abstract: Puff the magic dragon! Even the country’s official name is magically evocative: The Kingdom of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon. Barely a half-million “people from the highland,” which Bhutan means in Sanskrit, have created a distinct culture in the isolation of their abode which is the narrow valleys of the Inner Himalaya Mountains [photo essay]. In that Shangri-la over centuries they mixed Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism with esoteric Tantrism and local Bon myths and legends of demons and animistic deities. Their only standing monuments of the past are the fortresses of their feudal elite. The monarchy that has prevailed in the last century is drawing upon this tradition to preserve its vision of the future. While much of that vision is from the fertile imagination of one man, the Fourth King, it is buttressed by emphasis on compassion and community. The audacious conceit is that happiness should be the goal of development in an age whose goals are defined in material terms. Foreign access to this experimental laboratory is carefully guarded, at the same time that Bhutan is becoming all the more attractive due to the increasing limitations on touring other Himalayan countries. [photo essay]
Our flight from Kolkata to Bhutan was delayed for several hours. We were told that this was because of mechanical problems with the plane. Druk Air, the Bhutan airline, is the only one allowed to fly to the country’s only airport in Paro. The airline has only two planes. When we finally arrived in the Paro airport, the proof of many of other legends about Bhutan was also on display. No airport represents a country so fully.
Bhutan, the land of “the people from the highland,” which is the Indian Sanskrit name for this Himalayan nation, calls itself Druk Yuel, or “Kingdom of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon”. We went through some exciting turbulence as we descended into a narrow, windy valley surrounded by green hills. The scenery painted an imagined Shangri-la. In the pristine air of late fall the yellowed leaves of weeping willow trees danced against a blue sky which was covered in some corners by fluffy white clouds.
The terminal buildings, built in 1983, vaguely resembled Swiss chalets . They were different in the trefoil cut out (horzing) at the top of their windows which is the trademark of Bhutanese architecture (but said to be of Persian influence). The buildings’ wooden exteriors were decorated with designs and patterns, each with a special significance in the ancient land’s iconography.
On one side of the tarmac a huge billboard made clear who virtually created this country. This was the portrait of all five successive members of the ruling hereditary monarchy. There was Ugyen Wangchuck, the first Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) who in 1907 changed the system of government from what was an oligarchy (in which an elected secular ruler, desi, shared power with the chief abbot, the Je Khenpo, who was deemed to be the reincarnation of the Tibetan llama, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who gained Bhutan’s independence from Tibet in the middle of the 17th century). Ugyen sufficiently accommodated the threatening foreign power of his time, Great Britain, to earn a knighthood from it.
On the Wangchucks humble origin and rise to power, our Bhutanese tour guide said: “Ugyen’s father, Jigme Namgyal was a water boy at the age of ten; he supplied water. By hard work and loyalty he rose high in government and once saved the governor’s life. As a reward the governor promised to give him his position when he retired. That is how Jigme Namgyal became the governor (penlop) of the district of Trongsa.” He then used this position to gain control of the whole country through a series of clever alliances with other regional governors.
Standing next to the first king, Ugyen, in the airport portrait was his son and successor in 1925, Jigme. He secured recognition for Bhutan as an independent country from its all important neighbor, the newly independent India, in 1949, by agreeing to be “guided” by India in external relations. However, it is Jigme’s son, the Third King, Jigme Dorji, succeeding to the throne in 1952, who is called the Father of Modern Bhutan.
Jigme Dorji opened Bhutan to the outside world, joining the regional grouping Colombo Plan in 1963 and the United Nations in 1971. Domestically, he was the pioneer in modernization and democratization of the country. Among other steps, he abolished slavery, introduced wheeled vehicles where before people and goods were transported manually, created Bhutan’s first Council of Ministers and its National Assembly, and launched a five year economic development plan.
Notwithstanding all of that, it was Jigme Dorji’s son and successor in 1972, Jigme Singye (standing next to his father in the airport portrait) who put Bhutan on the global map. Indeed, like other ordinary tourists, I owed my opportunity to come to Bhutan to this king. In the past almost all visitors used to be royal guests; it was only after Jigme Singye’s coronation that small groups of ordinary tourists were allowed in.
