A Bhutanese puja can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. The one being held at Gyaltsen’s parents home in Isa was due to last 12 hours. It begins early in the morning when the monks arrive and all offerings are brought into the altar room. Here the monks (or in some cases nuns) will sit and chant readings from a prayer books. They also play drums, horns, and cymbals to ward off evil deities. Every house has an altar room that has a shrine to Buddha and at least five small goblets that are filled with water each morning. There are hand painted wall hangings called thangkas, seven butter lamps, rice or barley flour sculptures, and usually some form of musical instrument.
My drive from Thimphu took just over six hours due to road construction. I was able to meet up with Kinga and Gyaltsen at 3:15 in the main courtyard of Trongsa where we picked up offerings of beer and eggs for the hosts. We then drove for another hour to the home where the puja was being held. The village was very remote and they hope to have electricity by August.
From the street below I could hear the sounds of drums, the mumblings of monks, and see the smoke from the burning juniper. Straight up the hillside 20 minutes later, we were at the doorstep. Our gifts were gratefully accepted and Gyaltsen’s parents, who had been aware an American would be joining them for the occasion, greeted us. They had never received a foreigner in their home and this was a big event for them.
Since my arrival had not been confirmed due to obligations in Thimphu, the others attending the puja had not been told I would be there so it wouldn’t disappoint them if I couldn’t make the trip. This time the room literally did stop when I walked in. The only sounds were from the altar room… not a whisper from the 30 or so family and friends sitting in the living room who had previously been engrossed in conversation. Small children stared, old men and women unconsciously stopped spinning their prayer wheels, and even the kittens sat still.
The silence was finally broken when Kinga introduced me and when I said “kuzuzangpo” it seemed to break the ice. Against my wishes, we were given the seats for the Chief Guests and served tea. Conversations resumed, traditional snacks were passed around, and the children began playing. Gyaltsen’s parents gave me permission to enter their altar room during the ritual and also take a few photographs.
It was another surreal moment to be in a Bhutanese altar room at dusk, lit only by candles, sitting among eight monks, listening to them chant, and ward off evil spirits. Again I found myself thinking, “who does this really happen to?” I couldn’t help but close my eyes, lean my head back on the wall, and breathe in the serenity.