Time is a scarce resource for everyone. We are each given 24 hours every day and it is up to us to make what we want out of it. Much of my hours and days are spent at work. To ensure that life does not pass me by – without my having something to show for it, I have tried to spend some weekends with family or friends – visiting monasteries or going for picnics. I enjoy visiting monasteries because it is an opportunity for me to get in touch with my spiritual self; at the same time, as many of the monasteries are situated away from the road, I get the opportunity to exercise and immerse myself in nature.
One weekend in July, we decided to visit the Simtokha Dzong. The oldest Dzong in Bhutan, it was built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of Bhutan. The name Simtokha means ‘Atop a Demon’. It is believed that the Dzong was built to subdue an evil spirit that was harassing travelers in the region. Built atop a small hillock, the Dzong commands a spectacular view of the growing Thimphu city. The new 169 feet statue of Lord Buddha, which is currently under construction, stands prominently at Kuenselphodrang on the opposite hill.
There were a lot of monks chanting prayers inside the great hall. The scent of the jasmine and sandalwood incense and the soothing sounds of the chants lulled me into a sense of peace and well-being. The statues in the main hall were that of Chengrizi – the Compassionate One and a gigantic statue of Lord Buddha. Murals of the Buddha, Guru Rimpoche, deities and devotees lined the walls of the great hall. As always, being in the presence of such profound beauty made me take a deep breath and give thanks for being alive in this beautiful world.
Modeled after the Gyal Gyad Tshel Insitute of Ralung (Tibet), the Dzong is distinctive as its ‘Utse’ or central tower has 12 sides. The large statue of Yeshay Genpo (Mahakala)- the chief protective deity of Bhutan is also housed inside the Utse.
Outside in the courtyard, there was a lot of activity with tourists and devout people offering prayers on the auspicious day. It was ‘Nam-guang’ – one of the auspicious days in which spiritual merits multiply manifold when doing good deeds and offering prayers. We took a look at the dim corridors – a flight of steps below.
Dark and long, the narrow alleys with very few windows are a thing on the past. The corridors of the fortress, where we once defended our nation from the invaders of the north, are now silent and musty.
Though I had visited the Dzong in the past, I was unaware that just above the main courtyard in the southeastern tower of the Dzong was the Royal Chambers of Gongsar Jigme Namgyal. We had recently seen a program about it in the Bhutan Broadcasting Service and we were fortunate to meet with the caretaker of the room and have the opportunity to visit.
It was delightful to walk through the antechambers where guests were received and into the simple and serene Royal bed chamber. The large glass windows on the eastern and southern sides ushered in bright light that illuminated the room. On one side was the intricately designed and carved ‘choeshum’ (altar). The aroma of the purifying incense filled the room. In one corner situated between the two windows, was the royal bed – its head-rest and frames carved and painted in exquisite detail. The bed spread was a smooth yellow brocade that lent a regal grace to the room. There was little furniture apart from the wooden ‘chodeum’ (table) carved with a ‘bumpa’ (vase) on the front and snow lion to one side. The floor was of wood, made shiny and smooth with use over the ages.
It was in this room that Gongsar Jigme Namgyel stayed during this stay in the Dzong. Father of the First King of Bhutan, he lived in the Dzong for about 13 years after retiring from the post of Desi. He passed away at the Dzong in 1881 when his son Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck, who later became the first king of Bhutan, was 20 years old.
I realized one thing that day – one must remain ever vigilant. We must be willing to look around us and open new doors. We must be willing to look beyond the ordinary – for sometimes it is just in one’s own neighborhood that there are beautiful places of history just waiting to be visited.