Jigme Singye became the Fourth King of Bhutan at eighteen, then the youngest monarch in the world. He still casts a dominating shadow on Bhutan, although he abdicated in favor of his son in the last days of 2006 -thus still managing to become the longest ruling Dragon King. Most official pictures of the Fifth, Jigme Khesar Nemgyal, show the “father king” hovering over him. This current King sees his job primarily as going around the country spreading “happiness,” our guide said.
Gross National Happiness
The world perhaps knows Jigme Singye best for his coining the term “Gross National Happiness”. He began thinking about the concept at age 17, even before he became the Fourth King. It was his preferred alternative to “gross national product” as a development indicator. It has guided the development plans of Bhutan. It aims at development that is acceptable to people; especially people should feel comfortable with its pace. The king has come to articulate his policy in terms of 6 specific objectives: sustainability, self-reliance, efficiency, people’s involvement, development of human resource, and regionally balanced distribution of development projects. Gross National Happiness envisages explicit criteria for measuring the progress of development projects in terms of the nation’s common good.
The concept’s explicit imperative of respecting Bhutan’s traditions and cultural values led the Fourth King in 1988 to institute the policy of enforcing a special code of Etiquette and Manners (Driglam Namzha). This attempt to promote traditional values has resulted in two especially public manifestations. It required all citizens to wear the 14th century dress of gho (for men) and kira (for women) in government offices, official events, and schools. Secondly, it made the teaching of Dzongkha (the Bhutanese national language) mandatory in schools. Specifically, the government’s “New Approach to Education” eliminated the study of the Napali, the language of an estimated 25% minority Nepalis, which had been granted in the 1950’s ( as a third language in primary schools in the south where they lived) in order to integrate that large group which had migrated form Nepal in the early 20th century (along with granting them citizenship).
The Fourth King justified his new policy as promoting the goal of “One Nation, One People.” The Nepalese, however, disagreed. Their traditional culture (Lhotshampas) was not the same as that of the majority Bhutanese (Drukpas) which the King wanted to strengthen; and their religion was Hinduism, not Buddhism that the King wanted to honor. These Nepalese’ resentment was manifested in refusing to follow the new dress code. Zealous enforcement of the new policies led to the exodus of tens of thousands of the Nepalese between 1988 and1993. They were mostly housed in refugee camps set up by the United Nations. The population of these camps reached 160,000 by 2005.
Adverse publicity and international pressure have made the Bhutanese government modify its policy. It has begun negotiations to take back those refugees who could prove they had moved from Bhutan. The process has not gone smoothly. Only a few have been allowed back. The government, meanwhile, has also eased the enforcement of the dress code.
Ironically, the “dress diktat,” has recently come to haunt Bhutan. While I was visiting, the Hindustan Times (11/19/09) reported that the government of Darjeeling, in the neighboring India where many Bhutanese go for higher education, had recently issued a decree for a “cultural revolution,” requiring that all college students wear local (Darjeeling) traditional clothes. This made the Bhutan government quite anxious. A Bhutanese government delegation called on that Indian state’s government for help to exempt the Bhutanese students from this decree.
Notwithstanding, the Fourth King’s orthodox views are still in evidence. Almost all of the men we saw in the Faro airport wore the traditional gho. While they seemed to fit in the colorfully unusual, decorated architecture of the terminals, that architecture seemed more newly conceived than organic when we saw more of the buildings in Paro itself. All the buildings of the downtown were constructed in the 1980s. They were all painted on the exterior. The stores all had uniform blue signs in English. The remarkable similarity of these buildings and their contrast with older structures on streets and alleys just behind the main street, with no such signs and exterior decorations , gave downtown Paro the feeling of a shell stage set for movies.
Paro’s main street was empty except for the rare tourists . Only on Sunday a crowd of Bhutanese appeared in the main square of town to shop in the Asian open market that was held there. While some women wore old style Bhutanese long skirts, others and most men did not wear the kira or gho. They wore western clothes. The clothing stall in the market also sold parkas, pants and other western style garments. Other goods were mostly produce, many imported from India, all for traditional food of simple people: vegetables (cabbage, tomatoes, eggplants, onions, greens, potatoes, hot pepper, carrots, and fava beans), eggs, milk, and grains, and fruit (bananas and oranges). Some products were special to Bhutanese cuisine: dried yellow cow skin which is eaten as a snack, and dried yak cheese as well as dates, a cheese used in many dishes. A woman was selling beetle nut powder, chewing it herself as her red teeth showed. Most goods were displayed on clothes spread on bare hard ground. There was hot coal on the ground to provide heat against the mountain cold.
