The name comes from the Sanskrit expression ‘Bhoo-Uthan’, the rising land. The country is a staircase of mountains ascending from Indo-Gangetic plains in the south to the Tibetan plateau in its north.
It’s a small nation, the size of Switzerland, and with a population of a modest Indian city (less than 800K). And it’s landlocked between two regional giants–India and China that have played rough-China annexed Tibet in 1951, and India took Sikkim in 1975. Between the two, Bhutan has chosen India. Renewable hydropower sold only to India generates over 45% of its national revenue, external trade routes through Indian ports, school syllabuses were set in Delhi, and teachers deputed from Kerala. Its army is trained in India, mountain road network maintained by Indian BRO, Indian cars ply its streets, and Indian Rupee is at par with local currency Ngultrum (NU). Bhutan is a ‘protected state’ of India, and the largest recipient of latter’s external aid.
Its culture is a fusion of history and spirituality. The entire landscape is sacred. Every valley is a site of pilgrimage and every rock, cave, forest, and river has a history. In one place, a hermit meditated; in another, a spiritual master left his footprint on a rock; in yet another lies the home of a guardian spirit of the earth. Here, ‘the earth is Buddhist, and the sky is Buddhist’. The mountains are ‘recumbent elephants’, ‘proudly poised lions’ and ‘garuda birds taking flight’. The plains are ‘lotus flowers with their eight petals unfolded’; little cut-out pieces of sky in a rock face are ‘circles of joy’, or ‘triangular daggers’. The lakes are shaped like ‘horns of plenty’ or ‘cups of ambrosia’. They show their gratitude with ‘Namey samey kadrin chhe la’–Thank You beyond heaven and earth.
This country immersed in the mysticism of tantric Buddhism, the land of the flying tigress and thunder dragon is making a leap from the middle ages to the 21st century while trying not to lose its balance. For centuries this tiny realm survived in cautious isolation, with no roads, electricity, telephone, or postal service–and paid the price with poverty, illiteracy, and steep infant mortality. The third king started opening the country up in the 1960s and the fourth king sped up the process from the 1980s onwards. The first paved road was completed in 1962, after Yuri Gagarin had already orbited the earth. They warily introduced the Internet and TV in 1999. Since 2000, however, the pace of its development has snowballed. Mobile phones arrived here in 2003, but the country is now reaching 100% penetration rates. Infant mortality has reduced dramatically. Basic education and health care are free. Sixty percent of the country’s population is below the age of 34.
The fourth king — Jigme Singye Wangchuck, didn’t stop by just opening up the country, building roads and schools, or attracting hard currency. During 2006–08, in a series of stunning moves, he abdicated the throne, moved the country to democracy, and anointed his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, then aged 28, to serve as a constitutional monarch.
Today, this benevolent king and his elegant wife are nurturing democracy, though the masses still seem happy with the old monarchy. The young couple is revered–their pictures adorn hotel lobbies, houses, and other public spaces. That the present king married his ‘commoner’ girlfriend is a local fairy tale. He is Boston University-Oxford graduate, and she studied in India and then at Regent College, UK. Their story has more poise and élan than most European counterparts. To celebrate this 5th king, Bhutan distills “K 5 whiskey”–it’s smooth, and recommended.
Yet in many respects, Bhutan is still in a state of benign authoritarianism. Government arranges for free education and health care, and in return makes certain demands on them. Buildings to be of a certain style, dress codes in public, no holding of foreign currency, sponsoring for foreign studies comes with a bond to serve the government for certain years, restrictions on marrying a foreigner… etc. Requirements of democracy–free speech, right to protest, etc., are still new here.
The government is treading a fine balance of retaining its cultural identity and embracing modernity. Almost everybody wears the elegant national dress of Kira and Gho, and is humble and gracious when spoken to. Cigarettes or tobacco are banned throughout the country. Marijuana grows in plenty, but addiction is not a big issue yet. Before environmental concerns became fashionable for the rest of the world, this nation was at the vanguard of conservation. Clear-cutting was not allowed, and if a single tree was chopped, three had to be planted in exchange. Now, it’s on the way to become the world’s first 100% organic-farming nation. Three fourth of the landmass is forest cover; it’s the only country on earth to be carbon negative.
The Gross National Happiness index (GNH), Bhutan’s counter to GDP, is not just a marketing tool or an abstract philosophy. Guided by the “four pillars of GNH” — sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance — Bhutan has pulled itself out of abject poverty without exploiting its natural resources. Questions such as– “When was the last time you gave a donation? Do you use your mobile too much, or watch TV? Did you vote? When did you last give someone a hug?” are built into the program detail. The well-being of the public is considered before rampant growth for the sake of an upward slope on a graph. Quality of life takes precedence over monetary and material prosperity.
Bhutan tourism has been preppy in its brand management. Government policy restricts the number of tourists to preserve the environment and culture. Overseas travelers require a minimum spend of $250 a day (except Indians, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians), and the policy has spared the country from going the Nepal or Thailand way. In terms of experience–Himalaya is offered at one-tenth its price by Nepal; Tibetan Buddhism is better served by Tibet or Ladakh in India. What attracts westerners to Bhutan are perhaps the boasting rights of the privileged. As the travel brochure says, it is “one of the most exclusive and rare destinations for any tourist.” Bhutan’s official tourist slogan “Happiness is a place” makes a bold appeal to the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ crowd.
Today the ancient and modern cohabit. They wear Ray-Ban wayfarers with Gho, and girls match phone covers with Kira. The use of FB and Instagram is ubiquitous. Telecom Towers relay mobile signals among mortals while fluttering prayer flags shower benedictions from the divinity. Solar panels and butter lamps both enlighten the meditating monk. And that young girl may well display a mandala tattoo on her arm, much like her mother slipping on a holy amulet around her collar.
