Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Stories from Bhutan

The Iconic Tiger's Nest in Bhutan
I often slip into daydreams about a mystical dragon kingdom in the Himalayas. It is still hard to believe I’ve realized my dreams and actually witnessed the magic that is Bhutan. Even so, I continue to dream. If anything, the yearning for this protected haven has multiplied tenfold while it mocks me for leaving it behind.

Bhutan. Where Buddhist prayer flags flutter in the wind, where monks in flaming red chant Om Mani Pae Mey Hun, where spinning prayer wheels create music with the wind, where menacing beasts and fiery dragons adorn walls and ward off evil, where the Royal family and the Government care more for the kingdom’s happiness than for its standing in wealth and modernisation, where tourism is high value and low impact, where the Phallus is worshipped and homes are built without blueprints or nails, where the food is a lip-smacking assault of spices and the tea is rich in butter. The last Shangri La, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, the country that doesn’t belong.

Bhutan worships phallus for fertility
Yup! that's a penis! No, it's not a pornography

Bhutan almost feels like an anomaly in our planet. Everything you experience in this remote Himalayan kingdom hits you like a breath of fresh air, both literally and figuratively. This is where I hope to spend my last days, following the rhythmic movement of dancing prayer flags adding color to the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

My love story with this country began many years ago, when I saw an image of the mighty Taktshang temple perched precariously at the edge of an ominous cliff. So mystical and enigmatic, somehow exuding energies even through a grainy image. Over the years, I would often wonder how a country could be defined by its happiness. Such an abstract thought, such an optimistic notion.

A poster outside Bhutan’s National Library in Thimphu

But Bhutan makes it work. It makes Happiness tangible. You can feel it in the crisp mountain air, the rich flavor of ema datshi, the gazillion stray dogs waiting to be petted, the impeccably manicured terrace fields, the serene silence punctuated by tinkling prayer wheels and the slow pace of life which lets you savor every moment.
Happiness in acceptance
Bhutan bursts with happiness. Ridiculously so. Worldly norms are defied here, your own preconceived notions and opinions fall flat as you see faith embraced, traditions followed and modernity shunned. You learn to travel with a Guide and not scrunch up your stubborn backpacker nose in distaste. You see all the locals proudly wearing their national dress, the Gho and the Kira during business hours. You see complying monks break free during an interval and share a laugh over a Coca-Cola.

Stud Monks of Bhutan!

There is a perplexing lack of negativity and rebellion in everything the Bhutanese do. Perhaps it is the teachings of Buddhism that have been passed down by generations. The sheer love and respect for humans, animals and nature. To leave things be.
Flying into Bhutan
These puzzling observations began to befuddle me soon after my plane landed into the dangerously beautiful Paro Valley. I chose to fly into Bhutan to get a glimpse of Mt. Everest from above- one of the biggest USPs the air route offers. The dazzling reflection of the morning sun on the world’s mightiest peaks definitely makes it worth choosing this over the charm of a land crossing and a train to the Indo-Bhutan border (next time!)

Who’s starting an Air Drop service to the summit of Mt.Everest? Sign me up.

*Note: Pick a seat on the left when you land in to catch the dramatic view which is duly announced by the pilot. And if you’re lucky enough to get a seat on the right side of the plane on your way out, you’ll see the spectacular sight paint your window again.
Traveling with a Guide and loving it
A cheerful  man greets me at the exit of the tiny airport  wearing a dark grey Gho and a wide smile. Over the next few days, this man Wangchu is my window into the deeply guarded cultural and spiritual nuggets I hope to unravel on my journey. From him, I would learn to travel differently. Slowly. Not as a leader, but as a follower (a notion I would have scoffed at with my popularly shaped opinion of solo travel.) He would teach me to stop Googling answers, point out the camouflaged inscriptions on an intricate wall, help me have a broken conversation with a dear old man who sells me a bunch of pears, introduce me to locals and their homes, tell me where to find the cheapest  deal, and give me a full insight into Bhutan’s illustrious history and no-frills way of life.
My guide Wangchu for 7 days