A few cars were parked in a parking lot next to the Paro market. We saw nothing like a traffic jam in all of Bhutan. There is no traffic light in Bhutan. Tourists are encouraged to admire the “dancing” of the sole traffic cop as he directs the traffic in the country’s busiest intersection, the main one in the city with the most population at about 100,000. That is Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The main attraction in Thimphu, however, is the National Memorial Chorten. This is in fact a memorial to the memory of one individual, the Third King, built by his son, the Fourth King, in 1974. Its location is rather unique because chortens (literally receptacles for offerings and containing religious relics) are commonly constructed in places deemed inauspicious, such as mountain passes and river junctions, for the purpose of warding off evil.
A Tibetan-style chorten, the National Memorial is in the form of ancient Indian stupas. Each of the five elements of its architecture has a symbolic meaning: “The square base was the symbol of earth, he hemispherical dome was water, the conical spire was fire, a crescent moon and a sun on the top were air, and the spike symbolized the light of the Buddha,” our guide said. The many statutes and paintings on display at the Memorial were additional symbolic references to Bhutanese Buddhism. On this day several pilgrims were circling the chorten. Worshipers were rolling the prayer wheels. An old woman who was sweeping the grounds with a broom, stopped to pose for us. She held a smaller prayer wheel in her hand.
Much of the written records on Bhutan’s Buddhist history have been destroyed in the fires and earthquakes of the 19th century. What is left is mostly in the National Library. Tourists are taken to the Library, however, to see the “world’s largest book.” On display in the lobby, this is simply a book of pictures of Bhutan taken by a group of Americans. The sign in the same lobby strikes a more modest note: it estimates the population of the country at “barely 650,000″.
This does not prevent Bhutan from boasting about having 13 types of traditional arts and crafts. They are showcased in Zorig Chusum, a new school established to train young artisans, with the goal of preserving that tradition. There were both men and women in the stone carving class. They labored on intricate designs. Only women were in the weaving class. In a shop elsewhere two women demonstrated how hand-made paper was produced from tree bark with the help of a wood-fired kiln.
Textiles are the most important art form. A National Textile Museum exists in the capital. There women clad in kira and sitting on the floor demonstrated their techniques. The patron of the Museum is Queen Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck. She is the youngest of the four queen mothers. Her husband is the Fourth King. He had one wife before marrying three sisters all at once and in the same ceremony in 1979. (The public ceremony was not held until October 31, 1988.) His second wife is the mother of the incumbent Fifth King and was ranked third (after his son and husband) on the list called “The Royal Government of Bhutan.” The Prime Minister came only after her on that official list. The other queen mothers each has a duty, usually as a patron of a foundation for “the underprivileged people, youth, nuns, women and Aids,” according to our guide.
The Fourth King’s three new wives had something special to offer him. They were the daughters of Yab Ugyen Dorji, a descendant of both the mind and speech incarnations of Bhutan’s founder, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. This is significant because when the death of the Zhabdrung was finally revealed in 1705, it was announced that three rays of light emanated from him representing his mind, speech, body, but only the reincarnation of Zhabdrung’s mind came to be considered entitled to be the head of state.
Polygamy in Bhutan, however, does not require such special circumstances. “There is a man who has seven wives, all in the same house,” our guide said. Polyandry is also allowed and practiced. “There is one woman in the parliament who has two husbands,” the guide said. Economic reasons are sometimes the explanation; especially in the past, for example, two brothers shared the expenses by having the same woman as their wife. Our guide said: “Homosexuality is considered normal among would be monks. The novices can stay together as a couple in the monastery until the time they take the vow of celibacy to become fully ordained monks.”
This sexual libertinism contrasts with the ban on smoking. Not only smoking in public places is banned, but Bhutan is also the first country to have declared the very sale of tobacco illegal. There is, of course, a black market in cigarettes. Around the corner from our hotel in Thimphu, I saw a man smoking openly. Drinking is a problem. Our guide said that the only beggars in Bhutan are those “asking for money to drink.” He also attributed the intolerable fights he witnessed between his mother and father to excessive drinking by the latter. The one sign of public campaign against drinking which I noticed was in the odd form of a message on a yellow bag in English: “Quit alcohol and lengthen your life span.” The sign was hanging low on a pole on the side of the road we took to see another oddity, the Takin. This is the national animal of the Bhutan, a cow-goat hybrid which experts have not yet been able to relate to any other animal.
