1. TAKTSHANG – the Tiger’s Nest: Perched on high on ledge 2000 ft above Paro valley floor, these temple complex is perhaps the most recognized structure of Bhutan. It has become icon of Bhutan. On top of such extraordinary location, the legend of flying tigresses that carried Guru Rimpoche to the spot adds to allure the temples known as ‘Taktsang’ – the Tiger’s Nest (Tak meaning Tiger, tshang meaning nest).
It is the 8th century that legend alludes to, when the flying tigress carried Guru Rimpoche to the ledge for meditation. But it was only since 1692 that the temples came about. Back in the 8th century believe that Guru Rimpoche, a tantric saint and often referred as the 2nd Buddha or tantric Buddha, meditated for months. Since then many from world over have come here to immerse in his essence and to be blessed.
This site is not easy to get to. It requires 5 hours of walking – 3 hours uphill and 2 hours to retrace.
2. BIG BUDDHA This is an open air statue of Buddha – considered the largest seated Buddha in the world at 60m height or 198ft. It is located top of hill called ‘Kuenselphodrang’ overlooking capital city of Bhutan – Thimphu. The drive to location of Buddha is beautiful and has many viewpoints of the city below.
The statue called ‘Buddha Dordenma’ houses three level temples in its throne and thousands of smaller statues of the Buddha in the body. Often high teachers, including the His Holiness Chief Abbot of Bhutan provides teachings to public in the wide tiled area around the statue.
3. PUNAKHA DZONG: It was at pinnacle of Bhutan’s medieval era when the statehood of Bhutan was being formed that the Punakha Dzong was built (1640CE). Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel built the dzong/ fortress and gave Bhutan its statehood. Officially called, the Punthang Dechen Phodrang or the ‘Place of Great Bliss’, it is built at confluence of rivers Pho and Mo Chu, protected on 3 sides by the river and hill behind.
It is considered the ancient capitol building of Bhutan and many of historical events took place here, including crowning of the Kings of Bhutan. The great courtyards outside majestic assembly halls with fine murals, one can easily spend half a day here.
4. DOCHULA DRUK WANGYAL MONUMENTS, including temple and stupas: The ornament for the great mountain pass of Dochula (3050m – over 10,000ft), connecting Thimphu and Punakha valley is Druk Wangyal monuments. The monuments include 108 Bhutanese style of stupas (stupas are also called Chortens in Bhutan) and a temple, built by Her Majesty the Queen Mother Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, on a backdrop of high Himalayan peaks of Bhutan including the highest unclimbed Gangkar Puensum.
All of the monuments, called were built to mark the victory of His Majesty the Fourth King when he led incursion against militants that had come across the southern border. They represented dissidents against the India but were camped inside Bhutan. It is not only manifestation the Queen Mother’s respect and love for His Majesty the Great Fourth, but also recognition of the guardian deities and their protection.
The temple also called ‘Druk Wangyal’ or the temple of “victorious Drukpas/ Bhutanese” has some of the finest display of artistic tradition in Bhutan. There are fine works of both contemporary and traditional, not only method but also the subject matter. Besides the traditional depiction of deities and Buddha’s life event, the monarchs and their forefather is depicted. It is hard to encompass the legacy of the Kings and royal family, but the murals provides essence and marks them.
5. BIG GURU RIMPOCHE: Officially called the Guru Zilloen, the Big Guru is also known as the ‘Takila Guru’ being perched on Takila hill that overlooks deep sharp valleys of Lhuentse and its river Kuri Chu. Built by late Venerable Khenpo Karpo, the open air statue of Guru Rimpoche with height of 173ft is considered largest of Guru in the world. Inside the statue, there are multiple levels of temples housing statues and murals mostly related to Nyingma traditions.
The statue is surrounded by number of huge prayer wheels, places to offer butter lamps, guest house for visiting pilgrims and narrow terraced rice fields.
6. TRONGSA DZONG: There are many dzongs in Bhutan, but none as big as the Trongsa Dzong accentuating the defensive of nature of this majestic fortress. Commanding over the only medieval path between east and west Bhutan, it was seat of power in the past. It was from here that the first King rose to power. It is tradition for Crown Prince of Bhutan to become governor of Trongsa or ‘Trongsa Penlop’ before ascending the throne.
The Wheel of Life depiction outside south assembly hall is considered one of best in the country.
7. KURJEY LHAKHANGS: ‘kurjey means ‘body print’ and it is believed that Guru Rimpoche in the 8th century miraculously left body print in the rocks while meditating. It is around these rocks and caves, where Guru Rimpoche meditated that the first Kurjey Temple was built in the 17th century. Then a temple was added at the start of the 1900s and then last in this complex was built in 1958 by the Royal Queen Grandmother Kesang Choden Wangchuck. All the temples are three storied and celebrate life of Guru Rimpoche.
8. KYICHU TEMPLES. There are 2 temples here. One of the Kyichu temples is old and easily predates statehood of Bhutan, built in 7th century, 900 years before state of Bhutan. It marks the first advent of Buddhism to Bhutan. It is considered one of the 108 temples built by a Tibetan King then – the King Songsten Gampo, at behest of his consort Wengchenma – a Chinese princess. One of the other temple, considered part of the 108 temples that the King Songsten Gampo built, is Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang. Both have future Buddha as the central figure.
Besides the old Kyichu temple, there is new one built dedicated to Guru Rimpoche alongside the old temple. It is one of the best rendition of Guru Rimpoche in statue form. The temples are surrounded by cherry trees, few hybrid maples and a very large cypress tree.
9. DUNGKAR NAGTSHANG – THE HERITAGE HOUSE. This is ancestral house of Kings of Bhutan. It is situated in eastern district of Lhuentse and further half day journey from Lhuentse district center. The name ‘Dungkar’ translate to conch shell and it is from physical shape of the land surrounding the house that looks like conch. Conch in Bhutanese beliefs is considered auspicious. Tracing lineage to 15th century saint, it is said that the father of first King, Jigme Namgyel ventured out of this house to Trongsa, where he rose to the governor setting up for his son Ugyen Wangchuck to extend the influence and ultimately be crowned the first King of Bhutan. The landscape surrounding the village is beautiful as the drive (though rough) taking you there.
10. CHORTEN KORA: This is a stupa and it has to be considered along with the Trashiyangtse town that is around this great stupa. The stupa is in Nepalese style and legend has it that the stupa represent ultimate show of faith since a maiden princess entombed here from where she achieved enlightenment. The festival here, featuring circumambulation of stupa, commemorates her. The stupa is believed to have overcome harmful demonic forces since it was built in the 18th century. It is pleasant walk from the stupa to the Trashiyangtse town nearby, explore the shops, especially for the wooden bowls that the district is known for, besides woodworks in general.