14 September, 2019

Exploring my hometown

Though a native, I had never been to Pongchala until earlier this year. Pongchala, which is revered as an abode
 of Avalokiteshvara lies only some six kilometres from my home in Mongar, yet it took me more than four decades to set my foot there. This particular experience of mine is testimony to the fact that some of us don’t revere what lies within our vicinity but often yearn to visit faraway places despite risks and hardships. Of course, we believe that ‘the more the hardship, the better it is to cleanse one’s sin but that doesn’t mean that the nearer ones are not to be visited and revered. 

Pongchala is also known
 as Pongchala Gonpa. Six kilometres of farm road connects Pongchala Gonpa with Mongar town. My nephew Karma Samten Wangda and I took the same road.
 The road was good enough
 for all types of vehicles. En route, Kadam Ngayab Yoesel Choeling Gonpa is worth visiting, it lies on the left side of the road leading to Pongchala. It is another place of worship which houses some 80 lay monks headed by Khenpo Tashi Chophel. This Gonpa was founded by late Kadam Lama. The view of Yakgang on the other side of the valley from Phosorong village is another visual treat for travellers. And, to drive through villages and forest
 of broad-leaved trees with twittering sound of birds and abundance of fresh air was an exciting experience. 

We reached Pongchala
 and my GPS machine read
 EL 2011, meaning we were at 2011 metres above sea level. The view of valleys below was mind-blowing and confirmed that we were indeed at a great height. We met Lopen Yeshe Jamtsho at the entrance. He is
 a senior monk from Mongar Dratshang who was assigned to look after Pongchala Goempa. According to Lopen Yeshe Jamtsho, Lama Tshulthrim Jamtsho founded Pongchala Goempa in the 15th century as per the prophetic command
 of Zhabdrung Rinpoche.
 When Lama Tshulthrim Jamtsho was at the present
 day Pongchala, he heard reverberating voice of chanting ‘the six-syllable mantra’ of Avalokiteshvara (OM MA NI PAD ME HUNG) emanating from there. The Lama, thus, declared the place as abode of Avalokiteshvara and named it Potala. However, over time, people have mispronounced
 the name and it is now known as Pongchala. The lama also discovered a drupchhu there. Whether it is known as Potala or Pongchala, it is an abode of Avalokiteshvara and revered 
as one of the godliest paradises on earth. It is believed that the merit obtained by chanting the six-syllable mantra for one time at Pongchala is equivalent to the merit obtained by chanting the same mantra for hundred times elsewhere. Besides, visiting Pongchala is regarded as the same as visiting the heavenly abode of Avalokiteshvara. 

Pongchala Goempa sits on the highest of the four great mountains of Mongar. It is known as Phaktsang. The three other mountains are Tsenphug, Kengkhar and Larjaab, and are known as Dretsang, Dhomtsang and Taktsang respectively. The weather is usually windy in the evening, but on any clear day, even far-off places such as Pemagatshel, Kengkhar, Lingmithang, Jaiphu Gonpa and Drepong are visible from Pongchala. 

A choeten crafted by Atisha, sculpture of Lama Tsulthrim Jamtsho, statue of Amitabah Buddha and a human-size- replica of local deity known as Dorji Gyeltshen are some of the age-old relics housed inside the lhakhang in Pongchala Goempa. A choeten crafted by Atisha is
 a wish-fulfilling relic and drips drupchhu (a holy water) during auspicious occasions. Just as it is in other lhakhangs in the country, photography is strictly prohibited inside the lhakhang. 

This Gonpa is adorned both spiritually and aesthetically with choetens and prayer flags. One of the most sacred choetens is the Kudung Choeten of Lama Tshulthrim Jamtsho. From this particular choeten drips drupchhu during the 30th day of every month in lunar calendar, and some people can hear religious chants from there during such auspicious days. 
Pongchala also has a
 retreat Centre for Buddhist practitioners. Lopen Yeshe Jamtsho informed us that
 there are six practitioners, including two from Ladakh, and they are undergoing a higher-level practice, and will leave upon completion of their retreat. Practitioners come here for retreat considering 
the sacredness of the place and other favorable conditions for such practices, he added. The sound of damaru and trumpet signalled their presence at the centre. The retreat centre is restricted for visitors to avoid disturbance to practitioners. 

Pongchala is a beautiful place of important religious significance but it is not
 devoid of challenges. Lopen Yeshe Jamtsho said that water shortage is the main problem. He hopes that it will be solved soon. However, the toilets for visitors are well maintained despite the acute water shortage. The year 2019 is Lopen Yeshe Jamtsho’s fifth year at Pongchala. 

I got so much of solace from this very first visit, which I call blessings. I offered my prayers and left that holy place with hope to visit again and again. 

02 June, 2019


If ruins could speak, the ruins of Zhongar would tell us how it was ruined and then abandoned.

Some years ago, when I wanted to visit the ruins of Zhongar Dzong in Mongar, a close relative of mine discouraged me citing a dreadful reason. I have heard about a terrific Zhongar Neypo that appears in a form of giant snake. Not every sees it but who ever sees it doesn't survive. It is believed that Zhongar Neypo guards the ruins of Zhongar Dzong to this day.

