Every city, town in Bhutan is located in a valley, with a river passing by through the middle, leading you to ponder that what they said about civilisations coming up by river sides were true….Punakha town, too, dwells by the Phochu Mo Chu rivers. And it was only when we came here that we got to know that Punakha used to be the capital of Bhutan about 60 years ago. They moved to Thimpu only in 1955. The town appeared to be a sparse valley to us, Indians. Sparse and beautiful.
When you come to Punakha in May, what strikes you the first thing are the Jacaranda trees that are in full bloom here. Thimpu, being at a higher reach, didn’t have the Jacarandas. It had willows. But Punakha offered rows and rows of Jacarandas in the streets, pregnant with the beautiful lilac colour flowers. To me, the flower lover, it was an added boon – Jacarandas are my favourite flowering trees. 10 years of big-city living had taken away the happiness of seeing these trees every spring – Delhi-Mumbai don’t have these varieties. In fact, Delhi still had a few here and there, but I haven’t seen any in Mumbai in the last 7 springs we have spent here.
Happy to find me so happy with the Jacarandas, Sonam, our guide, told us that lunch would be at a restaurant before entering Punakha, and then, we’d proceed to see the Punakha Dzong and the Punakha Suspension Bridge. Hungry and needing a wash after the Thimpu-Punakha drive, we were happy at the timely break for ‘refuelling’.
Punakha Dzong (Pungthang Dewachen Gi Phodrang or, The Palace of Great Happiness): As with most Dzongs in Bhutan, you can see the Punakha Dzong much before you reach it. Its majestic size will draw a ‘Wow’ from you the moment you would have sighted it. Located on the confluence of the banks of the Pho Chu-Mo Chu rivers, with a row of Jacaranda trees running through its front porch, you will have to walk past the beautiful wooden bridge to get to the Dzong’s premises. Photographer or not, you would have already clicked more than 50 photos by now — You can’t let go of any angle, frame of the Dzong. Jayant got busy with his Lumia while I sat down under one gigantic Jacaranda. I couldn’t let go of this beautiful moment without a few minutes in silence and awe. I sat down, without touching the camera that was hanging from my neck, to look at the hundreds of flowers that had flown down from the trees to the grounds and the bees that had swarmed around these flowers to suck and stock honey in the hives up in the Dzong’s ceilings. But, most of all, I sat down to smell the Jacarandas the way I’d smell them in my childhood in Shillong. In those few minutes, I travelled back in time and relived some simple moments that the grown-up years had snatched away. Sonam broke the reverie. He had given us our time for ponderings and photographs; and now wanted us to get inside the Dzong for a dose of its history.
Punakha Dzong’s inside is as dramatic as it looks from the outside. A flight of very steep wooden stairs take you there. Built in the 17th century, the Dzong is an important seat of power and religious activities in Bhutan. The King of Bhutan is coronated in the Punakha Dzong and it is also the winter residence of the Chief Abbot, the religious leader of Bhutan who enjoys the same powers as that of the King.
Once done with the orientation, Sonam left us to ourselves yet again. This time, I picked up my camera. Not only to capture the architecture, colour, paintings and murals in the Dzong, but also the monks, teen students in their everyday chores. You may go through some of these pictures in this blog. Most of the others will be shared in a photo essay in a later post, for I have another story to tell about the Punakha Dzong!
We spent about 2 hours at the Punakha Dzong. You could spend more, or less, depending on your hunger and thirst.
Punakha’s Suspension Bridge: Sonam told us that this was the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan. A 10-minute drive from the Punakha Dzong gets you to the base of the hill from where you have to walk about 10-15 minutes (depending upon your pace) to reach one end of the bridge. We were in no hurry and hence, took it utterly leisurely — trying to catch every bird, every beautiful frame, the passing clouds, the monks in their blazing red robes, the children frolicking back from school, the women-folk busy in their gossips, the long, narrow bridge that connected the hills to the Punakha town. All. Ridi tried her best to make a swing out of the bridge, ‘scare’ Mamma, show-off that she wasn’t scared if left alone in the bridge. In some time, the horizon in the west started changing to a beautiful orange. The Sun had had its day. It was time we declared ours too. And so, despite the subconscious reluctance, we headed back to the car. We had still not checked in to our hotel. Sonam had told us that it was by the riverside too. Aha…a riverside halt for the night? We wouldn’t mind that at all!!
We said Bye to Punakha. But not before declaring, Punakha, you are beautiful. If we had another day, we would have rafted in your river, and would have trekked your hills.