Across the Inner Himalayas
The trees on the sides of this road were festooned with flags. They were payer flags. Prayer flags were everywhere in Bhutan: on religious buildings, houses, mountain passes, and meadows,. They came in five colors, each representing a natural element: blue (water), green (wood), red (fire), yellow (earth), and white (iron). They all serve the same basic purpose: invoking “the blessings and protection from the deities” our guide said. There were some variations among the flags. Some were hung from strings, but most were mounted on poles. The smallest flags were those on the rooftops of homes. To ensure the family’s welfare,” our guide said. The largest flags were outside important public places and “represent victory over the forces of evil,” the guide said.
The flag called mandihar is flown for a deceased person, unusually in batches of the auspicious number 108. They are and placed at high points overlooking a river. This was the type of flag we saw on the Dochula Pass as we drove from Thimphu to Punakha. They were erected in the memory of the 10 Bhutanese soldiers who died in the 2003 battle against the Assamese rebels from India. The Fourth King personally led “from the front” the 6,000 strong Royal Bhutan Army in that successful engagement with the estimated 2,000 Assamese. This was Bhutan’s first military campaign in more than a century. In addition to the flags, 108 stupas were built here in the memory of the killed soldiers. Assamese separatists were using Bhutanese territory to launch raids against targets in India, including buses carrying Bhutanese passengers. The significance of keeping India happy was obvious: the landlocked Bhutan faces the Chinese dominated Tibet on its northwest and north. India is its only other bordering neighbor.
Alongside the Stupas and flags, on the Dochula Pass there was another remarkable sight: an election announcement board. This day it was empty; it did not announce anything. The Pass at 3050 meter is the highest point reached by passenger cars in Bhutan. The entire country is mountainous. We were in the Inner Himalaya. To our north was the Greater Himalaya. The peaks there reached 7554 meters. Nobody has climbed them; many remain virtually unexplored. “Bhutanese can’t climb them because they don’t want to desecrate the mountains which are considered sacred,” our guide said. “A British group tried to climb those peaks and did not succeed because they were too steep. The government does not allow it any more.” From where we stood on the Pass we could see three snow-packed peaks in the distance when the clouds moved away. The valleys and forested hillside south of these, at 1100 to 3500 meter in elevation, are where all of Bhutan’s main towns are located. We were going from Thimphu to Punakha. The hillsides were generally too steep for farming. We were driving on a ridge that was the watershed of several major rivers. Fast flowing, the rivers had formed deep ravines below us.
We were almost alone on the narrow winding road. Occasionally, we came across a convoy of cars carrying a funeral party. “Death is big here,” our guide commented, “birthdays are not.” A few miles outside of Thimphu a few people were standing on the shoulder of the road waiting for transportation. They were bundled up in western clothes. Wood fires rising from the valley polluted the air. At one point we ran into several men in a truck as it drove off the main road toward a quarry in the woods. At another point we saw a cowherd with his herd, talking on a cell phone. Road work was being done by women without any equipment. Prayer wheels on the side of the road were powered by running streams. We stopped to buy red and yellow apples from roadside vendors. Further down other vendors were grilling corns for sale. In the woods we noticed Rhododendron flowers. They were on trees and not bushes. “There are forty three kinds of them,” our guide said, “the largest variety in the world.” He also said that Bhutan had “360 species of orchids.” When we descended toward the Punakha valley we saw Poinsettia trees and wild cherry blossoms. At the border between the administrative districts of Thimphu and Punakha our van stopped for “immigration check” at the Dzonkhag, or provincial immigration checkpoint. These exist at all borders between Bhutan’s 20 districts. This was to keep track of foreigners in Bhutan, our guide said.