As time passed, my curiosity grew even more. This time I decided to go there but without disclosing my plan to any one so that no one discourages me for making this trip. Pema from Zhugthri had agreed to accompany me and guide me as well. Zhugthri is a beautiful village located at the foot of the hillock on which Zhongar Dzong was built.

On the day of visit, three men joined me. Pema led us through thick bushes, clearing the way his sword. We followed him closely like children following their mother. It took as about twenty-five minutes to drive from Lingmethang to Zhugthri and another twenty minutes on foot to get to the ruins.

The ruin is much bigger than what I had expected it to be. How magnificent it would have been during its glorious days! I wonder. It has a watch tower, a central tower and a courtyard. The workmanship of stone-mud masonry is admirable. The walls stand strong despite being abandoned for centuries. Pema explained the Dzong consisted of four main components, namely Dratuel Dzong to the east, Jachung Taa Dzong to the west, Chudong Tsenkhar to the south and Dumra Sipki Dzong to the north. We entered from Jachung Taa Dzong. The rest of the components are least inviting.

Zhongar Dzong was said to have been built in seventeenth century during the time of Gyalpo Karpodhung, the ruler of the locality. For this task, he invited a traditional architect from Paro named Bala, popularly known as Zochen Bala.

An interesting story has that a demon of that locality did not want to have Zhongar Dzong built in that area and waited at the only bridge connecting the area with other places to devour Zochen Bala  but failed. The demon could just see a wooden tri-square moving in air along the bridge. It was actually Zochen Bala who was crossing a bridge with his hand tool, a tri-square. Tri-square is locally known as lopon and believed to protect its owner from evil spirits. Therefore, our Carpenters and traditional Architects revere tri-square even to this day and carry along as an amulet to protect them from malicious spirits.

During the time of site selection, Zochen Bala purportedly saw a white bowel on a hill top where he later built a Dzong. Thus he  named the place as Zhongkar meaning 'white bowel'. However, over the period of time, name got changed from Zhongkar to Zhonggar. 

Upon completing the construction successfully, a lama from Kengkhar offered statues as its relics (Nangten) and another lama from  Kilikhar crafted altar (Choesham). Interestingly, though these two lamas never met and discussed anything about their offerings, the statues and other relics fitted exactly into the altar as if it was pre-measured  and designed.

Construction was completed. While Gyalpo Karpodung was happy to have such a marvellous monument, he grew equally apprehensive that Zochen Bala might build an equally marvellous or even better ones for others. Therefore, during the gathering at Zhugthri to see off Zochen Bala back home, Gyalpo Karpodung cut off Zochen Bala's hands. As Zochen Bala was dying with pain, he cursed that Zhongar Dzong be destroyed and he be reborn as Zhongar Neypo to harm people and animal in the locality as they have been ungrateful to him. His curse did materialise. Zhongar Dzong first suffered a disastrous fire and was later damaged by a powerful earthquake that lasted for a week. Zochen Bala was believed to have born as Zhongar Neypo a.k.a Golongdrak Tsen and caused much harm to the locals there.  According to some elders in the locality, Zhongar Neypo can be seen in a form of bull-sized frog, tiger and a beautiful woman carrying an empty basket. Sometimes, he would take a ghostly form. He has not only frightened locals to death but also terrorised travellers passing by. Those days, there was no road and people travelling to Bumthang had to pass through that area.

Many attempts were made to tame Zhongar Neypo but the Neypo was more powerful. Finally, Patseling Trulku was invited to tame this Neypo. The Trulku entered the place that is believed to be the fort of Golongdrak Tshen and sat in meditation there. Trulku already announced that he was to meditate there for seven days and on one should disturb him. After five days, king grew impatient and sent one the his attendants to keep watch on the Trulku. Attendant reached the scene and saw a huge snake prostrating before the Trulku. When Trulku came out on the eighth day, he informed that Neypo could not be tamed completely because of king's distrust and disturbance caused during the process. So, it is believed that the Neypo exists even to this day and continues to cause harm. Therefore, it is for this reason why people do not visit the ruins often.

Why wasn't the Dzong reconstructed or repaired after the damage? The answer is: most people wanted to abandon this place since it was infested with diseases and the main reason being Neypo's terror. So, when officials from Trongsa Dzong arrive there to assess the damage, the locals bribed the officials to report wrongly that the Dzong was beyond repair and to propose abandonment. The same was reported to Trongsa Penlop. 

Thereafter, its administrative functions were shifted to the present day Mongar Dzong. Most of its Nangtens were taken to Mongar Dzong, and some were taken to Jarungkhashor Choeten at Kuruzampa. A much famed copper cauldron is believed to have been taken to Punakha by Zhongar Dzongpon Chakpa Sangay. Zhongar Zongpon Namela is still remembered by people for his humorous dealings. 

My visit to the ruins was a memorable experience. So long I travel along the east-west national highway between Lingmethang and Thridangbi village in Mongar, I will not miss a glance of these ruins. I am convinced that the ruins were once a magnificent Dzong where my great grand parents and their parents too would have contributed to building it.

The walls stand strong despite being abandoned for centuries

Jachung Taa Dzong
The Central Tower
Stone-mud masonry is admirable
Jarungkhashor Choeten, Kurizampa