Bhutan – Abode of Mist & Mysticism (2006)

Bhutan – Abode of Mist & Mysticism (2006)

You’re on cloud nine, literally, as your vehicle teeters precariously on the hairpin bends that dot the 171 kilometer-long road from Phuentsholing to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan.  On one side is the lush green valley polka-dotted with red rhododendron blossoms and on the other, steep hillsides with their stately pines, but all you can see is the sensuous soft cotton  wool mist that envelopes everything around you. The dew drops caress your face and the pine scent makes you heady. You feel as though you have walked into a dream scene in a Bollywood movie. Visibility is near-zero, but that does not deter your competent driver from steering on regardless, setting your nerves on edge. You crane your neck out of the window hoping to discern the outline of the road, but can hardly see ahead of the front wheel.  All you can do is to either collapse in a nervous heap waiting for your vehicle to plunge into the valley below or pretend you’re on an airplane cruising among clouds. I did the latter.

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Bhutan is a veritable Himalayan oasis – pine and juniper-scented, algae-festooned and emerald green every inch of the way.  A seasoned traveler can at once spot the difference. Bhutan is quite unlike the other hill stations which have sprouted all over the once-verdant Himalayan slopes. You can at once recognize the antiquity of the vegetation in this mountain kingdom – the tropical forest floor is piled high with foliage and dead leaves, the tree-canopy is near complete allowing only vertical shafts of sunlight to slice through, cobweb-like algae flutter like buntings in a birthday party, crickets provide the background music to the myriad birdcalls that fill the valley. And then you spot the occasional red-robed monk hurrying on his way to evening prayer at the lamasery.


Besides, this mountain kingdom has none of the unsightly buildings that pass for resorts, hotels and guest houses in other hill stations.  Bhutan’s buildings are traditional and harmonious with their surroundings, imparting a sense of continuity, serenity and a respect for heritage handed down over the generations. Later I learn that every building in Bhutan must conform to specifications laid down by a royal decree.  Thus the uniform architectural style you see is not incidental, but deliberate and well-thought out, to preserve the character of a landscape.


Bhutanese bring the same sense of deliberation and reflection to most things they do. For instance, the Bhutanese King since 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, first invented the indicator ‘Gross National Happiness’ to replace Gross Domestic Product which the rest of the world is obsessed with.  After all, as the Bhutanese argue, is not economic development a means to happiness rather than an end in itself?  If you wonder what this GNH might comprise, this is what a workshop held in 1999 had to say:  economic development cannot guarantee happiness, it must be deemed a necessary but not sufficient condition for happiness. GNH is a composite indicator which puts equal emphasis on environmental preservation, cultural promotion and good governance. Economic development itself is measured more in terms of access to health care and education rather than mere accumulation of wealth. Bhutanese want to’ weave development around people, not people around development”


But then, as you drive along the mountain roads, there is also evidence of wealth and modernity. You find the most modern cars, very often SUVs, almost all of them driven by women. There is no customs duty for import of cars into Bhutan and many Bhutanese have availed this concession to get themselves the latest models.  You also learn that in Bhutan, it is the women who inherit property!  And suddenly your cellphone rings – even in this wilderness – reminding you that Bhutanese are not shy of adopting technology they consider useful.


Our first stop is Thimphu, the capital.  But long before you reach Thimphu, you have the gurgling Wangchhu (chhu means river) for company.  There are very few hamlets on the way to Thimphu and occasionally you come across clusters of cheerful prayer flags and an occasional chorten. The mist still clings to the valleys like a jealous mistress, but we are now above the valley and into the sunny heights. Once in a while you come across a colourful chorten where a prayer wheel is turned by a gurgling mountain stream! Inside the prayer wheel are scrolls with the Buddhist incantation ‘Om Mani Padme Hum” which Bhutanese believe will earn them religious merit.


