A Feel of Bhutanese History, the Punakha Drubchen Festival

Punakha Festival

Punakha Festival. Image: flickr/David Orgel

In the 17th century, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal of Punakha in western Bhutan defeated the invading Tibetan forces which led to the unification of the country as one nation. To honor this victory, a grand celebration, the Punakha Drubchen (a.k.a. Puna Drubchen), was held. It went on to become an annual festival of the district. Expectedly, the major part of the festival is a theatrical reenactment of the epic battle. The battle scenes are performed by the local militia men (pazaps) dressed in the battle gear of those ancient times. This highlights the fact that during that period there was no national army as such, and the battle was fought by young men from the eight village blocks (tschogchens) of Thimphu who came forward voluntarily to do battle with the enemy.

Punakha Festival

Punakha Festival Image: flickr/Carsten ten Brink

In 2005, the locals put forward a request to the 70th Je Khenpo, Trulku Jigme Choedra, and the government that they wanted another similarly grand festival which would help in keeping tradition alive besides, of course, further commemorating the great deeds of Zhabdrung Rimpoche. Accordingly, the Punakha Tshechu was introduced in the district as one more annual event. It should also be noted that Punakha is also where the Chief Abbott (Je Khenpo) of Bhutan has his winter residence.

A tour during the time of the festivals (Punakha Drubchen: March 6-March 10; and Punakha Tshechu: March 11-March 13) would be pretty worthwhile for any tourist as they will have the opportunity to get a good glimpse of ancient Bhutanese history along with its culture and traditions.  The venue for the festivals is a walled fortress known as Punkaha Dzong which is situated at the confluence of two rivers and has some impressive temples and large courtyards inside.  So, what say? If you are ready and raring to go, here’s one itinerary that will allow you to attend the opening and closing days of the festivals and, in between, you get to see some other interesting places.

Punakha Festival

Punakha Festival. Image: flickr/David Orgel

The first day you fly into Paro, the charming little town where the international airport is situated. You spend the night at one of the hotels here and see the charms of the place which include the national museum (Ta-Dzong) and the Paro Rinpung Dzong. The next day, get yourself ready for a hike to Taktshang Monastery (a.k.a. the Tiger’s Nest), the most famous of all monasteries in the country, which is perched on the side of a cliff 900 m above the Paro valley. Have a good lunch at a teahouse here while enjoying the lovely view.

On your third day, you hike up to the Kila Goenpa nunnery from where you get to have some awesome panoramic views of the Haa and Paro valleys a well as of Taktshang Goenpa. In the afternoon, you drive to the capital, Thimphu, which is just two hours away. The next day, you’ll be getting acquainted with the capital. You’ll be visiting the national library, which has a large collection of historic books and documents; the painting school where traditional art is taught; and the paper factory, which produces only traditional paper. Shopping for souvenirs is another thing that’s going to be a pleasure as there are a good number of shops along the streets. You’ll have a full day, that’s for sure, and you’ll therefore need a good night’s rest.

The following day, you’ll be paying a visit to an ancient monastery, one that’s from the 13th century, the Phadoling Monastery, and after that, the next day; you’ll drive down to Punkaha (1,250 m) after climbing all the way up to Dochu La pass (3,150 m). It’s a three-hour drive from Thimphu. You set up for the night at a hotel after a bit of sightseeing around the Punakha and Wangdue valleys. Come morning, it’s festival time! Make the most of the opening day of the Punakha Drubchen festival held in the main courtyard of the Punakha Dzong; get a feel of ancient history.

Punakha Festival

Punakha Festival. Image: flickr/ David Orgel

Now that you’ve been privy to the first festival day, the following day you drive down to Trongsa (2,220 m), stopping at Chendebji Chorten on the way for lunch. Leave a tour of the Trongsa Dzong for the next day, visit Kuenga Rabten instead; here is where the royal family used to live once upon a time. The following day, get a good look at and around the dzong. It is located strategically with the mountains behind it, on several levels atop a spur sticking out into the gorge of the Mangde River, and overlooks the southern and western routes. After lunch, do some exploration around the town.

The next morning, you go back, first to Wangdue, a town where the winds seems to be always blowing through. On the way, you’ll be crossing the Black Mountains and going through Pele La pass (3,240 m) before entering the Mangde Chhu valley. After a night at Wangdue, the next morning, you start off for Punakha Dzong to make it on time for the closing day of the festival. Enjoy the show, this will probably be your last day in the Dragon Kingdom for the time being, for the following day, you’ll going back to Paro, and from there, flying back to Kathmandu.

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