Tang Valley and family life in Bumthang, Bhutan
Tang Valley is located only a short distance from Jakar Valley, but the unpaved rocky road made the drive there much longer.
The narrow road is not well maintained, since the Tang Valley has only a few remote monasteries and tiny villages.
The landscape is heavily forested, with clear patches of land that are planted with corn, potatoes and cabbages.
There were herds of cattle in the fields, looking healthy and lazily grazing in the sun.
The villages were built half a century ago, and I could see many houses with a thunder-bolt-penis hanging from each corner of the house.
The thunder-bolt-penis is made of wood.
It is sharpened like a pencil on one end, and on the other end it is shaped like a penis.
They always have a wooden wing attached at the top.
It is believed to protect the house from all directions.
We passed by a wide clean river with beautiful boulders in it.
On one side of the river was a sacred temple built into the rocks.
It is called Kunzang Drak and it was the retreat center of the treasure discoverer Pema Lingpa.
On the front of the monastery opposite the river, there is an indentation in the rocks in which Pema Lingpa is said to have taken baths.
We took a leisurely hike up the hills to a large family estate that has been converted into a museum, showing the way life was conducted in rural Bhutan in Feudal times, up until the 1950’s.
The Ogyemchoeling Palace was built by the Dorje Lingpa family in the 1400’s.
We were lucky to arrive on the one day of the year when an annual festival was being celebrated.
The whole village had gathered in the courtyard of the Palace.
We saw kids and families sitting on the ground, watching the annual festival with joy.
The monks were chanting prayers while warriors with swords and flags performed a traditional dance and rituals.
At the end of the rituals, we followed the whole congregation in circumventing the temple three times.
The daughter of the current family who owns the Palace, came to attend the annual festival.
She is a writer who has published a few books about Bhutanese culture.
She was delighted to take the time to show us her museum, and with warmth and patience answered our many questions.
The family used to own the whole region, and every person in the villages on this land, used to work for her family.
The grandfather of the current king, (the third king of Bhutan) made some changes to land ownership laws in the 1950’s, which put an end to the Feudal era in Bhutan.
He had decreed that all land which had been owned by Lords, would now be divided and given to the villagers.
Each household was given 25 acres, and since then, no man or woman in Bhutan is allowed to own more than 25 acres.
The palace was a very large complex, and it was drafty and cold inside of the buildings.
There was a very large courtyard surrounded by a few buildings.
The most impressive building was the temple, which in olden days was used by the whole community, as well as the family.
The lower floor is dedicated to the goddess Tara, while the second floor is dedicated to “Gowo,” which is the Bhutanese name for the Buddha as a young prince.
Across from the temple stands the main building, which was converted by the daughter and her two brothers into a museum.
The rooms were large and we had to climb very steep wooden ladders to reach the upper floors.
To go down those ladders, you have to turn to face the ladder, and hold onto the wooden railing and walk slowly backwards…. Yes, they are that steep….
These ladders, which we saw in other farm houses around Bhutan, are climbed many times per day by the very young children of the household, as well as by the very elderly, all with the agility of house cats.
The rooms of the museum were filled with an impressive collection of period items, which gave us a very accurate feeling of how life was conducted since the 1400’s.
There was a printing room, in which prayer flags and books of Buddhist scriptures were printed.
The ink was made from the soot of the stoves and the kitchen, diluted with oil.
There were leather bags and boxes to store grains, and chests that were used to store salt, which was traded for grains with traders who used to come over the mountains from Tibet.
We saw the bedrooms, which were equipped with a meditation box instead of a bed, and the elaborate woven clothing that the family wore.
We saw the masks and costumes that were used in the annual festivals, and a collection of kitchenware and household devices.
As we made our way back to Jakar valley, our guide Sonam, who comes from Bumthang, invited us to dine at his family’s home.
Sonam called his father and arranged for them to start the cooking.
Sonam’s house stands on a wooded hill, across the river on the edge of Jakar town.
The house stands on 25 acres, the allotted land allowed for a family in Bhutan.
It is a wooden house built in the traditional Bhutanese way, which is the obligatory building code for all new construction in Bhutan.
It was a chilly night, and we were invited to sit in the family’s living room, which has some sofas, a coffee table, a single bed and an altar with a candle in front of a photo of Sonam’s father’s Guru.
There were a few scroll paintings on the walls depicting guardian deities, and all around the room were photos of the kings of Bhutan.
It is something that we saw in other houses all around Bhutan….people do not hang photos of their own family, but the do hang plenty of photos of the royal family.
Because the house was a little cool, Sonam’s father took out of the closet a warm blanket and spread it over our laps.
They gave us delicious butter tea, and roasted rice and flakes of corn, which are usually served with butter tea.
I was the only one who munched on this treat.
Jules does not love butter tea as much as I do, and crusty, crispy and somewhat flavorless grains, are also not his cup of tea…
I did not like it on first try, but later I found that I enjoyed the earthy taste of it.
