Bhutan : # 9 Talo Nunnery and Punakha Dzong

Following on from our visit to the Temple dedicated of the Mad Monk, we drove back north along rural roads to visit Talo Nunnery.  And then, on this our last day in this beautiful area, we wound our way back to the confluence of the Mo Chhu and the Po Chhu, where, finally, we had our chance to enjoy the majestic Punakha Dzong.


P1000609 ©  Trevor

P1000609 © Trevor

The drive back through the Talo area was again a real pleasure… stunning scenery.


P1000611  ©  Trevor

P1000611 © Trevor

As we approached the Talo Nunnery, Trevor captured this delightful photo of four nuns rushing back up the hill.  They are used to going up and down the hill…. no huff and puff for them!  “Twas a different story for us.


P1000487  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000487 © DY of jtdytravels

And this is where they live, the Talo Nunnery, one of the better nunneries in Bhutan.  Our visit here highlighted the vital need, as in so many developing countries, to provide and support education for women and girls.  In Bhutan, this can often best be done through nunneries, in the same way that many boys receive their education through monasteries.

Together with the photos of this nunnery, we’ve added notes from a write up on the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, (BNF), which will best explain this need.  The BNF is a non-profit organization that was established in 2006 under the patronage of Her Majesty Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck, mother of the current king.

BNF’s vision is to:

” Support nuns and nunneries as an important means to ensuring that all girls and women in Bhutan are valued and have access to quality education and a fulfilling life, regardless of income, status, or geographic location. Education of nuns in Bhutan is an important development objective that strongly supports the goals of Gross National Happiness. The Foundation thus seeks to help make nunneries leading agents and self-reliant institutions for women.”


P1000680  ©  Trevor

P1000680 © Trevor

A closer view of the window glass and decorations.

This nunnery is better than most. BNF tells us that “for most of Bhutan’s nuns, life is very harsh. Most nunneries are located in very remote areas.  They often lack clean water, electricity, bathrooms for sanitation, and adequate nutrition in their daily meals. If a nun becomes ill, she often must hike for three hours or more to reach the nearest health center. Basic living conditions usually are very poor.  Nuns often lack basic essentials, such as a dry room for sleeping and private places to study and perform daily meditation practice. The physical structures of many nunneries are seriously dilapidated and some are even structurally unsafe. ”


P1000489  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000489 © DY of jtdytravels

An unusual and effective way of moving water from the roof to the ground!

More from BNF: “Unlike the monasteries for men and boys which are beneficiaries of state or private support, nunneries in Bhutan receive no government funding. Private and community support is also extremely limited leaving the girls and women in many nunneries vulnerable and neglected. It is sad that so little of their potential to serve society and contribute to its collective happiness is ever realized. That such a paradoxical situation should prevail in a country which prides itself over an absence of gender bias has never been explained. One can only rationalize that this has to do with lack of resources and too many competing needs in a poor, less developed country.

Overall, almost none of Bhutan’s nunneries provide a proper learning environment. There is great potential and passion for nuns to receive a good education at nunneries.  However, the nunneries do not have any standardized curriculum or evaluation systems. Above all, they do not have qualified teachers who are committed or have the capability to give them a proper education either for spiritual enrichment or for a productive lay life upon leaving the nunneries.”


P1000492 ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000492 © DY of jtdytravels

A close up of decorations on wood work.

More notes from BNF. “There are, of course, girls and women in Bhutan who become nuns to seek a peaceful, selfless and spiritual life. They are inspired by the belief that as nuns they can contribute to the well being and happiness of all sentient beings through direct action or, at the very least, through their prayers. But there are also those in the nunneries who have come purely for refuge from extreme poverty, overwhelming social challenges, loss of family and deprivation. Many have also joined and many more will continue to find their way into the nunneries in search of alternative education. While a few of them come from the middle class, the majority of them come from poor homes and receive no support of any kind from their families.”


P1000491  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000491 © DY of jtdytravels

Rather strange and fascinating decorations on a window and door.

“The Bhutan Nuns Foundation is building a Training Centre in Thimphu which will be the first ever gathering place in Bhutan for nuns to meet each other, and receive training, outside of their own nunneries.  BNF will provide all aspects of this center, from acquiring the land to later providing training and supplies to the nuns, once the center opens.  We are very proud to create this important space for the nuns of Bhutan.

Thanks to the generosity of Drathshang Lhentshog (the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan), the Bhutan Nuns Foundation was awarded 9+ acres of land in Tsalu Maphey on the outskirts of Thimphu for the purpose of creating our Training Center. We are deeply grateful for this donation to BNF.

The center will provide a space for nuns from across Bhutan to meet each other, enhancing the sense of community between the nuns of Bhutan, and receive training on health & hygiene, nutrition, management & leadership, teacher training, basic entrepreneurial skills, and instruction in many other hands-on skills.  This center will not only help the nuns develop their own self-reliance and sustainability, but also create a ripple effect for the society at large, as the nuns will be trained to later provide similar instruction and services to the people of Bhutan.”


P1000495  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000495 © DY of jtdytravels

When we are privileged to visit countries such as Bhutan, it is important, I believe, to look a little deeper than the beauty of the countryside, and to learn something of the reality of the life of the people and their aspirations for the future.  We wish the BNF all the very best in their endeavours to improve the lot of Bhutanese women and girls.


