Kingdom of Bhutan – II Memories of Marshland – PhobjikaValley

When it seems too heavy to bear upon you
Kneel on the soft earth and look closer
Look at the silent dew on the white little flower
and those glistening on blades of grass in sun
Press your ears to the land and listen
Do you hear the song it sings to you?

Flower and the frost ,Phobjika

The imposing Black mountains stood steadfast in the way of the rising sun and the glorious morning to be.A silhouette of giant blackness against a pink and purple horizon.I look down towards the valley floor and see nothing,the marshes are carpeted by the tender spring mist that lies like a lazy man in sleep,waiting for the sun to dissipate it.I start my walk towards wherever my feet takes me in the casual darkness of dawn,a dog accompanies me down the slopes.
This is not an usual morning,for Phobjika valley is one of the best things that will happen to you while wandering in Central Bhutan.

Enclosed by the Black mountains,this place is also called as the Gangtey valley after the majestic Gangtey monastery situated here.These formidable ranges divide the 9800 feet altitude Phobjika from Western Bhutan and create a serene sanctuary for a very special guest – the endangered Black necked cranes who arrive in these marshes to roost in winter.When these winged ones arrive in October,they say that the flocks circulate the Gangtey monastery three times while the local Bhutanese men and women welcome them with masked dances(tsechus) in the monastery compound.And when they leave the marshes by March,they repeat the gesture at the monastery.
I walk the marshes in early April,looking hopelessly to find one of these rare creatures,perhaps a renegade crane who fell out of the returning flock,perhaps someone who liked the cold marshes enough to stay behind.But I guess the last of them has already left for Tibet.

Sunrise over the Black mountains ,Gangtey valley

The hamlets and their dwellers  in the valley lay still as if sedated in the morning mist.The sunlight was slowly reaching the threshold of the mountains peaks  and will soon pour forth into the valley floor,breaking the spell cast by the damp marshes in form of the smooth mist.Few cattle and stray dogs emerged slowly out of the twilight.I leave the country road and saunter down to the marshes,all the while hoping for a surprise flight of a large crane.But anyway…

As I step into the marshes,the land becomes uneven to walk on and each step has to be placed with care. A gentle sound of running water percolates the cold silence of the dawn. Few old but sturdy women dispatch their herd of cattle into the pastures which is slowly filling with morning light. The dew cast by night now sparkles on the green earth and the decay of the fog unveils the vast expanse of the marshland .Small streams cutting through the meadows and never has walking bare feet on wet grass been of more delight.I take in these details while still keeping my feet in anxiety over the land.
It must have been around six in the morning when the valley is filled with sunlight,that grace of life nourishing  energy falling on the cold battered face.Elemental pleasures of life,sensual joys of the earth.
I sit by a large boulder on the meadows.The dog is still beside me,joined by few others.

Entering Phobjika valley

Further ahead the marshes become more savage with gaping holes in the ground and my progress is halted.I stay there for eternity,looking at the distant images  of rural Bhutan coming to life around me.People bringing the house to life at the backyards,fire emanating out of patches of hut ,animals and humans stirring together to start a day.Look closer & even the frost on a small white flower melts slowly to give life back to it,bringing it out of night’s hibernation  .There are only some rare moments and places in life where you can take in these kind of details.Keep these memories for they shall form the very core of your being.For when the time comes,you will learn to return to these marshes without taking a step forward.For all travels aim at building that ability.

Black Necked Crane(image courtesy-Bhutan Travel Bureau) 

I lead the pack of dogs back from the marshes  onto the country road anticipating a hot cup of coffee at the only shop in sight and I was not disappointed. There were no Black necked cranes in April,but there were numerous little red & white flowers drenched in morning dew and that has to count for something.

wandering through Gangtey valley 

The long Phobjikha valley looks like the most peaceful corner of earth in the warmth of the morning sunlight.The poor have crude thatched huts with swirls of smoke rising up like remnants of yesterday while the better offs have elaborate traditional Bhutanese homes in white and red facades. With distinct wood work in the Bhutanese way , the walls of rural countryside abound with vivid colours and images.I walk along the road in Gangtey looking at the images strewn on walls and nothing holds my attention more than the distinctly painted images of human phallic symbols among them.An erect phallic image,sometimes simple and at times with a hint of ejaculation and often with a serpent entwining it.
The image of a penis spewing semen is something that you will find only in rural Bhutanese countryside because modern education and sensibilities tend to disapprove of these animalistic and pagan iconography in towns and cities – where the “phallus” simply stands for a good luck charm to ward off evil eyes, symbol for fertility and growth.If you keep your eyes open,you will find hints of phallic symbol almost everywhere in Bhutan …sometimes even in shape of a winged phallus in a souvenir shop in Thimpu.

A traditional Bhutanese home in countryside 

The legendary significance of the phallic symbol goes back to the famous mad saint of Bhutan – Lama Drukpa Kunley and the monastery of Chimi Lakhang at Punakha. Unusually  for a Buddhist monk,Kunley was infamous for his sexual exploits so much so that he was also called as the saint of fertility and his organ came to be called – Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom.Even today the monastery at Chimi Lakhang has a wooden phallus that the residence lama hits on women’s head to bless them with fertility.Though the association with the mad saint is common in Bhutanese folk lores,the phallus as a symbol to drive away evil and malice dates back to the practices in Bon religion of ancient Tibet.

Phallic images painted on walls of rural homes 

Modern tongue would call that pagan,but back then there was little difference between divine and the natural world.The Bhutanese phallic symbol is a remnant of that time when man was much closer to nature.

The roads in Gangtey valley is filling up with village folk going up and down the single country raod.Stray travelers too make their presence felt in these strange surroundings by the way they loiter around.

The house overlooking the marshes 

The Black Neck Crane Information center looks all but empty and so I head where there’s a lot of commotion in the village.A new house stands completed and there’s all the vivid colours on them too,but a final finishing touch remains…a group of men raise a basket to the roof while some women try and pull that down.This happens a couple of times albeit in a playful manner after which the men refuse to work further and sit in the courtyard.As the women giggle,an old man appears with what seems like a bucket full of local intoxicant and the men share it amongst them.Everything happens in a manner of ritualistic games.
This time with a renewed vigor they hoist the basket to the top and it’s contents are hanged from four corners of the tapered roof.
What did they hang? Four wooden phallic structures at four corners of the house.

Walking towards the marshes ,Phobjika valley 

As I walk the last mile upto the homestay,I promise myself to keep a part of Phobjika with me for all times to come ….I will need it,all men need a piece of tranquil earth in their hearts when the feverish turbulence of the modern world stands to assail them.

I just hope Phobjika keeps a little bit of me.Somewhere in the marshes I have left my footprint on that memorable April morning for the marshes to remember me by.

Sunlight slowly fills the cold marshlands  at dawn 

Soumya D Jena
18th November 2016



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