But not all streams turn only prayer wheels. At least one of them – the Wang chhu river – turns BHEL turbines to produce electricity. Financed and built by India, Chukha and Tala hydroelectric projects are icons of Indo-Bhutan friendship and goodwill. Chukha build some years ago, supplies over 250 megawatts of electricity to the Indian grid. Now Tala, a massive 1000 megawatt run-of-the-river project, is nearing completion and will supply power to far away Indian cities like Delhi, Lucknow and Calcutta – and relieve us of powercuts!  We make a detour to visit the Tala dam and speak to the Managing Director Mr. Khazhanchi who assures us that neither dam displaced even a single dwelling unit. We are taken to the mouth of the 23 kilometer long head race tunnel and proudly shown around the dam site. The dam walls are being painstakingly painted in typical Bhutanese motifs.


The other major Indian presence on Bhutanese soil of course is the Dantak project of Border Roads Organization which has built the entire arterial road network in this country. When Jawaharlal Nehru came to visit Bhutan, he had to travel on horseback. Now we can glide on serpentine macadam that winds its way up and down the forbidding mountain ranges.  Dantak signs greet you around the bends, exhorting you to drive carefully and proclaiming ‘Death before dishonour’ which is its motto. We’re given a warm reception by Dantak chief Brigadier S.Pillai who has assembled his impressive team of engineers who brave extreme weather conditions to make passage safe for people like us.  Dantak is a household name in Bhutan and enjoys the affection and respect, especially of the older generation of  Bhutanese who had to endure several days of arduous trek to reach their relatives, but now drive in the comfort of buses and cars. Incidentally, in the border town of Phuentsholing, the front gate of the Dantak mess is in Bhutan while its rear gate is inside Indian territory.


Thimphu is a picture postcard valley enjoyed from the viewpoint on one of the surrounding mountain tops. The main assembly building stands out majestically among the lesser buildings, on the banks of the Thimphu chhu. Bhutanese buildings are richly painted with vegetable dyes and are a visual feast. In traditional Drukpa homes (Druk means Land of the Thunder Dragon), fodder and firewood is stored on the ground floor, livestock on the first and the residents live on the second.  Corncobs and red chillies are hung out to dry in many of the houses. Several generations live in the same dwelling unit which is usually very large with an enclosed courtyard.  But Thimphu today is mainly urban dwellings with its share of apartment complexes, although these are also built in traditional style.  Unlike in Phuentsholing and Paro and other places, there are a few jeans-clad women in Thimphu. Otherwise, Bhutanese men and women wear their elegant traditional dress – called kra????. There are also night clubs and bars and restaurants frequented by the younger crowd.  Not all Bhutanese seem comfortable with the changing lifestyles though.


The King’s palace is tucked away on a remote hill which is out of bounds for visitors. But the King and the crown prince travel widely in Bhutan, sometimes on foot as well.  We stroll through Thimphu’s lone high street crowded with Nepali and Indian workers. There are no traffic lights in Thimphu and the police box in the main market is – you guessed it right – designed in Bhutanese style. Bhutanese handicrafts are exquisite – belts, shawls, bags, masks and thangkas, but hugely expensive. In fact, traveling in Bhutan itself is expensive. In order to discourage indiscriminate inflow of tourists who could alter the ethos of this isolated kingdom, Bhutan charges a hefty daily visa fee from all foreign visitors except Indians. That effectively keeps away the non-serious tourists but does not deter the determined traveler in search of that elusive Shangri-la. Bhutan limits the number of visitors to six to seven thousand a year, which explains why its slopes are not littered with Styrofoam and plastic!


This and other such isolationist policies have added to the mystic allure of Bhutan. In an increasingly globalised world, Bhutan remains fiercely aloof and mysterious, a bewitching Greta Garbo of the Greater Himalayas.  Tree-felling is rigorously controlled and regulated for own use and there is hardly any trade in timber which could have brought easy revenues to this tropical haven.  A highly literate people who place a premium on girls’ education, a conscientious and enlightened king with his own views on what is desirable and good for his country and a sparse and dispersed population – Bhutan has just 8 lakh people – have all helped this country retain its rich and diverse bio-paradise. .


The next day we drive to Punakha with its imposing monastery at the confluence of the Mo and Pho rivers.  Built in 1637, Punakha resembles a gigantic ship. The Punakha valley enjoys a salubrious climate and used to be the winter capital. The Punakha Dzong is a maze of shrines and courtyards which come alive during the annual festivals. The body of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the founder of the Bhutanese Tantrik Buddism is buried in one of the shrines. After the visit to Punakha monastery, we spread our wares on the banks of the river and have a hearty picnic. Bhutanese meals comprise red organic rice and various stews.  In fact, virtually all the food grown in Bhutan is organic. A typical Bhutanese delicacy is the hemadatsu, a stew made entirely of chillies in melted cottage cheese.


