Monday, May 20, 2013

Adventures in Bumthang

A painting of a Dakini, or female deity, outside Chimmi Lhakhang in Punakha
Hello once more! You may have read the blog entries that my fellow Wheaties and I have been writing over at our group blog, but I would like to take this space to include more of my own personal stories and thoughts about our spring break trip to Bumthang from April 19-27, 2013. I finally got a camera, so I have pictures to share again. Hooray!
Upper Choekhar Valley in Bumthang

Bumthang is often considered the "Switzerland of Asia" because of its valley and mountain views, and while I will not experience Switzerland in person until July, I must admit that this area of central/eastern Bhutan is spectacular in sights and all sensory experience.

We did not arrive immediately in Bumthang, but traveled first to Phobjika, the Valley of the Cranes. Unfortunately our stay in Phobjika was almost entirely in the dark, but there were none of the famous endangered black-necked cranes to be seen, since they have all migrated north to colder climes in Tibet for the summer. Rumor has it that these cranes are so beloved by the people of the Phobjika valley that for some time, when the nation was working on electrifying all the dzongkhags (districts), the people in Phobjika wanted to refuse transmission lines, for fear that they would interfere with the crane habitat and migration patterns. Thus, the electricity plans were modified so that most of the electrical lines in Phobjika are underground, and those with poles above ground are painted green to appear less intrusive. While I wish dearly we'd been able to see the cranes, this is an impressive commitment to ecological preservation. It gives me hope that Bhutan will hold fast to its environmental aims and conservation of its lands and resources, both biotic and abiotic.

Punakha Dzong
Our next stop was in Punakha, and we passed the stunningly picturesque Punakha Dzong, where the Royal Wedding took place between His and Her Majesty in 2011. It sits at the convergence of the Mo Chu and Po Chu (mother and father rivers) and was adorned to the T with blooming flowers and the traditional art that is typical of dzongs. We also stopped at one of Drukpa Kunley's famous sites: Chimmi Lhakhang, where this beloved and wild Buddhist saint once subjugated a demoness and made her the protective deity of the area, rather than the malevolent and human-eating being she had been. If I have not told you stories of Drukpa Kunley before, please ask, or give him a search, because he is by far one of the most unusual and fascinating folklore/religious figures I have ever learned about. For now, all I will say is that he is known and loved for his supernatural powers and ability to tame the evil forces of the world with his "flaming thunderbolt of wisdom". Either metaphorically or literally, to be understood as you please: flaming thunderbolt of wisdom means big powerful penis. He's not called the Divine Madman for nothing.

Handicraft shop in Punakha
Phalluses abound in Bhutan, however, and it's no big deal. You become sort of inured to it, and it no longer becomes shocking or perplexing to see flying penis carvings hanging at the corners of homes, or to see spurting erect not-so-private parts painted on the side of nearly every building in sight. These are often homages to Drukpa Kunley, but are most commonly present in order to ward off bad spirits, and to promote fertility. The school of Buddhism most prevalent in Bhutan is Vajrayana, also known as the "diamond path." Vajrayana practice does not include some of the stereotypical facets of Buddhist life, especially for monks. For instance, vegetarianism is seen in positive light, but is by no means mandatory. Celibacy for monks is also not always required. The main goal of Vajrayana is to achieve enlightenment in order to come back to this world and help other sentient beings achieve enlightenment, and thereby escape the suffering inherent in the wheel of life. In most Vajrayana rituals, a brass vajra is held, and paired with a special bell. Together these instruments represent the male and female respectively; the vajra symbolizes the ability to cut through ignorance (like a diamond thunderbolt) while the bell symbolizes containing enduring wisdom.

On our way to Jakar, the main city of Bumthang, we stopped at many more sites: the Trongsa Dzong, where giant living bee hives hung ominously and impressively among the windows and rafters, and rhesus monkeys scampered intimidatingly across the lawns and branches around the dzong; a roadside spring rumored to improve one's singing voice; and the famous Burning Lake. While this lake was more of a ravine where the water had carved out swirling pools of deep water than a proper lake, it is a revered site.
The Burning Lake
Many centuries ago, a terton, or treasure seeker dove into the lake holding a lit butter lamp. He emerged from the water carrying many treasures, with the butter lamp still burning strong. I was tempted almost to the point of indulgence to jump into the frigid water, but sorely resisted, given Tsewang and Prof. Owens faces and many warnings not to do so. I kind of wish I had though. We certainly did not spend enough time at this fascinating spot. All I wanted to do was crawl around the strangely eroded and carved rocks, but unfortunately we were rushed away in order to have to time to visit yet another Lhakhang.

The trip was a combination of hotel and farm stays, and though hot showers were only available at the hotels, I much preferred the farm stays. We enjoyed some of the best food by far in the country, with red rice, dahl (a lentil soup), and fiddlehead dishes that far surpassed the food in the mess. At our first of two farm stays, the girls were allowed to sleep on the floor in the shrine room. We were warned however, that no farting was allowed in the room! Bahaha. We spent much of the evening in the living room with the family, watching a body-building contest streaming live from Thimphu, of all things. It was pretty gross—protuberant muscles flexed to the extreme and slicked up with enough grease to fuel a fleet of tractor-trailer trucks, all accompanied by the most wild and scary facial expressions these men could muster, but to each their own in TV viewing preferences, I suppose. Still-it was a shock that this kind of competition has caught on enough for this to be sixth annual show.
Our first Farm-Stay in the Chumey Valley

Luckily, we had the welcome distraction of learning how to twist the fringe on the ends of our rachu and kabne, the formal cloth women and men drape over their shoulders during special events like festivals or in the presence of royalty. While Tsewang told us that this was typically women’s work, we were all eager to learn, despite our collective clumsiness. Leki, our driver, countered Tsewang, explaining that in his home in Tashigang (one of cities in the furthest east of Bhutan), it was very common for men to do this task, especially when the work in the fields was finished. The process consisted of twisting three bundles of threads in one direction, and then twisting them together into one larger bundle. We patiently did our best, and felt like we were making slow progress, but soon enough, the women of the house tired of watching us do a poor job, and took the work into the kitchen. I followed to watch, and they worked like lightening. They must have finished in ten minutes what would have taken us well over an hour. I do wish they’d given us a longer try though!

