In Search of Bhutan’s Heart
Nestled in a western valley of Bhutan, flanked by the glorious mountains and a sparkling river, is Bhutan’s heart – Thimphu, the country’s capital and the official home of its royal family. It is one of the smallest and the third-highest capital cities in the world – and is perhaps the only capital where traffic runs without a single traffic light.
Like Bhutan, Thimphu is a place of many contradictions. As the economic capital of the country, Thimphu is a bustling hub of commerce: here, you will find modern appliances, crockery, shoes and other essentials just as easily as Buddhist curios and keepsakes, traditional foods such as yak butter and cheese, and silks and other textiles that are brought to Thimphu’s markets by local, Chinese and Bangladeshi merchants. The city’s stunning vistas are speckled with traditional architectural monuments. Rustling prayer flags, mani walls and prayer wheels remind you of the gentle but ever-pervasive presence of Bhutan’s strong cultural heritage, even as modern vehicular traffic crawls the city’s streets.
For present-day travellers, Thimphu is akin to a contemporary oasis, in a country that is best known for its pristine beauty and esoteric spirituality. Here, you can parry a while in the cafes in Clock Tower Square, experience the still-nascent Bhutanese nightlife in clubs and bars, or simply indulge in a little retail therapy as you shop for souvenirs to take back home. Nature-lovers must stop by the Motithang Takin Preserve, a former zoo, which is home to the takin – Bhutan’s national animal, while philatelists will appreciate the vivid variety of colourful, export-quality stamps that are available at the National Post Office. Interestingly, Bhutan is the first country to export quality stamps; the 3D stamps issued by the Bhutan Philatelic Bureau in Thimphu are widely regarded as collectors’ items.
If you happen to be visiting Thimphu in autumn, do attend the four-day Tshechu festival, which features vibrant Cham or mask dances performed by professional dancers from Bhutan’s Royal Academy of Performing Arts.
Initially, when Bhutan was opened up for Tourism in 1974, the Government-owned Tourism Corporation was set up in Thimphu to encourage and organise individual and group tours to destinations of cultural importance in Bhutan, concentrating on Buddhism, weaving, birds, nature and trekking and any special package. This organization was privatized in 1994 and named as Bhutan Tourism Development Corporation. The corporation also owns and manages hotels and tourist lodges at all major tourist centres in Bhutan. It has its own fleet of cars and also interpreters in several international languages to cater to tourists of various denominations.
The traditional architectural monuments in Thimphu, as in rest of Bhutan are of typical Bhutanese architecture of monasteries, dzongs (most striking fortress type structures), chortens, gateways, Lhakhangs, other sacred places and royal palaces, which are most distinctive architectural forms of Bhutan. Prayer Flags, Mani Wall and Prayer Wheels present a propitious setting throughout the urban agglomerate of Thimphu.
Trashichhoe Dzong – Most prominent landmark in Thimphu is the Trashichhoe Dzong (meaning: “Fortress of the Glorious Religion”) located on west bank of Wang Chu. Imposing white washed structure, as seen now, has undergone several renovations over the centuries following fires and earthquakes.
Simtokha Dzong – Known as Sangak Zabdhon Phodrang (Palace of the Profound Meaning of Secret Mantras) is said to be the oldest surviving fortress cum monastery established in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who unified Bhutan. It was attacked several times in 17th century but survived and was refurbished repeatedly. It is a small Dzong (only 60 metres (200 ft) square with gate on the southern direction), located about 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) to the south of Thimphu.
Tango Monastery – The word ‘Tango’ in Bhutanese language means “horse head”. This Monastery is located to the north of Thimphu near Cheri Mountain. It was founded by Lama Gyalwa Lhanampa in 13th century and built in its present form by Tenzin Rabgye, 4th Temporal Ruler in 1688. Tango Monastery is built in the Dzong fashion and has a curved (semi-circular) outside wall and prominent main tower with recesses. It covers the caves where originally meditation and miracles were performed by saints from 12th century onwards.
Cheri Monastery – Also called Chagri Dorjeden Monastery was established in 1620 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal; first monastery established by him at a young age of 27. The monastery, which is now a major teaching and retreat centre of Southern Drukpa Kagyu order, is located at the northern end of Thimphu Valley, about 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) from the capital.
Buddha View Point (Dordenma) – The Buddha Dordenma is a bronze statue, that is constructed amidst the ruins of Kuensel Phodrang overlooking Thimphu city, about 100 metres (330 ft) above the Wang Chu river bed. It is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue. The statue houses over one lakh (one hundred thousand) smaller Buddha statues, each of which like the Buddha Dordenma itself, are made of bronze and gilded in gold. It is one of the largest Buddha rupas in the world, at a height of 51.5 metres (169 ft). The statue alone is being built at a cost of US$47 million