By Raji Menon
Raji Menon visits Bhutan, the only place to have turned its back on consumerism and modernism to prioritize happiness and health, and returns with some valuable lessons it has to teach us
Bhutan to me was a magical secret world where Buddhism, history, the Himalayas and happiness were woven together to form an intricate web of mystery. It is home to the happiest people on earth, according to the Gross National Happiness measure that was invented here. In addition, its close ties with India (no visa required for Indians) and its commitment to using its limited resources to provide free healthcare and education to its people, make the Bhutan tourism tagline, ‘Happiness is a place’ more than just a slogan.
I had done all the mandatory reading on Bhutan. There were a series of rules instituted by royal decree in order to build national identity (synonymous with Drukpa identity). These included wearing the traditional dress to work and to monasteries, and buildings constructed with multi-coloured wood frontages, small arched windows, and sloping roofs. I also learnt about the stringent Tobacco Control Act that regulates Tobacco and tobacco products. And about the many people who seemed to have been utterly enchanted by the beauty and serenity of a land that is so close to mine, and yet has remained mysteriously medieval and modern. I was intrigued, albeit sceptical – could happiness in a highly regulated monarchy be possible?
Bhutan was awash with a gentle rain when I landed at Paro. I was still lost in the dramatic views of the Everest and Kanchenjunga seen from my short flight from Bagdogra, and the descent to Paro. Spectacular was the word that popped into my mind. On the drive from the airport I noticed that almost every home or shop had potted flowering plants grown in upcycled containers! The Bhutanese believe that flowers bring good luck. And they grow them in tyres, tins, paint buckets, tea pots, cement bags, drums….
My taxi was adorned with prayer flags, and my driver, Jigme, had a playlist that included John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High, Bollywood and Bhutanese songs with dreamy flutes and other woodwinds enhancing each note. And he sang along. The drive was picturesque with villages, rice fields, apple orchards and temples dotting the mountainscape. There were open markets where Jigme stopped, insisting I sample some boiled corn. School children smiled and waved at me – girls in their kiras and boys looking dashing in their ghos. I noticed the glimmers of a smile on my face.
I saw so much but I feel like I barely scratched the surface. I learnt that Bhutan has only one psychiatrist. It has no hunger problems, crime is nonexistent and there is practically no corruption. It is forbidden to kill animals (any animals!) and most Bhutanese are vegetarians. Meat is imported. There are no lawyers in Bhutan. Jigme told me being a lawyer is illegal. Bhutan’s national identity is intertwined closely with its religious identity as a Buddhist nation, with Buddhism influencing both the daily life of the people and the government. The Bhutanese live harmoniously with nature and with each other, maintain a strong sense of community, simplicity, and have a wonderful sense of humour.
I arrived at Paro and immediately continued to Thimpu, a 90-min car ride. I visited Punakha, which is the crux of two rivers and has a lush fertile landscape, returning to Paro to end my visit with a hike to Tiger’s Nest.
The Iron Bridge Temple – Thangton Gyelpo was a Tibetan spiritual master who brought the knowledge of how to work with iron to Bhutan. He built some beautiful temples, one nunnery and a few iron bridges that still stand. I stood before one of them, the Tachog Lhakhang Dzong built in the late 1300s. Dzongs are fortresses built in a distinctive architectural style symbolic of Bhutan and South Tibet. As I walked across the swaying bridge and the gushing river below, I was reminded of a Jewish saying “The entire world is a very narrow bridge. And the principle is not to ever be afraid.”
Thimpu is a town bustling with people in the national dress and youngsters in trendy clothes. It is the only capital in the world without traffic lights. The city has retained its culture and old-world charm and the major landmarks are the Tashichho Dzong and the National Memorial Chorten.
|A Bhutanese seller outside a traditional shop in Bhutan|
I walked through the main thoroughfare and shopping area, Norzin Lam and then headed to the Memorial Chorten, built in 1974 to honour the memory of the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. This is a distinctive building with golden spires, wrathful looking deities and elaborate mandala paintings, and a place where locals meet, pray and meditate. This chorten does not contain sacred relics but has elaborate religious paintings and complex tantric statues depicting Buddhist philosophy.
