This past Saturday we visited the west Bhutan city of Paro. This was also the day of the Bhutanese national holiday--the First Sermon of the Lord Buddha. That sermon happened after the Buddha's six years of meditation under the Boddhi Tree on the path to enlightenment. Besides the Paro International Airport--a key port of entry into Bhutan for non-Bhutanese and Bhutanese alike, the Paro area is the site of several important religious sites and Bhutanese national landmarks. These include: Paro Dzong (fort and monastery), National Museum, ruins of Drukgyel Dzong, Kyichu Lhakhang (Temple), Taktshang Goemba (Tiger's Nest Temple, which is one of the most famous and popular tourist destinations in Bhutan), Ugyen Pelri Thang (palace and residence of the queen mother) and Dumtse Lhakhang (Temple).
On this day, our destination was the Kyichu and Dumtse Lhakangs. Early in the morning we hailed a local taxi that drove us on the only two-lane winding high mountain road from Thimphu to Paro. This road, which is around 7,500 to 8,000 feet high, parallels a swift running river and numerous mountain peaks several thousand feet above the road. Along the way we also sometimes swerved around the numerous local dogs and cows that often walk or lay in the middle of the road. Prior to entering Paro, we stopped and then passed an agricultural checkpoint. Entering Paro, we passed the international airport, which this day was being guarded by a small number of Bhutanese soldiers--some of them with AK-47 military assault rifles.
Our first stop was the Dumtse Lhakhang, which was built in 1433 A.D. I was really struck by this as it was one more reminder of how ancient Bhutanese society and culture is compared to the relatively newer U.S. This temple has three floors and is almost pitch black inside except for the lit butter candles and occasional small windows with sunlight flooding in. The three floors represent hell, earth, and heaven. The temple was packed with worshippers due to the holiday making passage in the temple very slow. Complicating this was the steepest and smallest stairs I have climbed and went down, so far, in Bhutan, bar none. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the very dim light I was also able to view some of the finest wall murals that I have seen, so far, in Bhutan. Many of the worshippers also moved in a clockwise direction around the outside of the structure spinning prayer wheels. Outside this ancient structure also stood a giant prayer wheel.
Our next stop was the Kyichiu Lhakhang.
For the first time in Bhutan we were caught in a slow moving traffic jam with numerous cars and some buses as we inched with numerous worshippers toward this important temple. This temple is even more ancient than the Dumtse Lhakhang. This temple was built in 659 A.D. by King Songsten Gampo of Tibet to tie down the left foot of a giant demoness that was stopping the spread of Buddhism in Tibet! The inner courtyard of this temple was jammed pack with worshippers. However, there were not as many worshippers on the outside of the temple.
Inside we visited the worshipper-packed inner courtyard and prayer areas inside the temple. The scene inside in several areas was chaotic with some worshippers in a prostrate postion in front of some giant 20-30 foot tall statues of the Buddha and Shabdrung (founder of modern Bhutan). There were many other people walking around. In one room there were colorful and finely etched 25 foot statues of Guru Rinpoche and Kurukulla (Red Tara holding a bow and arrow consisting of flowers). In this room, I placed five Bhutanese ngultrums in a tribute dish and received sanctified rose smelling water by a red-robed monk. The custom when you receive sanctified water is to take a small taste of the water and then sprinkle the rest on your head. The head is considered a sacred part of the body in Buddhist tradition. I could have opted, however, for the monk to tell my fortune with three specially crafted dice. Next time, for sure.
After our visit to Kyichiu Lhakhang, we headed to the center of the city of Paro. We checked out the numerous handicraft shops and one restaurant along the main road in the city and also my favorite--a stamp store. Bhutanese stamps are well known for their art work and uniqueness, see: http://www.kuenselonline.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=8085. Some of them have been made from pure silk. Others are made in the form of plastic phonograph records that play the Bhutanese National Anthem. Still others are made in part from real gold. All are not just for collecting but are legal tender, but I can not imagine sending a pure silk or gold stamp through the mail system. Some of these stamps are quite pricey costing $400 or $500 USD.
As we wandered around the center of the city of Paro we came across quite a spirited celebration and sports competition in a local park. The competitors were playing the national sport of darts also known as Khuru. The distance from the dart thrower to the target is 20 meters. Yes, you read that right--quite a distance to hit a small target with a dart.
While I thought that hitting the target was quite amazing let alone making a bullseye, sure enough it happened after a brief interruption as a calf crossed the dart throwing field to get petted by several members of the crowd.
In another section of the park was an archery match, which is the national sport of Bhutan. The distance from the archer to the target is 120 meters. By contrast the official Olympic distance for men is up to 90 meters and 70 meters for women. At this distance, I could barely make out the target at the far end of the field. Yet, these skilled archers were fairly consistently hitting the target. Amazing stuff.
In another section of the park the crowd was having a great time watching Bhutanese folk dancers celebrating the holiday and the athletic events. They were accompanied by some nice sounding Bhutanese acoustic guitars that were adorned with colorful wood markings and etchings.
The folk dancers sang a sweet song and melody as they danced on this fine Saturday afternoon.