It is a dramatic opening act to an adventurous sojourn. There was a nail-biting and heart-in-the-mouth landing at Paro airport, after lurching through the serrated peaks of some of the highest mountains in the world and a brilliant blue sky. The immaculate airport looks more like an ornate tiered castle with carved windows and wooden roofs – an appropriate portal to this last Shangri-La.
I arrive in this country with a blessing –with a sungkeye or a red thread tied on my wrist by a Buddhist priest, warding off evil spirits. Bhutan moves as its own rhythm –sequestered in self-imposed isolation over the years and today following a unique ‘low volume, high value tourism policy’. What is unique about this country is that it has never been conquered, never been occupied by any foreign power. Change came to this Utopia slowly; television and internet in 1999 and cell phones in 2003.
Bhutan is rigidly traditional in so many ways. Even today the Bhutanese life is governed by Driglam Namzhe – an official dress, behaviour and architecture code that traces its roots to Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the Tibetan lama and military leader who sought to unify Bhutan.
The Bhutanese are required to wear traditional dress in schools, public offices and at official functions. The men wear the Kimono-like gho, cinched at the waist like a kilt, with incongruous knee length socks and shoes and the women wear the wrap-around skirts with three panels called kira with silk jackets. Many Bhutanese still walk miles on mountain paths to schools and fields and cook on wood stoves.
I love the traditional architecture which is prevalent throughout the country – exquisitely crafted wooden roofs, painted windows, columns and beams. Motifs of double dorjes or thunderbolts with colourful clouds, dragons and lotuses adorn the houses. Most of the agriculture is still done by traditional methods; crops are mostly harvested by hand.
Everywhere I see the unquestioning reverence for the monarch – a whiff of fresh air to my senses jaded by corrupt politicians. “We love our king” is the constant refrain that I hear when I notice locals sporting badges of the royal couple. The perfect counterpoint to all the tradition is the night clubs where young Bhutanese in jeans and spiky hairdos dance the night away.
Our boutique Hotel Uma Paro looks like a rustic dzong, built in the traditional architectural style of Bhutan, with shingles held down by small stones, well crafted cornices, carved and hand-painted windows and minimalistic interiors.
Our spacious villa comes with a butler – gentle Sengay is our Man Friday, our guide and fountainhead of all things local. He offers archery lessons, lights a wood fire in the room and plans our itinerary. I am reminded of Linda Leaming in her book Married to Bhutan when i meet Sengay: “if I had to name the biggest difference between Bhutan and the rest of the world, I could do it in one world, civility”.
Paro’s main street is short, filled with stout two-storied buildings with rickety stairs draped with swathes of scarlet chillies, small cafes, prayer wheels and handicraft shops. The Rinpung Dzong looms ahead with its roofs and eaves, a striking contrast against the craggy mountains. Dzong were impregnable fortress meant to keep the Tibetan invaders out – today they house monks, temples and serve as the administrative headquarters. Traditionally they were built with no written plan and no nails.
As I enter the dzong, saffron-robed monks scurry across the stone courtyard. I am entranced by the murals and carvings – a sensory overload with motifs drawn from local culture with gods and goddesses, demons and thunderbolts all women into a fascinating narrative. My favourite is the depiction of the legend of the Four Harmonious Friends, a favourite Buddhist tale. Four animals cooperate here to plant a seed, grow a fruit tree, and harvest its fruit to share with each other.
I visit the Dumsteg Lhakhang or the iron bridge temple and learn about the iron bridge builder Thangton Gyelpo, a Tibetan spritiual master who brought the knowledge of ironwork to Bhutan. He is said to have built more than 108 iron suspension bridges around Bhutan and Tibet. This iron bridge lama seems multi faceted – he used to compose folk songs and indulged in opera too!
We drive through vertiginous forests of spruce, fir and juniper, with wispy lichen draped on silver fir trees, rejuvenated by the deep mountain silence, passing shaggy yaks at higher altitudes. We crunch our way on icy roads to the highest point on Bhutanese roads, the Chele La Pass with a panoramic view of the Himalayas and the second highest peak Jhomolhari. In typical Bhutanese style, the mountains cannot be climbed as they are revered and holy. Through the gossamer folds of multi-coloured prayer flags, weathered by wind and rain, I look down at the photogenic Haa Valley, only recently opened to tourism. Prayer flags flap in the wind all over the country,carrying prayers to heaven like invisible Morse code- for good luck, protection form an illness or help in achieving a goal.
All along the road, we pass crevices in rocks filled with tsa tsa – small triangular mud pies, painted white or gold, contained ashes of departed souls. We hike up to the Kila La Nunnery, clinging to a vertical cliff where more than sixty nuns live in self-imposed isolation, spending their time in meditation and social service. I get a glimpse of the maroon-robed nuns as they go about their daily routine, many of them teenagers. I understand that many families send at least one son or daughter to be a monk and serve humanity in order to earn “heavenly merit”.
Back at the hotel, I soak in traditional hot stone bath to relieve my tired traveller’s muscles. Heated river stones are used to warm the waters, treated with Himalayan salts and infused with camphor leaves. When you strike a Buddhist singing bowl, unseen hands in the next room send a stone rolling down the chute.
Even Bhutan’s entertainment is old-fashioned and quaint. Archery competitions can be witnessed throughout Paro and its outskirts, where women pack lunch and cheer the men on and teams celebrate their hits at targets 140 metres away with a victory twirl, a song and dance and trophies of brightly coloured scarves added to their waistbands. I get a glimpse of the influence of the outside world – the Bhutanese spend a lot of money on their hobby and do not use bamboo but expensive high tech carbon fibre bows and arrows!
We visit the National Museum high up on a hill, which used to be an old watchtower of the dzong and was renovated to become a museum. This peculiar circular building is filled with wooden carvings, coin collections, the biggest mask in Bhutan and a stamp gallery showcasing the culture and history of the country over the years. Bhutan is a heaven for stamp collectors – with a variety of stamps, some even with recordings in them.
Far away I see the iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery, clinging to a vertiginous granite cliff strung with colourful prayer flags, where Guru Rinpoche is said to have arrived in the 8th century, on the back of a flying tigress. I regretfully file it under my mental list of “things to do on my next trip”. I wish I was blessed with a capacious pair of lungs but I am not taking chances with the water thin air that has already made me heady.
The winds of change are blowing over this pristine kingdom. In 2006, the fourth king who was a visionary (he set up health care systems, hydroelectric schemes, and banned western-type buildings) not only voluntarily gave up the throne to his son but also ordered that the country hold its first democratic elections. The last Shangri-La may not be as insulated from the modern world as it has been for centuries. May be the best time to see Bhutan is now.
Courtesy by K.T.