Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, strikes a beautiful balance between the sacred and the secular, old and new, sound and silence, and form and function.
This rooftop kingdom on the northeastern Himalayan valleys is like none else. Soaked in rich Buddhist tradition, its mystique is not just in mountains and monasteries; it is in the very wind that blows through the fluttering flags carrying prayers of wellbeing throughout the country. A trip to Bhutan is indeed a uniquely endearing experience.
Flying from New Delhi, we reached the cavernous valley of Paro in a little over two hours. Even as we stepped out of the plane, the prolific paintings of dragons, lotuses and geometric patterns on the airport building, at petrol stations, in hotels and homes welcomed us to a world of order and beauty, colour and symmetry, myths and legends. All at once, it seemed like we had slipped into a bygone era of timelessness.
As soon as we arrived at our hotel, Bhutanese men in Gho — a knee-length robe, and women in their traditional Kira — long tucked skirts and loose Tibetan tops, welcomed and offered us fresh Bhutanese tea. The hotel room itself seemed like a monastery dormitory with symbols of the triple gem, double dorjes or thunderbolts and colourful clouds painted on the walls.
Paro town centre is lined with curio shops and restaurants with broad walkways for the pedestrians to stroll around and take in Bhutanese culture. With no deafening horns, the refreshing silence lets the birds do the singing! Every shop looks like an art museum, every home, a spiritual abode.
We drove up to the highest point — some 4,000 m above sea level — called the Chelela Pass. Colourful rhododendrons lined the winding roads even as the chill winds burrowed into our bones. Having reached the city’s pinnacle, we saw the famous Himalayan yaks grazing in the distant horizon. On the other side was the Haa valley, connected by a meandering lane.
The next day we drove down to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. A mammoth 50 m bronze idol of the Buddha emerged out of the hills, overlooking the entire valley, exuding peace and tranquility. It is very similar to the imposing Buddha structure in Kamakura, Japan or the Bodhisattva Kannon in Mt. Ofuna. The clouds that covered the icon and the hills that lifted the Buddha out of the forest cover seemed to suggest that enlightenment permeates the very elements all around.
The next day we visited the National Institute of Zorig Chusum in Thimphu, a learning centre for the 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan. Around 500 students were poring over their subjects, learning the Buddhist arts of painting, sculpting, embroidery and Tankha making. Tankhas are portable icon scrolls that are used to decorate temples, monasteries and homes. The studied discipline that pervaded every section of the institute reflected the contemplative nature of the very process of engaging in such an activity.
Thimphu has a row of authentic crafts bazaar to promote its artisans and craftsmen near the central clock tower. Whether it was the textile woven into traditional geometric patterns or woodcraft etching the symbols of Buddhism, whether it was ethnic silver jewellery or masks of mythic characters, the attention to detail is amazing.
Visiting the National Memorial Chorten in Thimphu built in 1974 in memory of His Late Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was an essay in prayer and tranquillity. A Chorten is a stupa that represents the enlightened mind of the Buddha and its structure is inspired by one of the earliest forms of Mahayana Buddhist architecture in Tibet.
The Chorten can be accessed through four doors, symbolising the cardinal directions. Over each door are richly carved annexes that taper into small spires, crowned by a typical crescent moon and sun. Inside are wrathful forms of tantric deities known as Dharmapalas, considered the protectors of Buddhism.
One can see old men and women turning the huge prayer wheels, children playing in the garden and soaking in the joys of the “now” and the pious feeding the thousands of pigeons that flock there, even as they religiously circumambulate the Chorten.
The most spectacular visit however, was to the Tashichchodzong in Thimphu. A Dzong is a complex that serves as the religious, military, administrative and social centre of the district. The Tashichchodzong houses not just the administrative wing of the local government but a monastery that provides accommodation to hundreds of monks. Overlooking the royal palace and the parliament, the entire complex is lined with weeping willow trees on one side and beautiful rose blooms on the other. This picture-perfect setting could well have been from a dreamland.
Just as one thought one had seen the epitome of the ethereal, more awaited us at Punakha valley, the ancient capital of Bhutan. Ensconced between the Mochu and Pochu rivers of Punakha was the Dzong with arresting wooden craftsmanship. The purple Jacaranda flowers provided the royal backdrop to the Bhutanese version of the Forbidden City and the fortress atop the steep steps created an aura around this 17th Century castle that words fail to capture.
A lone monk was chanting mantras with the gong providing the count. Butter lamps lined the altar of the Medicine Buddha who evoked supreme serenity in the darkness of the tower.
In Bhutan, nothing is separated into distinct categories. The sacred and the secular, sound and silence, form and function, aesthetics and spirituality, governance and religion are all rolled into one beautiful way of life that becomes a truly transforming experience to the votary.
From The Hindu