- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2003

“Hair-raising” is the word that comes to mind repeatedly during my travels in Bhutan. The excitement starts with arrival at the only airport at Paro on a nationally owned 72-seater jet. The less-than-mile-long runway remains out of sight as the plane navigates among the foothills of the Himalayas. The formidable peaks — Mount Everest, Makalu, Kanchenjunga and Bhutan’s own Chomolhari — loom on the horizon.

Suddenly, the final approach is upon us. The plane takes a sharp turn around one of the lesser peaks, lists to one side and, like an eagle after its prey, swoops down nearly vertically onto the tarmac. It’s a thrilling and chilling descent, but the landing is remarkably smooth. The pilots of Druk Air are well-trained mountain navigators, and the airline’s safety record is excellent. In the bright, clear air, the verdant hillsides and snowy peaks instantly smooth my ruffled nerves.

Traveling by road generates its own flow of adrenaline. Who has described adventure as a retrospectively life-threatening experience? I ask myself. Careening around sharp bends, dodging potholes, fallen rocks and numerous heavily laden trucks, I am on the east-west highway in a minibus. This only cross-country road is cut into the lower ranges of the Himalayas, traversing successive valleys and mountain passes.

It is a highway in name only, the width of just a car and a half. It is windy and steep, and landslides and rockfalls are constant threats. When I was here seven years ago, it carried just a few trucks, even fewer private cars and the small fleet of tour buses. Since then, the country has entered a major spurt of growth, and the increased traffic has outgrown the highway’s capacity.

My humble minibus lurches forward, stop and go at 20 mph, while heavily laden trucks from India bear down on us with seemingly murderous determination.

The greatest challenge facing the monarchy is reconciling the pace of modernization with preservation of the country’s traditions.

Lovely, isolated Bhutan is making uneven strides into the modern age. Seven years ago, I saw no TV, Internet or movie houses. In the capital, Thimphu, there were one main street and two shorter streets; now the Thimphu valley is full of new housing development.

There still is only one bank, and the remote villages remain dependent on a barter economy. New bridges and telecommunications towers are constructed everywhere, and rural electrification is a work in progress.

The country is exporting rocks (an apparently inexhaustible resource) to Bangladesh and electricity to India. It builds hydroelectric power stations without dams by harnessing the many torrential mountain streams. In the next few years, enough electricity will be produced for home needs, with the remaining 90 percent planned to be exported to India. Tourism, though well-controlled, remains a major industry.

About the size of Switzerland, sparsely populated Bhutan lies between Tibet and India; it is 200 miles across and 100 miles north to south. In the north, the formidably high Himalayas separate it from Tibet; in the south, tropical plains lead to the Indian border. From north to south, lower mountain ranges dissect the country into isolated valleys, each with its own ecology, population and tribal culture.

The climate varies tremendously over this small terrain, from tropical to temperate with monsoon rains to alpine. Through judicious management, Bhutan has retained a 72 percent forest cover of its territory. Water is plentiful, the fauna and flora rich and the land suitable for growing most foodstuffs for the population.

Before the country was unified in the 17th century, local warlords ruled over these valleys, then approachable only through mountain passes. The east-west highway now offers continuous access across the whole country.

This highway, to me, is symbolic of the Bhutanese outlook on life. Surely, modern engineering could have surmounted construction difficulties in a mountainous area. However, rather than further destroy the natural landscape, which perhaps would upset some of the local deities who dwell in the mountains, Bhutan chooses to live with the limitations nature has imposed. A big rock is left in place and the road cut around it so that the spirit god who may reside within can remain undisturbed.

A MINIHISTORY

The visitor to Bhutan could remain oblivious to the intertwined religious and social fabric of the country and enjoy the landscape, the lovely people and the unusual architecture; better, one could delve into its complex Buddhist mythology, which blends inseparably into everyday life.

The origin of the country’s name is uncertain. It may be a derivative of Bhotant (“land of the Bhots,” representing the territory south of Tibet). Bhutanese prefer the name Druk Yul (“land of the thunder dragon”). This, like almost everything, is already partly mythology. In the 13th century, a Tibetan monk heard a great thunder at a spot where he founded a monastery. He took this to be the approval of a mighty, roaring dragon and established on that spot the Drukpa religious order. (Druk means thunder.) Centuries of unrest in Tibet induced monks to migrate south, and they took the name with them; this much at least is proved. The word druk is used in many everyday definitions.

Before the arrival of Buddhism, which occurred sometime in the fifth or sixth century, people living here followed the animistic religion Bon. They worshipped many ubiquitous good and evil spirits who meddled in everyday life and demanded constant attention. These spirits transmogrified into tantric Mahayana Buddhist practices.

