Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Bumthang Part II.

Ravens and dogs. Dapham Dzong is off in the distance in the top left.

After the Tsechu we continued on to Jakar, the main city of the Bumthang district. The rain continued with us, probably as a result of a typhoon heading in over India. Jakar is very small compared to Thimphu, but as a friend of mine here once told me, Thimphu is 30-50 years ahead of the rest of the country development wise. He said this with a bittersweet tone of voice, so I’m not sure how to feel about the rapid modernization happening in Bhutan. If I am ever lucky enough to come back many years from now, I’m sure the changes will be astonishing.

Looking up the Choekar Valley from our Farm-stay
We would return to Jakar later in the week to spend three days volunteering at the Koenchog Sum Lhakhang, but our true destination at this point in the trip was into the Choekhor valley for another farm stay. I had heard rumors that hot stone baths were available at this farmhouse for a small cost, and I was excited to try it out. The house itself was larger than the other we had stayed at in Chumey, with the whole upper floor dedicated to bedrooms. (Often, all the action takes place on the “first floor”—second floor to Americans—of traditional Bhutanese houses, and the ground floor is reserved for storage and housing the livestock. I imagine this is to conserve heat, but I’m not sure of the exact reasons.

The Tub
I was not to be disappointed by the availability of hot stone baths, though I was nearly boiled alive. The bath took place in a little enclosure where there was a wooden tub big enough to seat two or three people. The tub was full of herbs and sweet-smelling bark, and a compartment at the far end of the tub held the hot stones. The man who tended the tub for me was one of the older men of the house, whom we called Apa, which can mean Grandpa. He stoked a large fire not far from the bathhouse and carried the red-hot rocks from the pile underneath the fire to the tub using heavy iron tongs. This alone was impressive, but let me tell you, so was the heat of the water when he put the rocks in the tub. When I got in, the water was already very warm, but comfortable. Apa puts in one more rock. Oh boy, this is getting pretty warm. Apa puts in another rock. Whoooa baby. Heat! I sit in this for a few minutes, thinking back on other similar experiences like the sauna at the Schoolhouse in New Hampshire and the Sweat I participated in on the Blackfeet Res in Montana. Then Apa comes along, and drops another glowing rock in the herbal water. I do my best to try and persist, but it came to a point where I was a few degrees short of being a cooked lobster, and I gave in. The good news was that I smelled awesome afterwards, and basked in having such loosened muscles. Mmhmm.

choeten at the end of our exploration
Most of the "B-team" by a stream-powered prayer wheel.

The days at this farmhouse were my favorite part of the trip. Being in pretty rural countryside, I was able to satiate my desires to go proper adventuring. I and my fellow members of the B-team, as we dubbed ourselves, went exploring along some horse paths and pastures until we came to a choeten surrounded symmetrically by prayer wheels and flags. We had been warned not to cross past here because there was a military installation where heavily armed people might ask us for papers we didn’t have. Walking back, Ben and I played an excellent round of spear-golf, and upon our return to the farmhouse, we enjoyed yet another meal of excellent home cooking.

Following cows on the way to Dapham Dzong ruins
The next day we set out on a full-day hike to the ruins of the Dapham Dzong, through an area that will become the site of a proposed “GNH Centre,” where people can come to practice meditative retreats or other pursuits. This hike was just what I wanted it to be, a full-on excursion where I could literally stop at any point to look at some tree or flower or rock or mushroom and then catch up with the rest of the crew, all while enjoying unmatched views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains. The mountains seemed to grow throughout the day, as the rain clouds lifted and we could see more and more of their lofty peaks.

I hope you can / have experienced the sheer pleasure I felt this day, engaging in this environment with my whole body and all my senses. Also, it was pretty nice just to be off the bus for one day. One especially exciting part of the hike was the crossing of the river in a gondola-like basket that whizzed across the rapid-filled river below on a steel cable. Getting the whole group across in this way allowed those of us who went across in the first volley to spend some time building cairns on the riverside, an activity I always recommend. However, we had to be sure to only build cairns containing auspicious numbers of rocks.

river crossing via gondola
photo by Ana Brenescoto
river cairn!

