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Drukgyel Dzong (Bhutan)

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Sightseeing Type: Churches / Temples

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      11.03.2009 11:00
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      The place where Bhutan really started to feel real to me.

      Toward the end of our first full day in Bhutan I was feeling a little bit flat. I'd wanted to visit the country for 12 years, ever since someone I'd met in India had told me it was their favourite place in the world. It took a while to get there because it's such an expensive place to visit and quite difficult to get to. With such a massive mental build-up the reality seemed almost sure to fall short of the dream. There was nothing actually wrong with what we'd seen and done, indeed it was all very lovely, but there was a nagging feeling at the back of my mind that it wasn't quite what I'd expected.

      I have an aversion to places that are just a bit too clean, ordered and smooth-running and Bhutan was starting to feel a bit TOO perfect and a teensy bit 'Disney-fied'. I always bristle when people tell me "We had a lovely holiday in Switzerland/Singapore/Toronto - it was SO clean". If 'clean' is the first adjective that springs to mind, then something's missing. I want to hear "It was so exciting/vibrant/inspiring/stimulating/shocking" and Bhutan was feeling just a touch like a pensioners' bus tour. I'm also not crazy about being 'led' around a country but with Bhutan there's no choice - you have to go with a guide and a driver and follow a regimented plan of what you see and where you go.

      On day one we'd already been to Paro Dzong and a couple of temples, wandered around the pristine town, had a very acceptable lunch and yet something was missing. The final attraction of the day was to be Drukgyel Dzong, a ruined fortress-monastery a few miles from the town and it became the turning point for me in our tour of Bhutan.

      We drove out of the town for about 15 or 20 minutes, passing through tiny villages and pristine fields growing the local red rice. We stopped to take pictures of Mount Jumolhari - also known as 'the Bride of Kachenjunga' and one of Bhutan's most popular trekking areas. Another brooding black mountain stood to one side and the beauty of the two was breath-taking. We finally arrived at Drukgyel and parked near the start of the path to the dzong. I had checked this place out on-line before our trip so I knew to expect a ruined fortress-monastery but I hadn't expected to be so moved by the place.

      The walk up to the dzong was steep and the path uneven. It was a first chance for our guide to work out whether the two of us were going to be easy for him to push up various hillsides or were going to be a bit of a liability. Like eager mountain goats we bounded up the path, full of the joys of a late afternoon in the mountains. The air was clear and cool, the skies were the brightest shade of blue and there wasn't a man-made sound to be heard, just the odd chirp of the birds. As we climbed we could see groups of locals in the rice fields below us taking on the back-breaking work of harvesting the rice but mostly there was just a fabulous sense of isolation and peace.

      Reaching the entrance to the dzong we found most of the outer walls standing though badly damaged and no longer painted in the traditional white of other dzongs. Most of the paint had either worn off, discoloured or been burned off. As we entered the first courtyard we could see the remnants of where the balconies must have been, where young monks would have looked down on the courtyards and passing visitors. Any stone flooring was long gone with just grass on the ground and a smattering of curled up dogs enjoying a bit of afternoon sunbathing. Weeds grew through the cracks in the walls and everything felt very abandoned.

      The central tower was still standing but badly damaged and heavily attacked by ivy. Behind the tower we were able to climb up onto the top of the walls and it became apparent exactly why you'd want to build a defensive structure in this location - you could see for miles. The views were stunning and it would have been hard for any invading army to creep up on Drukgyel. As my husband chatted with our guide, I crept out along the top of the wall and for the first time since we'd arrived I felt alone and completely at peace.

      We had the entire place to ourselves and due to the ruined state, there were no statues to look at, no complicated paintings to interpret, no need to try hard to learn the names of different manifestations of the Buddha. It was an easy and relaxed place to be. Quite simply there were no things to look at - just the bare ruined walls, the plants and the butterflies - and nothing to listen to but the birds.

      The Dzong was built in the 17th century - no surprise, most of them were. It was built to commemorate victory over an invasion force from Tibet and was commissioned by Zhabdung Ngawang Namgyal, the man responsible for much of the 17th century dzong construction. In 1951, fire from butter lamps in the temple got out of control and the dzong was very badly damaged. This is not unusual - most dzongs and temples have a history of fire damage and any astute Bhutanese entrepreneur could do worse than consider starting a fire sprinkler business! Since others have been renovated and reconstructed many times, we asked why Drukgyel was left to stand ruined. Our guide explained that Bhutan has no shortage of dzongs and temples and there's no real need to rebuild this one; better to spend money building schools and clinics than renovating a ruined fortress-monastery that's surplus to requirements. And in a strange way, the ruins had almost more resonance and more dignity than the pristine dzongs we saw elsewhere.

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    • Product Details

      A Buddhist monastery, now largely in ruins, located in the upper part of the Paro valley in Paro District of Bhutan.