Driving past impossibly lush terraced fields, we round a bend and enter a clearing. There, nestled in the confluence between two sacred rivers, is the massive and majestic fortress monastery of Punakha Dzong. We park and walk to the river’s edge, and suddenly everyone falls quiet. For a few long and delicious moments, we hear only water rippling over rocks, the wind in the trees, and the cry of an occasional raven.
Something about this place commands our reverence. The rivers that flank the monastery are called the Mo Chu (Mother) and Po Chu (Father), and indeed, Punakha is where modern Bhutan was born. This has been considered a deeply auspicious site since the 14th century, and all seems timeless and serene.
When we return the next day for the annual Punakha festival, the ambiance has completely changed, but it is equally enchanting. The grounds and inner courtyards of the monastery are packed with Bhutanese families, dressed in their finest and picnicking with their friends. Some have walked from distant villages, eager to witness the monks’ masked dance performances called Tshechus. Morality plays choreographed to music, these dances meld spiritual instruction, theater, and comic relief into a single, highly anticipated social event.
For the Bhutanese, the worldly and the sublime, the mundane and the profound, are equally cherished – and equally celebrated.