A Slice of Bhutanese History
Punakha is one of the most historically significant cities in Bhutan. It served as the country’s capital city from 1637 to 1907 and is home to the most beautiful dzong in Bhutan – Pungthang Dewachen Phodrang or the Palace of Great Happiness. The dzong houses sacred relics and was the coronation site for the first king of Bhutan. Two of Bhutan’s major rivers – the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu – converge in the Punakha valley, and the Punakha Dzong has been built at the point of confluence of these rivers.
Unlike Thimphu, Punakha enjoys a more temperate climate owing to its lower altitude, with warmer winters and hot summers. The climate is suitable for rice cultivation, and both white and red variants of rice grow abundantly in the Punakha valley. Punakha is only a few hours away from some of Bhutan’s most popular tourist attractions, such as the hot springs, Guru Rinpoche caves and the Fertility Temple. It is also the winter residence of the central monk body.
The Punakha Drubchen is a unique annual festival celebrated in this valley. It recalls Bhutan’s several invasions by Tibetan forces through a dramatic recreation of a 17th Century battle scene that features pazaps or local militia men dressed in traditional armour. The Punakha Tshechu is another major festival that seeks to preserve Buddhist teachings and the legacy of Zhabdrung Rinpoche – the unifier of Bhutan.
And yet, Punakha is not just about history and tradition: birders will relish the opportunity to sight the critically-endangered white-bellied heron, which is found in these regions. Of the global population of only 200, Bhutan is home to around 34 white-bellied herons.
Punakha Dzong: Majestically standing on an island between the confluence of Po Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers, city’s dzong is one of the most photogenic of all Bhutan’s ancient fortresses, and you will see pictures of it hanging in hotels and restaurants throughout the kingdom. The dzong is joined to mainland by an arched wooden bridge and contains many precious relics from the days when successive kings reigned the kingdom from this valley.
Guru Rinpoche Caves (Geon Tsephu): Steep two hour walk from the small community of Mitesgang, there is a small temple at the caves where pilgrims can lay their bedding. Otherwise the pasture just below provides space for camping.
Hot Springs (tsachu): Koma Tsachu is a vigorous two hour walk from the small community of Mitesgang. There are three bathing pools covered by simple roofs, and a four roomed building with solar lighting where sleeping bags and mats can be laid (there is no charge for staying in the building). Outside, there is ample room to pitch tents and rock overhangs to camp under.
Chimi Lhakhang: Also known as Fertility Temple or Monastery, is a Buddhist monastery in Punakha District. Prayer flags are lined all along the road from tiny village hamlet known as Yowakha, along a drain or stream to the monastery. Lama Kunley had called this hillock where the monastery exists as the breast of a woman because of its round shape.
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 militia men, dress in traditional battle gear and reenact the ancient battle scene.