Punakha Valley, at 1200 meters, is one of the lowest elevation valleys in Western and Central Bhutan.
It enjoys a sub-tropical climate which allows tropical fruits like mangos and papayas, as well as tropical flowers to grow.
There are seemingly endless rice terraces along the hills, and a wide and very clean river runs through it.
Punakha used to be the ancient capital of Bhutan, until they moved it to Thimphu.
The four queen sisters who married the former king, come from this valley.
The former king of Bhutan was a compassionate ruler.
A devoted Buddhist, he decided to abdicate his crown and to force his country to become a constitutional monarchy.
He said that nobody can guarantee that Bhutan will always have a kind and compassionate king, and to ensure the happiness and well being of his people, he created a constitution based on Buddhist principles, and established general democratic elections.
In 2008 Bhutan had its first congressional elections.
The fourth king gave his crown to his older son, who became the current and fifth king.
There is a magnificent old Dzong that sits on a little island in the middle of a confluence of two rivers in Punakha.
The two rivers are known as the Female and Male rivers.
A beautifully engineered hanging bridge stretches between two towers and over the wide river, leading to the old Punakha Dzong.
Inside the old Dzong, you can see a large courtyard with a white stupa standing next to an ancient gnarly Boddhi tree.
The wood carvings around the windows and doors inside the Dzong, are absolutely breathtaking…
So is the art on the walls in the large temple hall.
Up on one of the hills above the valley, we hiked through the rice terraces and climbed up a steep path to see a new temple that took over nine years to build.
It was built by the current King’s birth mother.
The walk there was very serene.
We passed some running brooks with clean mountain waters, and exchanged greetings with the farmers who cultivated beans and rice, played with their toddlers, or swept dust off their front porches with handmade brooms, made from tied reeds.
The beautiful grounds of the temple have 108 stupas built all around it; the same number of stupas that we saw the day before, crossing the Dochula Pass.
We took off our shoes and hats, and left our water bottles on the steps leading to the main temple.
The moment we entered the temple, a gasp of delight and surprise spontaneously came out of my mouth.
Inside the first floor, stood a huge sculptural installation of wrathful deities, rising up in six levels to the tall ceiling.
If this kind of installation were being displayed at a Museum Of Contemporary Art anywhere from New York to Paris, London to Sydney, I would fly there to see it….
Seeing this magnificent sculptural installation after a hike through rural rice fields and up into a forest, was such a surprise, that I could not believe how lucky I was….
I sat there on a floor cushion and made some sketches of some of the deities with their three heads, wings and dozens of arms, riding on mythical elephants and stepping on symbolic manifestations of human anger and greed, envy and passion, surrounded with mythical creatures.
The temple stretched over three stories and each one was breathtakingly beautiful.
From the roof we could see the whole valley below.
On our walk down back to the valley, I noticed how happy I felt and how blessed…
The sun was shining gently and I was not overheated.
The brook ran next to me, and I thought about how much I love being here…. And seeing all those amazing places….
As I walked with joy, I suddenly felt a sensation that I never felt before…
From the base of my spine a sensation that I can only describe as orgasmic, rose and climbed up to the back of my head.
It was not orgasmic like a sexual orgasm, but more like a sensation of extreme physical pleasure that climbed from my spine and evaporated in the back of my head.
I never felt a sensation like this before and it left me in a bit of awe…
It felt like I got a small taste of how it could feel to live in total harmony with your body…. Of having a different frame of mind that is not alert to aches and pain signals, but instead is being in total joy with the physical.
Our hotel was located above the valley.
It was a beautiful place with rooms that were actually spacious cottages.
There was an outdoor circular sitting area under a climbing vine, in which we sat to drink an afternoon tea with other guests.
The Punakha valley is famous for the Divine Madman, who used to live in this valley.
He was an enlightened master who could shoot fire out of his penis and perform many miracles.
I will share more stories about him later, in future posts.
