The afternoon drive took the group to the south west of Punakha. It was a rather slow drive along winding, hilly roads up to a height of 2,800 m to the village of Talo, high above the Mo Chhu.
With houses scattered along hill slopes, this village is known in the brochures for its ‘cleanliness and hygiene’ among Punakha villages – a tidy town contender! It’s also known for its beautiful women, a fact we’ll discover later.
But I didn’t get to the village of Talo. My only view for the afternoon was one you know quite well by now; the view from our hotel – again. Why? Well the truth is that my usually cast iron stomach had let me down in a really bad way; I had come down suddenly with a tummy bug and was thus confined to a place somewhere in close proximity to the ‘loo’ for a long afternoon and evening of discomfort. As I said to someone, I could have hit a target at thirty paces with accuracy, the force of my ‘discomfort’ was so strong!
Still, I did have that view from our room to enjoy, so it was not such a bad place to be confined to quarters. Mind you, I slept most of the afternoon! You’re not tired of that view are you? I don’t think I could ever tire of it. On and off during the afternoon, I sat here, in solitude, as some small clouds wafted across the valley. The light was ever changing and it was in no way boring to be there; just uncomfortable and at times painful.
But at least Trevor was able to join the group and take the afternoon tour, so the photos for this sojourn come from his camera, an identical one to mine, a Panasonic TZ 40. We bought them just before we left Australia and are both very happy with them. And the research and commentary has been undertaken by Jennie. So my thanks to Trevor and Jennie, for taking everyone, including me, to this beautiful part of the Punakha Valley.
The main destination for the afternoon was a visit to the Talo Sangnacholing Dzong, built on a high plateau above the village. Trevor says, “We walked up the steep hill to the Dzong. There we found some older monks engaged in very physical and competitive games of Volley ball and Soccer. The principal monk of the Monastery was pleased to see us and gave us a warm welcome. He wanted to keep speaking English with us, so we were able to have a good chat.”
This Dzong is famous for a three day Tshechu, or Festival, held in March every year.
This festival has been held each year for over 300 years.
People come from all over the country to see the masked and Atsara dances.
Another favourite part of this event is the ‘Zhungdra’ which includes three very special traditional songs performed by a dance troupe made up only of local Talops – the name the people of Talo call themselves. Practice starts 16 days before the Tshechu and the songs must be sung perfectly or, as tradition has it, the village will suffer ‘misfortune in the form of natural calamities and outbreak of diseases’.
These songs have traditionally been performed only during the Talo Tshechu so that the blessings they bring will not be lost. But just as change is coming in many ways all across Bhutan, so change has come even to the traditions of Talo. Much to the disappointment of old timers, the songs are now sometimes performed in areas outside of Talo and outside of the period of the Festival. As well as that, other songs are being performed at the Festival as the people attending want to hear more lively folk songs and more modern Bhutanese songs. (David: I don’t really blame them; I heard those special Talo songs the next day and they are rather durgy! But maybe that’s just me!)
There are several such special festivals throughout the year at various Dzongs across Bhutan and it’s possible to organise a tour to coincide with some of them. The masked dancing, in particular would be great to watch.
Even without a festival, Trevor says this Dzong is worth a visit for the spectacular views.
After a pleasant visit to the Dzong and the monks, the group began the walk back down through farms. In the temperate climate enjoyed here, most houses have their own vegetable garden and a cow or two.
And most householders here also grow flowers in their garden.
That’s unusual in a place where farming is mainly at subsistence level.
This valley is one of the most productive in Bhutan.
This Dahlia is your flower for the day.
The back basket is much in use for carrying goods in Bhutanese villages like this one, built on such steep slopes,
This little one was somewhat bemused by the visitors.
Further down the valley, Trevor met three young girls. This could have been the scene when four sisters lived in this valley in the village of Talo Nobgang in the late 1950s and 1960s. Those four sisters, daughters of Yab Ugen Dorji and Yum Thuiji Zam, were all destined to become equal wives of Bhutan’s King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. After 34 years as monarch, he chose to stand down in favour of his son. As a result of that decision, his four wives are now known as Bhutan’s Queen Mothers.
Those four girls who became Queens, won the hearts of the Bhutanese people and between them produced five princes and five princesses. In the photo above, they are, left to right: Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck (the first wife of the King); Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck (mother of the current King, the first born of all of the Princes); Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck; and Ashi Sangay Chodon Wangchuck. All four women are involved in working towards bettering the lives of the people of Bhutan. Reading about their work has been inspirational.
Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the eldest of the Queen Mothers, (on the left), has been Chief Patron to the Ministry of Agriculture since 1999. This is a role she has taken very seriously. Since the vast majority of Bhutanese are farmers, and most of those are subsistence farmers working in difficult conditions, she has found ways to initiate numerous programmes to improve their quality of life especially in the rural areas. She has trekked to many of the remotest parts of the country to meet her people and find out for herself their needs. What she did is not an easy thing to do for even the fittest of people, let me assure you. As a result of these visits, she created the Tarayana Foundation which, in consultation with the villagers, helps about 40 of the remotest villages. The Foundation helps with housing schemes, scholarships and training as well as the production and marketing of rural products to increase cash income for these impoverished families. Crops such as mountain indigo, turmeric and ginger help provide medicinal, aromatic and dye products for the markets. She also has a keen interest in environmental conservation, and this is an aspect taken into account in all the projects supported by Tarayana.
This energetic Queen Mother is also an author and I’m told that her books are good reading, giving an insider’s view into life in Bhutan. If you’re interested, I believe they are available for sale on the web in paper form though not as ebooks.
“Of Rainbows and Clouds” is the biography of her father Yab Ugen Dorji, and is said to be not only a fascinating saga of a family who lived in this valley, but also a window on Bhutanese culture, society and history.
“Treasures of the Thunder Dragon – A Portrait of Bhutan” is partly her personal memoir and part history, folklore and travelogue.
Another of the Queen Mothers, Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck, was responsible for the building of the beautiful Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten that we visited earlier in Punakha Valley. She is mother of the current KIng. Her passion and focus is on the education, training and well being of girls and women, especially from impoverished rural areas. She proposes to improve and establish more nunneries throughout the country to act as education centres for girls and women. We’ll visit one of those nunneries in the next episode and learn more of her vision, see how the current programs need to be improved, and why such education is so important in a country like Bhutan.
In 2004, Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Chodon Wangchuck founded an NGO in Bhutan called RENEW: Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women. This organization is dedicated to empowerment of women and girls in Bhutan, especially the victims and survivors of domestic violence. Believing that gender-based violence stands in the way of achieving gender equality, RENEW campaigns to prevent and eradicate Gender Based Violence (GBV) and to help victims and survivors of domestic violence and those trapped in helpless circumstances, to integrate them back into their communities as independent, socially and economically productive members of society.
RENEW provides counselling, temporary shelter, legal assistance and vocational training in selected skills and micro-enterprises as a way of providing opportunities to help transform lives of many women.
The fourth of the sisters, Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Pem Wangchuck, is focused on developing the Bhutan Foundation. She is greatly concerned about the wide array of social problems faced by Bhutanese youth today. The development achievements of Bhutan over the past four decades has introduced some social problems that are alien to Bhutanese Buddhist culture, and these have affected traditional Bhutanese family life and social structure. Some of the issues to be dealt with, before they get out of hand, are juvenile delinquency, school dropouts, unemployed youth, drug and substance abuse and prostitution.
Interestingly, a Professor from the University of Newcastle and HMRI is currently in Bhutan providing consultation on just such issues. It will be most interesting to speak with him on his return.
While wandering in the spectacular countryside and enjoying the hospitality of the friendly Bhutanese people, one can easily overlook undertones of unrest. For centuries Bhutan was insular and there are bound to be issues as the country chooses to be more ‘involved’ in the world. Change is never easy.
In the photo above, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck is seen with his son, the current King, and three generations of the family including his little grandson. His reign was marked by great change and development. Roads and bridges, schools and hospitals, basic services in agriculture and livestock now reach right into the remote corners of Bhutan. There are now more industries including lucrative hydro power projects which are fed by Bhutan’s many mountain streams and rivers. Even many of the remotest villages are now connected by a digital telecommunication system.
This photo of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and his family, epitomises the basic Bhutanese philosophy of the importance of happiness to everyday life in Bhutan. This is a country that measures Gross National Happiness as well as Gross Domestic Product… a philosophy we could all do well to follow.
with many thanks to Trevor for sharing his photos
and for Jennie’s research and write up of this part of the journey in Bhutan