It’s a beautiful “Shangri-La”, frozen in time until recently, but thawing with the winds of modernity. I visited it in April 2019, with six photography friends. And these are my pictorial memories.
Paro to Thimpu
We take an early morning DrukAir flight from Delhi that reaches Paro in less than two hours. The latter half of the flight is stunning; offering an eagle’s eye view of the three tallest peaks of the world–Lhotse, Makalu, and Mt. Everest, spearing through dense cloud cover, in snow-clad grandeur. The sheer physicality of those summits makes one wonder the chutzpah of humans that seek and ‘conquer’ these!
Landing at Paro Airport can be breathtaking, or terrifying, though there is a unanimity that it’s one of the most challenging airstrips to descend on in the world. The tiny landing deck is situated a mile and a half above sea level, is a mere 6,500 feet long, and often buffeted by vicious crosswinds that sweep through the valley.
The terminal is compact and tasteful, with carved eaves and frames, auspicious signs, bright-colored Thangkas, and art motifs on the walls. Immigration clearance was friendly and efficient. Most staff are women in elegant, colorful kimono-like dress (Kira). Men wear Gho, a kind of Scottish Kilt, hoisted to knee-length.
Our guide, Jimmy, and the driver, Dorji, both young and dashing in their Gho, were waiting outside. At 7000 feet altitude, the air is nippy and sky cerulean, but what struck me most is the taste of pure oxygen and ringing silence.
Breakfast was in the market that that is yet to wake up. Main Street is a row of stone and wood double-story shops. The law mandates that houses be built according to traditional Bhutanese designs, using no nails or iron bars in their construction.
Life is easy-paced here. When our breakfast takes a little too long to arrive, Jimmy explains to us the idea of BST–‘Bhutan Stretchable Time.’ “Time does not hurl itself forward at breakneck speed here. Change happens very slowly. I feel slow. I think slowly, I talk slowly, I react slowly,” I recalled a line from Jamie Zeppa’s memoir — “In the blur and rush of everything around me, I am more mindful.” Who won’t love this vibe!
We make a quick stop at a tourist shop for obligatory Kira & Gho shots. A mountain river rages by, and upon a cliff in the background, hangs a 17th-century monastery that once served as a fortress. Marijuana is growing wild around us. Locals call it the ‘pig’s food “!!
Thimphu, our night halt, is some 70 km and 2 hours away.
Whitestone dzong (monasteries), with red ochre stripe, appear on remote hills. There are random strokes of bleached white breaking the bottle green cover of the bluffs -these are tall clumps of 108 wooden poles with white prayer flags, murmuring in the breeze, erected to commemorate the dead. Number 108 is special — In Buddhism, there are 108 earthly desires in mortals, 108 lies humans tell, and 108 human delusions.
Soon, at the junction of Thimphu & Paro River, we stop at Tachog dzong, on a ridge next to the road. A ‘centuries-old iron bridge, covered in multi-colored prayer flags, sways as we cross. The flags bear five different colors–blue, red, green, white, and yellow- the five wisdoms of Buddhism and the five basic elements–sky, fire, earth, water, and air. Buddhists believe keeping these five elements in good harmony is good for the body and mind. Spirituality flutters in the air here.
As the largest city and country’s capital, it has fewer people than what a Mumbai local train spits out every few minutes each day. And that counts for 115K — over 15% of the total population. It bears the ambiance and verve of a common hill town in India.
The capital is popular for its white-gloved traffic police and absence of traffic lights. They installed one such light back in 1995 but removed it after a few days when the locals complained of it being too ugly. So they went for the “dancing policeman” instead. Even dogs and cows, we are told by Jimmy, use zebra crossing, and we did witness a pup follow its master at one such intersection :-).
The 5 stars accommodation in the capital is a Taj Tashi, a $500 a night property–the touristy Bazaar in its front sells fabric sourced from Ludhiana looms, at more competitive terms.
We spend the evening at ‘Buddha Dordenma’ that sits high at the entry to Thimphu valley. It’s hard to miss monolith — 170 feet tall, made of brass, and filled with 125,000 smaller statues of Buddha! That’s more than a piece for each of the city inhabitants. The massive three-story base houses a large chapel full of donated Buddha statuettes, and a dozen life-sized brass Apsaras. We hang out till late and watch the fog gently rise, and blue-gray drowsiness spread across the valley. City lights come alive on the other side.
Our arrangements for Thimphu Djong came to naught, as it is closed for some official function. The fort is extensive and houses the secretariat, offices of the King and ministers, and the throne room. The entire complex has a signature white-red-gold combination of colors and tiered roofs.
We need to stock up for the trip here & thus head to the market. Big Mac or Starbucks is yet to arrive here, but English Music CDs and tattoo parlors have. Raja needed to buy woolies and we end up in a ‘Haat Bazaar’ type market selling incense, saffron, herbs, fish, pork, ground barley, red rice, cheese, wild honey, local handicrafts, garments, trekking equipment, etc. English is widely spoken here. I get few postcards and postal stamps from National Post Office. Bhutan is a philately dream — round, square, rectangular, made of silk & even 3-D. You can create personalized stamps with your photo on them.
On the way to Punakha –Dochula Pass
The pass is at 10,000 feet offering a stunning 360-degree panorama of the Himalayan range. Here sit 108 (what else!) chortens as Martyrs’ Memorial, who fought against the Assamese separatists in 2003. They had warned us of the constant fog and limited visibility, but the Sun God was smiling–the air was cool and fragrant with cypress aroma. We have fun making frames with Jimmy and Dorji as models and then had some tea and noodles.
Brief Detour to Suspension Bridge
Part II of the Blog can be accessed here.