Saturday, 19 March 2016

Thimphu, Bhutan's Capital

Thimphu, Bhutan's Capital ©Solange Hando

Nestling in the hills at over 2000 metres, Thimphu is a capital like no other. No traffic lights, no airport, the former were promptly removed by popular demand, the second just wouldn't fit into this hemmed-in valley, Visitors land in Paro, 54 km away.

Thimphu replaced Punakha as capital in the mid-1900s and the population has now reached around 70,000 with ongoing developments striving to accommodate rural migrants . But at the heart of the Himalaya, Thimphu still has the 'wow' factor as an endearing example of traditional Bhutanese values.  

Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu

On the bank of the Thimphu River, all red roofs and gilded pinnacles, the 'fortress of glorious religion' is the most important building, a civic and religious centre all in one. Renovated and extended by the 3rd King, it's the summer residence of the monk's body and still retains some of the earlier structures, notably the central tower and temples.

Surrounded by roses and lawns, the dzong is just steps away from the Royal Cottage, home of the current king, and faces the National Assembly across the river. Major events have included the 2008 Coronation and the annual tsechu festivals.

Tsechu Festival in Thimphu Dzong ©Solange Hando

For any visitor, a festival is the highlight of the trip. For the Bhutanese, it's a chance to earn merits, meet family and friends and have a good time as you watch lay and religious dancers, listen to ancient tales and laugh at the antics of medieval-style jesters.

Everyone wears their finest traditional clothes and from the crowds tightly packed in the courtyard to  the masked dancers twirling on the flagstones, it's a dizzying kaleidoscope of colours when the deep chanting of monks mingling with drums, horns and bells sends shivers down your spine.

Clocktower Square in Thimphu ©Solange Hando

The town may have grown but as capitals go, it's still modest, relatively quiet and lined with traditional buildings. Even the new hotels follow suit whether it's the shape of the roof, the Buddhist symbols painted on the walls or carvings along the eaves or around doors and windows.

There are fine bakeries and restaurants, small shops and emporiums brimming with arts and crafts, including textiles, jewellery, carvings, paintings and other religious items.

Institute of 13 Arts and Crafts in Thimphu ©Solange Hando

Arts and crafts are important in Bhutan since creating beautiful things is akin to an act of worship, a way of showing appreciation for the gifts of nature. The 13 arts and crafts were defined by the 17th century Shabdrung who unified the country and talented youngsters can further their training in specialised institutes, one in East Bhutan and other in Thimphu.

The Golden Buddha ©Solange Hando

But wherever you travel, you cannot doubt that Buddhism is the mainstay of Bhutanese culture and Thimphu is no exception. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze, prayer wheels tinkle here and there and from the Memorial Chorten to the Cheri monastery, traditional values continue to thrive.

The latest witness is the newly-built giant Golden Buddha, rising on a hill above town to 'bestow blessings, peace and happiness to the whole world.'

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