Abode of mist and mysticism

Print edition : July 14, 2006

Bhutan is a veritable Himalayan oasis, where religion and mysticism play a vital role in defining life.

The Thaksangor Tiger's Nest monastery in Paro, at a height of 2,900 metres.-

YOU are on cloud nine, literally, as your vehicle teeters precariously on the hairpin bends that dot the 171-kilometre-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. Dewdrops 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 either to collapse in a nervous heap waiting for your vehicle to plunge into the valley below or to pretend you are on an airplane cruising among clouds. I did the latter.

Bhutan is a veritable Himalayan oasis - pine and juniper-scented, algae-festooned and emerald green every inch of the way. It is quite unlike the other hill stations that have sprouted all over the once-verdant Himalayan slopes. The vegetation is denser and greener and it is also virgin - 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 chirp as if to compete with the full-throated calls of a myriad song birds. And then you spot the occasional red-robed monk hurrying on his way to evening prayer at the lamasery.

THE PARO VALLEY and the town.-

Thankfully, Bhutan has none of the unsightly buildings that pass for resorts, hotels and guesthouses in other hill stations. All its buildings are traditional and harmonious with their surroundings, imparting a sense of continuity, serenity and a respect for heritage honed over many generations. You 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 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, the Bhutanese argue (and who can disagree with them?) economic development is only 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 that 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 than in terms of 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. Cellphones ring - even in this wilderness - reminding you that Bhutanese are not shy of adopting technology they consider useful. 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 made use of this concession to get themselves the latest models. You also learn that in Bhutan it is the women who inherit property.

THE PUNAKHA TEMPLE complex at the confluence of the Mo and Pho rivers.-

Our first stop is Thimphu. 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 in the sunny heights. Once in a while you come across a colourful chorten where a prayer wheel is turned by a gurgling creek. 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 Wangchhu - turns Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. (BHEL) turbines to produce electricity. Financed and built by India, the Chukha and Tala hydroelectric projects are icons of India-Bhutan friendship and goodwill. Chukha built some years ago, supplies over 250 megawatts of electricity to the Indian grid. Now Tala Hydroelectric Power Authority, a massive 1,020 MW run-of-the-river project, is nearing completion and will supply power to faraway Indian cities such as Delhi, Lucknow and Kolkata.

A prayer wheel at the temple.-

We make a detour to visit the Tala dam and speak to the Authority's Managing Director R.N. Khazanchi who assures us that neither dam displaced even a single dwelling unit. We are taken to the mouth of the 23-km-long head race tunnel and proudly shown around the dam site. The dam walls are being painstakingly painted with typical Bhutanese motifs.

The other major Indian presence on Bhutanese soil, of course, is the Dantak project of the Border Roads Organisation, 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. At Thimphu, we are 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 travellers 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 mountaintops. The main assembly building stands out majestically among the lesser buildings, on the banks of the Thimphuchhu. 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 are 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. Several generations live in the same dwelling unit, which is usually very large with an enclosed courtyard.

PRAYER WHEELS AT a monastery.-

But Thimphu today has 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 gho (men) and kra (women). A little bit of research reveals that the fabric goes all the way from Ludhiana and that the Bhutanese no longer weave their own cloth. In Thimphu, there are bars and restaurants open late into the night and are frequented by young crowds. 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. 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, travelling 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 tourist but does not deter the determined traveller in search of that elusive Shangri-la. Bhutan limits the number of visitors to about 7,000 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. Tree-felling is rigorously controlled and regulated for own use and there is hardly any trade in timber that 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 definitive views on what is desirable and good for his country, and a sparse and dispersed population - Bhutan has just eight lakh people - have all helped Bhutan remain an unparalleled 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. After the visit to the 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.

A COLOURFUL CHORTEN in Dachula.-

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 9,678 feet (2,900 metres). Even as we drive into Paro, we can see the monastery perched on a rocky outcrop. We are told it was featured in 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' 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 trepidation, craning our necks to ascertain the distance to be traversed. 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 are easily overtaken by a small party of elderly British travellers, which adds to our sense of inadequacy. Yet we plod on bravely. After a good three hours of arduous climb 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 misstep could land you into the valley yonder.

Finally, we reach the monastery where entry is through passes. Like all Buddhist shrines, there is a faint fragrance of incense and butter lamps burn steadily in silver cups. The deafening silence so typical of a secluded Buddhist monastery adds to the soothing serenity of the chapel. The breath-taking views of the Paro valley from the windows are 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 the Paro chhu meanders gracefully. Every time a 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 artefacts.

A bridge across the Paro Chhu.-

And our last venture in Bhutan is to make the regulation visit to the 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 are a monk or a lay citizen in Bhutan, you need to be very fit. At Chelela Pass, situated at 3,398 m, you realise how unfit you are. The rarefied 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 and mysticism play 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 that will usher in democracy. In the not-too-distant future, Bhutan will have a fully elected Parliament even as the King steps back to cede power to his people.

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