Better to see something once than hear about it a thousand times. – Asian Proverb
Trongsa Dzong – the longest Dzong in Bhutan.
Dubbed as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”, hidden in the majestic Himalayas mountains, Bhutan is one of the oldest countries in the world, full of mysteries and legends. The Country is also known as the only traditional Himalayan Buddhist culture still exists in the world.
After three long years of waiting, the 1818 Society’s Bhutan Cultural Tour finally took place in April 2023. Eighteen members spent 15 days in Bhutan, participated in the sacred Paro Tschechu Festival, explored the beautiful Bumthang and Wangdue Phrang mountainous regions, and hiked up to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It was a trip of a life time!
Bhutanese Dzongs: mostly built in the 16-17th century under the leadership of Ngawang Namgyal, the 1st Zhabdrung and the founder of the Bhutanese state, Dzongs were military defensive fortress to ward off attacks from Tibet. However, Bhutanese Dzongs have evolved into serving four important functions – the religious, military, administrative, and social centers of their respective districts. They are also the site of an annual religious festival. Dzongs are not only architectural marvels of Bhutan, but also very sacred where most of the oldest Buddhist treasures and monuments are kept.
Punakha Dzong – the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan
Trongsa Dzong commands an impressive position above the Mangde River, this fortress has the most important strategic location, because the only road connecting eastern and western Bhutan passed through the courtyard of the Trongsa Dzong. Punakha Dzong is the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan and houses many of the sacred Buddhist relics.
Paro Tshechu Festival: Tshechu, a religious festival signifying the “tenth day,” is held annually in various temples, monasteries, and dzongs throughout Bhutan. It commemorates the birthday of the renowned Buddhist saint, Guru Rinpoche in Bhutan. Paro Tshechu is held in the majestic Rinpung Dzong, showcasing colorful Bhutanese dances. Every mask dance performed during the Tshechu carries a unique meaning or story, many of which originate from the 8th century during the life of Guru Rinpoche. Bhutanese believes that attending a Tshechu and observing the mask dances at least once is essential for receiving blessings and cleansing one’s sins.
Rinpung Dzong – where the Paro Tshechu Festival is held annually
We participated in the last three days of the Festival, watched various dances. We had a great time, meeting and talking to Bhutanese people. They are most kind, very well educated, and speak English. On the last day, we got up at 3am to witness the unfurling of the giant Guru Rinpoche Thangka, which covered the entire building of the Dzong. We were so impressed not only by these one-of-a-kind rituals, but also by the Bhutanese people’s unwavering dedication to tradition and spirituality.
Bumthang/Gangte (Phobjikha) Valley: after the Festival, we took the most scenic 25-minute flight from Paro to Bumthang, central Bhutan. Bumthang comprises four valleys – Choekhor, Tang, Chumey and Ura. These picturesque valleys are carved by ancient glaciers. It’s a peaceful place with potatoes, rice and buckwheat fields. Hence, the name Bumthang translates directly to ‘beautiful fields’. Bumthang is known as the “Spiritual heartland of Bhutan”, where Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan, and the birthplace of the great Buddhist teacher Pema Linga. Bumthang is also home to some of the Country’s oldest temples and monasteries. We enjoyed visiting the Jakkar Dzong, which is perched high above the Jakar town with the sweeping view of the Valley. We also enjoyed hiking around the idyllic villages in different valleys and across the terraced rice fields. Life here is very basic; air is so fresh and landscapes are pristine. People are content with genuine smiles. Walking through the countryside feels like learning a lesson of happiness: it doesn’t take much to be happy!
Villages in Phobjikha Valley
Hiking Tiger’s Nest, also known as “Taktsang Monastery”, the birthplace of Bhutanese Buddhism. According to the legend, Guru Rinpoche flew here from Tibet on the back of a tigress in the 8th century. He meditated for three months in a cave in Taktsang, and converted the Paro valley into Buddhism. Tiger’s Nest is one the holiest Buddhists’ pilgrim locations. Sitting precariously 3,000 meters above the Paro Valley, the Monastery was built in late 17th century on the site of the cliff. It consists of four main temples and 9 caves. Each temple has a viewing platform overlooking different parts of the Valley. The hike was challenging at some point, but we were rewarded with great views of the mountain and valley during the entire hike. We were so proud of ourselves – everyone made to the viewing point on foot! Although many of us saw pictures of the Tiger’s Nest before, we were so in awe when we actually saw it in person. Nothing compares to a real life experience.
To see a photo album of the cultural tour click here.
KEYWORDS Bhutan, Buddhism, dance festival, Dzong, hiking