Bhutan Stories and Tips

Tortoises and Goblins in Paro Valley

The Tortoise Rock - yeah, really! Photo, Bhutan, Asia

I don't think that Dungtse Temple was supposed to be on our itinerary for Paro so we were lucky to get to see it as a quick 'fill-in' for an already very busy day. Bhutanese tourism isn't known for its flexibility – in fact it's so regimented that there are military campaigns and major government initiatives which require less paperwork and forward planning than a day out in Bhutan. I believe we went because the National Museum was closed due to us inconveniently arriving on the wrong day of the week. And since our guide Rinzin seemed to have magic powers and access to a photocopier for creating magic permits to get into attractions, we stopped off for a quick look as we were passing.

I'm always interested in why temples, churches, mosques or any other religious building are built and in where they are situated. Mostly I'd suggest there are fairly predictable reasons; because someone has lots of money and wants to curry favour with a higher force; because something wonderful has happened and someone wants to commemorate the event and give thanks; perhaps because something AWFUL happened that's equally worthy of marking. I can think of examples of all of these. But in Bhutan, things are a bit different.

We'd already visited Kyichu Lakhang, a small temple built in the 7th century on the site of the foot of a giant ogress who just happened to be sprawled over the Himalaya, blocking the spread of Buddhism. At Dungtse we discovered that 800 years later, the ogress had gone but Paro Valley was in the thrall of a tortoise-shaped demon. Well that's OK then – that's obviously a good reason to pop up a temple.

In the 15th century the Paro Valley was having a rough time of it. The crops kept failing and lots of the locals were having bad luck. Rather than blame the weather (I'm British, we blame the weather for EVERYTHING) or look to change the irrigation or spread some fertiliser around, the inhabitants decided that the bad luck was flowing straight down the valley from the evil tortoise demon whose head was seen in the shape of some strange rocks. To block the flow of inauspicious 'stuff' a holy man called Thangtong Gyalpo (also known as the 'iron bridge builder' ordered the building of a temple right in front of the rock, blocking the tortoise's view of the valley and so bringing good times back to the region.

We arrived in the early afternoon and parked up outside and wandered in through the archway in front of the temple. It was constructed quite differently from most of the temples we saw and resembled a large chorten. According to one website I checked, it's the ONLY chorten-shaped temple in the country. OK, now I'm in trouble because I've just told you it looks like something that I really struggle to describe. Chortens are funny little structures that are also known as stupas in some other Buddhist countries and are horribly difficult for me to get my head round. They vary in size but most of the ones in Bhutan are quite small – about the size of an old telephone box – but others can be the size of a house. I've seen massive ones in Sri Lanka, Ladakh and Thailand and I still don't really 'get' them. They generally are built to hold some kind of Buddhist relics and I believe the earliest ones held parts of the bones and remains of the cremated Buddha but obviously, there aren't too many bits like that floating around any more. The Bhutanese style chorten has a square base and is typically painted mostly in white with a band of dark brown below the roofline.

So, it looks like something I'm not great at describing and it stands in front of a rock that really doesn't look much like a tortoise. I'm doing well aren't I? The temple is built on three levels to symbolise hell, earth and heaven. We walked around the temple at hell-level before we went in – our circumambulation being foremost to see the tortoise rock and the prayer flags on the hillside above it and secondly because walking round in a clockwise direction is just something you do a lot whenever you visit a religious site in Bhutan, whether it's a prayer wheel, a temple or some other structure. Sometimes we walked round three times, or nine or some other multiple of three, depending on how big the structure was and how impatient we were to get inside.

Our circuit completed, it was time to pop inside and we were really surprised by what we found. All over the inside walls were intricate and very dark wall paintings. Foolishly we didn't have torches with us and whilst we strained to see the pictures, we were tripping over rocks around our feet. Quietly and with a sense of awe, we shuffled around the inside of the temple in near pitch darkness squinting at the statue of Milarapa and trying not to injure ourselves. It's a very small temple and it really will only take a few minutes to shuffle through the interior.

As we stepped outside the temple and our eyes adjusted to the afternoon brightness, we saw a wizened little man in the most bizarre boots standing by the prayer wheel. It would have been easy in a place of magic tortoises and saintly bridge builders to assume he was sprite or a goblin but actually he was just the temple guardian, come to check our paperwork and looking to have a chat with our guide. If you check out the photos, he's the little chap who looks like he's wearing Wellington boots and his dressing gown. The latter is, of course, the gho – the male national dress worn by all good Bhutanese chaps but seldom combined with such sartorial footwear. We gave the prayer wheel a few hefty turns, took some photos, wandered round again to say goodbye to the tortoise and hopped back in the car to head back to the hotel for some head-exploding chillies-and-cheese.

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