We left, offering our hosts our thanks for their generosity, and I could not help but wish I’d spent a little more personal time with them. I understand that they wanted to make our stay as relaxed as possible, but I wished they had accepted my offers to help cook or even engage in lengthier conversation. This has been an ongoing struggle for me, and I think it’s a combination of my difficulty in pushing for these interactions, and the cultural and linguistic barriers. I really envy multi-lingual people, and hope that my efforts with German do pay off with fluency someday. So far my skill with Dzongkha is limited to a smattering of words and phrases, and I am not confident with even those. Ah well.

Our next destination was the Domkhar Tsechu, which was very similar to the Paro Tsechu we attended in April, but much preferable in my opinion. Although there was no Thongdrel (the building-sized tapestry dropped at certain festivals) at this Tsechu, we did see some of the same dances as in Paro, plus additional ones. The scale of this Tsechu was must smaller-perhaps only about a hundred spectators, and it was a much more intimate experience. There are dances performed by women, which are much more subdued and solemn than those performed by the monks. The monks are elaborately costumed in twirling yellow skirts and animal masks during the Drametse Nga Cham dance. They wear perhaps even more elaborate dress during the Skull Dance, when they don multi-colored robes and large terrifying masks, showcasing the wrathful faces of some deities, crowned with carvings of human skulls.

Women Dancing at the Domkhar Tsechu
Drametse Nga Cham Dance at Domkhar Tsechu
Unfortunately, it seems that the spectators don’t take the dances performed by the women very seriously. I can’t tell if that has to do with the meaning of the stories in these dances, or if there is a divide concerning gender here. The masked dances are certainly livelier, so perhaps the answer in why the attentiveness of the crows is so varied is as simple as the entertainment value. I doubt it though.  

Each of these dances represents different stories and conveys deep religious meaning to those who know their backgrounds. I’m afraid this element of the festival was lost on me. The dances go on for hours, oftentimes, and the movements are both thrilling and confusing to watch. It is no wonder that the Drametse Nga Cham dance was named a UNESCO Intangible World Heritage event. I do admit that while the dance is happening, and the monks and abbot on the sidelines are beating on the deep resounding drums and clashing cymbals, and producing bone-resonating monotone blares from their telescopic horns and thigh-bone trumpets, it is easy to forget that these are not, in fact, deities performing before your eyes. During the dance, it is easy to blend the man behind the mask with the deity he represents. Part of me began to think that perhaps it was not all an allegory, an illusion. Perhaps, in the moments of the dance, the deity is there.

Skull Dance at Domkhar Tsechu

Many of my Bhutanese peers have no trouble balancing the contradictions inherent in living in a modern, continually developing world where ghosts, demons, and local deities are still unquestionably real. Their world, our world, is very truly populated by these beings, and I have heard comments more than once, that the presence of ghosts and spirits on RTC campus is the reason why the dogs bark so incessantly at night. In my classes with Professor Owens, we talk about this relationship between the people and the otherworldly, especially in the context of Buddhism and daily life. But, as much as we discuss it, we don’t really approach answers.

That seems ok.

 Although I still cannot feel committed to any doctrine or religion, I am taking many lessons of Buddhism to heart. In regards to the supernatural, it seems to me that the atmosphere of Bhutan (I will not explicitly link it to Buddhism, though it’s a close connection) doesn’t ask you to believe in deities and demons, or any specific belief for that matter. Certainly, it encourages you, and I happily oblige, and attempt to soak in as much meaning as I can from the Lhakhangs that we visit, and the teachings we have had. The atmosphere of Bhutan seems to ask only for you to be awake. I am stealing this sentiment from Linda Leaming and her book, Married to Bhutan, but I do think she is spot on.

And so, I am doing what I can to live up to this encouragement.

I tell myself, and my surroundings tell me:

Be awake. Look for what you want to see.

Some apt advice on a shop sign.

More to come on the rest of Spring Break very soon! And then more current updates too. Holy crap time goes by quickly.

Videos to be uploaded as soon as I get a better internet signal.

Tashi delek!

1 comment:

  1. Okay, first of all, no farting in the shrine room? So much commentary that I shall refrain from [for now]. Also, I'm feeling like Drukpa Kunley will be making for some fantastic campfire-side stories to be had.
    I have absolutely experienced the same feelings of offers of helping with cooking and such being well-received ("Ohh, que liiindo, me gustarĂ­a!" or "Oh, how wonderful, I would like that") and then never actually allowed. It's some unspoken cultural barrier that I'm guessing has to do with our permanent guest status.
    I am absolutely looking forward to hearing more about your Buddhism learning. Also, Linda Leaming! Her book was referenced in the book I was reading before leaving the States.


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