Ruins of Dapham Dzong
photo by Ana Brenescoto
The hike led us up a steep hill to the ruins of Dapham Dzong, the name of which I believe means “enemy’s defeat.” It is easy to imagine the defensibility of this dzong, and most others, with their hilltop perches and steep ascents. The walls are punctuated by narrow outlets that allowed archers inside the dzong to shoot down at their opponents with little chance of being shot themselves. I can tell you I wouldn’t want to try to storm a dzong, especially this one. Now, however, it lies in ruins, with wooden logs doing their damndest to hold up what remains of the crumbling pounded-mud walls, and tattered prayer flags stretching over the weed-covered courtyard floor. It is a current archaeological site, and must hold many mysteries. It certainly held an aura of long memories and pride. One unsolved mystery for me: the whole place smelled like tomatoes. I’m still stumped on that aspect of it.

The Lhakhang up the Hill

At the end of our return hike, Tsewang hurried us to change into “Dzong-appropriate” clothes and start heading up the hill behind the farmhouse to a secluded Lhakhang. Tsewang’s “root guru,” a figure important in the student-teacher lineage of his training, was being celebrated at the Lhakhang. It was the root guru’s death day.

We scurried up the rain-slicked road, which Tsewang remarked was brand new since he had last been here a few years before, and entered the Lhakhang. We received the most hospitality there I have yet encountered in a Lhakhang, with tea, snacks, and ara served. Then we were invited to the shrine room where the death day rituals were being performed. The room was abuzz with noise from the drums, horns, and singing of prayers. One of the monks invited us each to light a butter lamp on the altar, and whether objectively or with the aid of the ara, this was a tremendous moment.

Traditional trumpets and drums in the shrine room

Two other truly special events about this Lhakhang occurred while we were there. First of all, we were permitted to take pictures in the shrine room where we were served tea. This was shocking, and we all seized the opportunity, as it was our only chance to get pictures of such a site. More importantly, however, was that we were allowed into a very special shrine room where one can encounter the local protective deity. This was unheard of, for us, as chileps, and for me as a woman, to be granted this permission. Tsewang explained, that the Lama of this temple believed that since Guru Rinpoche’s consort was allowed to go wherever Guru went, women should be allowed into this room too. Plus, he noted, this local deity didn’t really mind. The room was full of ornately patterned cloth on the ceiling and walls, as well as stock full of shields and weapons ranging from spears to modern rifles. The altar held a statue of the local deity and other figures.

door into a shrine room
Feeling thoroughly moved by this whole experience of the day, the Dzong, and the Lhakhang, not to mention good and drunk off the ara, I skidded my way down the mountain back to the farmhouse, reciting every poem I have memorized to myself. I couldn’t exactly tell you why I did this, but in the moment it was very exciting and felt right. I want to memorize more, as I’ve got a pretty sorry repertoire right now, and I admire the monks for their extensive rote learning of their texts. It’s an ongoing process, my friends. I am learning all the time. My hope is to remember it all too.

One poem I’d like to add to the repertoire:

“I saw a man pursuing the horizon”
by Stephen Crane

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
"It is futile," I said,
"You can never-"

"You lie," he cried,
And ran on.

P.S. Bonus picture from the BBQ sponsored by His and Her Majesties at RTC!
Alec, Annie, Sara, Ben, me!
Photo by RTC photographer

Another entry to finish up the spring break excursion to be uploaded soon!

1 comment:

  1. Your writing is ceaselessly fascinating. No joke.
    Hiking! Poetry! (I like that one. A lot.) Gondola rides! Barbeque photo! The Himalayas! Spiffy shrine room that I know essentially nothing about, but is still super cool! CAIRNS! Oh dear, your life. Crazy.

    Also, as for the tub: I'm sure you know about the cooking a frog slowly method versus directly in boiling water. You are the frog, Carrie m'dear.


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