The Divine Madman came over to Bhutan from Tibet.
Before he left Tibet, he shot an arrow from his hometown in Tibet, towards Bhutan, with the hope that wherever the arrow will land, he will make his new home and discover his destiny.
He looked all over Bhutan and found his arrow stuck to a wooden ladder attached to a house in the Punakha valley.
A beautiful woman lived inside the house.
She was married to another man, but that man recognized the wisdom and Light in the Divine Madman, and became his spiritual student.
The beautiful woman became the Divine Madman’s consort.
Many Bhutanese monks and Lamas had consorts and wives.
They do not take an oath of celibacy, only an oath not to engage in sexual misconducts.
Because of the arrow of the Divine Madman, the valley locally is known in Dzongkha, (in the Bhutanese language) as “Toep Chandana” or “The Valley Of The Arrow.”
Another story that Sonam told us that evening, as we sat and sipped tea and munched on crispy cookies under the canopy of wines overlooking the valley, was the story of the reasons that the Tibetan people invaded Bhutan often in ancient times.
Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, was the unifier of Bhutan, which before that was comprised on warring tribes.
Shabdrung who constructed the oldest Dzong in Bhutan, escaped from Tibet to live in Bhutan.
He established a system of administration and law in Bhutan.
He established a State clergy and a political system which was administered by monks and based on Buddhist principles.
The story tells that before he came to Bhutan from Tibet, he was believed to be the reincarnation of Pema Karpo, the most powerful spiritual leader in Tibet at the time, who had passed away.
Five different groups of Lamas had confirmed five other people as the reincarnations of Pema Karpo, and they sought to find and kill Shabdrung.
He decided to escape to Bhutan, which was not called Bhutan at the time, but “Druk Yul,” the land of the thunder dragon.
Before he escaped to Bhutan, he stole a relic of a part of the spinal cord of the goddess of Compassion, Chenrizie (Chenrizie means “she who looks upon others with compassion”).
The relic was a small 5 inch long statue of the goddess of compassion, which naturally rose from the spine of Chenrizie.
There were a few small relics of exactly the same statues which emerged from the spinal cord of the goddess of compassion, but Shabdrung stole only one.
Shabdrung came to Bhutan with the stolen relic.
The Tibetans who heard that he stole the relic, invaded Bhutan a few times, to try to get the relic back.
On the last invasion, Shabdrung knew intuitively that the Tibetans were coming.
When they were within eyesight and on the other side of the river, he threw oranges into the river, which the Tibetan thought were precious relics.
The Tibetans who came from the highest altitude land on the earth, had never seen oranges before.
The golden orange color seemed to them to be precious relics, and they decided that the Bhutanese were insane for throwing precious golden relics into the river, and that they were not worth fighting with.
They retreated back to Tibet and never invaded Bhutan again.
Nowadays, during the first day of the Phunakha Domchoe annual festival, they still practice throwing oranges into the river to commemorate that historical victory.
Some people from the village jump into the river to collect the oranges.
They dry and keep them as if they were real relics, and they place them on their families’ altars.
Every family home in Bhutan has a “Temple Room.”
Many of them have elaborately decorated altars in it, and they hang in it precious flags and special fabric decorations to bless the home, to ward off evil and disease, to ask for enlightenment and blessings.
In front of the altar they place seven bowls of water, fruit, dry yak cheese, a butter lamp and other offerings.
People meditate in the temple room, sleep there when they need solace and generally they live with the spirit and principles of their belief in an intimate way.
After being in Bhutan and being emerged in their culture…..
After seeing how spiritual beliefs take central place in the lives of the people, it does not take much effort not to blink an eye when they tell you with utter conviction, that a golden statue rose out of the spinal cord of the Goddess of mercy….
Or that an arrow can travel hundreds of miles over mountain passes from Tibet to Bhutan….
If anything…You feel a little bit narrow minded NOT to believe in all those wonderful stories and myths….