In 2017, travel gurus predict that yoga-inspired travel will be one of the more unique travel trends of the year. Yoga was introduced to the west by Hindu and Buddhist monks from India in the early twentieth century and when most people think of yoga, they envisage rooms full of people striking poses in trendy exercise classes or meditating on a special mat to chase away daily stress. In its original Vedic form, yoga is a way of life which has its own spiritual, meditative and physical philosophy and in the 'Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali', a compendium of 196 ancient texts recorded in Sanskrit by a Indian sage in around 450 BC, the ultimate goal of yoga is described as the realisation of a state of 'Moksha', or liberation, of the mind, body and soul. In a place as spiritually charged as Bhutan, it comes as no surprise that yoga and the search for inner peace can be seen all over the country. Vajrayāna Buddhism, which literally means 'Diamond Path' or 'Way of the Thunderbolt', is Bhutan's official state religion and for its devotees, nirvana, spiritual clarity and inner peace is attained through a path of meditation which specifies nine 'yanas', or methods. Six of these nine methods of meditation are known as 'Yoga Yanas' and whether it be a Buddhist monk chanting sūtras in a Bhutanese dzong or monastery, or a devotee striking poses to help their spiritual energy flow, people across the country follow Yoga Yana in their everyday actions in order to realise their spiritual goals and become a better person both inside and out. Exploring Buddhist monasteries, snow-dusted holy mountains and cosmic temple art, we take a yoga-inspired tour of Bhutan and go in search of inner peace and tranquillity in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon.
Nestled on top of a hill and towering over the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu from a height of nearly 330 feet, the Buddha Dordenma statue is one of the largest 'Buddharūpa', or 'Images of the Awakened One', on the planet. Construction on the individual sections of the statue began in the Chinese city of Nanjing in 2006 before it was shipped block-by-block to the town of Phuentsholing, in southern Bhutan, in 2010 with the project costing well over three billion Bhutanese Ngultrum and installation of the statue was completed in 2015. The structure is one of the most prominent features of Thimpu's skyline as it dominates the valleys which fringe the south of the city and a paved road leads up the side of the hill to the gargantuan Buddha statue itself. The path leading up to the Buddha Dordenma statue is also one of the starting points of one of the Thimpu Valley's most popular hiking trails, which leads to the tiny village of Depsi.
In addition its colossal size, the statue commemorates the sixtieth birthday of Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan's fourth 'Druk Gyalpo', or 'Dragon King', who reigned from 1972 to 2006 and whose son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, currently sits on the throne as the nation's official head of state. Forged out of copper and depicting a divine image of the original Shakyamuni Buddha, the statue is also lacquered with gold and sits cross legged on top of an individually-carved golden lotus, with both parts comprising the upper 139 feet of the structure. A cluster of diamonds represents the 'third eye' in the centre of the Buddha's forehead and below the lotus, a 62 foot-tall throne supports the structure while also doubling up as a group of five three-storey meditation halls. The Dordenma statue, the lotus and the five halls of the throne section are a veritable treasure trove of expertly-carved Buddhist iconography, between them housing over 125,000 individual miniature gold-plated statues and with each one depicting the multiple different incarnations of the Buddha. Statues of Buddhism's Four Heavenly Kings are also on show as well as over 120 individual mandala symbols, which represent the Buddhist universe and the cosmos, and 116 golden pillars depicting the Druk, the mythical thunder dragon which appears on the Bhutanese flag.
