In the western hidden land of Aja Valley,
Towards the sacred palace of Dechen Phodrang,
There at the feet of Ugyen Pema we supplicate,
To bless us, so that we may in this very life, attain the state of Vidyadhara.
Among many sacred sites in Bhutan associated with the peerless lotus born Guru Ugyen Pema, Aja Nye in Mongar and the Nye Chen Phunying in Lhuntse are considered amongst the most sacred. Bhutanese from all walks of life make an effort to visit both these sites atleast once in their life.
Aja valley and Nye Chen Phunying has been home to hidden yogis over many centuries and continues to do so even today. Within these hushed valleys and mountains, spiritual seekers in pursuit of unravelling the meaning of life often spend their entire lives in retreat. This makes the pilgrim believe that the blessings of Guru Tsokye Dorji is still manifest and continues to be very much alive in this remote, verdant and lush landscape.
Aja valley also serves as summer pastureland for cattle from the lower valleys of Yarab and Thiling in Mongar. And it is an important watershed for the Sherichu, a major river of eastern Bhutan.
Although the spiritual significance of the two sacred sites have been recorded in religious texts, there is scant information available for the lay reader.
Here, we describe the trekking route from Bangtsho in Lhuntse to Senekhar in Mongar which passes through Phunyingla and Aja Ney. We document the sacred circumambulatory routes at both Aja Ney and Phunyingla. We also provide a brief overview of the spiritual significance of Aja Ney and Phunying. We conclude by providing a brief description of the habitats and traditional belief system used to regulate visits to these sacred sites.
The history of Aja Nye dates back to about 830 AD (Wangchuk, 2004). It was at that time that the Tibetan demon King, Khikha-rathoed (one with a dog's mouth and a goat's head) was exiled into a secluded dense forest towards the South. Later, upon discerning that the demon king was trying to settle at Aja valley, Guru Rinpoche followed the demon through Tormi-jangsa, under Tashi Yangtse with the intention of subduing him.
Guru Rinpoche spent more than three months in meditation within the Aja valley biding for the right moment to subdue Khikha-rathoed. During this time, Guru Rinpoche concealed several sacred sites and treasures within the valley.
Imprints of the letter Aa (ཨ) within the inner walls of a cave located beside the Aja Chu is believed to have been left by the great guru. It is believed that a hundred Aa (ཨ) has been imprinted on the walls, giving the place its name of Aa-ja, meaning a hundred Aa(s). Today, a few of the imprints can still be seen on the walls of the cave (Picture below).
During the 14th century, Terton Ugyen Lingpa initially unlocked the sacred site of Aja Nye followed by Terton Rigzin Goeki Dhemthrug.
Guru Rinpoche had prophesized that Aja Nye would be discovered and unlocked by the ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorji (1556-1603). However, in his place, the ninth Karmapa sent his disciple Lama Karma Jamyang to unlock and reveal the sacred site.
The history of Nye Chen Phunying is as old as the story of Aja Nye itself. It is believed that Guru Rinpoche meditated within Phunying mountain ridges for a few months while chasing the demon king Khikha-rathoed who had fled from Aja to Khempa Jong, located towards the North of Kurtoe.
The Nye was unlocked by Lama Karma Jamyang, who revealed the entire Aja Nye. It is considered that there are four sacred hidden sites located in the four main cardinal directions with Pema Yangzom (alias for Aja) at its centre.
Nye Chen Phunying is considered to be the western branch and is regarded as the heart of all mountains on the planet and contains numerous sacred sites associated with the lotus born.
In recent times, the Nye has served as a secluded retreat and meditation hideaway for many highly revered Yogis such as Lama Sonam Zangpo in the 1960s. The Nye consists of more than 50 sacred sites along the circumambulatory route and includes symbols of Guru Padmasambhava’s treasure box and imprints of Khandro Drowa Zangmo’s skull.
Apart from year round residents comprising of retreatants and temple care takers, visitors and pilgrims cannot enter Aja Ney from March to October. This closure of the sacred sites has been a centuries old tradition which is still in practise to this day.
Plants and bird species seen during the trek from Bangtsho to Phunying are recorded in annexures I and II respectively; and plants and birds seen on the trek from Phunying to Aja are shown in annexure V and VI respectively.