Nestled among the mountains of the mighty Himalayas. Mystical to many. You could, or atleast Pico Iyer did, call it “off the map”. Till a few years ago, this was the land of the unknown. Even now much of the country remains close to that. Bhutan or as the Bhutanese call it, Druk Yul, had been a “to do” for quite many years now.
We had a wonderful two week long holiday in this “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. That is what “Druk Yul” translates to. To say that this was possibly one of the most special places we’ve ever been to would be an understatement!
Bhutan isn’t exactly “foreign” to us Indians. The Indian Army protects Bhutan’s borders with China and also trains the Royal Bhutan Army. Even then very few venture out to Bhutan. Many of those who do, stick to the standard “tourist” circuit in the western part of Bhutan, namely Paro–Thimphu–Punakha. Our trip had this of course. But we went beyond, into central Bhutan. We landed in Paro, spent few days in Thimphu. Moved to Punakha for a few more. Then on to Trongsa for a couple more. Followed by the enchanting Bumthang and then the super special Phobjika valley before ending back in Paro. Unfortunately we could not include the eastern, and supposedly lovelier, parts of Bhutan. That remains for the next trip!
Bhutan for many is about Buddhism. For some others it is the bird life of the Eastern Himalayas in this unspoilt ecology. Some more come for the mystical festivals and rituals. Landscape lovers rejoice too. Bhutan is all this and so much more. This is an attempt to capture the gist of the Bhutan we saw. Hopefully I will do justice to it. This will be followed by more posts on pointed areas of interest. Throughout these posts I will be referring to “history” because the Bhutanese believe so. However many of these could well be called “mythology” I suppose. The lines between the two blur easily! I suppose not just in Bhutan when it comes down to religion!
Bhutan has managed to retain its own unique identity as a result of centuries of isolation from the world. Hard to imagine that there was no television or internet until a few years back!! Until the seventeenth century it was a land divided into multiple warring fiefdoms. The entire land was unified by a Lama called Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who had fled from the neighbouring country of Tibet. The language spoken is Dzongkha and there are various dialects of it across the country.
Buddhism was introduced in Bhutan sometime in the seventh century. It is believed that the Buddhist saint Padma Sambhava popularly known as Guru Rinpoche came to Bhutan in the eighth century. Buddhism is the predominant, and also state, religion in Bhutan. Religion plays a very important role in everyday life here. The omnipresent prayer wheels, fluttering prayer flags with the prayers written on them, monasteries clinging to the hillsides, robed monks walking around and Chortens (Stupas) at every other corner are testimony to this fact.
Bhutan has moved to a Constitutional Monarchy in the recent past. The second election ever was about to take place when we were leaving. The King remains head of the state. The current king Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk is the fifth king. The Wangchuk dynasty has ruled since the early 20th century.
There is a Dzong or a fortress at a strategic position in every significant place which serves like a district administration office in addition to housing monasteries and temples. The tsechus or festivals are held in the courtyards of the dzongs. In olden times these served as the defensive military checkposts and the warrior monks used to guard them. The buildings within the dzongs, and in fact all conventional Bhutanese buildings, are built out of wood. Nails and the likes are not used. The usage of wood makes them susceptible to fire. The usage of butter lamps within them for religious purposes have aided this too. Most have already faced the consequences and have had multiple fires through their history. Many have been razed to the ground by fire and have been rebuilt multiple times too!
Dzongs of Bhutan
The Tashichho Dzong in the capital city of Thimphu is the seat of the government. The royal palace and the parliament are located next to it. It also serves as the summer residence of the head Lama.
The picturesque Punakha Dzong located in the old capital of Punakha city was where the administrative centre and seat of the government was till Thimphu became the capital. Punakha dzong is still the winter residence of the central monastic body and the Lama resides here during winter. It is an important place for the royal family. Important events like coronation of the king and the royal wedding took place here. The dzong houses important relics and remains of the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.
The largest dzong is the Choetse Dzong located in Trongsa in central Bhutan and an important one from administration point of view. The King gets his crown only if he has worked as the district administrator of Trongsa district. The third king did not get his crown as the second king passed away at an early age and the prince had to be coronated at a young age.
People and Culture of Bhutan
The temples are very colourful inside. The lamps are lit with butter and incense sticks are burnt giving a distinct fragrance. Most of the temples that we visited had huge idols of Buddha, Zhabdrung and Guru Rinpoche. The walls are normally covered with beautiful Thangka paintings. The offerings to the god are in the form of food like packets of biscuits, snacks etc. The beautiful and colourful ritual cakes kept near the altar are unbelievably carved out of butter entirely!
