Jul 20, 2015

Bhutan Diaries : Trongsa

The Trongsa district in central Bhutan is the ancestral home of the Wangchucks, Bhutan's royal family. The kingdom's first king Ugyen Wangchuck was actually the twelfth governor of Trongsa. He managed to bring the whole country under his control and was elected as the first Druk Gyalpo or Dragon King of Bhutan. So, in a tradition that is continued to this day, the crown prince of Bhutan serves as the governor of Trongsa, until he becomes the king.
Mangde Chhu River, Trongsa
The Mangde Chhu river flowing through Trongsa
It took us about 3 hours to drive to Trongsa from Phobjikha. As we approached the town, the majestic Trongsa Dzong (fortress) came into view, nestled in the middle of lush greenery.
Trongsa Dzong
The Trongsa Dzong
The town of Trongsa has just about two small streets, and they are crammed with tiny restaurants, bars and grocery stores. 
Trongsa Town
Trongsa Town
We stayed at the Tashi Ninjay guesthouse run by a wonderfully warm family.
Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
 The room was adorable, and the view from the balcony was just jaw-dropping.
Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
The dzong is Trongsa's main attraction, and we didn't even have to step out of our room to see it! It was surreal to stand in the balcony with a cup of tea, watching the dzong disappear every now and then as clouds BELOW us ran in and engulfed it.
View from Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
The most perfect balcony ever!
View from Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
The view of the dzong from our room on a sunny morning
View from Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
The dzong all lit up at night
View from Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
Also from the balcony. Notice the rainbow? :)
Some pictures from the inside of the fortress, featuring Tenzing, our awesome guide :)
Trongsa Dzong
Trongsa Dzong
Trongsa Dzong
The Royal Heritage Museum housed in a watchtower close to the fortress is amazing - a must-visit if you're a history buff, or just want to quickly understand the history of Bhutan. We took a small walk on the outskirts of the town, and found fiddlehead ferns (delicious ferns used in Bhutanese cuisine) and hundreds of wild strawberries growing all along the trail.
Wild Strawberries
Wild Strawberries
While Phobjikha was my favourite destination in Bhutan, Trongsa was a very close second. We managed a short day trip to the Bumthang district, and that was as interior as we went. I wish we could have gone further east - I bet the remote eastern districts are even more spectacular, but I'm glad we left ourselves a reason to go back to Bhutan :)
The mountains of Trongsa in the late afternoon sun

Jul 13, 2015

Bhutan Diaries : Phobjikha

Soooo I was planning to do my Bhutan posts in a west-to-east order, but I was really dying to tell you about Phobjikha, my favouritest of the lot, so I decided to dump that plan!

After landing in Paro, we drove to Thimphu, about an hour away. We spent a couple of days there, and then drove to Phobjikha, an insanely gorgeous glacial valley in central Bhutan. The drive was pretty bumpy, and took about 8 hours, but it was an experience in itself - on that one day alone, we saw more beauty than we'd seen ever before!
Dochula Pass
The stupas at Dochula Pass
We drove through two gorgeous high mountain passes - the first was the Dochu La Pass  at 3100 meters. 108 little stupas stand at the pass, commemorating the successful eviction of  Northeast Indian insurgents by Bhutanese forces. The cafe up there is an awesome place to enjoy a cup of tea with a view. We actually ran into a Bhutanese Rajnikanth fan there! It made us realize once again, how well the Bhutanese know India. From Bollywood music playing in cars and cafes to Indian food even in remote towns, India's influence on the tiny kingdom is really visible. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing?
The cafe at Dochula
Shortly after we crossed Dochula, it started raining, and continued to rain almost all day. The entire route was wet and misty and incredibly beautiful.
The rain thinned down to a light drizzle by the time we reached Lowala Pass, the entrance to Phobjikha. At an altitude of 3360 meters, with the clouds and the valley far below, and surrounded by yaks and rhododendrons, it was the most picturesque stretch in the entire drive.
Lowala Pass
Lowala Pass
Lowala Pass
Lowala Pass
Since we still had a little daylight left, we went straight to Gangtey, a little village overlooking the valley. It is home to a beautiful monastery called the Gangtey Gompa. We were lucky to be there during a festival - the huge crowd gathered there was singing together and a masked dance was going on. The spiritual head of the monastery was going around blessing everyone. The village is really charming too, with traditional Bhutanese wood houses and gorgeous views all around.
Phobjikha seen from Gangtey
Quite exhausted after a long but most EPIC day, we headed to the Gaikiling Guesthouse where we'd be spending the night. And there was more awesomeness waiting for us there!
Gaikiling Guesthouse
The Gaikiling Guesthouse
Gaikiling Guesthouse
Our wonderfully cozy room
Gaikiling Guesthouse
The view from our room
Gaikiling Guesthouse
Where we had breakfast the next morning
There isn't much to 'see' in Phobjikha. During winter, black necked cranes come visiting from Tibet, but that's about it. It's a great place to soak up the jaw-dropping natural beauty all around, disconnect from the world (Phobjikha is so remote, it didn't even have electricity until recently), and go on long, stunning hikes. 
We only had time for a short hike called the Gangtey Nature Trail, but I know for sure that if I ever return to Bhutan, I'll skip everything else and go straight to Phobjikha. After Phobjikha, we drove deeper into central Bhutan, to our next destination, Trongsa. But that's another story for another post :)

