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The District of Punakha

Punakha Dzongkhag (Dzongkhag means “District”) has been inextricably linked with momentous occasions in Bhutanese history. It served as the capital of the country from 1637 to 1907 and the first national assembly was hosted here in 1953. Punakha Dzong is not only the second oldest and second largest dzong but it also has one of the most majestic structures in the country.

October 13, 2011 marked an unforgettable wedding of the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck to Jetsun Pema which was held at Punakha Dzong. Punakha Dzong was built at the confluence of two major rivers in Bhutan, the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, which converge in this valley. It 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 unifier 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.

Punakha valley has a pleasant climate with warm winters and hot summers. It is located at an average elevation of 1200 m above sea level. Owing to the favourable climatic conditions, rice has become the main cash crop cultivated in the region.

Things to do in Punakha

Places of interests in and around Punakha, Bhutan
Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Punakha Dzong, the second oldest and second largest Dzong in Bhutan built in 1637.
The Historic Punakha Dzong (Pungthang Dewa Chenpoi Phodrang)

The Punakha Dzong, originally known as Pungthang Dechen Phodrang, meaning the “Palace of Great Bliss”, was built in 1637 A.D. by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (Tibetan Buddhist master who came to Bhutan in 1616 and founded nation-state of Bhutan) on a small stretch of land where the rivers Phochu and Mochu converge. Punakha Dzong is the second oldest and second largest Dzong in Bhutan. The Dzong served as the administrative centre and the seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955, when the capital was shifted to Thimphu. Punakha Dzong displays exquisite and intricate Bhutanese architecture and it is the most beautiful dzong in Bhutan.Today, it serves as the office of the governor and head of the monk body in Punakha district. It is also the winter residence of the Chief Abbot of Bhutan, Je Khenpo. During the winter months from November to April, the Je Khenpo along with the central monk body moves from Thimphu and resides in Punakha Dzong and moves back to Thimphu Tashichho Dzong during the summer. This tradition of maintaining a summer and winter residence was first introduced by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel himself in the 17th century and the tradition is still practiced to this day.

A great annual festival called Punakha Tsechu dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava (the saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century A.D.) and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel is held at the Dzong. Punakha Tsechu or religious festival is conducted from the tenth day of the first month of the traditional Bhutanese Lunar calendar which usually falls sometime during the month of February or March on the western calendar. People from far flung villages and other districts come to attend the sacred festival.

Chime Lhakhang
Chime Lhakhang built in 1499
Chime Lhakhang – The Temple of Fertility

Chime Lhakhang is located on a gentle hilltop near the village of Sopsokha. The site offers a panoramic view of the Punatsangchu river and Wandue Phodrang town. To reach the temple it takes about 30 minutes of walking through the beautiful terraced rice fields and farmhouses.

Lama Drukpa Kuenley built a small black stupa on this hilltop to mark the burial site of demons whom he managed to subdue after chasing all the way from Dochula Pass, where the demons were terrorizing the travellers. This black stupa can be seen even today just outside of the main temple. It was Lama Ngawang Chogyel, the younger brother of Lama Drukpa Kuenley, who built the present temple in 1499 A.D.

Lama Drukpa Kuenley was a Tibetan Buddhist Master who travelled extensively in western and central Bhutan exercising his holy powers to subdue devils and liberate people from suffering during the late 15th century and early 16th century A.D. He was known as “Divine Madman” for his obscene behavior and outrageous ways of cleansing people from religious dogmatism and egoistic self-possession by exhibiting his strong desire for sex. He would often use his desire, emotion, and sexuality to arouse disillusionment, insight and delight in all he encountered. He would often use phallus as a tool to subdue malevolent spirits. Using the phallus was also intended to free up the social inhibitions enforced by the socially established values.

Today, one of the relics of Chime Lhakhang is a phallus. The blessing of the phallus is considered sacred particularly to women who are unable to conceive a child as it brings fertility to women, giving them ability to bear offspring. Because of this belief, people like to call Chhime Lhakhang as “Temple of Fertility”.

Married couples who are unable to conceive a child often come to this temple seeking blessings from the Divine Madman. As much as it sounds ‘too good to be true’, there are many stories of happy couples who are blessed with child after visiting the temple.

Khamsum Yuelley Namgyel Choeten, Punakha.
Khamsum Yulley Namgyel Zangdogpelri

Located on a ridge overlooking the picturesque Punakha valley, Khamsum Yuelley Namgyel Zangdogpelri is a fine example of Bhutanese architecture used in building temples, monasteries and Zangdogpelri (Zangdogpelri means “copper coloured mountain”, a multi-storeyed temple dedicated to Guru Rinpoche is a Buddhist tantric master “who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century A.D.Guru Rinpoche). It was built over a period of almost 10 years under the patronage of Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck, one of the Queen Mothers of Bhutan and was consecrated in 1999.

It takes only about 20 minutes drive from the main town of Punakha to the nearest road point. From there you cross a suspension bridge over the Punakha Mochu River (female river) and the trail takes you through paddy fields. Normally it takes just under one hour to reach the serene site of the marvelous choeten. The view below is stunning with glacial fed Mochu river snaking through the fertile valley of Punakha.

Rafting in Punakha, Bhutan
Rafting in Punakha
White Water Rafting on Mochu River and Phochu River

Punakha valley is blessed with two glacial fed rivers – one is called Pho Chhu (Male river) and the other is Mo Chhu (Female river). Pho Chhu river is graded 2-4 on an International Scale of River Difficulty therefore only experienced rafters can do rafting on this river. Mo Chhu is graded 1-2 making it possible for all ages to try and experience rafting. Rafting distance on Mochu is 10kms and on Phochu it is 16km. The two rivers merges near the Punakha Dzong and forms Punatsang Chhu, one of the major rivers in Bhutan and empties into the Brahmaputra river in the Indian state of Assam.