An important figure who played a role in the Bhutanese history has been Drukpa Kunley popularly known as the Divine Madman. He was a popular poet and a teacher of Buddhism in his own eccentric ways thereby earning the above title. There is a strange monastery dedicated to him near Lobesa village in Punakha district which is also called the temple of fertility. The strange custom here is to bless visitors with a wooden phallus. Most of the houses in the countryside have a wooden phallus hung from their roof or a painting of the phallus on the outer walls. It is a belief that praying here has caused childless women to have babies and mothers with newborn babies come here to give offerings and choose a name for the babies.
Almost all people are dressed in their traditional attire most of the time. The men wear a gho which is a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a belt called kera. The women wear a kira which is an ankle length dress accompanied by a long sleeved blouse. Both men and women wear scarves and the colour of these indicate their social status. The Bhutanese law has made it mandatory for the government employees to wear the traditional dress for work as well as other citizens while visiting government offices and other public places.
The dances of Bhutan are a topic by themselves! There is a lot of Tibetan influence in the dances. A visit during the festival season, October – November, will allow one to enjoy the festivals in each of the many districts. These are called tsechus and mostly held in and around the Dzong of the district. The one festival we were lucky to witness was the Rhododendron festival at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Lamperi. School kids from nearby villages put on a great show for us!
Most of the houses are built in traditional style using ample amount of wood which is found in abundance here. The outer walls have beautiful paintings of the lucky signs that the Bhutanese believe in like the conch shell, dragon, tiger etc. In some places, like Bumthang, there is a mandate that no building may be constructed in modern style.
The monks form a sizeable portion of the people. Our guide Tshering told us that at-least one person from a family becomes a monk at a young age either by personal choice or by the choice of the parents. These monks study for around 10-15 years. They are trained in the religious scripts, meditation and traditional music.
The Lama is revered and people come from all over to seek his blessings. On the day that we landed in Bhutan the Lama was moving from Punakha to Thimphu to spend his summer. The roads were blocked as people were lined all along the way waiting for the Lama to arrive.
The staple food is rice accompanied by Ema Datshi which is a dish made using lots of spicy red/green chillies, onions and cheese. There are variations to Ema Datshi like the Kewa Datshi where the main ingredient is Potato and Shemu Datshi where Mushroom is used.
Bhutan – Nature at her bountiful best
Bhutan is landlocked between India, Nepal and China. The landscape is dotted with hills, valleys with the rivers snaking through them around the hills, dense forests and mountain passes making it a dream come true for all nature lovers. It is a place where dreams come true for landscape photographers!
The valleys are fertile and there are lush green fields all around. Step cultivation is widely practiced in the hills. Rhododendrons bloom in the forests during spring and we were lucky to see quite a few varieties. Mt Gangkar Puensum which is a strong contender for the highest unclimbed mountain in the world lies in Bhutan. The highest peak is Mt. Jomolhari.
The various districts of Bhutan are separated by high altitude mountain passes which you need to go through to get from one district to the next. These passes in being high up in the mountains provide for fantastic views of the valleys on either side & the mighty Himalayas on clear days. One thing common in all the passes when we went there was that they were shrouded in fog! That added a surreal and mystical touch to them! In Bhutanese culture these passes are revered and there are typically chortens and tons of prayer flags which adorn these passes. The grandest is probably the Dochu La Pass between Thimphu & Punakha districts. At Dochu La, one will find the fantastic 108 Chortens which was commissioned by the Queen Mother in memory of everyone who lost their lives in the conflicts that raged with militant outfits.
Around 600 species of birds can be found in the country. The birding hotspots are more towards the central and eastern parts of Bhutan. We had our fill of around 90 species of birds through our trip. The prize sightings for us were the pheasants of the hills and we were lucky to see all 4 found in this country! Add to that some long awaited ‘wishlist’ birds and you know why this place will always remain memorable for us!
How to get there
Druk Air is the only choice to fly into Bhutan and the only international airport is at Paro in Western Bhutan. The airline operates flights to Paro from various places like Delhi, Kolkata, Kathmandu, Mumbai (still not operational), Dhaka and Bangkok. We flew to Paro from Delhi. This choice of ours was driven mainly by the phenomenal views of the Himalayas one is treated to enroute on this flight. Mt Everest, Mt Kanchenjunga, Mt Makalu to name just a few!
If you take this flight, try to ensure that you take seats on the left hand side on the flight from Delhi to Paro and on the right for the return flight. The views are better in the flight from Delhi to Paro as the flight is early in the morning. The return flight is at mid-day and the fog, at least in summer, tends to have taken over by then.
The below pic is of Mt Everest (obviously the highest mountain top in the pic!) as the plane was flying by.
From India, one can enter Bhutan on land at Phuntsholing or Samdrup Jongkhar. Indian vehicles are allowed into Bhutan based on permits and we did see many from the neighbouring Indian states of West Bengal and Assam within Bhutan.