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Into the Clouds

Mark Weber, WMF's Field Projects Director, traveled to Bhutan in July to visit three sites. Two of them, Trashigang Dzong and Drametse Lhakang, are the focus of joint WMF-Prince Claus Fund disaster relief projects, as both were damaged in a recent earthquake. The third site, Phajoding Monastery, was on the 2010 Watch and is the subject of this blog post.

Surprisingly, the monsoon rains we encountered throughout our week-long tour of Bhutan abated as we were driven from downtown Thimphu, through the capital's western outskirts, and up to the Phajoding trail head, about 10 miles from town. We passed through some newly developed residential neighborhoods prized for their elevation and views out over the Thimphu valley. It is this development that was noted as an encroachment threat to the pristine area at the base of Phajoding's mountain and the peaceful environment of the monastery.

Upon arrival at the trail head, we met our guide, Mr. Puchu Dukpa, a civil engineer for the Ministry of Culture's Division for Conservation of Heritage Sites (DCHS), and two young men who would carry our backpacks and provisions up to the monastery.

The trail to Phajoding ascends through a forest of Blue Pine and Rhododendron, with two stupas along the way that conveniently served as resting spots and afforded sweeping views of the Thimphu Valley. At the second stupa, monks from the monastery came down and welcomed us with butter tea and cookies, providing a much needed boost of energy to finish the ascent to the monastic complex. It took us 3 hours to reach Phajoding.

The trail to Phajoding is the first section of the Druk Trek path, one of the most scenic and popular treks in Bhutan. It takes 6 days to complete and links Thimphu to Paro to the west. Phajoding Monastery welcomes trekkers to pitch tents and overnight at the site just as they do for locals on horseback from neighboring villages who commute into Thimphu for provisions and supplies.

Phajoding Monastery is one of the most sacred meditation sites in Bhutan and is a destination for several hundred pilgrims a year. The monastery was founded in the late thirteenth century by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo (1208-1275), a saint who propagated the Drukpa Kagyud school of Buddhism, now the dominant religion in Bhutan. The name Phajoding derives from the name of the founder, Phajo, and ding, meaning platform (on the side of the mountain).

Phajoding is a large complex consisting of ten temples (lhakhang) scattered across the naturally terraced hillside, a monastic retreat, and about seven small monastic residences, many of them in an advanced state of deterioration and open to the weather. Most of structures date from the mid-eighteenth-century and were built by later Kagyud holy men between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries to honor Phajo Drugom Zhigpo. Phajoding is also a museum and repository of ancient artifacts, furniture, ancient murals, and religious paintings on long roles of canvas (thangkas) typically unrolled and hung from temple balconies on auspicious holidays.

About two dozen young monks live at the monastery, which maintains its function as one of the most well-known meditation centers in Bhutan. We were told that many of monks are orphans and are attracted to the monastic life for practical reasons such as the food and shelter that the monastery provides.

The ownership and management of the site is shared between the monks residing at Phajoding, the ecclesiastical body (Zhung Dratshang), the Royal Government of Bhutan, and the Thimphu Dzongkahg district administration office. The DCHS is now playing a lead role in managing the documentation and restoration project presented in the Watch nomination.

Just as Phajoding came into view, we were warmly greeted on the trail by Chhimi Dorji, the Head Lama and Director of the Phajoding Monastic School. Upon arrival at the lowest temple and school, Jampa Lhakhang, we received a ceremonial welcome from a band of young lamas playing traditional bamboo flutes.

After a lunch of red rice, vegetables and the ever-present traditional cheese sauce laced with hot green peppers, we continued our trek another hour up to Thujidra Temple, a complex of seven structures at highest point of monastery, 13,125 feet above sea level. It was the first temple constructed by Phajo and thus considered the most significant at Phajoding because of its association with the founder. A natural altar is carved into of the rock adjacent to the temple and is believed to have been used by Phajo.

As we departed Thujidra and started our hike down to the main temple complex, the monsoon clouds rolled in brought a gentle rain that lasted through the remainder of the afternoon. After touring the site we had planned to inspect Khanzang Lhakhang and Wogmin Lhakhang, two eighteenth-century temples that are the focus of DCHS's stabilization and conservation efforts at Phajoding, but were prevented from doing so by the weather. The next day we were able to assess the conditions of these two structures in need of conservation and discuss our observations with our hosts. After a hearty vegetarian lunch and exchange of addresses and good-byes, we started our descent listening to a duet of bamboo flutes filling the surrounding valley.

Upon our return to Thimpu, we presented our findings to the DCHS and subsequently presented a report that will inform their conservation programs now in development for the two temples at Phajoding.