“ Sightseeing Type: Tours „
I have long had a weakness for high places and am always mentally lifted by standing at the highest point and looking out across a fantastic panoramic view. However, my love of a good view is matched only by the weakness of my stomach when faced with too long in the back of a car on a road full of hairpin bends.
We had left our hotel in Thimphu after a thankfully rather bland breakfast and had stupidly not thought about what lay ahead of us. Getting anywhere in Bhutan by road is an arduous business and within 30 minutes of leaving the city, I was starting to struggle to keep my breakfast down as we wound back and forth round rough bendy roads. By the time we reached the Dochu La (or Dochu Pass), the highest point on the road between Thimpu and Punakha, I was ready to curl up in a ball and die. I couldn't wait to leap out of the car and fill my lungs with mountain air and wrestle back control of my stomach contents. Once my legs stopped shaking and started to function more or less normally, I took in the amazing views of the Eastern Himalaya mountains in the distance before looking around me to see what the pass itself had to offer.
It sometimes seems crazy to build anything at 3150 m above sea level at a spot with fantastic views. It's hard to drag your attention away from the mountains and even harder for anything manmade to compete with what millions of years of mountain building presents before your eyes. However Dochu La has two big attractions to help you pass your time before you head back on the road. The first is a new temple and the other is a set of 108 Chortens.
The temple that overlooks Dochu La was opened very recently and at the time we visited, it still had no official name. Our guide suggested that it would probably be given one when the 5th king was crowned in November but I've not been able to confirm that. However, if you ask for it as the Dochu La temple, I think anyone will know which place you mean.
The steps up to the temple were long and my legs were still in a bit of a bad way from a big climb a couple of days before, but the sight of the pretty temple at the top kept me going. When we arrived we were really surprised at how different this temple was from all the others that we had seen on our trip up to that point and all the others that we saw later. Firstly it was incredibly new and in immaculate condition. The gilded door shone in the morning sunshine but the most remarkable difference from the older temples was in the painted decoration on the outside walls. In a style that reminded me a bit of Japanese manga cartoons, the fresco artists had covered the walls of the porch of the temple with paintings of the Bhutanese royal children.
The Fourth King has four wives who are all sisters. So as you can imagine, he gets to have a massive number of children without having to get four mothers-in-law. Such are the privileges of royalty! There were two paintings in which the royal children were playing musical instruments whilst flying about the temple. In another fresco, two of the sons in traditional dress were marching around a parade ground. Since the royals are considered to be something akin to living gods, I suppose we shouldn't have been so surprised by these pictures, but we were.
Entering the temple through the golden door, we found a light, bright temple with three large gilded Buddhist statues on one side. I can't recall precisely which statues these were but the standard combination in Bhutan is usually the Shakyamuni Buddha in the middle, Buddha Padmasambhavi (the man who brought Buddhism to Bhutan) on one side and Zhabdung Ngawang Namgyal on the other. Looking at the rest of the temple though, it was a real shock to find the paintings on the walls split between scenes from the life of the Buddha and highlights from the 100 years of the Bhutanese royal family. The lower half of the walls had the religious paintings and above the balcony were the royal pictures. These included scenes of the moon landings and the fourth king in a flak jacket leading his army into battle against the Indian settlers in the south of the country. This mixture of sacred and secular images in one building was really unusual, oddly juxtaposed (what is a king with a rifle doing in a Buddhist temple?) and strangely beautiful.
Leaving the temple, we walked around the outside in a clockwise direction. All Buddhist monuments have to be circumnavigated in a clockwise direction. We stood beside a small outbuilding with a telescope and drank in the scenery from the mountains before heading back down the steps.
~~The 108 Chortens~~
Whilst the temple rises up from the pass on one side, there is a large oddly shaped mound in the middle of the pass itself on which have been built 108 chortens. These make up one of the strangest and most unusual monuments that I have ever seen.
In 2003, the fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, led his troops into battle against Assamese separatists who were using land in southern Bhutan to launch raids against targets in India. Hence the paintings of the King in the flak jacket in the temple. It was the first time that his country had been involved in military conflict for more than a century and went very much against the country's peaceful Buddhist principles. One of the king's wives, Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk (I promise I'm not making up these names, honest!) picked Dochu La as the location for a set of memorial chortens as a symbol of her prayers for the protection of her country and to give thanks for the safe return of her husband and his troops.
Rather than build just one chorten, the queen ordered the building of 108 structures, a number which is particularly auspicious in the local religion. These chortens were built in 2004 and are known as the Druk Wnagyel Chortens or the 'Chortens of the Victory of the Dragon King'. 108 is an extraordinarily auspicious number and represents the number of beads on a Buddhist rosary.
Chortens are, as far as I can make out, a uniquely Bhutanese construction and are the local version of what's known in other Buddhist countries as a stupa. Normally they are receptacles for 'offerings' and in Bhutan they always contain some kind of religious relics. I'm led to believe they originated as the burial places of small bits of the remains of the Buddha such as tiny pieces of bone from his cremation for example. But by now there must be far too many chortens and stupas for the Buddha to have been spread far too thinly and some contain things like written prayers and particularly nice stones or pieces of turquoise for example.
You find chortens all over the country, sometimes to mark special events that happened in a particular place and often to ward away evil at inauspicious places such as places where rivers meet or historical demons did evil deeds. We even found a small one slap-bang in the middle of a narrow road, though quite how auspicious any unwary drivers would have found that one, remains to be seen.
Each of the chortens at Dochu La is a tiled roof structure with a painted white base, which has a painted red band about three quarters of the way up and a small gilded peak on top of the roof. When the chortens are being built and reach a height of about 1 meter tall, they are anointed with grains of rice and butter. Then a 'sokshing' or 'life tree' is put inside the chorten. The sokshing is a pole of juniper wood, painted and decorated with golden writing and wrapped in silk.
Seeing the chortens, especially if you aren't expecting them, comes as a bit of a shock. We didn't know anything about them and suddenly, as you pull over to look at the mountains, you find your own little man-made mount covered in identikit little structures. The lower ring has 45 chortens, the middle one has 36 and the top ring has just 27. Each of these little structures is about four or five feet high and they are all decorated in identical style. It's hard not to be moved by such a strange memorial but also pretty difficult to really understand the point of it.
The island of chortens sits right in the middle of the main road so all drivers have to pass around them. Thankfully, since the Bhutanese, like their neighbours in India, drive on the left side of the road, it's possible to circumnavigate the chortens in the clockwise direction that's demanded by Buddhism, and still stick to the rules of the road. Our driver took several spins around the chorten mound to gain extra good luck before driving on to the next town.
As you might imagine at a height of over 3000 meters, it's pretty windy at the pass so don't forget to grab your coat before wandering among the chortens. And you'll definitely need your camera, not just to capture the absurdity of this mound of little buildings but also for the fabulous mountain views.
~~Time for Tea~~
After all that mountain viewing and religious inspiration (or confusion) it's only natural that you will have worked up a thirst. Fortunately just down the road there's a super little café with a telescope and a pleasant terrace where you can fill up on tea or coffee and biscuits and get another dose of mountain watching under your belt. And for me, it helped pass the time whilst my Stugeron tablets kicked in to protect me from the nausea of the drive on to Punakha. And sure enough, the second half of the journey was a lot less horrible. Perhaps it was the power of medication or maybe the influence of fresh air and Buddhist monuments.
Get a spectacular view of the Himalayas from the Dochu La Pass. The pass is marked by 108 chortens (Stupa) which are Buddhist reliquaries, memorials to the teachings of the Buddha.