Wolakha and Nalanda, a roadtrip to Punakha

Sangchen Dorji Lhendup nunnery

About 3.5 km from Wolakha (the junction to Talo on the left side of the road while heading towards Punakha) is the Sangchen Dorji Lhendup nunnery, more commonly known as the Wolakha nunnery. It is located on a ridge overlooking Punakha and Wangdue valleys; and has a huge surrounding filled with fruit plantations, various plants, and trees with 108 small chortens along the boundary. The area is quite large so it is visible even from the Thimphu-Wangdue highway.

It encompasses a main two-storied temple, a Namgyal chorten (stupa of victory), and various other complexes used for higher learning and meditation by the hundred plus nuns residing there. The lower floor of the main temple houses a huge, 14 ft. Avalokiteshvara (chag tong chen tong) statue along with other statues of Guru Rinpoche, Buddha, Zhabdrung, and Goenpo Tsepamey (Buddha Amitayus). And the upper floor has a small area dedicated to the 21 taras. You can get a nice birds-eye view of Punakha valley from the courtyard and the upper temple.

The main temple at Wolakha Sangchen Dorji Lhendup nunnery

The main temple at Wolakha nunnery

Just opposite to the main temple is the Namgyal chorten which resembles that of Nepal’s Boudhanath stupa and placed into the exterior walls are black marble carvings of great Buddhist masters of the Drukpa Kagyu lineage.

The Namgyal Chorten opposite to the main temple

The nunnery was founded by the maternal grandfather of His Majesty the 5th king of Bhutan so there is a wax figure of him inside the main temple as tribute.

Owing to the picturesque landscape, the nunnery has always been a popular tourist destination in Punakha.

Nalanda Buddhist Institute

An approx. 9 km drive from the nunnery leads to the Nalanda Buddhist university at the end of the road with over 160 monks pursuing their monastic education here. There are direction boards along the way so it’s an easy route to follow. 

The temple was founded by the 9th Je Khenpo Gyalwa Shakya Rinchen and is one of his three main residences; the other two being the Phajoding monastery (in Thimphu) and the Nobding monastery (in Punakha). The compound comprises two main structures, with a total of three temples, open for public visitation; and multiple other structures that are used as residential and learning centers by the monks at the university.

The two structures

The upper structure has two temples: one dedicated to various Je Khenpos (the Chief Abbots of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan) and the other with the three Buddhas of the past, present, and future. There is an alcove in the upper temple that houses a statue of Dorje Yudronma (Shengchong Wangmo) which is one of the main reasons for the temple’s popularity. She is believed to be a wish-fulfilling goddess so it is customary for the locals to visit Nalanda and offer their prayers before embarking on a journey or starting any important task.

The upper temple at Nalanda Buddhist institute

The upper temple

The Nalanda university is also a well-known location for conducting Namgyal Tong-choe (thousand offerings to Namgyalma). This is because of the blessed Namgyalma (Usnisavijaya) statue located in the upper temple. It was originally sculpted as a Tara statue but in the process, the half-sculpted statue spoke the Namgyalma prayer following which it was changed. And so one of three faces can be currently seen to resemble a Tara statue.

The lower structure was built over 150 years ago with twelve corners so that it would be different from other temples in the country. It has the future Buddha, Maitreya as the main statue. However, the statue is also unique as it was sculpted to be standing up as opposed to the usually seated depiction. It is believed that the future Buddha will descend to earth to preach Dharma when the teachings of Guatama Buddha have died so this statue is said to be sculpted to be ready to walk when the destined time arrives.

The lower temple at Nalanda Buddhist institute

The lower temple

The name

The ground floor of the upper structure houses the statues of 8 Indian scholars (the six ornaments of the southern continent and the two excellent ones) believed to have flown from the Nalanda university in India to the current site.

The lower structure was constructed under the supervision of one of the previous Drabi Lopens (minister ranking members of the council for religious affairs in Bhutan) after he received a prophecy in his dream that it would come to replace the Nalanda university in India. Because of these, the temple is called Nalanda and is believed to be as sacred, if not more, than the old one in Bihar.

The locals, however, refer to the temple as Daley goenpa or Dalida. This is because when Lam Drukpa Kuenley (the Divide Madman) shot an arrow from Tibet, the response to the arrow was provided from the location of this temple. The arrow is said to have landed in present-day Chandana (a temple can now be visited there) and it was later put as a relic inside the Jowo statue at Tango goenpa in Thimphu.

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