Thimpu has two magnificent dzongs. The impressively large Tashichho Dzong is located close to Thimphu town, next to the banks of the Wangchhu River (which flows through Bhutan, India, Bangladesh, and becomes a part of the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh) and has been the seat of the government since 1952. It houses the throne room and offices of the king, the secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance. Other government departments are housed in buildings nearby. The Simtokha Dzong is Bhutan’s oldest surviving dzong.
The sense of happiness that seemed to follow me around led me to watch an archery competition at Changlinithang Stadium. Archery is both a sport and passion in Bhutan though the traditional bamboo has been increasingly replaced by hi-tech carbon bows. The impromptu song and slow motion dance performed each time a player hits the mark, or the verbal exchanges and combat that the teams break into when someone misses, make it even more entertaining. My smile remained firmly in place.
And there is so much more one can do in Thimpu. Like visit the new Textile Museum, the National Institute for Zorig Chusum or the painting school, the post office where you can get a stamp printed with your face on it, and the Takin zoo. My smile just kept getting bigger.
|Buddhist monks in a monastery in Thimpu|
I reached Punkha Dzong in the afternoon. The monks were relaxed, and the sunlight seemed to make the painted building come alive. Punthang Dechen Phodrang (The Palace of Great Bliss) was built in 1637 by the Zhabdrung. The gigantic dzong was damaged six times by fire, once by flood and once by an earthquake. The Machen Lhakhang, a temple inside the dzong enshrines the mummified body of the Zhabdrung who passed away in retreat here in 1651. I was awed by the giant statues of the Buddha, the painted ceilings and walls, and the painting depicting the 12 episodes of the life of Buddha.
Paro is a lush beautiful valley, surrounded by paddy fields. It is also a historic town with many sacred sites and historical buildings scattered through the area. The Rinpung Dzong hosts the famous Paro festival (of masks) and is one of the finest examples of a Bhutanese monastery. Beyond this, there is the National Museum with a rich stamp collections, slate carvings, Thangka paintings, pre-historic items, jewellery, traditional weapons and other articles reflecting Bhutanese culture.
The last stop on my own happiness journey was the stunning Taktsang Lhakhang Monastery or Tiger’s Nest, believed to be the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan. This is the most sacred monastery in the country and is precariously perched high up on a sheer cliff at a dizzying 10,000 feet above sea level.
Why is it called the Tiger’s Nest? Legend has it that in 8th century Guru Rinpoche, also known as Padmasambhava and one of the holiest figures in Mahayana Buddhism, flew to this exact spot from Tibet on the back of a tigress (who was a manifestation of his divine consort). He came to subdue a demon and then took residence in a cave where he meditated for three years, three months and three days. He then started the conversion of Bhutanese into Buddhism. The monastery was built in 1692 around the cave where Guru meditated. No trip to Bhutan would be complete without a visit to this sacred site.
The trek took a good part of the day, and it isn’t easy. The first and last parts are the hardest, especially the last 700-odd steps. Every time I was tired and out of breath, the precariously perched monastery beckoned me. When I reached the monastery, past the lovely waterfall and across the steep steps, I was filled with exhilaration. As the Lama blessed me, I was filled with peace. My journey seemed complete.
My trip was short, only 10 days, and they were spent in near idyllic surroundings, with the peaceful sound of prayer wheels being turned by mountain streams and the smell of pine trees. I listened to monks chant, ate spicy ema datshi, found ample vegetarian local cuisine, watched masked dancers, visited dzongs, met a Tibetan healer, and drank butter tea while listening to stories about the “mi-goi” as the yeti is called here. I left Bhutan with images of a land where people painted giant phalluses on walls and other places to ward away evil spirits, celebrated national holidays like the Blessed Rainy, commerated the end of the monsoon with all-day archery contests, and where the current queen plays basketball, and the previous king’s love of mountain biking gave rise to a holiday dedicated to the sport called the Tour of the Dragon. And while the modern outside world slowly seeps into Bhutan – monks have cell phones and are happy to Whatsapp you their morning prayer – the Land of the Thunder Dragon remains an intriguing mix.
A little of that happiness rubbed off on me as I succumbed completely to the beautiful mountains, the dzongs, the rivers and the changing landscapes. Very often, travelling sets change in motion, like a seed that grows slowly but moves us permanently. I had forgotten that in order to do more of one thing, one must do less of something else. I had forgotten to just be happy.
About the author : Raji Menon supports green innovation, grows her own greens and travels to document the interconnection of lifestyles, health, and food.
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