The two and a half-hour leisurely ride from Thimphu culminates at the exclusive privilege of Zhingkham that overlooks God’s own country in the valley of many blessings and myriad legends below. An inexplicable feeling of joy and gratitude runs through my being as I am ushered into Room 108 that my gracious hosts had kept aside for me. It is no mere coincidence. It feels special.
The view from the balcony is too…magical to award myself even a little breath. The timing is perfect. The golden rays of the afternoon-sun beam on the massive walls of the mighty Dzong steeped in history and soaked in mystery and light up the Utse that glistens in gold.
The emerald green, pacific Mo-Chhu glides gently by even as the silver-waves of restive Po-Chhu rush rapidly on while their snow-fed waters kiss the dzong-walls on either side and meet in jocund marriage at the necklace-cone further down. And, the stately Bazam arches magnificent over the coy she-river.
Rolling fields of golden rice spread through the length of the valley, right and left, as far as the eyes can see, and wait for reapers with harvest-calls. Far in the distance, where the heights touch the sky, at the sacred seat of Jamgoen, the celestial abode of the future Buddha, the holy sentinels of Sewla Goemba keep their vigil over the land of abiding faith and folklore. Magic pervades this world.
I am face-to-face, at once, with the historical and the mythical. This vision of Zhabdrung, this Palace of Bliss, this masterpiece of architecture, enshrines the sovereign soul of Druk Yul and stands eternal witness to its multi-layered history and holds the most sacred treasures of the Southern Drukpa Kagyud School of Buddhism.
The sacred sanctum of the Holy Machhen, the hallowed home of the precious Rangjung Kharsapani, and the holy remains of Pema Lingpa, the majestic Puna Dewai Chhenpo Phodrang Dzong was built by celebrated Toebi Zow Balib under the direct command and supervision of Bhutan’s Founder-Unifier, Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyel, in 1637, and embodies the finest architectural genius of the country.
The historic Genja of 1907 was signed in this Dzong ushering in the noble Dynasty of Wangchuck Kings, as was the Treaty of 1910 with the British in India. Punakha was Bhutan’s winter capital till it moved to Thimphu in 1955 and the first session of the National Assembly was held inside this Dzong in 1953. Today, the Dzong serves as the central secretariat of the Dzongkhag Administration and as the winter residence of the Central Monastic Body.
The most sacred and solemn ceremonies of the Coronation of Bhutan’s Dragon Kings and Royal Weddings are held inside the Palace of Bliss, as are some important annual events and functions of national significance.
Punakha Tshechu and Punakha Domche are the major tourist attractions here along with some sporting events, hot-spring baths, and local festivals. Punakha is home to the sacred Talo Dzong, the iconic Khamsum Yuelley Namgyel Chorten, the historic Chimi Lhakhang, and several other religious sites and institutions including the majestic Nalanda Shedra dating back to mid-eighteenth century.
The epic story of love between Gasa Lamai Singye and Büm Galem was immortalised in Changyul not far from the Dzong where Galem’s house still stands. And, Gelong Sumdar Tashi’s 200-year old songs of sorrow continue to be a tribute to love and sacrifice in the finest tradition of Lozeys in these romantic valleys.
The fertile fields of Punakha basin provide favoured soil and favourable temperatures in which flourish a wide variety of crops, vegetables, fruits, and the much-sought-after local chillies and the unique red rice together with many other cash-crops and some dairy products. This bowl of plenty is a gift to Druk Yul.
The Dzongkhag has achieved all the targets under the Millennium Development Goals and is well on the way to fulfilling the major milestones under the SDGs. All the seven gewogs are electrified and connected by motor-road. Punakha was the first dzongkhag in the country to achieve 100% enrolment by 2011 and to receive the coveted Certificate of Achievement from the Ministry of Education in a befitting ceremony.
All social services, including education and health, are within easy reach of the communities. The College of Natural Resources in Lobesa provides commendable tertiary education opportunities to an increasing number of Bhutanese youth and some foreign students who aspire to achieve higher degrees right up to the PhD level. Technical training, monastic education, as well as secular learning opportunities are available in the facilities spread across the Dzongkhag.
Punakha boasts many fine resorts, hotels, home-stay facilities, camping sites and meeting and conference venues that can cater to different sizes and varied significances. As winter comes, a good number of Lunaps and Layaps descends to warmer climes and many Punakha-fields are dotted with their colourful tents for several months. With the gracious grant of Kidu by His Majesty the King, many migratory villagers of Gasa will soon have their own place to call home in Punakha.
This view from Zhingkham has a deeply personal side too. I have had the joy of visiting most of the schools in the district and of interacting with many children, youth, and my fellow-teachers and indeed of making my pilgrimage to the sacred seats of the divine.
It was my good fortune to be a part of the historic celebrations of the Coronation of His Majesty Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in 2008, and the most auspicious Royal Wedding of His Majesty the King and our gracious Gyaltsuen Her Majesty Jetsun Pema Wangchuck, in 2011, inside this Great Palace of Bliss.
As the shimmering rays of the Autumn-sun hide behind the cobalt blue skyline, the day draws to a close, and the star-studded heavens descend upon the valley and spread as far as the eyes can see. The bejewelled Palace of Bliss is the centre of the universe at this moment as the new high-security beams light up the giant walls and stream up to the Dzong pinnacle.
The benign silence of the night forms a matching backdrop to the slow music of our darling rivers as they continue their timeless journey into the realm of the infinite.
I call it a day and pray that this miracle and this magnificence live on forever and ever…
- Thakur S Powdyel, former Minister of Education.