This region that spans from 2,600-4,500 m is the religious heartland of the nation and home to some of its oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. Tales of Guru Padmasambhava and the tertons (“religious treasure-discoverers”) still linger in this sacred region.
BumthangDzongkhag consists of four main valleys, Ura, Chumey, Tang and Choekhor. Choekhor is the largest of the four and is widely considered as ‘Bumthang Valley’. The valleys are broad and gentle carved by the ancient glaciers. The wide and scenic valleys draws a large number of tourists each year.
This dzongkhag is one of the most richly endowed districts in terms of historical and spiritual legacy. Some of Bhutan’s oldest and most venerated temples are found in Bumthang, including JambeyLhakhang. According to legend this ancient temple was built by the Tibetan king SongtsenGampo in 659 A.D. as part of a chain of 108 simultaneously constructed temples in order to subdue an evil demoness that lay over the Himalayan region. It is the oldest lhakhang in Bhutan. There are numerous other temples and shrines worth visiting in Bumthang and many of them are linked to Guru Rinpoche’s visit in 746 A.D.
The fertile valleys of Bumthang are covered in fields of buckwheat, rice and potatoes. Apple orchards and dairy farms are also common sights here. This serene region is one of the most peaceful places in the kingdom.
PLACES OF ATTRACTIONS
1. JAKAR DZONG
“JakarDzong” literally meaning castle of the white bird is located on picturesque ridge overlooking the Chokhor valley. The current structure built in 1667 (refurbished in 1683) is said to be one of the largest dzong in Bhutan, with impressive fortress walls, elegant structure but rather simple interior.
2. Chamkhar or Chakar Lhakhang
was originally a nine-storey ‘iron castle’ palace of 8th century King Sidhu Raja, which was replaced by more modest building in 4th century. The present building was constructed in early 20th century. It also houses the ritual dance masks used at the JampayLhakhang festival in the late autumn.
3. Jampey Lhakhang
Spelt Jampey or JambayLhakhang is one of the 108 temples, built by Tibetan King SongtsenGampo in 659AD on a single day, to pin down ogress to earth forever. It was divined that supine demoness was causing obstruction to the spread of Buddhism and temples were constructed on her body parts that spread across Tibet, Bhutan and borderlands. The best known of these temples are Jorkhang in Lhasa, Kichu in Paro and JambayLhakhang in Bumthang. Other lesser known temples in Bhutan have been destroyed, but it is believed that among others, Kongchogsum in Bumthang, Khaine in Lhuentse and two temples in Haa may have part of these 108 temples. The temple was later visited by Guru Rinpoche and later restored by Sindhu Raja after Guru restored his life force. It has been repaired and rebuilt several times over time. This is a fabulous temple to visit in Bumthang
4. Kenchoksum Temple
Ten minutes walk south from Tamshing is a small temple of Konchogsum. The temple was restored in 1995 and looks new, but it actually dates back to 7th century. This temple has many interesting stories to tell,including a large bell that was brought over from Tibet.
5. KURJEY LHAKHANG
is named after the sacred power place where Guru Rinpoche (8th century) left the imprint of his body (kurjey) on the solid rocks, which can be seen from inside the shrine. There are three large temples within the complex surrounded by a perimeter comprising of 108 stupas. Upon entering, the first temple to the right is Guru Lhakhang (which houses the cave) dating from 1652. The middle temple Sampalundrup was built by the first King UgyenWangchuk in 1900, during his tenure as TrongsaPenlop. The third temple is recently constructed under patronage of Her Majesty queen mother AshiKesangWangchuk.
6. Membartsho Burning lake.
‘Burning Lake’ is actually a deep pool in the gorge of Tangchuriver. Although not much to see for tourists, it is a sacred site where PemaLingpa, in early 16th century had retrieved sacred religious treasures from within this deep pool. It is located along the road to Ura or Tang and one has to walk 5-6 minutes.
7. Prakar Goemba
It is visible on the promontory on the opposite side of the river from Zugney village and was built in 17th century. Legend has it that the monkeys helped to build it.
8. SWISS FARM
Swiss Farm Areaa small factory, founded by Swiss Bhutanese produces variety of Swiss cheeses, clover honey, apple cider, wine, apple brandy and local beer. It is an interesting place to see, sample and purchase some local made cheese which is very good.
9. Tamshing Goempa
Located opposite KurjeyLhakhang, this temple was founded by Bhutan’s own religious treasure discoverer, TertonPemaLingpa in 1501. Believed to be the reincarnation of Guru Rinpochey, he discovered many religious treasures around the country. The original murals on the walls still survive, which are considered to be the oldest extant painting in Bhutan.
