Pema, our Bhutanese guide who answered questions about all things Bhutanese, brimmed over with information about the history, construction and use of the dzongs (pronounced “zong”), the enormous white fort-like structures built in the sixteenth century. Their construction was commanded by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a Buddhist from Tibet who established himself as the religious ruler of Bhutan when it was still a collection of tribes. Trekkers find the more remote dzongs clinging to impossible cliffs, locations strategically chosen to defend against warring neighbors. Others were established closer to towns, a more practical location for their dual purpose as regional seats of administration.
After an early morning and a fruitful day of birding, we visited our first dzong. Pema wore an especially formal gho for the day and had brought a white scarf for his visit. Every Bhutanese person must wear a scarf indicating their status. Colored scarves are reserved for royals, Buddhist ranks and government officials. Everyone else wears a white one. Before leaving our bus for the dzong Pema draped his scarf across one shoulder and carefully fastened it in a particular manner, more a fold than a knot.
Punakha Dzong is one of six dzongs still in use as a monastery. It was the seat of the Bhutanese government until the mid-1950’s and is still the winter residence of the dratshang, the central monk body. The construction of the dzong at that location was begun in 1637 on the site of a smaller structure built in 1326 that housed a statue of Buddha. Punakha Dzong has survived fires, earthquakes and flooding of the two rivers that converge close by. The recent repairs from a 1994 flood have returned much of the dzongto its original state.
We approached via a short suspension bridge over one of the rivers. Stepping carefully across the uneven planks, we were thankful it did not swing as some did and add to the anxiety we felt at being suspended over the water that thrashed uncomfortably close to our feet. Savoring the thrill of danger, I paused in the middle of the bridge and recalled other hanging bridges we had seen clinging to the lips of deep canyons, and was glad we would be saved the peril of a long fall should the worst occur.
At the gate that pierced the ten-foot perimeter wall, a couple of older men in faded clothing loitered and watched the monks, tourists and civil servants coming and going. We all greeted them with a smile and passed through the gate. Once inside we admired the well-tended gardens enjoyed by only a few strolling monks and visitors. The walls of the already enormous building tilted inward, increasing the illusion of massiveness built to intimidate approaching enemies. Designed as a fort, there is no accessible entrance that would encourage an attack. Directly in front of the dzong, we stood at the bottom of a long flight of steep steps. Each step was much higher than our standard stairs. Any enemy trying to rush the place would be winded by the time he reached the top.
Three young monks with shaved heads and red robes sat on the top steps while we listened to Pema. They looked like high school students, possibly taking a break from their studies. I pointed my camera toward them and one held up his hand for me not to take a photo. Oops. Too late.
We climbed the challenging steps to the entry foyer where bright colorful murals depicting the life of Buddha and various deities covered the walls. Every wooden surface was carved and painted in intricate detail. As Pema explained the figures, he spun the large prayer wheels that flanked the entry door. The mantra in each wheel invokes benevolent attention and each rotation spreads spiritual blessings and well being.
Through a short tunnel, we came out into the an inner courtyard where all the interior walls, posts and beams displayed flowers and leaves, script, animals and gilded garlands. Discrete wall niches displayed small replicas of Buddha. It was difficult to absorb so much color and texture and I turned with relief to the ancient thick-leaved almond tree in the courtyard’s center. The harsh chirp of house sparrows broke the quiet.
From the sunny courtyard, Pema invited us to observe the daily afternoon ceremony. Half way up another set of steep stairs we could hear the moans of deep horns, crisp drum beats and bright cymbal crashes. The heavy wood interior, darkened by centuries of incense burning, absorbed much of the light that entered through small openings high in the roof, but there was enough light to see.
We crossed the open floor of the balcony and peered over the railing onto the scene below. A table and a few heavy chairs were against the walls, but most of the smooth wood floor of the hall was uncluttered except for perhaps fifty monks in cranberry robes who sat like red pyramids. The brass horns boomed their reverberating note again from beneath my feet. Moving to a better spot, I found the horn players sitting against the wall, the long straight horns stretched out in front of them. I wondered if that is what an unwound tuba or Sousaphone would look like. It must have taken terrific lung volume to even make a sound in those huge instruments and it made me dizzy just thinking about it.
On the platform next to the horns, a chanting monk reverently fingered the ancient book that lay before him though he seldom needed to glance at it. Two lines of monks stretched away from him across the hall and faced each other. Each monk held a slim pole that was planted on the floor. At the top of the six-foot pole swayed a small flat, two-sided drum. The monk’s other hand held the beater, thin and straight to the upper end, where it bent in a crescent so the padded tip struck the drum at a right angle to the head. I was enchanted by their precision and unity as they responded to the chanting. The ping from these tenor drums balanced the labored deep boom from the horns.
One drum stick did not seem to be in synch with the others. In fact, it seemed the monk holding it was weaving a little, dozing off perhaps. No one seemed bothered. He jerked awake and joined the others for a few more strikes, then dozed off again. One or two of the others smiled a bit, but there was no attempt to wake him. I delighted in this bit of humanness amidst the centuries-old ceremony.