Despite only being just over a decade old, the Buddha Dordenma has a seemingly mystical connection to Bhutan's past and the statue was built over the remains of Kuensel Phodrang, the palace and official residence of Sherab Wangchuck, the thirteenth Desi Druk, or 'Thunder Dragon King', of Bhutan who ruled between 1744 and 1763. One of the most spellbinding and fascinating elements of the story of the Buddha Dornenma statue is that it fulfils not one but two prophecies foretold by two of Bhutan's most revered Buddhist figures and which are both connected to the idea of yoga as a means of achieving spiritual enlightenment. Firstly, as far back as the eighth century Guru Rinpoche, himself considered to be the second incarnation of the Buddha and a Yogi, or yoga guru, among many Bhutanese, predicted in a a volume of hidden Buddhist sutras and teachings known as the 'Terma' that a colossal image of the Buddha himself would appear in this part of the Thimpu Valley. In the twentieth century, another famous 'Yogi' yoga guru named Sonam Zangpo predicted that a huge effigy of either the Buddha, Guru Rimpoche or a dagger-like ceremonial instrument known as a Kīla would appear above the Bhutanese capital to bring 'blessings, peace and happiness on the whole world.' Image Credit: Olivia Lee
On the east to west road between the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu and Punakha, the 10,170 feet-high Dochula Pass is one of the country's most famous sights, along with the iconic Tiger's Nest Monastery in the Paro Valley and Punakha Dzong. Easily Dochula Pass' most striking feature is the cluster of precisely 108 'Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang' chortens, or stupas, which memorialise the 108 Bhutanese soldiers killed during a military skirmish against rebels from the northern Indian state of Assam during 'Operation All Clear', on December 15th, 2003. An element of triumph brightens up what is considered a tragic and black day for Bhutan as the white, black, gold and red-trimmed stupas also celebrate Bhutan's victory over the Assamese insurgents which came on January 3rd, 2004. The foundation of each stupa is a scared wooden pole known as a Sokshing which is carved from a branch of a juniper tree, painted red, wrapped in saffron-coloured silk and considered a link between heaven and earth. In June 2008, the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang temple was built on Dochula Pass to celebrate one hundred years since the official crowning of Bhutan's first Dragon King, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, and the annual Dochula Druk Wangyel Tsechu festival has been held annually on December 13th to further celebrate the Bhutanese victory over the Assamese insurgents.
Butter lamps, prayer bells, gold, silver, diamonds and clay Buddha statues are often placed at each of the 108 stupas to honour the fallen Bhutanese soldiers and Dochula Pass also provides some of the most staggeringly beautiful photography opportunities in the whole of Bhutan. The snow-caked peaks of a stretch of the eastern Himalayas which includes Gangkhar Puensum, Bhutan's highest mountain, are suspended under the blue sky and the white clouds which whisp above them and the best time to view the majestic and snow-covered peaks which lie off to the east of Dochu La Pass is between February and March each year. The slopes of the pass are adorned with cypress trees and immensely colourful Buddhist prayer flags inscribed with Buddhist scripture, mantra and sūtras and Known as Lung Ta, which literally means 'Wind Horse'. The prayer flags number into the thousands and the vast majority are dyed in one of five specific colours to represent the five 'Mahābhūta', the Tibetan Buddhist elements, with blue representing the sky, red for fire, green signifying earth and white and yellow representing the clouds and the earth respectively.
Unique to Bhutan and Tibet, a Dzong is a castle or fortress-cum-monastery with distinctive towering perimeter walls which have historically acted as regional centres, administrative offices and seasonal homes for Buddhist monks and to the Bhutanese Punakha Dzong is widely considered to be the most majestic in the country. Perched on a bank at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Pho Chu Rivers in western Bhutan's Punakha District, Punakha Dzong's name literally means 'Palace of Great Bliss' and since the formation of the modern Kingdom of Bhutan in 1907, all of the country's 'Druk Gyalpo' Dragon Kings have been crowned at the site. Remarkably, given the amount of wood used in Punakha Dzong's construction, including the cypress for the Bazam Bridge which provides access, not a single metal nail was used in the construction of the site and the building also appears on the back of a Bhutanese twenty Ngultrum banknote. The Dzong's foundation dates back over one thousand years and the story goes that in the eighth century the legendary Guru Rinpoche, who introduced Buddhism and the ideas of tantra and yoga to Bhutan, predicted that “A person named Namgyal will arrive at a hill that looks like an elephant”. Prophetically and mystically, this is exactly what came to pass when a Tibetan priest named Ngawang Namgyal, also known as Shabdrung Rinpoche and believed to be the first reincarnation of the great Guru himself, built Punakha Dzong in 1637.
