From Thimphu To Punakha… And Myths And Tales Of Bhutan

Myths and stories blend together in Bhutan, and the line between fiction and history is totally blurred…. I like it this way.
I much prefer to keep an open heart that is childlike, than to be suspicious and rational all the time.

Of course it starts in childhood.
Children have pure minds that are very willing to believe in possibilities.
Adults who grow up in a society that is geared towards achievement and accumulation, tend to be suspicious and cautious, unbelieving and rational.

Western children are more than happy to believe that Santa Clause is real, that Peter Pan can fly, that he is eternally young, and has a tiny fairy called Tinker Bell…
When they grow up, they hear that none of the stories they believed in during childhood were real, and they start being suspicious of everything.

In Bhutan, children grow up in a different culture with different stories.

They grow up believing that those stories are REAL, and they are educated to believe in enlightened masters who can fly, who perform healing miracles, who ride tigers through the Universe, visit the invisible and meet with dragons, demons and spiritual deities.

Those stories are told with total conviction.
In the minds of Bhutanese people, sculptures of gurus and lamas can speak, paintings can shed tears, people can turn into birds and dragons can take human form.

In their adulthood, nobody will tell them that those stories were fake, and so they will tend to have minds that are more imaginative and open to the possibilities and multidimensional nature of the Universe.

As an artist, I know the value of imaginations which can create new inner worlds and heal painful memories and replace darker inner worlds.

Our guide Sonam, loves to tell us stories that are well known in his culture.
I write them down as soon as I can, and I ask him to spell all the names.
I wish to share some of them, and I truly cherish hearing them.

We ate a late breakfast and lingered around our comfortable hotel in Thimphu, because Gyampo and Sonam needed some time to service the car.

I have to admit that both Sonam, our guide, and Gyampo, our driver, are fabulous companions.
They are totally committed to making us comfortable, to our enjoyment, and to showing us the best of their country.

The driver constantly cleans the large car inside and out, so we can see through the windows well, and they stock both sides of the car door with bottled mineral water for us to drink.

They wait patiently while I take photos and always smile, even when I keep them waiting for hours.

At the National Library in Thimphu, which was supposed to be a short visit, I kept them waiting for over two hours, while I photographed a large selection of Bhutanese and Tibetan art instruction books, that explained how to draw and paint all the deities and mythical animals.
I also looked at books about the ancient Bon religion and its art.

Those kinds of books are never available to buy online or in stores (even in Asia), and no library in the USA or in NZ carries those kind of instruction books.
Those were ancient books, some of them hundreds of years old.

It is not just our guide and driver that are superb and most enjoyable to be around.
I noticed that all the other guides and drivers seemed so devoted and so sincere.
They really work hard to give the tourists the best time ever.
It is SO refreshing and such a difference from how guides are in many other parts of the world.

We saw some amazing sights in the short days we stayed in Thimphu, including a most impressive Dzong with art that was vibrant and wonderful.

We visited a nunnery that was built by the Iron Bridge Builder and saw how studious the nuns were.
The Nuns sat on the wooden floor in a small room at the entrance to the main temple hall, and studied the scriptures.
Sunshine filtered through the windows, illuminating their horizontal books.

Bhutanese Buddhist scripture books are not bound.
They are printed on narrow and very long horizontal strips of paper.
They are kept inside a hard cover, which is also not bound.

As we toured the nunnery, we were offered delicious cookies, and I noticed a cat stretching in a luxurious way on top of one of the nun’s wooden benches….
The place had a warm and home like feeling.

In Thimphu we also visited a small paper making factory.
Bhutan is very proud of its traditional paper, made from a tree that is indigenous to Bhutan.

The tree bark is stripped and soaked in boiling water.
The water is heated in a huge vat over an open fire surrounded by bricks.

After the soaking, the bark is rolled into small balls and we saw a few women sitting outside under shade, with large plastic bowls in front of them, each filled with those balls that they needed to untangle.

Later the long strips are ground into a pulp.
The pulp is mixed with water and than poured into wooden frames with thin nets stretched at the bottom.
The water filters through, and the pulp binds into sheets of paper.