10. Tang Valley
Tang is one of the four valleys of Bumthang district and it is higher than Choskhor (Jakar). From Jakar, following the west-east road towards Ura for about 10km, the road on the left (north) branches off climbing up hill, leading to narrow gorge of Tang. Almost immediately after the turn-off, there is a parking lot for short walk to Membartsho. The road climbs above the river and reach Drangchel village after 7km. Perched on a high cliff above the road, you will notice the monastic hermitage of KunzangdrakGoemba, founded in 1488 by PemaLingpa. This is a side excursion which takes around 2hrs of steep uphill climb. Continuing along the high feeder road for about 3km, you will pass through Jamzhong village and then after a short descent of 2km or so, you will arrive at Mesethang with a school and few shops. Short distance away from Mesethang, is Tang RimochenLhakhang, located below an enormous rock. Tang RimochenLhakhang marks a sacred place where Guru Rinpoche meditated. A rock in front of the lhakhang has a body-print of the Guru and two consorts. The name Tag Rimoche (an impression of tigers stripes) is derived from the tiger stripes that appear on a rock cliff behind the building. The temple was founded in 14 century by DorjiLingpa. After Rimochen, the road is rougher as it approaches Kizum, 3km away. Beyond Kizum, tractor road continues to Gamling and sheep breeding center. From Kizum, cross the bridge over Tang chu river and climb up to the hill top Ugyencholing manor. At the time of print, it was not possible to drive and the walk uphill takes about 45 minutes. UgyenChholingPalace, was originally built by Deb TsokyeDorje, a descendant of DorjeLingpa in 16century. The present structure, including the temple, servants quarters and a massive residential building, was rebuilt after their collapse in the 1897 earthquake. The complex has been turned into a museum of sorts for religious studies, research and solitude. It exhibits in the main building are captioned with descriptions of the lifestyle and art works of a Bhutanese noble family.
Tharpaling Monastery is situated above Chumey valley at 3,600m. A 10 km. feeder road goes up to the monastery from Gyetsa village in Chumey valley, but it may be impracticable in summer due to rains and so a walk is often necessary. The main part of the monastery was founded by Longchenpa or LonchenRabjam (1308-1363) during his self-exile from Tibet for ten years. This monastery was also used as place of meditation by JigmeLingpa, NyoshulKhen Rinpoche and DilgoKhyentse Rinpoche. The monastery contains statues of Longchenpa and JikmeLingpa in meditation posture and frescoes of the lineage of Longchenpa and JigmeLingpa. Above the Tharpaling Monastery (to the north) is Chodrak Monastery, a place where Guru Rinpoche is said to have meditated and the first settlement here is attributed to the Drukpa Kagyupa master, Lorepa (1187-1250), who founded Choedrak. Above Chodrak Monastery, there is a meditation cave of Guru Rinpoche, a meditation cave of Longchenpa and a rock throne, where Longchenpa wrote part of the Seven Treasures. Tharpaling is known for LongchenRabjampa, who was a major teacher in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. His major work Seven Treasures, encapsulates the previous 600 years of Buddhist thought in Tibet. Longchenpa was a critical link in the transmission of the Dzogchen teachings. He was abbot of Samye, one of Tibet’s most important monasteries and the first Buddhist monastery established in the Himalaya, but spent most of his life travelling or in retreat.
12. Ura Village
ocated in a broad valley (3100 m), Ura is the highest of the four valleys in Bumthang district. The village of Ura has about 50 or so clusters of traditional homes with cobbled walkways, that gives somewhat a medieval atmosphere. The people of this region are primarily sheep and yak herders. Women here traditionally cover their head with white scarf against cold wind and wear sheepskin behind their back, which is used as cushion and as well as to protect their cloth from the loads they carry. In the center of the village, there is an interesting Ura temple.
13. Wangdichholing Palace
Wangdichholing was built in 1857, on the site of the battle camp of the TrongsaPenlopJigmeNamgyel, father of the first King of Bhutan, who was also born here. It was the first palace in Bhutan that was not designed as a fortress. Both the first and second king adopted Wangdicholing as their main summer residence. There are five giant water driven prayer wheels, to the north which is quite interesting to see.
14. Yathra Weaving at Zungney
Yathra is colourful wool weaving, a pattern native of central Bhutan with deep colors. In the village of Zugney in Chumey valley, there are shops, where you can see the weavers- at-work. You may be able to see the dyeing of wool using natural dyes and other processes.
15. THANGBI LHAKHANG.
Located beyond KujeLhakhang, it is an easy 2 hr walk through the beautiful upper Chhoekhor Valley from where the motorable road ends. It was founded in 1470 by the 4th Shamar Rinpoche (the red hat Karmapa), ChokkiDrakpa an important lama of the Karma Kagyudpa sect. Pemalingpa later took over and it became Nyingmapa. The iron curtain at the entrance is said to have been cast by the saint himself.
Towards the north of the Thangbi Monastery lie two clustered villages of Goling (2740 m) and Kharsath (2750m) within the radius of 2 km. Further north on a higher elevation Shukdrak Monastery (2950m) founded by Guru Padma Sambhava is perched on a mysterious cliff overlooking the beautiful Thangbi valley. A very pleasant one-hour walk from road head takes one to the sacred place.