In addition to being the home of the Je Khenpo, Bhutan's official spiritual leader, Punakha Dzong is the residence and the Sangha, or 'spiritual community', of a body of Buddhist monks known as the Dratshang during the winter months and in November of every year the Je Khenpo leads a party of six hundred monks of the Dratshang from their summer residence in Thimpu's Tashichho Dzong to Punakha Dzong for the winter. The life of a Dratshang monk during the winter stay at Punakha is an entirely spiritual existence which refines the hundreds of thousands of the Buddha's original teachings, or Dharma, into three basic principles by which they go about their everyday business and accumulate good karma: 'Do not commit even a single unwholesome thought or action', 'Engage in virtuous pursuits generating thought and action' and 'Conquer and refine your own mind completely'. Adhering to the Dharma in everything they do, a day in the life of a monk at the Dzong can involve anything from the chanting of mantras and sūtras during early morning prayers and meditation, making candles, butter lamps and cheese from yak's milk to preparing for upcoming festivals, boiling and toasting rice brought in from the surrounding Pho Chu river valley, etching cosmic mandala symbols from multicoloured sand and gathering honeycomb from the beehives which are left to grow naturally from the Dzong's outer walls and roofs. Senior and enlightened yoga master monks at Punakha Dzong are also often versed in Bhutanese astrology and are consulted by younger monks seeking to learn if the stars have aligned in a particular way, making it an auspicious time for performing certain tasks.
Still home to Bhutan's most sacred treasures and relics, Punakha Dzong is dominated by a six storey-high Utse, or central tower', topped with a dome carved out of gold and which also houses the single most treasured of all Bhutanese sacred relics in the form of the Rangjung Kharsapani, an image of Avalokiteśvara, the Buddha of compassion, which was brought to the Dzong from Tibet by Ngawang Namgyal. Three 'dochey' temple courtyards are positioned around the Utse tower and the northernmost of these is where the administrative affairs of the Punakha region are still conducted. The courtyard also features a shrine honouring the Naga, or snake demigods, and in the southern dochey, a room known as Machey Lhakhang, houses the embalmed remains of two of Bhutan's most venerated historical and cultural figures - Ngawang Namgyal, the guru who founded the Dzong in 1637, and legendary Bhutanese 'Tertön', or 'Discoverer of hidden Buddhist Texts', by the name of Pema Lingpa. Both are sealed in air-tight caskets and Machey Lhakang is arguably the country's most sacred single room, as only the Je Khenpo, the incumbent Bhutanese Dragon King and the Dzong's two guardian lamas are allowed to enter. The Kuenrey, is located at the far end of the Dzong and, as well as being the monks' congregation hall, houses colossal statues of the Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and Ngawang Namgyal carved out of solid gold. The ceiling of the Kuenrey is a virtual skyscape, featuring intricately painted images of iconic Bhutanese 'Druk' Thunder Dragons as well as an episodic fresco depicting in detail the Zedpa Chuni, the twelve key elements of the life of the Buddha.
Bhutan has dozens of nicknames inspired by its mind-blowing natural scenery and Buddhist traditions, including the sensational 'Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon' and the 'Land of Eternal Happiness', but one of the oldest of these monikers is Menjung, which literally means 'Land of Medicinal Herbs'. Bhutan's tradition of utilising its herbs is still followed in family homes, guesthouses, monasteries and hotels all over the country and is epitomised in a millennia year-old medicinal and spiritual healing ritual known as a Datsho, or Dotsho, which literally means 'Hot Stone Bath'. Datsho is Inspired by both the Indian tradition of Ayurveda, also known as 'Life Knowledge' and which innovated yoga in its original form nearly two thousand years ago, as well as the Tibetan Buddhist 'Sowa Rigpa' medicinal philosophy which dictates that illnesses, diseases and afflictions are all products of three spiritual poisons, or 'Klesha' - delusion, greed and aversion. The Datsho bathing ritual begins with gathering freshly cut wood from Bhutan's Himalayan forests and collecting rocks from riverbeds before constructing a fire outside the bath house. The rocks are heated until almost volcanic and molten temperatures until their surfaces crack in a process which is believed to release the natural minerals inside. Image Credit: TheFrustratedGardener