Sometime they add petals of flowers or herbs during the drying process.
To dry the paper faster, they use warm handmade panels that are heated.
They simply spread the paper sheets on those heaters.

We visited a temple that is devoted to children, built in the 12th century.

Sonam told us that the patron of this temple, a lama, (spiritual teacher) met his wife at a bridge that was stretched over the Thimphu river.

They had seven children born from one pregnancy, which was considered by the Lama not to be an auspicious number.

The parents decided to put the babies in the river, with the hope that only the ones that will help spread the teaching of the truth, will float and so, will survive.

Three of the babies drowned and four survived.
The lama and his wife raised them and they grew to be great spiritual teachers, who went in all four cardinal directions, North South, East and West, to spread the teachings.

Nowadays, mothers bring babies to be blessed in this temple.
While we were there, we saw mothers and grandmothers bring their young children who get bags of treats and snacks from the monks.

The drive from Thimphu to Punakha took us over the Dochula Mountain pass.

At the pass, the queen mother who was the forth and oldest wife of the fourth king,
built 108 stupas to commemorate the victims of war.

On the opposite side of the hill that was covered with stupas, we walked up to a temple that was also built by the queen mother.
It had some contemporary art on the walls and a lot of vibrancy.

It was another example of how you never know what will surprise and delight you in Bhutan, as you climb into what you might foolishly think… Is just another temple or a Dzong.
They are all unique and wonderful in their own ways.

The fourth king (the father of the current king) had four wives, all of them sisters who grew up in the warm valley of Punakha, where we were headed.

It is common in Bhutan for a man to marry sisters, or for a woman to marry brothers.
It is also common practice in Tibet.
People do it to keep their wealth, their fields, animals, houses and jewelry inside the same family, and sometime it is done in rural places as a way of insuring familial harmony.

There is a story told of a beautiful woman who married four brothers.
She moved into their family’s home with their elderly mother.

She was a devoted wife and worked hard at all the household chores.

In a short time, three of the brothers died and only the youngest brother was left alive.

People told the young man that it was not an accident that all his brothers died in a short time after they married that beautiful wife… Something was amiss….
His mother convinced him that his new wife was a witch.

The young man came to his wife and told her that she must follow him to the river, where he planned to kill her and throw her body into the river.

When they came to the river and he took out his knife, the young wife begged him to reconsider, saying that all she wanted was for him to hide in the tree overnight and to be quiet… All will be made clear to him by morning…

They young man agreed.
He was a Buddhist and did not want to kill her, unless she was really a witch.

By nighttime he witnessed a group of witches who gathered in the woods.
They performed ceremonies and made black magic.
At midnight, the head of the witches arrived.
She was the most wicked one of all and her hat was crowned in human skulls.
The moonlight shone on her face, and the young man almost fell from the tree, as he recognized his own mother….

The next day he put a silver dagger into his mother’s heart.
She discomposed instantly into ashes and spiders.

When the young man asked the local Lama what to do with his mother’s ashes, he was told to build a stupa and place the ashes inside.
The stupa must be painted with silver paint, to keep the spirit of the witch from doing harm.

The man went up the mountains and built the stupa, but he could not find any silver paint.

The Lama told him to walk over the high mountains to a high mountain pass.
The man did not want to obey the Lama’s instructions, thinking that no silver paint will be found there….

But he knew he must do it or risk the wrath of the evil spirit of his mother, the head witch.
So he set on a journey of many days to the high mountain pass.

When he reached there, he met with an old woman who wordlessly handed him a bucket of silver paint.
He took the paint and walked away from the old lady.

The old lady walked into the distant mountains and was never seen again.

The young man painted the stupa with the silver paint and went home.
His young wife was no longer there…

The Lama told him that the old woman he met on the high mountain pass, was his beautiful young wife.

She was actually an incarnation of a Divine Dakini (female goddess), who came to earth with the precise purpose of ridding the valley from that evil witch.

The young man was out of his mind with sadness, and he roamed the high mountain pass, hoping to find his beautiful wife…
But alas, it was not his karma to find her…. And he did not see her again in that lifetime.

Believe it or not….. But this is a children’s story widely told in Tibetan and Bhutanese cultures.

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