Behind each line of drumming monks sat two more rows of the red mounds. Occasionally one would get up and walk out. Another would enter, find an unoccupied spot and settle among his brother monks. What could I draw from that? Is this ceremony optional? Do they come and go when other duties allow? Do the ones who do not come demonstrate a lack of commitment?
I moved to the other side of the balcony and stood near an older monk watching the activities below. At the end of a sequence, the drummers lay their drums down and sat in silence. From the edge of the floor, a young monk entered carrying a container full of grain. He stopped in front of each monk and scooped a handful uncooked rice into each man’s lap. On cue from the reader, each monk pinched a bit of grain and tossed it with a flick of the wrist. Most did so without obvious concern where it landed. Some threw it high into the air and one of the youngest monks, a teenager, clearly had a target in mind. He grinned broadly after several particularly well-placed throws, though I could not pinpoint his target. I glanced at the elderly monk who had to have seen the antics, but he seemed undisturbed, neither a smile nor frown. Maybe he remembered being a boy.
In the next sequence, most of the monks unfolded a white cloth and placed it in their laps. Two more of the younger monks entered with large pots of boiled white rice, their bare feet shushing as they moved down the line. Stopping in front of each monk, they pushed a small saucepan into the pot and plopped a lump of sticky rice onto the cloth. The recipients knotted their cloths and put them aside. Some monks got more rice than others and some had not spread their cloth and were passed over by the providers. What could all that mean, or was I just reading into a daily activity something more than it was? On a diet? Fasting? Was this voluntary or imposed? My questions were overridden by other thoughts and never answered.
When Pema signaled us to leave, we descended another set of perilous wooden steps to a smaller courtyard. Because the ceilings of the halls were very high, the outside of the building was as tall as a five or six-story building, though there were fewer levels than that. Big and small windows with little balconies broke the expanse of white walls. We took some time to wonder at the intricate carvings and paintings on every inch of the wood.
We crossed the courtyard to another hall where we could see younger monks through the doorway. I assumed they had just finished the same ceremony we had witnessed because rice remained on the polished floor. Pema indicated we should remove our shoes outside since we were entering the actual hall, not observing from above. There was no balcony, but the interior was dark and cavernous like the other one. As Pema lectured on the history and the significance of more paintings of Buddha and the deities that covered the walls, I watched the boys. Dressed in the same red robes as the other monks, these were the youngest monks. Most looked between 5 and 12 years old.
The boys were clustered to one side of the hall. An older boy in charge seemed to be lecturing them. Then, he pointed to several who grabbed bundles of reeds and swept up the bits of scattered rice. The others milled about, chatting, laughing softly and watching us. I wondered about the friendly shoving, unseemly for monks, but I guessed they were boys first of all. An older monk sat at the bottom of one of the pillars in the middle of the hall. Was he overseeing the boys? They didn’t seem to be paying attention to him, so perhaps he was a keeper of the hall.
Pema patiently answered our more practical questions. Why would boys want to come here? Who were they? Didn’t their families miss them? What if they didn’t measure up to the rigors of training?
Most boys come at around five or six years, chosen and encouraged by their families who consider it an honor to have a son in the community. Traditionally, monks have had better access to education than the rest of the population, though that is changing as the Bhutanese schools improve. Monks continue their education into specialties needed by the community.
The boys visit their families on occasion, and the families come when they are able to the monastery. Boys who decide not to stay are allowed to leave, but the family the family is expected to pay for the training received, which surely must put pressure on the boy to continue. One perk for the monk’s family is his availability when blessings are desired, and in Bhutan there are many such occasions. Weddings, deaths, new babies, opening a new house, even the seasonal changes are all richer when a monk joins the celebrations.
The monk I had seen in the balcony when the younger monk was throwing rice appeared later on the steps to the smaller hall and chatted amiably with another monk. At a distance it looked like he might be carrying a whip, but on closer inspection, the strands were only cotton cloth. Was it symbolic? Surely young miscreants were gently guided toward appropriate behaviors without coercion.
On the April day we visited, I was comfortable in long sleeves and pants. It was the edge of spring and a pleasant day but I knew that many days at that high altitude are not warm. We saw no fireplaces, though it is possible the living quarters had some source of heat. Maybe the monks bulked up with layers of underclothes in the cold weather, like Pema did when we reached the chilly passes. But the monks spent so much time sitting in meditation, in ceremonies or in classes, how did they survive? Buddhist friends have told me that it is challenge to overcome physical discomforts while meditating. Squirming is discouraged. Cold is just another discomfort.
I was not tempted to romanticize a life for myself at PunakhaDzong as I do about some situations. I’m probably past the point of entry to a life committed to such austerity. Still, I can respect the men we saw for their choices and for their contributions to the life of the community. With all the changes to come as Bhutan moves to modernize, I hope the spirit of Buddhism can be retained as the king hopes will happen.