Bhutan, some say, means the ‘End of Bhot’ (the old name of Tibet) and some say it refers to the ‘Land of the Bhutias’ (as people from Tibet were called). The Bhutanese themselves refer to their country as Druk Yul, or ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’. Its history is not to be found on display in tourist-friendly museums but on the roads and the countryside, as a part of everyday life. Chortens dot the mountainous landscape even when branded stores are beginning to line the roads.
Situated on the southeast slope of the Himalayas and sharing its borders with Tibet and Assam, you can see why I wanted to explore this fascinating country….
Colourful Weekend Market On The Banks Of The River In Thimphu
The market is like an open museum. People from far-off villages, including the nomadic yak herders from the mountains, come down with their wares which include everything from ancient manuscripts written in Dzonghka, to musical instruments ranging from ordinary oboes and cymbals to the downright peculiar such as trumpets made of thigh bones and even 7-ft long collapsible trumpets!
The Paro Tsechu is a five-day religious and cultural extravaganza which reaches its climax with the unfurling of the 18 sq meter Thongdrol (a religious appliquéd fabric) at 3 am in the morning. This is followed by the Cham dance dramas enacted by monks and laymen. The sight of the dancers in their astonishingly rich costumes with intricate designs, and the luxuriance of the ankle-length robes with their wide swirling sleeves, is a sight to behold. Even with their heavy costumes and elaborate headgear, they do not falter or miss a step as they whirl and pirouette and do synchronised high jumps on the hard, stone slabs.
Life moves at its own leisurely pace in Bhutan, considered the world’s most intact Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhist culture that has never been conquered, invaded or colonised.
Dzongs are fortress-monasteries which serve as seats of religious, military, administrative and social centres of a district. Punakha Dzong, the most impressive of all the Dzongs in Bhutan, is situated at the base of Mo (mother) Chu and Pho (father) Chu rivers. The shimmering blue of the river, reflects the towering white- washed walls of the imposing structure. This Dzong, which was the ancient capital city of Bhutan, is now the winter residence of the Dratshang (central body of monks). A walk over the elaborately painted gold and red wooden cantilever bridge, brings you to the Dzong which is surrounded by rows of flowering jacaranda trees.
The two hour drive from Thimphu to the ancient capital of Punakha, inevitably becomes three because one ends up spending more time than planned at the Dochu La (Bhutan’s most famous Mountain Pass), which gives the greatest panoramic view of the Himalayas. At the top of the pass, the road bifurcates; and on the small elevation in the middle, the 108 chortens built by the Queen stand as atonement for the loss of life caused by flushing out militants in 2005. The route from Dochu La to Punakha is one of the most scenic routes. The mountains are resplendent with rhododendrons which get replaced by the white blossoms of the magnolia tree as the road reaches the lower altitude of Punakha.
The three hour hike to the Taktsang Monastery, the iconic image of Bhutan, is de rigueur for any trip to Bhutan. Taktshang, or ’tiger’s nest’, is perched on the side of a sheer cliff, 900m above the floor of the valley. Legend goes that Guru Rinpoche, rode here from Tibet on a tigress (who was his consort) in the 8th century to subdue the local demon and converted the valley to Buddhism. His meditation cave forms the crux of the monastery, which clings to a vertiginous hill face. For the first hour of the three-hour long circuitous hike through thick pine forests, you will actually be climbing away from the monastery. On the far side of the chasm, the white walls with maroon band gleam from the top of an imposing sheer cliff and the swirling mists, weaving through the surrounding thick forest, make it one of the most spectacular holy sites to behold.
Nuns In Kila Goemba
Kila Goemba, built in the early 9th century, is one of the oldest of the seven nunneries in Bhutan. A fire destroyed most of the original structure which was ultimately rebuilt and officially established in 1986 as an Anim Dratshang (religious community of Buddhist nuns). The entire structure nestles on a craggy patch of a mountain and is surrounded by a lush forest dominated by tall firs. It is a series of rooms, perched precariously along the rock face. Here the nuns, called Anims, live a life of contemplation and seclusion, with daily prayer and spiritual practice.
Words & Photos: Kongkona Sarma
This article was first published in Eclectic (January 2010) issue