Punakha is the ancient winter capital of Bhutan, at a lower altitude than the capital, Thimpu and consequently with a milder climate. Although the government no longer moves there on a seasonal basis, Bhutan's religious leader and the senior monks still de-camp from Thimpu dzong to Punakha dzong every winter
. Other than the massive fortress or dzong, which stands in the middle of the valley at the confluence of two rivers, there’s not much to Punakha. There’s something called Punakha New Town which is a short distance away from the dzong and is mainly there to support the tourists and pilgrims who flock to the area. Punakha dzong was built in the 17th
century by the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal – a Tibetan nobleman and monk who is revered as the creator and unifier of what is now Bhutan. His embalmed remains are in one of the temples within the dzong and it is here that the kings of Bhutan going back to the first one in 1907 are crowned.The Royal wedding
It is not surprising then that Punakha dzong was chosen as the site of the marriage ceremony between the very popular British and US-educated 31-year old 5th
king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his 21-year old bride Jetsun Pema. The astrologers picked October 13 as the most auspicious date for the wedding. Even when we arrived in Bhutan a few days earlier, the country was already in the grip of “royal wedding fever”! The road between Thimpu and Punakha was being repaired and swept, armies of school children were deployed to clean up the roadway edges and all public and many private buildings were decked out with flags and posters of the happy couple, particularly in Paro and Thimpu, Bhutan’s two largest cities, but also in the many small villages we passed through
. We arrived in Punakha a couple of days before the wedding and not surprisingly, the dzong, one of the most visited sites in Bhutan was already bedecked for the big day and police and royal body guards had been deployed to keep all visitors out. Driving into the Punakha Valley from Thimpu, as well as when we were in the valley itself, convoys of assorted royals swept past us frequently – queens (remember that the 4th
king who stepped down in 2008 and is still only in his mid-50’s married four sisters, all referred to as queen), princesses, in-laws and even the 4th
king himself, heading towards one pre-ceremony or another in a local monastery or to one of the various royal villas in the valley.
The wedding ceremony itself as well as the many very traditional Buddhist rituals necessary for the marriage of a king, took place from dawn onwards within the depths of the dzong and out of view of the general public. We were told that the king and queen would emerge to view a “cultural event” (although it wasn’t clear to us where) sometime around 9:30 am or so. So in good time and with a sticker on our car that would allow us to park in a field close to the dzong rather than a good distance away and then have to take a shuttle bus like just about everyone else, we arrived to participate in the festivities! There were very few westerners in evidence apart from a handful of media, but tens of thousands of Bhutanese all dressed in their very best traditional clothes and all in a very festive mood
. The crowds gathering in a field outside the walls of the dzong waiting for something to happen were entertained by groups of traditional dancers, a pair of ornately bedecked elephants and of course in keeping with the national pastime, exuberant archers – barefoot, which is how it used to be done in days gone by. Nidup, our guide shepherding us through the throngs seemed a little apprehensive – I guess because he had as little idea as anyone of what actually was going to happen. But then, a little before 10 am, the police opened one narrow gate in the dzong wall which prompted a stampede across the field. Sandra and I were swept along with the crowd – by this time we’d lost sight of our guide. There was much pushing and shoving, but no panic and little shouting. The police, armed with nothing other than their arms – no guns, no batons, no sticks – tried to keep the crowd pushing towards the open gate, fairly orderly. Being head and shoulders taller than everybody else, we had a pretty good view of what was happening as we edged closer to the gate. Children and babies were passed over the dzong wall, the western media took photos…and then we were through the gate and into the dzong grounds. There everything was once again peaceful and relatively orderly, until the crowd realized that there was yet one more barrier to get through into the area where “something” was going to happen. In very Bhutanese fashion, an attempt was made by the police to get the crowd to form an orderly line – which they (including us) mostly did
! Through the final barrier and under the watchful eye of scarlet-robed monks, we were into a field in front of the main door into the main monastery within the dzong. In front of us across the field, was a line of tents, under which rows of chairs and….thrones. We’d arrived!! Being one of the first through, we could position ourselves on an embankment under a shady white awning almost opposite the biggest thrones. And there we waited for another couple of hours as people continued to pour in. A three generation family next to us opened up their picnic lunch and grandma, using fingers only (Bhutanese don’t use eating utensils) doled out large scoops of red rice, spinach and the ever-present peppers.
Finally, the distinguished guests started arriving to take up their positions in the tents according to rank and protocol: the religious hierarchy – Bhutan’s religious head, considered of equal rank to the king, abbots, lamas, monks and even one reincarnation (a teenager who had been identified as the latest reincarnation of a disciple of the Precious Master); civil servants, legislators, judges – their position and rank identified by the colour of their scarves; foreign dignitaries, Asian and European; members of the royal family – queens, posses of princesses, the 4th
king. And then, preceded by the sound of ceremonial horns, the king & queen themselves leading a long line of the high and mighty – the prime minister and leader of the opposition, cabinet ministers and senior army officers
. The line made its way slowly through the vast crowd, the king and queen stopping frequently to greet people, bless ceremonial scarves and even babies thrust in their direction. There were no barricades and very few police. As the king approached, the crowd sat down cross-legged on the grass and kept respectfully quiet. The king & queen passed within a few feet of where we were standing (it seems we weren’t expected to sit) but we were told not to take photos (I did manage to sneak one or two in before being told to put the camera away). The public celebration continued through the rest of the day with groups of local school children putting on traditional dance performances for the wedding guests. We had to leave though to begin the journey back to Thimpu ahead of the large convoys of wedding guest cars. The king & queen were heading to the capital the next day to continue the public celebrations.
Witnessing this event capped off a memorable week for us in Bhutan. The wedding has brought a little bit of world attention on the country. Google “Bhutan Royal Wedding” and news coverage from mainstream media in the US, UK and Australia pops up using words to describe Bhutan like “mystical”, “mysterious” and “remote”. One western reporter even began his report with “Move over Disney” going on to describe a fairy-tale wedding in a mystical world!
A Hollywood director searching for the perfect location for a remake of the Lost World of Shangri-La, need look no further than the Punakha Valley in west central Bhutan. The river meanders through a steep-sided lush valley overlooked by traditional, ornately decorated three-level farm houses, terraced rice paddies and monasteries. With just one single track road, there is little traffic and so essentially no "mechanical" noise, just the sound of water and at night time, the barking of the ubiquitous stray dogs which are a prominent feature of the Bhutanese landscape.