The unassuming Capital City
On the first day, we headed straight to Thimphu, about an hour’s drive from Paro. The first few things I noticed- no traffic lights, no loud honks (a regular Indian ambient noise that rings loud in its absence), an abnormally large number of stray dogs and the uniformity in architecture. The capital city has a population of just about 1 lakh people. It is simple and quiet, with one main market street that houses some of the best hotels, restaurants, cafes, and bakeries.
Over the next two days, I explored all that there is to see in Thimphu, exclaimed over the fine architecture and expansive courtyard of the Thimphu Dzong (“wait till you get to Punakha, this is nothing!” said Wangchu), felt the energies from the mighty Buddha Dordenma that towered over me, met a rockstar artist who has figured out how to win at life despite his cerebral palsy, cheered on a bunch of players practising the national sport Archery, ate my weight in cheese and chillies, fell for butter tea and peach wine, played staring games with the national animal Takin at the reserve, and even managed to enter a questionable undercover bar (locally known as a Drayang)
Amidst all this, Wangchu pointed out the King’s abode, an inconspicuous palace that doesn’t quite assert itself like royalty usually does. Pictures of the royal family adorn pretty much ever shop and restaurant, and I asked Wangchu if this is mandatory. He looked puzzled as he answered, “We love our King. You know, the baby boy turns four in a couple of months. There will be a big celebration!’’
As someone who has always questioned monarchy, Bhutan showed me a glimpse of a responsible monarch truly loved by his people. In fact, his father Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated his throne to him in 2008 after successfully ruling Bhutan for 34 years and is responsible for introducing a constitutional monarchy in the country, even though the people were perfectly content with his rule. He taught them to vote and have a bigger say in their governance. How’s that for a people-serving ruler?

A picturesque valley, crystal clear rivers and a madman

Punakha quickly became my favourite. Everything from the pristine early morning drive in the winter sun, the stop at Dochula Pass with an uninterrupted  view of Bhutan’s highest peaks, and the walk up to the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang for a bird’s eye view of the symmetric 108 Chortens (stupas) built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers who lost their lives in an Assamese insurgency war, to the gorgeous views as the car snaked through mountainous roads and finally descended into Punakha Valley three hours later.
The 108 memorial stupas in Dochula Pass arranged in concentric circles.

We had arrived into a breathtakingly beautiful valley town wrapped in a blanket of peace and calm. Despite the stunning natural beauty, my eyes were drawn to the rather shocking display of painted phalli outside homes.
Wangchu narrated the story as we began our hike through terrace fields to get to Chimi Lakhang, the temple of the Divine Madman. Drukpa Kunley, who is beloved as Bhutan’s patron saint, is said to have used his ‘divine thunderbolt of wisdom’ to subjugate a demoness. It stands as a symbol of his tantric ways, sexual exploits and triumph over evil. Essentially, he went about flouting all known rules to ask the people some uncomfortable questions about their traditional way of life. Today, many locals and tourists flock to the temple to seek fertility and/or good health for their children. I sought blessings for my own unborn children (I’m obssessed with them, yes), rolled a die inside the temple for good luck, and clicked a dozen pictures of penises to shock show you how normal it is in Bhutan.

Phallus souvenirs!
A beautiful chir pine tree against gorgeous blue skies at the temple grounds of Chimi Lakhang.

A Dzong so pretty I’m still catching my breath
Wangchu was right. The Punakha Dzong does put all the other Dzongs to shame with its staggering presence and postcard location at the confluence of two rivers, Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu (Mother and Father river), looming over the enchanting valley. “This would be a painter’s delight’’ I thought as I walked on the wooden suspension bridge and entered the fortress. Punakha Dzong is the winter home of the monastic body, and has seen the coronation of all of Bhutan’s kings. I struggled to keep my jaw shut as I spent over two hours inside the citadel, cancelling another plan Wangchu had made for our evening. This was a special place. Visually and emotionally uplifting, a lesson in history and faith, and a photographer’s dream come true.

The commanding entrance to Punakha Dzong in Bhutan.