Palace of Great Happiness
The valley of Punakha is fertile because of temperate climate and the waters of the Phochu and Mochu rivers. At the juncture of these rivers with the color of glacier water, was the gold-domed the three-story Palace of Great Happiness, Bhutan’s most beautiful Dzong. It was originally built in 1637 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. This complex was once both the religious and administrative center of Bhutan. As Thimphu has became the political capital, the Punakha Dzong now serves as the winter seat of Bhutan’s Chief Abbot, Je Khenpo, and the Central Monk Body. The monks winter and summer between here and Thimphu. When we were in Punakha they had just arrived for the winter season.
The Je Khenpo was about to officiate at a ceremony for this occasion. We could not go to the main chapel but we saw him from the outside in a yellow robe. Rows of monks were sitting on benches, the young ones in red robes and the seniors in saffron robes. The Central Monk Body is government-supported and under the authority of the Je Khenpo who holds office for life. Bhutanese families commonly send one son to become a monk.
Buddhism was brought to Bhutan by the Tibetan kings as early as the 7th century, but Guru Rinpoche is credited for the establishment of Buddhism in Bhutan. He was invited in 746 to come from India by a local king of Bhutan to save him from a demon who possessed him. Rinpoche did this by converting the king to Buddhism. He then founded the Nyingmapa (“red hat”) sect of Mahayana Buddhism here. Rinpoche’s religious significance has been such that he is recognized as the national patron saint of Bhutan.
From the 11th century the various religious schools took final shape in Bhutan. Bhutan shares with Tibet three main schools of Himalaya Buddhism – Kagyupa and Sakyapa in addition to Nyingmapa. The fourth, the Gelugpa, remains in Tibet. On the other hand, Bhutanese Buddhism is steeped in its own folklore and mythology. “School texts describe demons that threatened villages and destroyed temples until captured through magic and converted to Buddhism. Many events often do not seem credible and have accurate chronology. Spirits, ghosts, medicine men, and lama reincarnate are accepted as a part of life” our guide said. Much of this is from Bon, religious practices prevalent until the late 16th century. Buddhism in Bhutan did not replace Bon, it absorbed Bon’s beliefs. “The invocations of local and protective deities, and the offering of incense to the mountain deities, are everyday rituals in Bhutan. Every locality, mountain, lake, river, or grove of trees has its deities and they are worshiped by the local communities,” the guide continued.
Bhutan prides itself as being the “last surviving independent country in the world that practices the Mahayana form of Buddhist culture” – ignoring Tibet because it sees it as a part of China. Mahayana focuses on liberation of all living beings, as distinguished from the other branch of Buddhism, Hinayana, which focuses on pursuing liberation for the individual. Aside from the recognized teachings (sutras) of Buddha (called Sakyamuni in Bhutan in reference to his home state) which are studied by both Mahayana and Hinayana followers, Bhutanese Buddhism also relies on Buddha’s tantaric teachings. From tantra (continuum in Sanskrit), these are a collection of esoteric teachings which, it is claimed, Buddha offered only to a select few of his early disciples.
The integration of tantras and Bon in Bhutanese Buddhism is exemplified by the deity Mahakala (Wisdom Defender), recognized as the guardian deity of Bhutan. He is the Bon overlord of all the mountain gods as well as a tantaric Buddhist form of Hindu god Shiva.
“For me personally, philosophy, which I call real life, and religion were reconciled after reading a lot. I concluded that religion helps a lot in real life.” This is how our guide summed up his position on religion. “I believe that Buddha is not god but if I say that my mother will kill me because she is illiterate.” To the guide, Buddha said “I am the awakened one, not good or unusual.” As the guide understood it, “enlightenment is the ability to distinguish between good and bad and to act on that. Greed, hatred and ignorance are evils. Greed, hatred, and envy are evils inside a person which are the causes of suffering. ” The guide’s Mahayana beliefs showed in these remarks: “enlightenment is achieved by enlightening others. A beggar gives you an opportunity to enlighten yourself.”
Our guide also explained the role the spinning of prayer wheel played especially for the illiterates: “it is like chanting mantras.” There were different mantras each for a purpose. “Their aims are to reduce suffering and to purify you.” The guide then said that he had “considered becoming a monk because at home his parents constantly fought.” The guide wanted to escape suffering by becoming a monk.
