Sunday, September 01, 2013

Forbidden Kingdom no more

7 days in Bhutan


Bhutan, the land of the Thundering Dragon, the last Shangri La, the Forbidden Kingdom, the place time forgot. Well, it’s not quite all that in the summer of 2013. There was wireless in almost every hotel and restaurant we went to. The TV had more channels than Tata Sky gives me at home. Mobile phone penetration was nearing 100%. Hindi film songs and the Indian Army were ubiquitous. Jeans and sneakers and Starbucks-style coffee shops seemed the norm in Thimpu.. There is a construction boom as the Bhutanese build newer hotels and homes everywhere. And they are a democracy - that most modern of political theories.


Children in traditional Bhutanese
dress

Yet, people still talked of that quaint term, Gross National Happiness as something real. They wore the traditional gho and kira. They seem to love their kings, especially the one who abdicated - K4, they call him. They still have an amazing 70% of their land under forest  cover. Dzongs and lakhengs continue to be important hang-out joints (as opposed to malls). All the new buildings are still built in the traditional architectural style. And they continue to be an agrarian economy. Nestled in the Himalayas, between 2 giant neighbours, Bhutan is a small jewel that is still making attempts to hold on to some form of cultural authenticity in an increasingly homogenised world.

Hike up the Cheri Goemba
Bhutan is beautiful. Irrespective of the tradition vs modernity debate, it is worth visiting purely for the incredible mountain-scapes and the blue skies, the whitewashed goembas set against the beautiful vistas of green rice fields, the magnificent dzongs on hard-to-climb cliffs and mountain-tops. Visiting it in August meant that we did not sight some famous peaks in the Himalayas. But it meant that we captured some lovely misty and cloudy landscapes, the weather was warm, the greens were lush and abundant. And the prices were off-season.

It’s no point going to Bhutan, if you aren’t willing to exert yourself a bit physically. The best of the country is seen in hikes (and there are enough short ones, for the physically not-so-fit, like me) up to hill tops that afford you incredible views around. Every hill top seems to have a goemba or a dzong. We did a few. One was a hike up to Cheri goemba, Bhutan’s first monastery  - a steep climb with lovely views of the Thimpu valley below. There were horses grazing on the mountain top as we struggled up the last few steps. The warm sun, the white washed goemba
Another hike, another goemba
and the peaceful horses made for a perfect morning. Another was a sweaty hour-long hike up to the large but relatively new
View from Zuri Dzong
(consecrated in 1999) Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, dedicated to the 5th King. It has elaborate idols across 3 floors and the rooftop has fabulous views of the Mo Chu and rice fields of the Punakha valley.
A third was the hike up to Zuri Dzong, from the Uma Paro. This was a steep one, but Zuri Dzong is pretty and
the views again on the way up and from the Zuri Dzong itself, are lovely. The climb down to the museum and then to Paro Dzong too wasn’t easy… but the views always make the effort worth the while.


The ultimate hike was to the Taktshang Goemba, more popularly known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It is Bhutan’s most famous one, perched almost precariously on a cliff face. The walk up is tough - a steep climb of almost a kilometre, with steps for the last few metres.
The Taktshang Monastery
But there are incredible views of the monastery along the way, making it a superb subject for photography, if you are so inclined. I was worried about the climb - my fitness has always been suspect even in my younger days. But here I was, 43 years old, having never done any serious trekking, but attempting to do a tough hike with little preparation. I had memories of having chickened out of a hike up to Hemkund Sahib lake, opting to ride up on a horse instead. This time, I told myself I would make it on my own two feet. And I did - even if it was with some huffing and puffing. And it was well worth it. Taktshang was burned down twice and re-built - the last time in 2005. You can see the monastery rising up from the cliffs as you negotiate the tough climb… and it prods you to keep going. There is a cafe midway from where the views of the goemba are incredible. And the sight and sound of a waterfall as you near the monastery is breathtaking. Guru Rimpoche was supposed to have flown on a tiger to the monastery, where he meditated in a cave for 3 years. The innumerable legends associated with Taktshang and the difficulty in getting to it, just make it more intriguing and compelling than any other holy place in Bhutan. It was well worth the half day it took to go up and come down.

Pretty rice fields en route to
Chimi Lakhang
There were other dzongs (Paro, Punakha Tashi) and goembas and pretty lakhangs (Kyichu and Chimi). There was the legend of the divine madman Kunley and the penises it inspired - painted on walls and hung on doorways. There was a burnt down dzong near Paro that tourists go to for its
Pretty Punakha Dzong
dramatic ruins. There was that funny animal - the Takin - not quite
The Takin

goat and not quite cow. There was archery practice in Thimpu grounds - with incredibly far away targets. There were handicrafts to buy and the old, traditional Paro town to wander in. There were modern coffee shops in Thimpu with some seriously nice coffee. There was


butter tea that wasn’t quite to my taste. There was a pretty tea house in a nice luxury resort in Paro, where we stayed. And there were even rumours of mysterious midnight knockings at the hotel we stayed in at Punakha.



These are the memories of pretty, quaint, the not-so-forbidden
Tradition and modernity
Bhutan I will carry with me. I am not a big believer in holding onto traditions that are losing their relevance in a modern world. But even I hope that what Bhutan is trying to do - keep their traditional culture relevant and alive, while embracing modernity - is at least partially successful. So that it remains a bulwark against that increasing homogeneity that engulfs most parts of the world today.

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