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One of the joys of living in Upper Motithang high above the capital is that we have quick access to the myriad trails that criss-cross the western flanks of the Thimphu valley. On a daily basis we run to Sangaygang where the BBS Tower overlooks town, and often run or hike to Wangditse Monastery, along a beautiful balcony trail that passes above the Tashichhodzong. On weekends we like explore higher up, and have many times hiked to or through the amazing monastic complex of Phajoding between 3500m and 3900m, and to the pass above at over 4000m.
Recently we had the good fortune of hiking up to Phajoding Monastery with Lama Namgay Tenzing, the head teacher for 25 young monks studying at the Monastery. Lama Namgay is an eloquent and smiling monk, whose command of the English language is only surpassed by his knowledge of Buddhism and his humility. Only 34 years old with heavy responsibilities, he surprised his superiors when he chose to teach in the run-down and austere facilities of Phajoding, rather than a more accessible and comfortable monastery. When the current Principal heard that Namgay was to come to Phajoding, he immediately suggested that it was his opportunity to retire to a more comfortable post himself, but Namgay insisted that they work as a team. Over the past two years, the population of monks at Phajoding has doubled, and under Namgay’s tutelage, the monks are coming out on top of their exams.
The golden days of Phajoding’s past seem to have faded a bit. What was once a thriving complex of 21 temples, dormitories and meditation centers, today shows serious signs of decay due to earthquakes, the chronic attack of the harsh Himalayan weather and general lack of maintenance. The entire encomplex was built in 1748 by Je Shakya Rinchen, the 9th Je Khempo (the Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body) of Bhutan. The first meditation structures were constructed in the early 13th century by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo, who traveled from Tibet to Bhutan to spread the teachings of the Drukpa Kagyud sect of Buddhism.
Over the past 400 years there have been no major renovations to the buildings, and despite the incredible natural backdrop, the neglect shows through the coats of white and red paint. From the inside of many structures it is possible to see daylight and feel the cold winter wind blowing through walls covered with newspapers in an attempt to keep out drafts.
In 2010, UNESCO’s World Monument Fund announced that Phajoding Monastery was among the five most endangered cultural monuments in the world. Meanwhile, restoration efforts by the Government of Bhutan have focused on more rural sites given a general policy to revive rural Bhutan. With less political reward in fixing up a site so close to the capital, Phajoding has suffered. Since then, Namgay has worked with friends to set up a website and a Twitter account to draw attention to the challenges.
Aside from enjoying Lama Namgay’s stories and a nice hike, our purpose was to take pictures for the website, hopefully capturing Phajoding’s charisma and beauty. The following gallery documents some of our experience in the 24 hours we spent with Lama Namgay, including braving the cold temperatures to catch the crescent moon and brilliant stars, sleeping on the floor of his humble quarters and drinking copious amounts of tea in the morning sunshine. I even took a couple of time laps series which still need post production work and may show up here shortly.
Enjoy the gallery below, and better yet, enjoy a trip to Phajoding for yourself. If you can’t make it up for a visit, at least “Like” their Facebook site, follow them on Twitter and consider sponsoring a monk for a year.
(Click on any picture to expand or view as slide show.)