Saturday 28 March 2015

Bhutan: Lhakhangs, Goembas and Dzongs

The Lonely Planet doesn’t warn you of it. No doctor or pharmacist can alleviate its symptoms. Like the common cold, you know it’s coming, but can’t avoid it. If you’ve travelled anywhere in Asia, you will surely have been struck down by it at some stage. It can even be fatal.

Temple Fatigue.

I’ve been to a lot of temples in Bhutan. Some are Lhakhangs in their own right; others are inside monasteries and forts. It is testament to their intrigue that I have not remotely tired of them - if anything they got more interesting as the week went on and I began to grasp the players and stories.

Gangte Goemba
Each has its own unique charm and character; from walls blackened by burning butter lamps, to perfect indentations in the wooden floor of a pair of feet, rubbed away by centuries of prostrations. The musty smell, the strange perfumed water, the carvings, paintings, symbols, statues; in every room you taste the tangy sweat of history on your lips.

Many Bhutanese temples have an inner chamber in which some diety or other resides. Most are of a dual nature; dangerous and volatile, but capable of placation and responsive to prayer. No one can enter unless, I’m told, they really need to. And then the door, painted black as a portentous sign of what lies within, might be prised open and the faithful admitted.

You can’t take photographs inside the temples, partly to preserve their sanctity, and it adds to the magic. The experience of visiting them is intensified because the moments are precious and all you can carry away with you is what you see and feel.

The temple at the far end of Punakha Dzong is one of the most amazing rooms I’ve ever entered. Fifty four pillars stretch skyward like the digits of a golden hand, galleries poised on their fingertips. Three huge statues dominate the back wall, and hundreds of tiny ones in boxes line the sides. Murals depicting the life of the Buddha are glued to the walls, and every inch of pillar and wood is intricately carved with mysterious symbols. I spend a long time in here, scanning and sketching, trying to crystallise the image and impression so I might never forget. Photography with the mind as camera.

Outside the temple: shoes on, camera out. In the courtyards the roofs overhang the buildings and create stark lines of light and dark. Red robed monks appear and disappear like mirages, floating across the stone floors. Inside and among the cloisters, the glossy, knotted wooded floors, steep ladders and small windows make me feel like I’m on some old galleon, the Mary Rose perhaps, and I figure that the architecture of pre-modern warfare was the same everywhere. I hang around in the gables like some malevolent bat, or lurk in the shadows, waiting for a scarlet clad monk to ghost past and complete the shot.

Punakha Dzong
Paro Dzong

These are majestic buildings. The Dzongs, or forts, in particular, stamp their authority on the landscape. The base of each regional government, they date from across the ages, and share the same menacing, impenetrable look. They are dotted all over the country, many in the most impossible and inaccessible places.

Tashichho Dzong, Thimpu
It’s not just the incredible architecture of all these buildings, the detail of the carvings and paintings, but their locations too. The hike up to Tango Goemba in the Thimpu valley was steep and sweaty. Up here among the blue pines, the great canvas of the Himalayas as the backdrop, the daily rituals of life and religion are conducted effortlessly and hypnotically, and climbing up here I feel transported to another time and place. Then the monks pour tea and break out the Danish butter cookies, and transport me back.

Tango Goemba
Some places in the world defy superlatives, and Taktshang Goemba, the highlight of every trip to Bhutan, is one of them. Clinging to the shimmering rock of a sheer cliff face, it looks as if someone has thrown it there and it just stuck. The legend goes that it was anchored in place by the hair of female celestial beings who transported the building materials up the mountain on their backs. But what you actually see is not so old, faithfully rebuilt after the old monastery was gutted by fire.

Wanting to avoid the crowds, Ugyen and I set off early, and were the second people to arrive, hiking up in record time. It was hard going, but worth it, getting to really feel the place without being jostled out of the tiny temples, and taking time to soak up the peculiar atmosphere. Wandering in and out of the temples, up and down stairs, in and out of the rock, it’s almost as though I am inside some organism or living thing. It is extraordinary to look at, and magical to explore; the stuff of pure fairytale. Myth and legend seeps through every crack in the wood and stone.

One hike up here is enough for most people, but having left and descended just as it was starting to get busy, I climbed back, to take pictures in the late afternoon light. It was quiet on the trail, and special again to sit perched on the edge looking across at this magnificent place, waiting for the sun to break from behind a cloud with not a soul to disturb me, just the sound of the birds for company and an occasional distant bell from the monastery as the prayer wheels turned, while dutiful monks incanted prayers and prostrated themselves on the cold timber floors.

Beneath the last building at Tatkshang, through a small crack in the rock, down a tiny, improvised ladder and along a narrow passageway, the butter lamps burn at a small shrine marking the original spot where Guru Rinpoche meditated after flying up the cliff on the back of his consort, transformed into a tigress to carry her master. They say you can see his face etched in rock here. The Tiger’s Nest.

Tatkshang Goema: The Tiger's Nest
Proof, if it were needed, that when man believes in the unthinkable he can create the impossible; and that buried deep inside every living thing you will find the seed from which it sprung.

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