Of mysticism and magic - Bhutan
Tucked between China and India, lanced by deep ravines, Bhutan is where a traditional Buddhist culture carefully embraces global developments
A tiny kingdom with a population less than Hyderabad's, Bhutan is an idyllic place to go to especially if you are looking for a tranquil holiday where you can sit and commune with nature, where no one minds if you just sit on a hillside and watch the world go by. If you so desire, enjoy the sun at the huge base of the world's highest Buddha and let the prayer flags swirl around you.
Incidentally, the country is probably the 'last bastion of the innocent' – their prayers fly in the wind on a direct communion with the Almighty. You can hang a prayer flag wherever you want to – of course, it is best out in the open, where the gentle flapping of the cloth reminds you of a greater spirit that shelters this tiny kingdom from the ravages of the outside world.
Each prayer flag carries six parts and each part carries one of the six syllables. Om mani Padme hum – It is the common man's prayer. He can recite it, spin the large prayer wheels or the small ones, as well as repeat the prayer with a sonorous chanting inside any of the many pagodas/ temples.
Although Thimpu is the national capital, the international airport is at Paro, which is a little more than 50 kms away. The drive is through the mountain roads and can take almost two hours at an average speed of 35 km per hour. So relish the scenery, click pictures on your way and just enjoy the journey. Incidentally, many brash tourists try their tricks of overtaking a slower vehicle and get into trouble. Don't try it because the traffic cops here are deadly – they will be there in minutes and will haul you off or fine you (heavily) on the spot.
During our visit to Paro, we stayed at a lovely little place, Galling Resort, right next to a gurgling stream, an offshoot of the Pachu river with the prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, vast open meadows on all sides with the hills as the backdrop. It's very peaceful and beautiful. The waters of the river come from melting glaciers and Christopher insists it is the perfect place for chilling his beer.
The resort has lovely painted pictures on the walls and the roof. Our rooms are clean and cool, a far cry from Kolkata which was hot and humid! Incidentally, our group of 20 had flown in from Kolkata. The other group flying in from Delhi was coming later in the evening. The Bhutanese national carrier, Druk Air was bringing in all of us.
Dinner out in the open, with a bonfire going, the sprits and the weather encourage bonhomie and conversation.
All around us, we saw dainty little girls running around, picking up tables arranging chairs and doing all the heavy work. One could not help noticing that there were no boys around except for the manager. "Girls are better workers than the boys – boys don't do half the things the girls are willing to do" admitted the manager-owner.
There were nine girls in total, working as bartenders, waitresses, housekeepers and general factotum (is there a female for that?) When you look at them, you think they could not be more than 17-18 years old but their answers surprised us all – they were all in their mid-twenties.
After a very bumpy ride from Thimpu, we reached Punakha, which used to be the old capital of Bhutan. On the way, we stopped at a national memorial where many chortens have been constructed for the average citizen who cannot build a large memorial for their ancestors. We stayed in a lovely resort built into the mountainside – Meri Pensum. There were flowers everywhere and we enjoyed the colorful sights. A huge prayer wheel on the premises, painted bright gold was beautiful. Early morning, we got some awesome pictures of the mist rising in the valley while the sun shone in all its glory.
The Punakha Dzong is like a fortress. It has a river surrounding it, like a moat. The dzong has the administrative wing of the state as well as the head of the monastic order. So you get to see many monks on the premises – young and old. You see them sitting in their offices and shying away from being clicked. The place is swept clean and you are free to click photographs but not free to make noise.
We entered the massive temple and marvelled at the scenes from Buddha's life which are painted on all the walls. Our guide Pema gave us the details of Buddha's life and the stories on the walls – the life of luxury, the child Buddha, his journey into the world outside the palace, the birth of his son, his renunciation, his battle with the demons, etc.
We had the opportunity to visit a nunnery at Punakha – such a pleasant surprise to see the young girls with shaved heads, learning to play the traditional horn and also shying away from being photographed. If it wasn't for Tenzing and Pema, they would never have agreed to be clicked.
Our guides – the two young boys had worn white shawls which identified them as common people entering the dzong. The clergy and officials wore different colours.
The national capital Thimpu is a small city on the banks of Raidāk River. The country reveres its king and the entire royal family. The young king has his pulse on the hearts of the people – he can be seen anywhere and everywhere. The entire royal family seems to practice an elegance and subtlety in their public life which we in India could learn from.
Our coach was tailing behind a black SUV with red gold number plates. I asked the driver why was he doing that? He looked at me and did not answer. So I asked him a question – "Royal family?" and he nodded in affirmation. Later Tenzing clarified that the people obey the king immensely.
Not overtaking the royal families' vehicles is another form of paying respect. He explained it was the king's sister who was going to a school to inaugurate a show.
In the evening we got to see the masked dances which are so typical of Bhutan. Not surprising that all the heavy twirling, dancing and jumping with masks are done by the boys while the girls perform gentle swaying dances.
It would be worth your while to get maybe a tankha painting, a hand-woven Bhutanese carpet or some brass Buddhas as gifts. I brought back some prayer flags and some fiberglass Buddhas.