Punakha served as the capital of the country from 1637 to 1907 and has been inextricably linked with momentous occasions in Bhutanese history. Punakha is the winter home of the Je Khenpo, the Chief Abbot of Bhutan. Punakha valley has a pleasant climate with warm winters and hot summers. Owing to the favorable climatic conditions, rice grows very well in this region and is the main cash crop cultivated here.
Places To See
Punakha Tshechu and Drubchen
During 17th century Bhutan was invaded several times by Tibetan forces seeking to seize a very precious relic, the Ranjung Kharsapani. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal led the Bhutanese to victory over the Tibetans and to commemorate the triumph he introduced the Punakha Drubchen. Since then Punakha Drubchen (also known as Puna Drubchen) became the annual festival of Punakha Dzongkhag. The Punakha Drubchen is a unique festival because it hosts a dramatic recreation of the scene from the 17th century battle with Tibetan army. The ‘pazaps’ or local militiamen dress in traditional battle gear and reenact the ancient battle scene. This reenactment harkens back to the time when in the absence of a standing army, men from the eight Tshogchens or great village blocks of Thimphu came forward and managed to expel the invading forces from the country. Their victory ushered in a period of newfound internal peace and stability.
In 2005 another festival known as Punakha Tshechu was introduced by the 70th Je Khenpo Trulku Jigme Choedra and the then Home Minister His Excellency Lyonpo Jigme Yoedzer Thinley. The Tshechu was introduced in response to the requests made by Punakha District Administration and local people to host a Tshechu in order to better preserve Buddhist teachings and keep alive the noble deeds of Zhabdrung Rimpoche.
These two festivals not only play an important role in preserving Bhutan’s rich culture and traditions but also provide devout Buddhists with an opportunity for prayer and pilgrimage. They reflect the richness of the Bhutanese cultural heritage and are very special in the eyes and hearts of both Bhutanese and tourists who visit Bhutan.
Nalanda Buddhist Institute
Nalanda Buddhist Institute is a Buddhist monastic school known as shedra. The name Nalanda means ‘insatiable giving’. The shedra is in close proximity to Talo village.
In 1757, the 9th Chief Abbot, Shakya Rinchen, considered to be a reincarnation of Rechung Dorje Drakpa, founded the Nalanda Monastery. Rechunga was one of two extraordinary disciples of Milarepa in the Kagyu Buddhist lineage. He was known as the “moon like” disciple of Milarepa and travelled to India to bring back profound teachings to Tibet. These important teachings were presented to Milarepa who integrated them into the Kagyu lineage.
Sangchhen Dorji Lhendrup Nunnery
Sangchchen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery is a large temple complex located on a ridge in Talo village of Punakha. The drive itself is scenic and passes through the beautiful Talo village. The temple houses a religious learning and meditation center for the nuns, as well vocational training such as embroidery, tailoring, statue making, and the famous thangka painting. There is a majestic bronze statue of a height of 14 foot Avalokiteshwara. The statue is also considered as one of the biggest statues in the country made by the unique handwork of many local Bhutanese artisans.
The village of Limbukha is carries a unique tradition and history. During ‘Serda’, the annual festival of this village, the inhabitants actually carry peace flags rather than swords and bursting fireworks. Folklore also has it that during medieval wars, the people of Limbukha were Peace Negotiators. The red rice grown in this village is also meant to have some superior medicinal qualities.
A scenic feeder road from Punakha and Wangdue is taken to reach Limbukha offering spectacular views of the Punakha Dzong. One can hike to the village that takes about 4-6 hours form Punakha.
Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten
Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten stands out on a beautiful ridge above the Punakha valley. The Queen Mother, Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck built it over the course of nine years consulting Holy Scriptures rather than engineering manuals. The 4-storied structure is a fine example of Bhutanese architecture and artistic traditions. This temple has been dedicated for the wellbeing of the kingdom, its people and all sentient beings. The hike to the Chorten is 30 minutes offering a beautiful view of the Punakha Valley.
Chimi Lhakhang stands on a round hillock and was built in 1499 by the 14th Drukpa hierarch, Ngawang Choegyel, after the site was blessed by the Divine Madman, Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455–1529). In founding the site it is said that Lama Kuenley subdued the demon of Dochu La with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” and trapped it in a rock at the location close to where the chorten now stands.
Lama Kuenley was known as the Divine Madman for his unorthodox ways of teaching Buddhism by singing, humour and outrageous behaviour, which amounted to being bizarre, shocking and with sexual overtones. He is also the saint who advocated the use of phallus symbols as paintings on walls and as flying carved wooden phalluses on house tops at four corners of the eves. The monastery is the repository of the original wooden symbol of phallus that Kuenley brought from Tibet. This wooden phallus is decorated with a silver handle and is used to bless people who visit the monastery on pilgrimage, particularly women seeking blessings to beget children. The tradition at the monastery is to strike pilgrims on the head with a 10-inch (25 cm) wooden phallus (erect penis). Traditionally symbols of an erect penis in Bhutan have been intended to drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip.
The Lhakhang is of modest size, square in shape with a golden spire. Near the entrance to the Lhakhang, there is this small chorten which marks the location where the demon was subdued by Lama Kuenley. It is also said that the small chorten at the altar was made by Lama Kuenley himself. There are also frescoes painted on the walls of the monastery depicting the mad saint’s colourful life.
Punakha Suspension Bridge
The Punakha Suspension Bridge is located very much near to the Punakha Dzong and is the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan built above the Po Chu river. The bridge is broad and built in a very nice way and you will be amazed to see that it doesn’t shake so much which can cause a sudden amount of panic among the tourists. The bridge also connects to the nearby villages. There are mountains surrounding the bridge from all the sides which also gives a breathtaking view.
Punakha Dzong is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan and one of the most majestic structures in the country. The Dzong is built at the confluence of Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers and is an especially beautiful sight on sunny days with sunlight reflecting off the water onto its white-washed walls.
In addition to its structural beauty, Punakha Dzong is notable for containing the preserved remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifer of Bhutan as well as a sacred relic known as the Ranjung Karsapani. This relic is a self-created image of Avalokiteswara that miraculously emerged from the vertebrae of Tsangpa Gyarey the founder of the Drukpa School when he was cremated.
The first national assembly was hosted here in 1953. On October 13, 2011, the wedding of the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and his fiancé, Jetsun Pema, was held at the Punakha Dzong.