Blessings And Rice Balls At Kunzangdra Gonpa
We duck into a narrow room hanging out over the cliff. Three walls and a slanted floor made of wooden planks are built around a supporting rock wall where a fire-charred boulder has been converted into a kitchen and big, fat pots blacken over open flames. Women and children line the perimeter of the floor and two little ones are shuffled to the side to make room for us to sit. Bright light leaks through narrow, glassless windows slashing silver streaks across the room, washing the shadowed faces in a soft, serene glow. Everyone is staring at us, eyes wide and full in the center, pinched like a teardrop at the outer corners, plump lips curled into amused grins.
Today has been my favorite day in Bhutan.
Subba, our taxi driver/tour guide for the day, picks us up late in the morning from the Swiss Guest House in Jakar — the main town of the Bumthang District, in central Bhutan — and as we turn left off the paved east-west “highway” (only wide enough for two cars if one drops his tires off the shoulder) the dirt road begins climbing up and over the ridge into Tang Valley. With each rotation the skinny tires find larger rocks and ruts to navigate. The fact that this little car can crawl its way up these mountains is incredible — the Indian-made Maruti Suzuki is Bhutan’s modern-day mule.
We pass a tour bus parked at the trailhead leading to the much fabled Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake). The lake is a sacred pilgrimage place for Bhutanese who come to offer prayers for the infamous spiritual treasure finder, Pema Lingpa, who is said to have to have fulfilled a prophecy of Guru Rinpoche by jumping into the lake and emerging with his butter lamp still burning and a chest and ancient scroll under his arm.
Subba explains the legend to us and we continue on, passing a plateau crowned by the Pema Thechok Choling Shedra Nunnery, a Buddhist institute housing 230 nuns, ages 6 to infinity. Our little mule-car grinds away without complaint, the road conditions worsening with each zigzag. Subba pulls over and leaves the steed on the side of the road and we begin the short, but steep, hike up to Kunzangdra Gonpa, a tiny little monastery nestled in the hollow of a cliff.
Built in 1488 by Pema Lingpa — known as the Patron Saint of Bhutan — the monastery served as both his residence and a meditation point for Guru Rinpoche. Overlooking Lingpa’s birthplace, Drangchel, Kunzangdra is one of the most significant sites for followers of the Nyingma Buddhist tradition and a revered place of pilgrimage for Bhutanese, housing several sacred relics including a stone bearing Lingpa’s footprint. Pema Lingpa was born to the Nyo clan and his direct descendants, the House of Wangchuck, would later become the hereditary kings of Bhutan.
The subtle hum of animated voices lets us know we’re getting close. Colorful figures appear dotting the vertical stone steps up to the temple. A circle of women and children dressed in rainbows sit around big cardboard boxes overflowing with miniature bags of Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion Potato Chips, a pack of gum, orange soda and Coca-Cola — the modern evolution of temple offerings. Today is the fifth king’s birthday, which happens to coincide with the annual puja held in honor of Pema Lingpa. Kids are running up and down the stairs, dogs trying to stay out from under feet. The slightest snow is falling, so soft it may not be happening at all. A Himalayan hawk floats overhead, his enormous wingspan outstretched, effortlessly embracing the whims of the wind.
Fields in the valley below are cut with smooth, rounded edges that melt into the natural contours of the mountain. Bright green wheat shoots splatter the landscape with little puddles of color — the first crops reborn in the barren fields of winter.
Climbing the steps we exchange endless “Kuzuzangpo-las,” “Hellos,” “Tashi Deleks,” head bobs, exaggerated bows and hearty smiles. Everyone is dressed in their best gear: kiras and gohs in every imaginable color combination. People are glowing. As soon as we reach the first level we are quickly ushered across a little bridge and into the gonkhang, Pema Lingpa’s former living quarters.
Lunch is being served! You must eat! Please, please. Sho, Sho! Come, come!
I am quickly handed a small bowl/cup, and before I have time to fling the puddle of water out of the bottom, it is filled to the brim with a home-brewed wheat beer. Each family brings their own batch to the puja where they are combined in a big bucket mixing each brewer’s style and flavor. The result is a sweet fermented lemonade of sorts, and I tell myself that the alcohol will surely kill whatever could have been lurking in that water puddle. Before I can finish my first cup, another round is poured.
Then for the string of polite refusals for food, a customary three “No thank yous” before we are passed a plate piled high with a giant ladle full of rice served out of a five-gallon insulated drink cooler. A big chunk of butter plops into the middle of my rice mound followed by a pinch of salt sprinkled by the head hostess herself.
This one-woman show is enthusiastically directing the lunch circus, ensuring that all bellies are full of both food and laughter. Her gestures are wild and her voice even louder, the theatrics swelling each time the group explodes at her jokes. It appears she has not been skipping her own cup on the rounds of beer as she teeters back and forth, clearly pleased with herself and her hilarious sense of humor. She insists that I am very skinny. “Eat more, more, up to your neck,” she says.
My boyfriend chimes, “Yes, I like fat women, the bigger the better,” and she nods contentedly. One young man in the corner is shaking with laughter, face bright red, cheeks bulging trying not to spit out his rice. I guess he speaks good English.
Everyone is served a big mug of warm buttermilk and a bowlful of broth with chili and potato. I survey the eating techniques: scoop up a handful of rice and butter and smash it into a ball in the palm of your hand. One old man wearing thick, dark glasses is sitting across from me using both hands to make huge baseballs of rice. I cannot bring myself to fist the food so I pinch off as much as I can between thumb and peace fingers, shoveling quickly into my mouth as pieces of rice rain back onto my plate and lap.
The hostess points to the old man making rice baseballs and says what I interpret as, “He’s naughty.” The entire room bursts out laughing. I don’t understand until he smiles a huge grin revealing just one tooth. “He’s no teeth.”
I successfully refuse offers of seconds, thirds and fourths and still manage to get an approving nod from the hostess as I pat my belly. We thank them profusely and make our way back outside where the sun has chased away the snow. I rinse my hands under a faucet but am left with a thick residue of butter, the water just beading and rolling off my fat-slicked fingers.
We climb to the top two temples and pay our respects to the statues of Guru Rinpoche and Pema Lingpa. Coming down the haphazard steps I’m thankful I didn’t drink a third cup. As I reach the bottom, my toothless friend takes hold of my buttery hands and mumbles a string of indecipherable blessings. My boyfriend promises the man that he can be my husband in the next life. His grandson translates and the old man laughs and slaps his belly, mouth stretched wide across his face, all lips and gums.
Sidestepping the groups of picnickers and napping dogs, we offer many goodbyes, thank yous and Tashi Deleks.
I, like the old man, cannot erase the smile on my face.
Jessica is an intentional wanderer of the world with an insatiable appetite for adventure and a strong affection for words. She is currently based in Thimphu, Bhutan, reveling in the beautiful conundrums of the capital city. To read more of her work, visit: JessicajVernon.com.