Symbols in Paintings
The meaning of Bhutanese religious culture was also to be found in the symbolic figures of its traditional paintings, exemplified by those on the walls at the entrance to the Palace of Great Happiness. Each colorful figure was significant. The dominant faces were the Four Guardian Kings who protected the four primary directions. The King of the West was depicted in red, holding a serpent in his left hand and a stupa in his right [64. The King of the East was in white and played a flute. The King of the South who was blue in color carried a sword. The King of the North was in yellow and had a mongoose that vomited jewels in his hand. People call him “the God of Wealth,” our guide said. The old man in the pictures “represents survival,” the guide said, “the deer is for tranquility, the black neck crane is peace, the mountain is stability, water is the symbol of nourishment, and flower is prosperity.” He pointed out the painting of lotus and said “lotus symbolizes detachment from suffering, from the muck of the soil. In one grouping there were four animals. The guide explained: “The bird brought the seed of the tree, the rabbit fertilized it, the monkey watered it, and the elephant protected it” . According to the guide “this teaches the value of cooperation.”
Further down the valley we went to see the Chimi Lhakhang Monastery. This was a temple built by a lama (teacher), Drukpa Kuenley, who came here from Tibet. He is better known as the Divine Madman. “He got that name because of his behavior,” our guide said, “he breached all vows. He believed that to be a Buddhist one did not need to follow any rule. He was called divine because of his supernatural power. His mantra has all the awful words.” What he wanted to teach was that “it is not important how to behave or to say the proper mantra (there is a proper mantra for each occasion and purpose), but it is the belief and devotion that count.”
Next to the temple was a black stupa. “In it is buried a burned dog that was the demon woman,” our guide said. “That is why it is black.” The Divine Madman had a reputation for sexual appetite. We were told that there was a replica of the Divine Madman’s penis in the temple. It is believed that this temple could enable conception in childless women who visit it. Our guide said that the penis was “the sign of fertility but also it was for protection against evil. The Divine Madman used his private parts to subdue evil.” Together with the temple’s fertility reputation, it was also considered an auspicious place for helping prospective parents choose their baby’s name. This is what our driver wanted to do today. As we accompanied him inside the temple, he first lit a candle, “because darkness is ignorance,” our guide explained. Then he prostrated before the altar, so as “to ask for forgiveness and purification,” our guide said. Then the driver approached two very young monks who were standing next to the alter and holding a book. Our driver carefully pulled a black string from between the pages of the book which contained names. The name that was thus revealed was a girl’s name. The driver beamed; he was happy. We applauded him. “If the child is a boy, he could change the name,” our guide said nonchalantly.
There was a group of young monks in red robe sitting on the ground in front of the temple. Many were reciting the texts placed before them, while gently bobbing their heads. “They are moving to the rhythm of the old Buddhist text they are reading,” our guide said. A few older monks were tutoring them. One monk was blowing the long horn.
“There is an emphasis on memorization. When they are young the monks do not understand the meaning of the texts. Mid-teens they proceed either to the shedra (philosophy school) or perhaps join the ritual school” our guide said. “Monks continually take vows, as they progress from novice to fully ordained monk. They are celibate and must abstain from smoking and drinking alcohol, but they are not required to be vegetarian and may eat meat in the evening. A few monks join monastic orders after adolescence, but they are not the norm. Monks may renounce or return their vows at any time, and have to pay a token fine.”
There are 10,000 monks (and 1000 nuns) in Bhutan. Some of the other Bhutanese boys were playing soccer a few hundred yards down from the temple. They were from the College of Natural Resources that had put in a fenced “Avenue of Plantation” next to the dirt road that led to the temple. A few steps from the short and narrow stretch that was this Avenue there was an old farmhouse. There a man was sitting on the ground cutting stones while a woman was carrying her baby on her back in the front-yard. Crop husks were being burned. Land was being plowed with the help of oxen. Winter crops of mustard and wheat were going to be planted here. Red rice, a delicacy from this area, had been collected. Rice stocks with grains still on them were kept separate, in piles marked with a top, from those without grains in piles which had no top. The door on a house had a horseshoe nailed on it for good luck.
This pastoral setting with mountains in the background could well have survived from many centuries past. As we approached the road where our van was parked, however, our attention was drawn to contemporary world by the sight of a souvenir shop, the General Shop cum Bar, and the RKPO General Bar and Restaurant. At the bus stop a curious college student who spoke English engaged us in a conversation about the United States, as his friends looked on.
