A wide, gently riffling river splits the valley in two. A few hundred metres upstream of our position the main arm of the river, a dull green colour, stained by tannins, is joined by a second gently babbling stream, this one a milky white hue. The two waterways come together without drama, but refuse to intertwine once inhabiting the same riverbed; the interface between the two a swirling jigsaw line of contesting plumes. I turn around to see how far the division of waters continues, but a line of trees blocks my view. Above the trees: a vista of dramatic alpine peaks.
We haven’t come to this lookout to admire the bicolour river though, nor to gaze upon the distant mountain range. These geographical features are just backdrop for the real attraction of this valley, that which rises from the triangle of land behind the river confluence, that which builds in layers of white and red and gold, that which forms its own peaks amongst the mountain ranges. I’m talking about the sublimely magnificent Punakha Dzong.
Punakha Dzong, like all dzongs, was built for both spiritual and military purposes (dzongs are often described as monastery fortresses). This explains the structure’s fifteen-metre-tall outer walls, which are as broad and formidable as a castle’s. Rising above the outer walls are three utzes (towers), each ornamented with a profusion of gilded woodwork and crowned by a squat gold-tipped spire.
Access is via a narrow rickety bridge. This is a temporary structure, we are told, built to replace a larger bridge that was destroyed by floods. The suspension bridge is lined with tall prayer flags, all fluttering excitedly in the frosty mountain breeze. The flags slap at our arms and legs as we pass by.
Punakha Dzong, our guide informs us – a full-time, licensed guide must accompany you at all times during your stay in Bhutan – is considered a masterpiece of architecture.
A doorframe of brilliant gilt timber leads us through the base of Punakha Dzong’s fortress-like walls. Inside the passageway is a colourful depiction of the bhavacakra, the Buddhist wheel of life.
We enter a courtyard and approach one of the utzes we espied from outside the dzong. The austere, whitewashed base of the utze gives way to increasing degrees of ornamentation as the structure rises. The painted timber windows of the first storey are rather small and subdued, but each successive storey has a window that is larger, more heavily timbered, more sumptuously detailed, more magnificent than the one below. By the fourth storey the windows have begun to protrude from the wall. By the fifth storey the windows have developed into covered balconies, and are so heavily embellished with elaborate woodcarving they start to merge together, forming one contiguous utze-encircling gallery.
The inner walls of Punakha Dzong are lined with balconies, every beam and column of which is brightly painted, depicting dragons twisting through beds of flowers, horses flying through clouds, and demon heads bursting out of whirlpools. Here and there, adorning circumspect walls, are vibrant murals of important religious figures; including illustrious depictions of Buddha’s extraordinary life, tantalizing scenes of the Tantric Master, and a few bawdy flashes of the Divine Madman.
In the centre of the courtyard, adjacent to a large white chorten, is a mature Bodhi tree. This tree is believed to have been grown from a cutting of the first Bodhi Tree – i.e. the tree that Prince Siddhartha (who went on to become Buddha) sat beneath whilst achieving enlightenment 2,500 years ago.
As we cross the silent, still courtyard we hear a loud twang, like that of an out-of-tune harp. It is a harp; the strings of which are plucked again and again, without rhythm or melody. The indelicate clash of a pair of cymbals and the rambunctious beating of a drum soon join the fray. All three instruments are struck together, producing a slapdash melody entirely incongruous to the setting. Ami and I look at Sangay, our guide, with raised eyebrows.
‘Music practice,’ he replies. ‘Part of a monk’s discipline.’
The music resonates throughout the courtyard, making it all but impossible to locate its source. It seems to emanate from a dozen places at once, or to radiate from the ground itself. My eyes lock on a little boy, a monk in training, seen dangling from a bannister of an upper gallery. The boy, realising he is seen, drops to the floor and dashes down a dark corridor without looking back.
The ghostly tune continues unabated.
Practical information and how to reach Punakha Dzong:
TAKE NOTE: Bhutan takes a Low Volume High Value Low Impact approach to tourism. All tourists who wish to visit Bhutan – apart from Indian nationals – must enter the country on a package tour, with overnight accommodation only permitted at government-approved hotels. The tours include food, transport, vehicle hire and driver, full time guide, accommodation costs, and entry to all sights and attractions. Tour prices are fixed by the government, and include a tourist tax. The tour costs US$250 a day.