The highlight of our visit to Bhutan is an arduous trek up a steep slope to the Thaksang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery situated on a hilltop at a height of 9678 feet.  Even as we drive into Paro, we can see the monastery perched on a rocky outcrop. We’re told it was featured in the National Geographic as early as 1924 – as much for its remarkable location as for its splendid architecture. Legend has it that in the 8th century, Guru Rinpoche, the revered deity flew in on a tigress’s back from Tibet and landed on the rock where he meditated for three months. During this period, he converted virtually all of Paro to Tantric Buddhism.  We begin our climb with some foreboding, craning our necks to ascertain the distance to be traversed. At the foot is a hamlet with a prayer wheel. We’re told it is imperative to turn the wheel and pray to accomplish this arduous climb. We huff and puff and halt frequently to catch our breath.  We can hardly spare a glance for the dazzling forest of rhododendrons and oak, minding every step and avoiding pitfalls and slippery rocks. We’re easily overtaken by a small party of elderly British travelers which adds to our sense of foreboding.  Yet we plod on bravely. After a good three hours of arduous climb that digested all the hemadatsu we had ingested the previous day,  we reach a ledge from where steep steps lead you to the front of a roaring sliver of a waterfall. Prayer flags are festooned all around and the views from here are stunning. Nevertheless, all you have eyes for, are the crooked and chipped stone steps for a mis-step could land you into the valley yonder.


Finally we reach the monastery where entry is through passes only. Fortunately, our passes had already been procured and we troop in. Like all Buddhist shrines, there is a faint fragrance of incense and butter lamps burn steadily in silver cups. The deafening roaring silence so typical of a secluded Buddhist monastery adds to the soothing serenity of the chapel. The breath-taking views of Paro valley from the windows is a bonus. We spend the better part of the day pretending to admire the views, while our real agenda was to rest our aching legs and pluck up courage to face the equally steep and treacherous descent.


Paro is the airport town – the airport is also maintained by Dantak – and for most visitors, their first introduction to Bhutan. It is a sprawling valley – one of the few in all of Bhutan –  through which Paro chhu meanders gracefully. Everytime plane lands or takes off, the traffic is halted on both sides of the airport. Paro bazaar is a feast to behold and unlike any other. Every shop conforms to the Bhutanese architectural style.  Paro Dzong – the administrative office – and Bhutan’s main museum, a fetching circular building situated above it – dominate the Paro skyline. After wandering through the bazaar, we visit the  museum which houses typical Bhutanese artifacts.


And our last venture in Bhutan is to make the regulation visit to Chelela Pass, the highest pass in this part of the world. The steep drive up to the pass through dense jungle is a treat. En route, we stop at a trail that leads all the way up to another precariously perched monastery – this time, exclusively for women monks. They retreat to this lofty abode and stay there through winter, meditating, contemplating and initiating their novice sisters into the rigours of monkhood. One thing is for sure – whether you’re a monk or a lay citizen in Bhutan, you need to be very fit.  At Chalela Pass, situated at 3398 meters, you realize how unfit you are. The rarified oxygen strains your carbon-choked city lungs. Mt. Jhomolhari refuses to lift her veil of mist, so we have to turn back disappointed. We do, however, get a good glimpse of the Ho valley and the Tibetan peaks beyond.


The Bhutanese, like most of their counterparts in other Himalayan retreats, are rooted in Buddhism. Religion plays a vital role in defining their beliefs, faith, superstitions and practices and indeed their very way of life. Bhutan is a theocratic monarchy where Je Kenpo, the religious head enjoys equal status with the King himself.  There is a well-established system of succession and Bhutan has suffered few conflicts in an era when the rest of the world is witnessing violent cataclysms. Yet, the Bhutanese King refuses to be anachronistic in this age of democracy, and is currently in the process of consulting his people – through public readings – on the provisions of a draft new Constitution for his country.  In the not-too-distant future, Bhutan will have an elected parliament even as the King steps back to cede power to his people.



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