Across the river from our hotel in Punakha they were building a whole new town. We could see the streets grid in the distance. The project looked impressive. We could not help but hope that it employed architects and builders different from the ones who had done our hotel. This was a brand new hotel for foreign tourists; so new that the good luck banners for the opening were still hanging at the entrance. The tiles of the ceiling in the bathrooms, however, had already fallen. The ceiling was leaking in my unit. The electric outlets were oddly placed six feet high on a wall. The mirror was across the room from the oversize sink. The soap container was broken. A water bottle filled with white liquid soap substituted. On it in red marker someone had handwritten “soap”. The bedroom was huge with windows on three sides exposed to the mountains and river. Insulation was poor and the thin curtains were no protection even against outside lights.
The new town under construction was to replace the nearby old town of Wangdue Phodrang. After 400 years sitting on a cliff, that town was believed to be about to fall into the river below due to landslide. It now looked no more than a ramshackle collection of wooden boards forming small store fronts teetering precariously on the edge of the cliff. It was, however, still a live and active town.
In the main square the open market was just over and a woman was sweeping the debris. Shoppers with their full bags were waiting at the concrete milestone in the center of town for transportation. Signs had not been changed to English in this traditional town, but the video and movie racks in the stores displayed Indian films. The one film advertised in English was “Aagey se Right,” a 2009 Bollywood production about a terrorist who comes to bomb places in Mumbai but abandons his plans when he falls in love with a local bar girl. I looked into several other shops. They were family run general stores with their small shelves crammed full of merchandise of all sorts used in simple households. The grocery store sold what were the staple produce: cabbage, cauliflower, hot peppers, and green beans. The Kazang Hotel had a big sign but limited space that clearly could offer only very small dark rooms. I walked into a store where the owner was playing cards with friends, including a soldier whose uniform showed a swastika on the shoulder. I asked what the name of their card game was. The owner said “marriage game”. As I left I said “I hope you will all get married”. The owner laughed: “We are already married”. The shopkeeper next door was counting the money she had made that day. Prominent among her merchandise on display were Hacky Sack balls.
Young monks were playing Hacky Sack in the courtyard of the dzong a few hundred yards away. They were good at keeping the wire ball aloft by their kicks. The Wangdue Phodrang Dzong is one of Bhutan’s oldest; it still has wooden shingles. Inside the Dzong’s chapel, monks rolled prayer wheels. Some ordinary Bhutanese arrived and joined them to roll the wheels as well. There were stacks of bags of agricultural seeds in the chapel, to be “consecrated,” our guide said. The Dzong was built as a fortress at this strategic location on a promontory overlooking the meeting point of the Sunkosh and Tangmachu Rivers. The legend is that Zhabdrung who constructed it named the Dzong after a boy he saw building a sand fortress on the bank of the river below. The Dzong was built using stone masonries from India who then settled across the river in a village which still exists.
Not far from here Indians were now building Bhutan’s latest dam. The Gammon India Co. was the general contractor of the dam. The trucks used on the job were Tatas, the products of another Indian company. One was transporting Indian workers to the site. Indians financed all the cost of the project with a 40% grant and 60% loan. They will be paid back by the hydroelectric power that the dam will produce beginning in 2014. The gas for cars in Bhutan was also supplied by Indian gas stations. An Indian company built and maintained the roads as Project Datak.
Suiting Indian workers, the climate here was more tropical than mountainous. This was a heavily wooded area. On a walk in the jungle we could see small monkeys sitting on the branches of trees.
The overwhelming majority of Bhutanese work in farms. In Paro a young woman was our host for a visit to her family’s house on the farm. Her parents were both working in the field. She had just finished the two year course of the school of management and was looking for a different job than farming.
The house was built of pounded mud. It was a two story structure with wooden beams supporting the upper floor. The ground floor was used as a barn. The living quarters were on the second floor. We reached it by climbing an outside ladder. There was a separate shack on one corner of the yard where the family cooked the food for the cows and distilled Ara, a grain liquor made on special occasions.
At the entrance to the upper floor sat the grandfather. In his 90s, he was fit enough to climb the steep ladder. He had his own room. There were two teenage sons. They slept in the same room which had one bed and several mattresses. The walls of this room were covered with pictures of stars, singers, and soccer players, all cut out from magazines. There were also pictures of the king and his father. The books on the study desk included the Oxford International Learner’s Dictionary, a volume on economics, and the Bhutan Civic book which was a general work with excerpts from a broad range of writers, including a French author.
