.) We stop at a handicrafts shop and are hurried along by our driver; afraid that we’ll get trapped behind the King’s motorcade. As we pass Pele La again, I admire the fall colors appearing at these higher altitudes. Going through Trongsa again, we stop at the ta-dzong, the dzong’s watch tower, which has been restored as a museum. This turns out to be the best museum we’ve seen in Bhutan. It traces Bhutan’s history through the religious art objects found in the Dzong’s temples; the originals are in the museum and new pieces were made for the Dzong. Trongsa Dzong has served as an alternative capital, controlling the central part of the country, at several points in Bhutanese history. Today the crown prince is required to serve as penlop (governor) of Trongsa before he can take the throne. There are many objects from the time of the unifier of Bhutan, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (15th century), and the time of the first king, Uygen Wangchuck (around 1900). We learn that their religious advisors played nearly as important a role in Bhutan’s history as the temporal rulers themselves. It really brings the history of Bhutan together for us.

See more of my pictures of Bumthang and Pobjilkha at https://www.travellerspoint.com/gallery/users/rsherry/

Posted by rsherry 23:30 Archived in Bhutan Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

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