The molten rocks are passed through a square-shaped hatch in the wall of the bathhouse after a wooden trough has been filled with icy meltwater from the snow gathered from the slopes of the Bhutanese Himalayas or water from the rivers which snake their way through Bhutan's valleys. Herbs such as artemesia and sagebrush are then added to the water, with some hot stone baths also using a secret blend of herbs which is unique to each family and after the herbs have been left to infuse, the water becomes known as 'Menchu', which is said to possess spiritual healing qualities. The whole Datsho bathing process is a mixture of meditation, chemistry, medicinal healing, and alchemy and according to tradition, the fragrance from the herbs in the Menchu water fuses with the minerals from the red-hot stones underneath the trough to create a virtual Bhutanese herbal soup which is believed to have a powerful meditative effect with the ability ease joint pain, hypertension and skin diseases. So intrinsic is the Datsho bathing ritual across the country, that the Bhutanese government have introduced programmes to educate people on the cultivation of sustainable medicinal herbs. Image Credit: Bhutan Traveller
In Bhutan's central-eastern Bumthang District , the town of Jakar is home to Kurkey Lakhang, one of the country's most famous, extensive and photogenic Buddhist temple complexes. The temple's name is highly symbolic as it literally means 'body print', and this refers to the fact that the body of Guru Rinpoche himself, the Buddhist master and sage who introduced the faith to Bhutan in the eighth century, is embalmed inside a cave in the Guru Lakhang, one of the complex's three main buildings. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche spent vast amounts of time meditating and trying to attain Nirvana at the site and that he left a reflection of his shadow imprinted on a rock which is said to have resembled a lotus holding up a Dorje, or 'Diamond Thunderbolt', a symbol seen on Bhutan's official national crest. The story also goes that Guru Rinpoche won a titanic struggle against a demon known as Shelging Kharpo, who had kidnapped the daughter of a local king named Sendhaka. In reality, Kurkey Lakhang dates back to 1652, when the oldest of its three main buildings was built by a Mingyur Tenpa, a ruler of central Bhutan's Trongsa region, and a ring of 108 miniature 'chorten' stupas surrounds the complex along with three larger stone stupas which are dedicated to the first three of Bhutan's Thunder Dragon Kings.
As well as housing the sacred imprint of Guru Rinpoche's shadow, Kurjey Lakhang's Guru Lakhang building features a rendering of the famous battle which took place between the legendary Bhutanese Buddhist master and the demonic Shelging Kharpo. The image depicts the demon in the form of a Tag, a kind of mythical snow tiger, and Guru Rinpoche appears as a phoenix-like and legendary bird known as Jachung and the second of the temple complex's main buildings, Sampa Lhundrup Lhakhang, was built in 1900 by Bhutan's first internationally-rocognised Dragon King, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, seven years before his official coronation. Sampa Lhundrup Lhakhang also features ghostly images of Shelging Kharpo, a ten metre-hight statue of Guru Rinpoche as well as the regional 'black yak rider' guardians of Bumthang, the Yakdu Nagpo, and the third of the main buildings, Ka Gon Phur Sum Lhakhang, was built as recently as 1990. A kind of mandala fresco completely unique to Bhutan also appears on the walls of Kurjey Lakhang in the form of the 'Mystic Spiral'. Different from any other kind of mandala in Asia, which usually comprise straight lines and geometric shapes, Bhutan's Mystic Spiral is made up entirely of interlocking circles and spirals. The spinning circle at the centre of the image represents the spiralling energy of the universe and bordering the central spiral, four sets of three almost planetary-looking circles signify the traditional Buddhist elements of water, fire, air and earth. Locking in the universal energy and the elements, twelve additional spirals are painted onto a blue backdrop which represents spiritual energy and are also said to make the Mystic Spiral appear to be three-dimensional.
Just twenty minutes south along the Bumthang Chhu River from Kurjey Lhakang, Jambay Lhakang is one of Bhutan's oldest temples and the famous legend surrounding its foundation is intertwined with another story of the demon Shelging Kharpo, which predates the story depicted at Kurkey Lhakang just to the north. In the year 659 AD, a Tibetan king by the name of Songtsen Gampo. According to a famous Tibetan Buddhist chronicle, 'The Holder of the White Lotus', Songtsen Gampo was ordained to be a Chakravartin, a kind of universal king who ruled over the entire world, and the story goes that he was commanded by heavenly forces to built a vast network of precisely 108 fortress-style temples to secure the border regions of Tibet and Bhutan. Legend also has it that Songtsen Gampo completed construction on this ring of fortifications in just a single day in order to subdue the demon Shelging Kharpo, who was terrorising the entire region, and that each of the 108 temples were built to pin the demon to the ground, with Jambay Lhakang being constructed on its left knee.