I walked into a painting called Punakha Dzong

The next day, I woke up to a dreamy sunrise in the clouds with a wide smile on my face, (yet another first in Bhutan: early mornings and a smile. How people change!) walked on the rickety Punakha Suspension Bridge arching over a gurgling river, and hiked up a hillock to see an old temple.
I realised I was truly beginning to feel like a mountain girl- a hike here, a walk along the river there, humming songs and spending time just staring out at the distance from every new viewpoint I scaled. Punakha felt like a cocooned valley, far from the shrillness of the outside world. Leaving it wasn’t easy, but it was a temporary goodbye, for this is the kind of place that lets you peek into the future and see yourself back in its lap again.
Discovering my favourite city and Bhutan’s highest roads
Paro was my last base. A city I instantly fell in love with. More open and even less crowded than Thimphu, with mountains and valley views all around. Quaint cafes and shop after shop full of trinkets and handicrafts line the central town street. The National Museum housed in a 17th century watch tower showed me how little I had witnessed of Bhutan’s rich bio-diversity, and how a trip in the winter had denied me an experience intrinsic to Bhutanese culture- the masked festivals and dances which happen pretty much all year around, one of them in Paro’s own magnificent Rinpung Dzong.
On another day, we drove up to Bhutan’s highest motorable road, Chele La Pass. Hundreds of tall white flags and smaller colourful flags whipped around in the windy clearing, from where one could see a jaw dropping view of Bhutan’s most revered mountain- the mighty Jomolhari (7326 m)
“Today the wind is good and the sky is clear, and it is an even numbered day” announced Wangchu, deciding it was a great day to put up the player flags we had purchased the previous day, and send our prayers into the wind.
In Bhutan's highest point 

Leaving a part of me and my dreams up high in the mountains of Bhutan, we drove on to Haa Valley, an even more secluded township also aptly named “Hidden-Land Rice Valley.” The Indian Army maintains a military base in the valley to secure Bhutan against potential invasions from China. It is the smallest Dzongkhag in the country with a population of under 15,000 people and is also the least visited. Adorned with alpine forests and tranquil mountain peaks, it has an unspoiled air that instantly infuses you with happiness. We visited the Black Temple and White Temple, both dating back to 7th century AD. It felt like the whole place was my own, with not another soul in sight. I lit a butter lamp and sent out some more good energies before we set out for a lovely lunch including Haa’s special buckwheat momos.
That temple on that cliff
I saved Bhutan’s iconic cliff temple for the end. It was going to be an arduous trek in thin air, best worked up to with all the prep hikes I had done in Punakha.
This landmark pilgrim site is what brought me to Bhutan in the first place. Before I knew anything else about the country, I knew of this temple and I romanticized it. A beautiful monastery just casually perched on the edge of a steep high cliff, unaware of how precariously poised it is and how impossible it seems to even imagine how it got there.
Tiger’s Nest or Taktsang Lhakhang was built in 1692. Legend has it that seer sage Guru Rinpoche who is believed to have introduced Buddhism to Bhutan, meditated in a cave at this site in 7th century A.D for three years, three months, three days and three hours in order to subdue evil demons residing within it. He is said to have flown to the site atop a tigress, which is what gave the temple its name.
Despite being on my period, I strangely had zero qualms about making this journey. There seemed to be an inexplicable energy and skip in my step throughout that day. I ensured we had a really early start, and with adequate breaks and many huffs and puffs, my impatient feet quickly found their way to the temple. Amidst the other early risers and the non-stop clicks of their cameras at the main viewpoint, I found a strange sense of calm envelop me. 
This is the only part of my trip to Bhutan that I struggle to detail out. The vibrations on this journey are indescribable. I could try, but I’d be guilty of hyperbole. Maybe because I’ve never seen myself as a religious person, and I have very little understanding of spirituality. But up there, I just knew. I felt it stealthily snake around me and wrap me in its embrace. Who or what was it? I’ll never know. Let’s just say that it is a powerful experience that tests you and then celebrates your triumph. I don’t know what the question is, but Taktsang gave me the answer. It was the answer.

Someday, I know I will return to unravel more of Bhutan’s fiercely protected layers as it teaches me to slow down, smile and travel responsibly.
Have you been to Bhutan? Or do you plan to go in the near future? Drop me a comment with your questions if any, 


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