16. Thangbi Mani
Thangbi Mani is a four-day festival which is a display of the rich tradition and celebrates the cultural heritage of this ancient monastery. It is held annually from 14th to 17th day of the eighth month of the Bhutanese calendar. The people from the three villages of Thangbi, Goling and Kharsath have been organizing the annual festival since its inception. The tradition which prevailed a long time ago is now gradually fading away. In the earlier days, people of all walks of life in that community actively participated in making this festival a great success. But now, due to changing social values and out migration of some of the sponsoring households, the valuable tradition is being threatened. The contribution from the community is not sufficient to meet the expenses of the festival. As a result, the festival is losing its original grandeur and significance. In order to revive and sustain the festival, a committee is being formed to coordinate the organization of the festival. The Gomchens (lay monks) of this monastery perform rituals for the entire festival, while some young men and women perform mask and folk dances.
Thirteenth of the eighth month of the Bhutanese calendar is a preliminary day when all the people in that community flock together to witness the rehearsal of mask dances at the courtyard. The next day starts the main event of festival by making offerings to the local deities. On the same day at around 7:00 pm all the mask dances scheduled for the following day is presented to public and guest as well, which last till midnight. The day’s event is flagged off by performing burning ceremony (Ginsek), thus driving away or subduing evil sprits.
On the following day i.e 15th (full moon) of the eighth month of the Bhutanese calendar at around 10.00 a.m. a ceremonial procession from the Temple marks the start of the festival. Mewang ceremony (fire blessing) is performed in an open ground. The Gomchens perform purification rituals while all the people and guests jump over the flames to get themselves purified from their sins and evil deeds. It is believed that if one is able to jump over the flame three times he or she is protected from ill luck and misfortunes are removed for that entire year. That is why people attempt to jump across the flame three times to be blessed for the whole year. Then mask dances and folk dances are performed as scheduled in the enclosed courtyard of the Temple. Of all the dances GoemBernak is believed to be the most sacred Dance (Tercham).
Legend has it that when Karma Pakdhi, (1204-1283) the 2nd Karmapa was tortured by one of the kings in China by hanging him by his beard, the Mahakali (LhamRangjungmo), the female protecting deity of Karmapa, reported this incident to Goembernak (Black Mahakala) the male protecting deity who remained undisturbed. When Goembernak knew that his master Karmapa was on the verge of dying he came down heavily on the Chinese king. He manifested himself to a giant sized-figure, stretched his one foot and placed in front of the palace of the king of China while his other foot was firmly pegged in Tsurphu (Tibet). Goembernak’s Trouser on one foot was folded up to the knee level while he had no time to fold the other trouser. He shoved his sword under the palace of the Chinese king and caused tremor to the palace threatening him to destroy his palace if his master is not released. The king of China frightened of the consequences, freed karamapa along with hosts of valuable items offered to karmapa as forgiveness.
It is said that Karamapa flung the entire valuable into the lake infront of the king’s palace in China to be transported to lake in Tsurphu monastery in Tibet from where he would retrieve them. The GoemBernark dance is then performed to commemorate victory over the king of China and the uniqueness of this dance is that dancers perform this dance with one trouser folded up to knee level while the other trouser is let loose.
There are significant traditions which are worth mentioning. These events take place simultaneously while dances are being performed:
i. The temple is in the form of U shape in design. At the two projecting courtyards, mats are laid and two tiny tables with jugs of Chang (locally brewed alcohol) and a cup remain filled all the time on both sides. Some men drink the Chang occasionally and refill the jugs. The cup is supposed to be full all the time. The one on the right belonged to the senior men of Kharsath while the one on the left belonged to the men of Goling. They are supposed to be the chiefs of the community. Around the men sit the ladies and children of the respective villages. In the olden times, if outsiders stepped on the mat they were imposed nominal fines.
ii. From these two sides there is a time that the men throw buckwheat dough balls on the spectators with screaming noise. This is to eliminate the harmful desires of the evil sprits and warding them off from the auspicious gathering. Quite often it happened that the spectators react and threw back the dough balls when such things happen in the past it was considered a bad omen and sometimes the community leaders imposed fines on the culprits. The fine usually consisted of a bottle of Chang and an apology to the community leaders.
iii. Another interesting age old tradition which is still very active is the offering of Chang and Puta (buckwheat noodles) by the community girls to the honored guests. The girls offer Chang and noodles even to the strangers. If you get such treats whether you enjoy it or not, it is customary that you give some cash present to them (today the money they collect by entertaining guests goes to the community fund). There is a significant historical background that the community in this valley produced quality buckwheat noodles. During the reign of the Second King, His Majesty JigmeWangchuk, he always ordered Puta from the households of ShukdakGonpa the far end of the valley. The king sent his Courtiers to ShudaGonpa quite frequently to fetch Puta when he desired for a change or when he had Royal Guests.
The festival comes to an end by performing closing ritual where all the people of that community gather to receive blessings and pray for the wellbeing of all sentient beings for the year to come.
17.LHO DRA KHARCHU DRATSANG
Lhodrak Kharchu Dratshang was built by Lama NamkhaiNyingpo and is located on a forested slope overlooking the Chamkhar town. The original monastery is in Lhodrak in Tibet, close to the border in Lhuntse. It houses monks and above the temple are retreat centers for meditation. It has wonderful paintings of Guru Rimpoche’s life and other statues.