Jambay Lakhang is one of only a handful of surviving temples built across Tibet and Bhutan by Songtsen Gampo to vanquish Shelging Kharpo, with others believed to be Paro's Kichu Lhakang, in western Bhutan, and the iconic Jokhang in the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa. As well as its human-sized ancient golden 'Mani´Khor Lo' prayer wheels, Jambay Lakhang's most famous relics include images of the future Buddha, Jowo Jampa or Maitreya, who also gives the temple its name. The temple's legacy and its position at the heart of some of the pivotal moments in Bhutan's military, cultural and political history are showcased by the Dus Kyi Khorlo, a gigantic image of the Tibetan Buddhist Kalachakra, or 'Wheel of Life'. The Dus Kyi Khorlo was constructed inside the main temple building by Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, the very first Bhutanese Dragon King, after he lead an army of roughly 2500 troops to victory against Phuntsho Dorji of Punakha and Alu Dorji of Thimphu in the Battle of Changlimethang in 1885, which ultimately lead to the Kingdom of Bhutan being internationally recognised for the very first time, and his coronation was held at Punakha Dzong in 1907.
Today, Jambay Lhakang hosts a five day-long Tsechu, or festival called Jambay Lhakhang Drup every November to commemorate the vanquishing of Shelging Kharpo and the spread of Buddhism in Bhutan by the Yogi Guru Rinpoche. The festival is arguably the most spectacular of its kind in the whole of Bhutan as hundreds performers descend on Jambay Lhakang, often braving sub-zero winter temperatures, snow and frost, decked out in immensely colourful costumes depicting gods, heavenly and celestial figures and demons. The annual Tsechu kicks off with a ritual known as Jinsi, the ritual ignition of the flame which is part of the wider Mewang sacred fire ceremony and as the sacred flame burns, performers erupt in a frenzy of dances known as Cham. The sacred Jinsi fire burns for the rest of the festival and on the following, dozens of other Cham dances including a masked dance known as Shinji Yab Yum, Dola Pangtoy, performed by dancers dressed as Astara, a kind of Buddhist cosmic clown, and the Tsholing Cham sees a reenactment of the legendary battle between gods, kings and demons which lead to the foundation of Jambay Lakhang in the year 659. On the final day of the Tsechu, a dance known as Raksha Mangcham closes the festival and symbolises the Buddhist idea of life after death and reincarnation.
Further east from Jakar, the Bumthang District begins to epitomise just how isolated the Dragon Kingdom of Bhutan truly is from the rest of the world as the region's windy and often rain-lashed Himalayan valleys, which feature only one navigable road, are fully exposed to the elements and potentially lethal landslides of rock, dust, frost and snow. This area of the country is one of the least-travelled as well as one of the best places to get a true sense and flavour of authentic Bhutanese history and culture. Ogyen Choling Palace, along the single, snake-like road from Jakar, is a former feudal era Bhutanese residence which was first built in the mid-fourteenth century by Longchen Rabjam, a Tibetan guru, teacher and author of 'Seven Treasuries', an iconic, seven-episode chronicle of Buddhist prose and literature. Just under half a century later, another guru named Dorje Lingpa and for roughly the next five hundred years, Ogyen Choling functioned as a gompa, or monastery. In the middle of the nineteenth century Tshokye Dorje, next in line to be Bhutan's Dragon King and the fifteenth bloodline descendant of Dorje Lingpa, extended the complex into a manor house and in 1897, Ogyen Choling was severely damaged by an earthquake which struck central Bhutan. Image Credit: Ram368
Over the centuries, Ogyen Chholing has functioned as a gompa occupied by Buddhist gurus and masters, a hermitage for monks and a part-time residence for Bhutan's royal family. Today the complex operates as a guesthouse and a museum which is still under the ownership of Tshokye Dorje's descendants and their families. One the main buildings, the Tsuglhakhang, houses a kind of double-decker Buddhist temple with the first floor being dedicated to Jowo, the Buddha as a young boy, and the second floor honouring Drolma, a goddess of love and compassion. Ogyen Choling's central Utse tower was converted into a museum in 2001 and showcases artifacts which have been found in the manorhouse over the years, as well as from the time when the site was used as a monastery. Bhutanese Buddhist swords and war weaponry are on show in the museum as well as whole host of other artefacts give a fascinating insight into life at the complex throughout time, including tools for making a unqiuely Bhutanese rice wine known as Ara, Tibetan Buddhist scipture and sūtras carved on black woodblocks as well as examples of handwoven textiles and fabrics. Arguably the most fascinating and photogenic artefacts on show at Ogyen Choling, however, are the frescoes depicting images of each of the animals corresponding to the year which they represent in Tibetan 'Jung Tsee' elemental astrology, such as the dragon, the snake, the ox and the rooster, and the frescoes include a rendering of a Buddhist guru taming a tiger.