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Bhutan: New bridge revitalises historic site

Punakha's new bridge. Photo / Jill Worrall
Punakha's new bridge. Photo / Jill Worrall

This is a tale of three bridges and some planks and because this true story is set in the Himalayan Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, it should come as no surprise to know that both the bridges and the river they have spanned have deep spiritual and national significance.

In the 17th century a Tibetan monk, known today as Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, while engaged in the complex task of uniting Bhutan as one country, decided that the confluences of the rivers Pho (father) And Mo (mother) in Punakha was the perfect place to build one of the country's unique dzongs.

Dzongs are impressive fortified structures that serve not only as military strongholds but also as administrative and monastic centres for their regions. The Punakha dzong later served as the Bhutanese capital for 300 years, right up to the mid 1950s.

The dzong sits like a vast ship between the rivers, with its tapering southern section looming like the vessel's prow over the swirling meeting of the two rivers.

At the time it was built in 1637, Shabdrung also had a 35-metre-long wooden, cantilevered bridge built across the Mo Chu (river) to provide easier access.

This bridge, with its impressive stone towers served its purpose perfectly until 1958 when a tremendous flood washed it away. It was replaced with a utilitarian wire and cable swing bridge which, although functional, certainly didn't do much to enhance what is considered Bhutan's most beautiful dzong.

When I first visited Punakha dzong about 10 years ago I watched, agog, as the district governor crossed the bridge after me to attend an audience with Bhutan's head abbot or Je Kenpo (who holds equal stature in Bhutan as its king).

He strode across the gently swaying bridge resplendent in a hand-woven pure silk (the kilted knee-length gown that is the traditional garb of Bhutanese men) with a silver sword at his waist.

However, there had been talk for many years of building a new cantilevered bridge befitting of the dzong's status as the winter headquarters for the Je Kenpo and central region's monastic body.

The dzong is also the repository of some of Bhutan's most revered sacred Buddhist relics - they are so valuable that one lead to a brief but unsuccessful military raid by the neighbouring Tibetans in the 17th century - and the place of coronation for all five of Bhutan's kings.

The river, following the devastating 1958 flood and another severe inundation in 1994, had widened the Mo Chu to an extent that the new bridge would have to be 55-metres-long. German and Swiss engineers and bridge-building experts were brought in to construct what would be the first traditional cantilever bridge built in Bhutan for more than 100 years. Foreign donors helped with the cost which was estimated at about US$1.5 million.

While the two-year project was underway, access to the dzong for the monks, pilgrims and tourists was over a rickety series of planks just a few metres above the icy, fast-flowing Mo.

The new bridge was opened in 2008 and this year I was fortunate to be in Punakha the day the Je Kenpo and his monks arrived for their winter sojourn.

The approach to the bridge had been decorated with red, yellow, green, blue and white banners and new prayer flags had been strung everywhere.

By the time I'd arrived, most of the business of moving in had been completed, the monks had been given the afternoon off. The only people seemingly with work to do were the five or six men labouring under the weight of the Je Kenpo's throne which they were manoeuvering through the dzong's courtyards.

The bridge was clearly the favoured place for the off-duty monks. The 3.4-metre-wide crossing was crowded with red-robed figures of all ages, chatting in the autumn sun, texting on their mobiles and cheering on a kayaker who was negotiating the swirling waters beneath them.

Other monks were picnicking with their families who had travelled to the dzong for the occasion. They sat in groups on the lawn beneath the dzong's walls and in the shade of a row of stately jacaranda trees (which, when in flower in spring, produce a stunning lilac haze of blooms). More red-robed monks strolled along the riverbank, admiring the bridge from below.

Prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, little monks ran across the bridge, their jandals slap-slapping on the broad wooden beams dodging elderly ladies bent almost double over walking sticks and gaggles of girls in their best silk embroidered skirts.

Punakha's new bridge is definitely far more than simply a means from crossing a river - it's a place of entertainment, reflection and national pride.

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