Central Bhutan is separated from Western Bhutan by the Black Mountains which range between 1,500 meters to 2,700 meters above sea level. The fast-flowing rivers carve out deep gorges in the lower mountain areas. The forests of the central Bhutan mountains consist of Eastern Himalayan sub alpine conifer forests in the higher attitude, while the Eastern Himalayan broad leaf forests cover the lower attitude. Most of Bhutan’s forest production is from the woodlands of the central region.
After passing through the Perela pass at 3,300 meters above sea level, one will enter into meadows of high-altitude dwarf bamboo where sheep and yaks will be grazing the pasture. In the months of April to June, the hillsides will be painted with rhododendron blooms.
Along the way to Trongsa, one will arrive at Chendebji Chorten, a huge 18th century stupa. It has the design of the Kathmandu’s Swayambhunath Stupa, with eyes painted at the four cardinal points. According to legends, Lama Zhida built this chorten to subdue an evil spirit which manifested itself as a gigantic snake. Today, Chendebji Chorten is a favourite spot for lunch for both locals and tourists.
Trongsa has an attitude of 2,316 metres above sea level and is the ancestral home of Bhutan’s royal family. The Trongsa Dzong is built in 1648, which the 1st and 2nd Kings of Bhutan ruled the country from this ancient seat. The Dzong acts as a defensive fortress and has been the traditional home for the first 4 Kings of Bhutan prior to being crowned as King.
This Dzong is a massive structure with many levels, sloping down the contours of the ridge. It is often described as the dragon flying over the mountain peaks. Because of its strategic position, the Trongsa Penlop (governor) was able to control the east and west of the country effectively in the past.
The Ta Dzong (watchtower) was once guarded the Dzong from internal rebellions. Today, Ta Dzong of Trongsa has become the most fascinating and classy museum of Bhutan which displays the history of Bhutan right before the eyes of visitors. There are 224 items on display, which include Gyelchten Zhi (the guardians of four directions), personal belongings of the Kings and royal family, various Buddhism’s related items, and a sacred image of Sung Joenma Dorji Chang, the self-spoken Vajradarma.
Before the construction of the east west highway, the Trongsa Dzong was the “gateway” between western, eastern and southern Bhutan. This “old route” was a trail leading down from the viewpoint of Trongsa Dzong to river Mangde Chu. One need to cross the Ba Zam (traditional wooden bridge) before one can reach Trongsa Dzong.
To enter the Dzong via this historical route will add wonderful experience while visiting in Trongsa. Along the route, one will get a chance to encounter varies fauna and flora in the steep and dense forest. A brief stop at the traditional cantilever bridge for picnic and photography will add memorable experiences for visitors.
Other places of interest include :
- Thruepang Palace – The 2 storey simple palace is situated just above the highway in the town. It is built by the 2nd King Jigme Wangchuck in the 1930s.
- Kuenga Rabten Palace – Constructed in 1928, it was served as the winter residence for the 2nd King, Jigme Wangchuck. It has been well preserved on the account of its royal connections. This palace stands on the slope overlooking the mighty Mandue River. As you enter into the courtyard, you will experience the aura of the early days of Bhutan’s monarchy in this elegance conventional complex.
- Yurungchhoeling Palace – Built by the 1st King’s grandfather father-in-law, Trongsa Penlop Ugyen Phuntsho in 1830’s. Presently, the palace is the residence by Penlop’s great great grand daughter, Ashi Kelsang. It also houses about 150 monks. The Palace is no different from the rest of the traditional structures of the country, with an exquisite architecture and the Dzong’s interior design. Although the palace is not open to tourists at present, there are plans for this great mansion to be unbolted to public soon.
Bumthang is the most religious and spiritual heartland of the nation, with an attitude between 2,600 metres to 4,500 metres above sea level. According to legends, Guru Padmasambhava cured the local King Sinda Raja of the spirit-induced ailment in the 8th century. This resulted in King embracing Buddhism, and eventually the whole country.
Buddhist saint Pema Lingpa was born in this region, an ancestor of the royal family. He was a blacksmith who was led by mystic forces to discover spiritual treasures placed at the bottom of Mebar Tsho, or Lake of Burning Fire, in the 15th century. According to legend, he held a butter lamp in his hand and jumped into the lake. He remained in the water for a long time. When he emerged from the lake, he was holding a chest and a scroll of paper in one hand. At the same time, the butter lamp held in his hand was still burning bright.
When Pema Lingpa was preaching the knowledge contained in the treasures, flowers dropped from the sky and vanished into rays of light. Hence, Bhutanese regards this lake to be scared. On auspicious days, Bhutanese will visit this lake to make butter lamp offerings on this fresh water lake.
