BPD: A day in the Monk’s hut!

(BPD: A day in the Monk’s hut!, 28 Apr ‘15)

The twin monasteries of Tango-Cherri are on the outskirts of the Thimphu city and involes a 45 minutes drive from the city to the base point, from where the roads to these monasteries diverge, in either direction. The walk to each of these monasteries is a short and easy hike for about 45 minutes, and gives a very good view of the city and the agricultural fields, in the Kabisa valley around. 

I started at 9 in the morning in the hot, sunny weather. Looking for public transport in the bus stand, I was assisted by a bunch of students who had planned their trip to the monastery. It was a group of about a dozen, 10th standard students who had planned the trip on account of the national holiday on 28th April — Zhabdrung Kuchoe, which is the anniversary of Zhabdrung Rinpoche the religious leader who unified Bhutan. It is locally considered a very auspicious day and marked with celebrations at all monasteries throughout Bhutan.

While waiting at the bus stop, the students were quite entertaining, with Hindi movie dialogues and songs, showing that they were completely in tune with the happenings and who’s who of Bollywood! When asked about my roots, I was surprised with their knowledge of geography as they seemed to be able to place Chennai and Tamil Nadu, a feat for school students from another country. But my hopes came crashing down when I learnt that Chennai figures in their vocabulary, thanks to ‘Chennai Express’, the popular Shah Rukh Khan movie!

Waiting at bus stop with the studentsOn the way to Tango monastery

After a lively interaction with the kids over the bus journey, we reached the base point and decided to hike first to the Tango monastery. The word ‘Tango’ in Bhutanese language means ‘horse head’. This name conforms to the main deity, locally called Tandin, an equivalent of the Hindu deity ‘Hayagriva’, deified in the monastery. After crossing an archery training field, the ascend was up through a small forest. About a kilometre of walking brought us to a place packed chock-a-block with cars parked. This was the final point for private vehicles, and it appeared that the place was getting swarmed that day with locals, who had converged to offer prayers on the ‘holy-day’.

A crystal clear stream on the wayAt the base point

Soft drinks & snacks as offerings for deity!
As we started the hike up the hill, the weather turned moist and started raining, taking everyone by surprise since very few were prepared with umbrellas for shelter. As people scrambled for cover, I noticed that almost all the people carried plastic bags filled with chips, coke and other snacks. Upon enquiring, I was surprised to find that this was the standard offering to deities in Bhutan, apart from the butter for lamps. In all monasteries, one can find podiums before the God stacked with such snack items and they are offered back to devotees, along with the holy water, an Indian equivalent of the ‘prasad’!

This short hike to the Tango monastery looked quite like the walk up to Vaishno Devi shrine from Katra, in Jammu. Hordes of people walking up and down the zig-zag moving roads amidst several stalls selling snacks (mostly momos), while along the way one can also find heaps of stones arranged to form mini, multi-storey structures, perhaps for good luck, here as well! I then reached a fork point in the road that split it into 2 opposite paths. Looking for help, I approached a lady nearby who was visiting the monastery with her sister and nephew. Getting the right directions, we continued walking along, talking about the offering of fast-food items to the deity, mode of prayers, significance of the day, and also eventually on the philosophy of Buddhism.

Buddhist inscriptions on a rockAn eco-friendly resting spot!

Shortly thereafter, we reached the monastery to a warm reception by the monks, and were served hot tea with rice grain crackers, another common custom in Bhutan. Just when I was about to take leave of the family, one of the monks who was their acquaintance, approached and invited me as well to his meditation hut. Puzzled and unsure, I accepted and walked around to a hill nearby that housed a set of small huts, where the monks lived. Stepping into the wooden hut, we found a humble and peaceful room with a series of religious pictures adorning every inch of the walls. There were three small cots for the 3 monks who lived within the single room, while there were small desks with several books on Buddhism, apart from ancient scrolls and scriptures. The single window present was overlooking the forest and had a view of the valley beneath. This was the place where the monks lived for 4 years as part of their higher education in the Tango University of Buddhism, considered to be one of the oldest and best centers of learning for monks in Bhutan. I learned about the system of education for monks and the rigorous classroom and field training that they were put through, before they got a chance to serve as priests in the high monasteries.

Tango Monastery, that also houses the universityThe family I met on the way

With the Tango monastery in the backdropAt the Monk’s meditation hut

The humility of the monks bowled me over, when they took every chance to serve us, while in their hut. They cooked us a meal of red rice with potato sauce and topped it with some more tea and rice crispies. We had a sumptuous lunch amidst conversations, while the rain lashed out with a heavy downpour outside. As the rain subsided, we took the blessings of the monk, along with some small medicinal pellets that he offered. We proceeded back to the monastery, where the same monk took the pains to take us to the other places of worship within the monastery. Amongst the places that tourists generally give a miss, there was a detour around the main temple that leads to a steep climb up a cave, through 3 floors of narrow wooden stairs. This brought us to the place where Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of Bhutan had meditated and performed tantric rituals, and hence considered a very holy site. There were several openings in the caves with artifacts hundreds of years old, the stories of which were patiently translated to me from the monk’s native Dzongka language, by the family.

Rear view of the Tango Monastery, with path towards ancient caves

On way back..Guess this picture’s orientation!With the rain showers pausing on our way down, we had to navigate the wet and slippery route down from the monastery. The family’s 4 year old kid was now half asleep from the tiring walk during the day, and needed some carrying to be brought down. With a 20 minute walk, over some rhymes and kid-talk, he fell asleep and we safely reached the base. After getting dropped back to the hotel, I bid goodbye to the family and started on my way to Paro, which was the next destination. A chance meeting with the family had turned them into a good acquaintance, and by the evening when we finished visiting the monastery, they felt like part of the family.

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