It was April 2016,year of the “Fire Male Monkey” when we sneaked into Land of the Thunder Dragon, the world’s only Vajrayana Buddhist kingdom.
To understand Bhutan you have to learn it’s richly vivid symbols and iconography deeply entwined with it’s culture.Not in words or manuscripts , but the country’s identity is strongly embedded in colorful paintings and murals on the walls of monasteries and Dzongs scattered all over this Eastern Himalayan land.So when you look deeply at the stunningly beautiful Bhavachakras painted on walls of the fortresses,remember that each small detail sends an ancient message – like the Pig,Snake and Bird found all over such murals depict the three poisons in life,namely Ignorance,Attachment & Aversion.And the fierce demon with flaming eyes are not your enemies but Dharmapalas to protect you from the three poisons. The name Bhutan means the end of Bod/Tibet,as the high plateau of Tibet tapers down to an end here in the east.
But before all that,we caress the roads…towards Jaigaon,Phuntseoling and up towards Thimpu.
It’s a quite green corner of the world,the North Bengal Doars in Darjeeling district where the carpet of tea – gardens stretch on both sides of the tarmac.Soul soothing rides.
The smell of tender tea leaves hang in the air ,here in the foothills at the border with Bhutan.Hasimara is the nearest rail head ,18 kms from the Bhutanese border town of Phuntseoling.The Indian town of Jaigaon, clustered and crowded gives way all of sudden to Phuntseoling,open and spread out,separated only by a big border gate which marks out a stark difference on both sides.The Royal Government of Bhutan cleared our papers to enter the last Shangri-la by late afternoon that hot April day.
Wind your clock forward by twenty five minutes and lose yourself in the mist ridden road to Thimpu,the capital city.A gorgeous ride up the valleys.
Late into that evening when the lights were twinkling in the town,Thimpu was damp and cold at 7375 feet altitude.It had rained heavily that day.The sudden cold air brought weird dreams that night as I tried to sleep – “I stand in a train which is moving through a dense forest and all trees are heaving with the rhythmic glowing of fireflies…the train moves slow,very slow and from within the tea – gardens below,I see the glowing eyes of …what seemed like a leopard in the dark,ready to pounce.I still stand and the train still moves but now even more slow.”I wake up before it stops completely.Thimpu was still dark.
Thimpu is changing and that too fast.That monster of 21st century globalization is bidding it’s time at the door.Early morning sunshine is slowly filling the valley.
The unabashedly large and presumptuous statue of bronze Buddha overlooks the valley from a ridge high above,built as a matter of pride for Bhutanese but the entire project seems a futile attempt at cultural vanity.We are in the land of happiness ,and we go and search for happy people at the National Memorial Chorten at the heart of the city and we do find some.Old and wrinkled people with big glees and spindling dharma – chakras in hand sit by the monument and look content.Education and Healthcare is free in Bhutan and they measure the kingdom’s development through a magical sounding index called Gross National Happiness which at it’s core philosophy states simply that the country will develop when it’s citizens will be happy.How apt! But don’t go looking for government officials going around and making people happy…the idea in itself is in a gestation stage in the kingdom and all it’s aspects are being probed earnestly.Not to mention the GNH has managed to catch the curiosity of others, especially the West.
The pilgrims perambulate the Memorial Chorten and smile with betel juice dripping from their mouth.The song of simple life humming in their lips.
As of me,I was just happy to be in a nation that takes Happiness into consideration.
Wandering around the city’s outskirts,we ended up at the enclosure of a strange looking creature – Takin, Bhutan’s national animal.By the enclosed meadows in the park ,loitered and grazed something that looked half cow and half goat.We stared curiously at the cow shaped body with an enlarged goat head and then we heard the local legend regarding the animal….The Divine Madman Lama Drukpa Kunley(interesting figure,he will appear again in our stories later on) mythically created this animal when once he had a cow and a goat for lunch together and belched,thus bringing the Takin into existence.Myths will always remain ahead of rationality and logic not because they are easy to grasp,but they are more interesting. More and more of Takins,ahead in the park and suddenly they raise their solemn grazing heads and listen intently to a noisy argument between a middle – aged Indian couple and their young clueless Bhutanese guide.I almost had a mind to butt in,but I learned calmness and poise from the composed Takins who had gone back to their contemplative grazing in the green and sunlit grass.
By evening dark clouds assailed the valley as we were strolling near the beautiful Clock Tower square and a light drizzle followed.
And then the next day happened the road to Punakha…Bhutan’s old center of activities.
The early morning road from Thimpu to Punakha passes through Dochula Pass,home of Druk Wangyal Chortens or popularly known as the 108 Memorial Chortens.Red and white elaborate stupas standing on a mound of green earth overlooking a beautiful monastery.On a clear sunny day,you can catch a glimpse of Gangkhar Puensam(24,840 feet) ,Bhutan’s highest peak from atop this pass which is also the highest unclimbed mountain in the world till date.
Many rugged and dusty turns later,the wind bitten road takes a downward plunge into the Punakha valley and the air turns warmer here suddenly. Punakha Dzong,the Palace of Great Happiness looms large and dominating on the horizon.In 17th century arrived Nyawang Namgyal,a political refugee from Tibet who united the clans of Bhutan and built fortresses to defend the small landlocked country from Tibetan invaders .Soon many of these fortresses or Dzongs sprung up all over the kingdom…but none so spectacular and large as this in Punakha.It is indeed a sight to behold ,the palace standing tall at the confluence of two rivers,Po Chu(Father river) and Mo Chu(Mother river) that flow from glaciers up north.
In modern Bhutan,these old Dzongs are centers of religious and cultural activities and sometimes local administration too.So the premises are swarming with resident monks and security officials keeping a close watch.
I stand on the eye – catching wooden bridge that crosses over to the Dzong and watch monks playing and bathing by the river below.
Wooden steps at the entrance takes you inside and the grandness of the fortress overwhelms you instantly.The Dzong is huge and yet there is such beauty in each detailed architecture,be it the wooden tapered roofs or gilded prayer wheels.Sunny courtyards give way to dark labyrinths inside the damp prayer halls and your eyes hurt at the bright sunshine falling over richly painted murals on walls.You can explore the place for an entire day and still not see all there is to see.Up and down many chambers we went through steep wooden stairs and the largest prayer hall is at the very rear.Large bronze gilded statues of the Buddhist pantheon stand in front while yak – butter lamps throw light on the ferocious demonic figures on wall paintings.The murals or paintings in the monasteries and Dzongs are akin visual textbooks of Tibetan Buddhism and to read them,one has to familiarize oneself with the complex and subtle symbology associated with it.The monster of Impermanence holds aloft the wheel of life depicting the system of cause and effect – Karma.
You walk round the main prayer hall and see the Buddha’s life story painted in loving detail all over the wall.The Sakyamuni’s journey from birth to enlightenment along with vivid symbols of demons,saints,monks,kings,storks,serpents and yakshas all looking alive through the colours,trying to speak to you.
The warm sunlight of Punakha valley somehow managed to seep through the small rectangular windows of the dzong and was falling on the mural of the Buddha sitting solemnly under the Bodhi tree.We made our way out of Punakha towards Gangtey valley.
The cold valley of Gangtey beckoned,the marshes of Phobjika where the Black necked cranes come visiting in winter months.Will some of them have lingered on till April?
We hoped some did…
Soumya D Jena