Many famous Buddhist yogis had lived and practiced here. Hence, Bumthang is also the home to some of its oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries.
The administrative place of the capital of Bumthang is Jakar Dzong, which dominates the Chamkhar valley. It was built by Drukpa Lama Ngagi Wangchuk in 1549. He saw a white bird landing on the site of the Dzong when he was looking for a place to build a temple. Considered a good omen, he built the Dzong and named it as “the Fortress of the White Bird”. Situated on a strategic summit, it is one of the most exquisite architecture in Bhutan.
A special feature of the Dzong is the approximately 50 metres high Central tower, which is very distinctive from other Dzongs. Another unique feature of the Dzong is the sheltered water passage that supply water to the fortress. The Bumthang Tshechu held at Jakar Dzong (usually at night) is popular as it is said to bring fertility to any women who want a child.
The Jambay Lhakhang is one of the 108 monasteries built by King Sontsen Geonpo in the 8th century to subdue evil spirits in the Himalayan region. In autumn, it will host one of the most spectacular festivals (Jambay Lhakhang Drup). This festival is held to commemorate the establishment of Jambay Lhakhang and to honor Guru Padmasambhava.
The highlight of this festival is a religious dance (Tercham or “naked dance”) around the fire in the mid of the night. This dance is a renowned item among the spectators. Exactly at midnight, sixteen naked men will sprint out of the monastery’s door, dancing to the beatings of the traditional drums and cymbals. The dancers are completely naked with their faces covered with white cloths and masks.
According to legends, this dance was introduced by the great treasure discoverer, Tertoen Dorji Lingpa, on the prophecy of Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century. To distract the demons that were hindering the construction of a monastery, Tertoen Dorji Lingpa launched this sacred dance and subdued the demons. Today, it is held to bless infertile women with children and for abundant crops in the New Year.
Located further along the valley, Kurje Lhakhang comprises of 3 temples. The one on the right was built in 1652 against the rock face where Guru Padmasambhava meditated in the 8th century. The middle temple is built on the site of a cave containing a rock with the imprint of Guru’s body, by King Ugyen Wangchuck in 1900 when he was still the Trongsa Penlop. The 3rd temple on the left was built in 1990s by H.M. Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuck, Grand-Queen Mother. The 3 temples are surrounded by a 108 chorten wall, which make Kurje Lhakhang extremely sacred.
Other places of interest include :
- Tamshing Lhakhang – located across the river of Kurje Lhakhang. This temple was found in 1501 by Terton Pema Lingpa, a re-incarnation of Guru Padmasambhava. The Monastery contains remarkable paintings of this period of the Himalaya which was restored at the end of the 19th century. They constitute a unique documentation of Pema Lingpa’s teachings. This place has a charming and peaceful atmosphere which has enchanted many visitors.
- Thangbi Goemba – a monastery situated in the middle of a wide fertile plateau, overlooking the river. Founded in 1470 by the 4th Shamar Rinpoche (Chokki Drakpa), an important lama of the Karma Kagyupa religious school, the building comprises 2 sanctuaries and a temple of terrifying deities. The sanctuary on the ground floor contains statues of the past, present and future Buddhas. On the upper floor, it contains 2 remarkable paintings of Guru Padmasambhava’s and the Buddha Amitabha’s heaven.
- Yathra Weaving Centre – In the village of Zungney in Chumey, women are weaving Bumthang’s famous wool fabric called Bumthang yathra. One can see the brightly colour wool fabric displayed outside houses.
- Ugyen Chholing Palace and Ugyen Chholing Museum – situated in Tang Valley. This palace was originally built by Deb Tsokye Dorje, a descendant of Dorje Lingpa in the 16th century. The present structure was rebuilt after the earthquake in 1897. The complex has been turned into a museum for religious studies, research and solitude. It also has displays and descriptions of the lifestyle and art works of a Bhutanese noble family.
- Ura Valley – 48 km from Jakar. It is the highest valley in Bhutan at an attitude of 3,100 metres above sea level. The highest peak in Bhutan, Gangkhar Puensum, is also found in Ura Valley at an attitude of 7,541 metres above sea level. Villages in Ura valley have clustered houses, which is quite unusual in Bhutan. Above Ura Village, there is a new temple built in 1986, dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava. It contains a huge statue of Guru and remarkable wall paintings of his teachings. On the streets, you may find elderly women wearing sheepskin shawls on their backs, which double as a blanket and cushion.