Jul 3, 2015

Bhutan Diaries : Paro

Wow, I've been away from my blog for more than 3 months! But now that I'm back, get ready to be bombarded with posts about a country that I've fallen hopelessly in love with! Last month, we spent ten days travelling through Bhutan. I'm not even going to attempt to describe in words the kind of beauty that is SO commonplace in Bhutan. It is so overwhelmingly gorgeous that after a point, stuff like "wow" and "ohmygod" makes no sense, and all you can do is sigh and smile:) We'd have readily stayed on there for the rest of our lives, but we had to drag ourselves back, leaving pieces of our hearts behind.

Since we flew to Bhutan, our trip began and ended in Paro. Paro has the country's only international airport, one of the most dangerous ones in the world. It's also really small and quirky - people get off the plane, and generally mill about for a while taking pictures, and nobody really bothers you unless another plane has to take off or land! 
The white and red building that you see beyond the runway in the above photo is the Paro Dzong - I'll show you more pictures of it in just a moment. The fertile Paro valley is full of lush green paddy fields - it literally looks like a green bowl formed by the mountains around it.
Like the rest of Bhutan, Paro has as much man-made beauty as natural. The next few pictures are from the Paro Dzong. Dzongs are like fortresses, but they also house a monastic section and the local district administration. Ngawang Namgyel, known as the Shabdrung or the unifier of Bhutan, brought the whole country under one rule for the first time, back in the 17th century. He is worshipped as a deity all over the country. Most of the dzongs that you see in Bhutan today, were built by him. 
The most famous and most sacred site in Paro, and probably in all of Bhutan, is the Tiger's Nest monastery, that sits high up on a cliff at an altitude of more than 3000 meters! Guru Rinpoche, an Indian Buddhist saint, is credited with spreading Buddhism across Bhutan. It is said that he flew to the top of the cliff on the back of a tigress, and meditated there for a long, long time. Sadly, I had no tigress to carry me, so I had to rely on my Skechers :( It's a pretty exhausting trek to the top - especially if you are as lazy as I am! See the white specks on the top right in the photo below? That's the monastery. And I took this photo about midway during the trek up! I'll probably do a separate post about the trek.
While in Paro, we stayed in Hotel Olathang. It was quite a nice place - decent food and a slightly dark but very cozy and comfortable room. We got a good night's sleep before and after the trek up to Tiger's Nest.
Our stay in Bhutan wouldn't have been the same without Tenzing and Dorji, two of the loveliest people we have ever met. And I mean this with all my heart. Tenzing and Dorji, if you are reading this, you represent everything that is wonderful about your country. You inspire us to be gentle and kind. Thank you :)

Mar 25, 2015

Chennakeshava Temple, Somanathpur

Remember I was in Wayanad in December? On the way back to Mysore, we took a teeny detour to Somanathpur to visit the Chennakeshava Temple. It's a spectacular Hoysala temple just about 40 km from Mysore.

The Hoysala dynasty was a powerful medieval South Indian empire that ruled between the 10th and 14th centuries. Their kingdom included present day Karnataka and even parts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The first few Hoysala rulers were followers of Jainism but King Vishnuvardhana, the fifth ruler, and his successors, embraced Hinduism.

The Chennakeshava Temple dates back to the 13th century, when Narasimha III was the Hoysala king. It was built by Somanath, a commander in his army. That's why the village is called Somanathpur. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu - Chennakeshava means Beautiful Vishnu.
Hoysala temple architecture is quite distinct from the Dravidian style of temple architecture. The raised platform, the star shaped ground plan, the zig zag walls completely covered with carvings, the space around them to walk on - these are all features typical of Hoysala temples. You can see these in the above picture. The pretty lady is my mom :) The main material used to build these temples is a kind of soapstone. Apparently it was chosen because it is sturdy and yet easy to carve.

The intricate details on practically every square inch of this temple are beyond amazing! I mean, look at this: 

Each 'band' in the above picture is about the width of my palm!

Exquisite sculptures all over the exterior of the temple depict Lord Vishnu in various forms 
A cool thing about this temple is the red letter box hanging on the tree right outside. 
(Some color finally, right? :D)
Letters posted in this box get a pictorial cancellation - that's like a stamping in the shape of the temple to promote tourism and stuff. Like this:
Sorry about the crop - I had to get rid of my address!
So if you are going to Somanathpur, you might want to carry postcards and stamps with you :) We forgot, actually! But luckily, there was a guy outside selling picture postcards of the temple. And there was a small souvenir shop that happened to have stamps. 

This link has a list of other sites in India you can get pictorial cancellations at. The left sidebar has them grouped by state. I've been to many of those places but never noticed any letter box or even heard about such a thing - have you? If you know more about this, do share - I'd love to know!