Bhutan’s landscape is dotted with numerous monasteries
There is lots to see in the upper Paro valley and little Lhakhangs2 and Gompas3 dot the hills along the entire valley. Look anywhere you want and you’ll see a tiny temple somewhere on the mountain. I visited a couple of such temples.
Several of these temples house monks that stay inside praying and meditating for months and years, only coming down to the town for supplies once a while. When I told my Nepali hotel manager that we were going to explore these mountains, he explicitly asked us not to knock on the door and disturb the monks unless it was absolutely necessary. Eventually we were too tired to hike that far, and I was kinda bored seeing so many Buddhist temples! (Few weeks before Bhutan I was in Russia and after some days I refused to see any more orthodox churches.)
Kyichu Lakhang is a short drive (Rs 10 – $0.25 by shared taxi) from Paro town and is supposedly Bhutan’s oldest and most beautiful temples. It was believed to be built in 659 CE by a Tibetan religious leader to ‘pin down the left foot of an giant ogress (female man-eating giant) who was thwarting the establishment of Buddhism into Tibet’. The religious leader embarked upon an ambitious project to build 108 temples in a single day and Kyichu Lakhang is one of them. Few others remain today. Very interesting!
Finding Kyichu Lhakhang is not easy since nobody seems to know about it (very strange) and I found it only in my Lonely Planet guidebook. Its a short walk off the main road from Paro heading north-west.
The driver of my shared taxi asked me if I was a “foreigner” and I told him that I was indeed from India. But India is not so exotic and therefore not considered as a ‘foreign country’ in Bhutan, so I added that I lived in Canada. He asked me if I had any foreign currency. I gave him a couple of coins and also told him about our beloved maple leaf symbol on the coins. I think he was extremely delighted since encounter with ‘foreigners’ is very rare in Bhutan. (They usually travel in escorted groups.)
At the end of the road heading north-west of Paro lie the Drukgyel Dzong ruins. It was built in 1649 at a location strategic to the trade route to Tibet. Unfortunately we did not visit this place since I kept postponing visit to this place until the last day and on the last day it rained. Lets see which one among you (reader) visits the place! hehehe!
This temple is shaped like a chorten4 but is actually a lhakhang2 built in 1433 by the iron-bridge builder Thangtong Gyalpo. It has 3 floors representing hell, earth and heaven. One needs a special permit to visit this Lhakhang but we could not go inside since the doors were closed.
Religion in Bhutan
Buddhism is deeply rooted in the landscape and culture of Bhutan – there are prayer flags, shrines and images of Buddha and other gods carved into rocks wherever possible. To understand Bhutan, I think it is very important to know the basics of Buddhism and the values it stands for. Your visit to a monastery will be more fruitful that way.
Bhutan treats all religions equally and offers religious freedom to all. Hinduism (~25%) is the second largest religion and is practised mostly by descendants of Nepali migrants. Proselytization is not permitted in Bhutan yet there is a small number of Christian converts. Across the border in India, there is an active conversion campaign by Christian missionaries and a simple google search will reveal a number of websites dedicated to ‘saving Buddhist and Hindu souls’ in the region. The India-Bhutan border is open.
Buddhism was introduced in Bhutan in the seventh’s century. Bon was the belief system in Bhutan and Tibet prior to that and was absorbed into Buddhism, in a peculiar characteristic of the Eastern religions. Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, and Indian saint, was invited to Bhutan and after subduing several demons and converting the king, he proceeded to Tibet. Guru Rinpoche is considered to be the patron saint and is very respected in the country.
Bhutanese Buddhsim (Mahayana Buddhism) is different from Tibetan Buddhism but the exact differences are still unclear to me. The Bhutanese do not consider The Dalai Lama as their spiritual and religious leader, they have their own The Je Khenpo (and I was blessed by his holiness!). These differences were indeed the reasons for several invasions from Tibet.
Footnotes: (I think I will make a post about this)
1 Dzong: Fort Monastery
2 Lhakhang: A temple
3 Gompa/Goemba: A place of learning, lineage and meditation.
4 Chorten/Stupa: A small stone monument often containing relics. A stupa is usually hemispherical.