It is said that an umdze (head of prayer ceremony), looking over rows of monks chanting prayers at the Punakha dzong, one warm summer day, noticed several young monks seated at different rows, eyes closed, lips in sync and continuing to sway rhythmically with the rest.
At the umdze’s single loud clap, a few monks struggling to stay awake stopped movement immediately as they darted at the umdze, backs straight and their curious heads up, while the rest, a majority continued to sway, mumbling.
The Zhabdrung, who was seated at the throne, finding it as difficult to focus on the scripts in front of him, realised what his umdze did.
“We’re losing control over our minds,” the Zhabdrung had said, something undesirable among Buddhist devout. At that instant, it was decided the whole monastic body pack up and take a three-day hike the very next day, away from the deadening warmth.
Carrying all relics and scriptures, the monks began their journey, stopping at Thinleygang and Simtokha before their arrived in Thimphu.
In Thinleygang, its villagers would receive the Zhabdrung with the weary monks and serve them. Likewise, on arriving Simtokha, its community, mostly present day Babesa residents, would have arranged for the logistics.
That was some 400 years ago, a taste of what it might have been like, demonstrated in 2016, when the central monastic community took to foot on a three-day journey to their winter residence of Punakha.
“Those days, it was said monks would drink three mugs of water from giant earthen pots sprinkled with artemisia leaves,” a senior monk from the central monastic body said. The logic, he said, was to cleanse the monks of illnesses associated with excessive storage of bile in the gall bladder from their consumption of sugarcane and oranges the warm climes of Punakha favoured. “It was a time when people directly sourced medicinal herbs to prevent and cure illnesses,” he said.
Historically, up until today, artemisia plants have been found useful for soothing intestinal tissue inflammation, stomachaches and cramps, diarrhea and constipation of its many benefits.
At Simtokha, the last halt before entering Thimphu, monks would build a bonfire to warm themselves, an act of gradually acclimatising to the drop in temperature.
This tradition the Zhabdrung instituted four centuries ago out of a practical need, continues to be in practice today.
Led by the Je Khenpo, the country’s chief abbot, the central monastic body recently returned to their summer residence of Thimphu. Devout Buddhists settled along the 85km highway waiting by the road to be blessed by the holy relics, Buddhist scriptures and the chief abbot. The exodus usually falls on the fourth month of the Bhutanese calendar that corresponds to Gregorian May end.
They will remain in the capital city for the next six months until it becomes uncomfortably cold for monks to be able to focus on the scriptures.
The tradition will live on, so long as does the dictates of the climate.