P1000497  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000497 © DY of jtdytravels

We left the hills of Talo to drive back down into the valley, to stop once more at that wonderful view of Punakha Dzong built at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and the Po Chhu, the Mother and Father Rivers.


P1000498  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000498 © DY of jtdytravels

It was lunch time, and this time lunch was served from traditional tiffins.


P1000499  ©  DY  of jtdytravels

P1000499 © DY of jtdytravels

Punakha Dzong holds great significance for the people of Bhutan.  Not only is it the most beautiful Dzong in the country, it is the second oldest.  It was designed by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who built the Drugyel Dzong near Paro ( the one that we visited earlier in this series).  The building was started in 1637 and completed in 1638, at a time when the Shabdrung was the first religious-political leader of Bhutan after he had worked so hard to unify the country.  He died here at Punakha and is embalmed in a casket in a room within the Dzong.  His casket is cared for and guarded by two lamas.  The only other people permitted to enter that room are the King and the Head Abbot. It is traditional for them to visit this room when they first take office.

This Dzong has been the venue for the coronation of every Bhutanese King and was the seat of government until 1955 when the Capital was moved to Thimphu.  It’s still the winter home of the Head Abbot and about 600 monks from Thimphu because the climate here is much more temperate than in the city.


P1000502  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000502 © DY of jtdytravels

The entrance to the Dzong is quite impressive. Because originally the Dzong was built as a fort, the steep wooden staircase, above the stone steps, are designed to be drawn up at night before a heavy wooden door is closed.

Let’s go inside and have a wander around this most impressive Dzong.


P1000503  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000503 © DY of jtdytravels

The Dzong is highly decorated and has some beautiful prayer wheels.


P1000504  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000504 © DY of jtdytravels

An elegant stupa within the Dzong.


P1000505  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000505 © DY of jtdytravels

Almost every piece of timber in these buildings is highly decorated.


P1000516  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000516 © DY of jtdytravels

Our guide, Leki, used the main courtyard to gather us together to explain the story of this Dzong. He’s wearing the traditional costume of a gho, a knee-length robe somewhat like a kimono. It’s tied at the waist by a belt known as Kera. The front of the gho forms a pouch which originally was used for carrying food bowls and a small dagger. Now, however it is more likely to be used to carry a mobile phone and a wallet! Across his shoulder he wears a white scarf, or Kabney. These scarves must be worn when in a Dzong and different colours denote rank and position in society.  The King and the Je Khenpo, the head Abbot, are the only ones who can wear a saffron coloured scarf.  Ministers in Government wear Orange; Judges wear green; a District Administrator wears Red with a small white stripe; and commoners wear white.

Women also wear a scarf, a Rachu, but they wear it over a shoulder and there is no rank associated with colour. Rachus are usually woven from raw silk and are richly embroidered in various patterns.


P1000508  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000508 © DY of jtdytravels

It was a fairly quiet day in the courtyards of the Dzong.  It’s probably better to visit here earlier in the year, like I did in 2003, when the monks are in residence and the place is full of activity.


P1000509  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000509 © DY of jtdytravels

 Another courtyard.


P1000511  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000511 © DY of jtdytravels

A close up of some of the decorations.


P1000514  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000514 © DY of jtdytravels

Every door and window is decorated.


P1000513  ©  DY  of jtdytravels

P1000513 © DY of jtdytravels

A close up of a window and door.


P1000515  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000515 © DY of jtdytravels

There are always some areas of the Dzong decorated with of these brightly coloured hangings. But when there’s something really special to be celebrated at the Dzong, the whole building flutters with such colour. I was lucky enough to see the Dzong in full decorated glory in 2003 when preparations were being made for a visit by the King.  He was coming to celebrate the renovation of the Dzong after a devastating flood in 1994.  Twenty three people perished in that flood and a memorial to their memory was erected just outside the dzong.


P1000512  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000512 © DY of jtdytravels

There’s so much to see here and never enough time to absorb it all.


P1000517  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000517 © DY of jtdytravels

When our time at the Dzong was up, we walked back across the Mo Chhu by a fairly new covered cantilevered wooden bridge.  This bridge with a span of 55m (180ft) was not here when I was in Bhutan in 2003.  The original bridge, that was built at the same time as the Dzong back in the 17th Century, was washed away by a flash flood in 1957.   There was just a temporary bridge here until this new bridge was completed and opened in 2008.  That opening timed for celebrations of 100 years of the Wangchuck Monarchy. It was also ready for the Coronation of the current King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.


 photo from the web

photo from the web

And King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck would have walked across this bridge in October 2011 when he married Jetsun Pema, a commoner, daughter of one of the Druk Air pilots. This young King follows in his father’s footsteps, determined to guide his people through the challenges associated with the modernization of his country.


P1000522  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000522 © DY of jtdytravels

Back at the hotel, umbrellas were in readiness at the door!

We had visited Punakha Dzong just in time… the weather was indeed about to change!


P1000360  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000360 © DY of jtdytravels

This was our last night at our Punakha hotel … and a last look at that view!

I hope you have enjoyed your short armchair holiday in this wonderfully scenic valley.

Just maybe, one day you will get there to enjoy it in reality.

More anon


Photography copyright ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

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One comment on “Bhutan : # 9 Talo Nunnery and Punakha Dzong

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