We chatted about Sonam’s father’s training as a traditional medicine healer.
He had gotten his knowledge from a Tibetan master who had taught him everything he knew about making herbal medicines and healing people with homemade remedies.
Nowadays, people in Bhutan are migrating towards Western medicine, and so to encourage people to turn first to the holistic ways, the traditional herbal medicines are given away for free.
Even the consultation and healing sessions done with a traditional healer, are done without any charge.
People come to Sonam’s father for help and advice, and he treats them for absolutely free.
To supplement his income, he runs a small incense factory on the edge of their property by the road.
The incense, which is a regular household item, used by everyone in their personal temple rooms or to burn at local temples, is divided into two categories, with veg or with non veg ingredients.
The veg incense are prepared from herbs and flowers collected in the mountains, and the non veg are made from bones and blood mixed with herbs.
Unlike incense made in India, Bhutanese incense does not have wood in them, which makes the sticks more fragrant but also more fragile.
After tea, we moved to the main hall of the home, where the meal was served around the central stove.
We sat cross legged on the floor and Sonam’s auntie along with her daughter, served us delicious home cooked food.
Everyone made sure that we took our fill of food first, before they piled their own plates with huge mounds of rice, and a small amount of vegetables and sauces.
The Auntie, who is a divorced woman, moved to live with Sonam’s father and his younger brother, when Sonam’s mother fell ill and needed to be close to the capital city of Thimphu, where she gets treatment for stomach cancer.
Auntie lives with them, along with her daughter, to help with the household chores.
The food was delicious, and the atmosphere was warm and cosy by the fire.
We ate the local red rice, a dish of local greens, potatoes with butter, wild mushrooms in a spicy cream sauce, a dish of carrots and cabbage, and the favorite Bhutanese national dish of spicy chillies in a creamy cheese sauce.
The warm family atmosphere of uncles, aunties, parents and children living so close together……squeezing together elbow to elbow…. bursting into laughter together and sharing their space and living quarters with such warmth and acceptance, was not something I had encountered much before.
In many other cultures, people need their own space and privacy, or they have conflicting personalities and compatibility issues…..
It felt very harmonious to see people who have moved in together, get along so well without judging one another or getting into any conflicts.
It reminded me of a long conversation that I had with some monks.
I had asked them how many roommates they had and if there were any situations in which they did not get along with other monks while sharing their living space.
The monks looked at me as if I were an alien from outer space……
No, of course it NEVER happen that they do not get along with their fellow monks…. They assured me.
Not getting along with others is a clear sign that you value your own EGO more than anything else….
The path towards enlightenment is an egoless path….it requires overcoming your ego which is the source of all anger, jealousy, hatred, ignorance and greed.
Sonam’s father used to be a monk in his younger days.
After completing his education, he went to a three years’ meditation retreat.
Later, he was chosen by the Tibetan medicine man, to be given the knowledge of traditional healing to.
It is common for practicing Buddhist monks to go into a silent meditation retreat after completing their studies.
Real insights are known to occur when a person goes into a silent retreat, and spends time seeking sublime knowledge that is transferred in meditation and is beyond words.
I asked how many hours monks in retreat usually spend sitting in meditation per day.
He said that the meditation is supposed to go on continuously, aside from short breaks taken to eat once or at most twice per day.
They are not even supposed to sleep, but to sit upright in a meditation box, which looks a little like a crib (but with solid wooden walls and without the bars).
I asked for advice about a minor health problem that I experience, and Sonam’s father told me to drink first thing in the morning, a glass of hot water with five saffron flowers in it.
He also told me to avoid cheese, garlic and foods that make the blood too hot.
He told me to pay extra attention to my liver, gallbladder and blood.
All the veg that were cooked for our meal, were grown in their kitchen’s garden.
A white cat made itself comfortable by the stove…. It looked that it was as happy as I was, to be in such warm company.
The TV blurred Bhutanese news, following every movement of the royal family and of the new king.
Sonam convinced us to try their home brewed Ara, prepared in the traditional way that is served hot, cooked with butter, a small amount of honey and an egg.
It did not sound so promising….. But it actually tasted very good and mild.
We said our goodbyes and climbed down the very steep wooden ladders of the house, leading to the ground floor.
I always enjoy visiting homes in new cultures we travel to, and I felt very happy and very grateful to have had the opportunity to share a meal and chat with this sweet family.
Before falling asleep, I thought about the three years of isolation, the silent meditation retreat that devout Buddhists take.
The most I ever did, was a ten days’ silent meditation retreat….. But to be honest, my life at home in the mountains of Colorado, or in a remote beach town in New Zealand, is a sort of meditation retreat.
I have weeks in which I hardly see any other soul except for Jules.
I have seen many hill top meditation retreats, as we toured around Bhutan………they were remote and seemed to be a very serene place to contemplate the meaning of life and your special and divine place in it…….