The young woman had her own room. Here the pictures posted on the walls included a photo of San Francisco’s “crooked” Lombard street from a calendar that had been given to her. It felt rather strange to see it here as this address was so close to where I lived. The parents’ room also enclosed the chapel of the house. Called choesum, this was an elaborately decorated alcove. The kitchen had what the guide referred to as a “a modern stove”. This was the warmest place and “parents sometimes slept here on cold nights.”
As in Wangdue Phodrang, the Dzong in Paro was built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, in the middle of the 17th century, in the form of a fortress to defend against repeated invasion from Tibet. It was erected on the ruins of an 8th century monastery that had been built by Guru Rinpoche. Hence it is called the Fortress on a Heap of Jewels. Burned in a fire of 1907, the Dzong has been reconstructed and is deemed to be Bhutan’s finest. Its gleaming whitewashed walls tower over the valley. A mural of a variation of mandala unique to Bhutan and an exceptionally carved wood interior are among its hallmarks. The original old wooden bridge over the Paro River had been reconstructed; it could be removed to protect the Dzong against invaders. The Paro Dzong also had a watchtower. This doubled as a dungeon and ammunition store. The watchtower now houses Bhutan’s National Museum.
We could see the old weaponry in the Museum. There was a collection of old textiles and another of thangka paintings which translate a written religious text into graphic signs. A glass cabinet displayed maps of ancient stone-forts. There is evidence that this country was inhabited as early as 4,000 years ago. The artifacts existing in the Museum, however, were all dated from much later periods. What is known about early history of Bhutan is mostly based on legend and folklore as only a few old manuscripts have survived.
Not all dzongs are ancient; one was built as recently as 1997. On the other hand, some old dzongs still remain to be discovered in Bhutan. That is why the young Swiss archeologist I met was here. She had come to assist her professor in digging around a newly discovered old dzong. She said there were two categories of old dzongs, the earlier and the younger. The earlier were built “free on rocks,” the younger ones “on mandala directions.”
We were talking at the foot of Tiger’s Nest before starting a hike that is almost obligatory for all tourists. Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest) is a monastery built in 1692 around the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months after subduing the local demon. He had flown here on the back of a tigress, a manifestation of his consort Yeshe Tsogyal. A fire in 1998 destroyed that structure and its contents. It has been rebuilt since. From the valley we could see it on the mountain half-covered by clouds, but even at the 8,200 feet where we our trail began only the outline of the monastery could be discerned. We were going to walk another 1000 feet for a better look. Others chose to ride horses.
On the path through blue pines there were clearings where we could see the magnificent scenery below. There were also several souvenir vendors with their “local” wares spread on the ground. One was a small silver vile with inlaid turquoise which Sanom, the vendor, said contained aphrodisiac liquid. Penis signs were present in various forms along the way, including the head of the walking stick we were furnished and the spigot of a running water fountain. Like most tourists we stopped at a landing which had a teahouse and Cafeteria. Sitting outside we had our closest view of Tiger’s Nest, perched 3000 feet above the valley, obstructed only by the ubiquitous prayer flags.
Bhutan’s monasteries (goembas) are located in caves and other remote places which would allow the monks peace and solitude. The rest of its 2002 religious buildings did not have that requirement. These include chortens which contain religious relics, and temples (lhakhangs).
Paro’s Kyichu Lhakhang is one of Bhutan’s oldest temples, the survivor from among the 108 built in 659 by the King of Tibet to defeat evil. On the day of our visit a special religious ceremony was being held there. There were monks, and nuns, and a priest. They chanted prayers from old Tibetan texts. There was also music from Bhutanese instruments of flute, telescopic trumpet, and drums.
In the courtyard of the temple we noticed a pile of iron links. These had been forged by Bhutan’s 15th century bridge builder, Thanktong Gyalpo. According to our guide “he built 108 iron bridges. He was the one who originated the use of iron chains in making suspension bridges.” None of those remains standing, but the iron from one of them was used in a bridge we were shown later that day. On the way back, however, we saw men using bows and arrows now imported from the United States as they engaged in their ancient sport of archery. [photo essay]