A sequential history is hard to establish. Surviving written records represent a monastic angle, as Buddhist monks were the keepers of pertinent data. Central state authority did not exist till 1616, when Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a lama of the Drukpa school, created the system of combined religious and secular government with codified laws that applied to every aspect of life under religious guidance. He inspired the building of the dzongs, the great fortified, castlelike structures erected in strategic positions. These buildings functioned as monasteries, administrative centers and protectors against invaders, and they are the most distinctive architectural feature of Bhutan.

Before unification, internecine feuds, frequent bloodshed and general lawlessness prevailed among the warlords. After the Shabdrung’s death, 200 years of theocracy followed, based on the Tibetan model. Lamas, who were believed to be the reincarnations of the Shabdrung, ruled the country, although their power depended on an uneasy cooperation with regional penlops (governors).

At the end of the 19th century, the penlop of Trongsa in central Bhutan successfully subdued his rival penlop in western Bhutan, established the Wangchuk dynasty and became the first king, in 1907. The current king, fourth in succession, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, follows in the tradition of his forebears and is a much-beloved figure who promotes progress and reform. The Wangchuk family claims direct descent from Guru Rinpoche, who is considered the second Buddha, and also from the Pema Lingpa, a local saint, himself considered a reincarnation of Rinpoche.

ON A TIGER

One of the loveliest myths relates the story of Rinpoche, a peripatetic saint from the Swat Valley of Pakistan, both a historical and mythological figure, who had eight manifestations, lived more than 1,000 years and wandered in and out of Bhutan for centuries. He hid treasures in caves and lakes, disguised himself in animal form, flew on a tigress and left his bodily imprint on a rock in the Bumthang Valley; he generally dispensed wisdom and conquered bad spirits, but foremost, he established Buddhism in Bhutan, probably in the seventh century, after which Tibetan monks gradually disseminated the religion and founded monasteries and the tantric Mahayana Buddhist schools.

Rinpoche remains the most significant figurehead. The tiger episode describes his arrival on the back of a tigress to the Paro Valley, where he alighted on a sheer rock face, 3,000 feet above the valley floor at an elevation near 11,000 feet. After intensive meditation in one of the caves there, he founded the Taktsang Lhakhang monastery, known today as the Tiger’s Lair.

The beautiful monastery complex has suffered repeated destruction over the centuries, including one in recent years, but it is always rebuilt. I hiked up to the opposite rock face, a steep and lengthy but worthwhile climb, and the view was truly awesome. I watched the recently installed cable car haul up building materials, and I wondered how people could work on that plunging site.

The Pema Lingpa from the 15th century, reputedly a reincarnation of Rinpoche, is the second-most-important Bhutanese saint. One story says he plunged into a lake with a lantern and brought back sacred texts hidden there by Rinpoche, and when he re-emerged, his lamp was still burning. Burning Lake is a small, cool pond in a rapid stream in the Bumthang, close to the town Jakar.

DZONGS AND STUPAS

The structure that most embodies the Bhutanese spirit is the dzong, a castlelike building with a watchtower. In Paro, the imposing watchtower became a museum that contains ancient household articles, religious statuary, ceremonial clothing, armor, stuffed animals and a lovely stamp collection of recent origin.

Dzongs were always administrative offices as well as monasteries and resemble the great palace of Potala in Lhasa, Tibet. The dzong in Trongsa, in central Bhutan, is one of the largest. At the tip of a promontory, impervious to invaders, the dzong soars over a deep and very long U-shaped valley.

The Punakha Dzong, the center of the former capital, remains the monastic administrative center. My guide knew one of the abbots and got permission for us to enter the prayer hall, a large, colonnaded space adorned by many beautiful statues of the Buddha and his consorts. Murals around the walls recount his life’s story in exquisite detail.

One of the most imposing monasteries is the Kurjey Lhakhang in central Bhutan. Guru Rinpoche left his bodily imprint here on a rock and defeated a nasty demon.

The building is a masterpiece of Bhutanese architecture, in which three wings are joined by a pattern of symmetry and repetition, yet every parapet, window and door embellishment looks different.

Stupas and chortens are square or dome monuments that contain sacred relics and are often placed on the tops of mountain passes.

The Chendebji chorten, next to the Pele La pass on the east-west highway, covers the remains of a subdued evil spirit who used to live in the thick forest on the nearby mountains.

Halfway between Paro and Thimphu and next to the confluence of the Pacho, Timcho and Wangcho rivers, three stupas were erected to venerate the river spirits.

Religious festivals, called tsetchus, are held annually in Paro, Thimphu and Bumthang to celebrate the life story of Rinpoche. The story is told in a series of 12 dances evoking the demons with which the guru had encounters. Because he subdued the bad spirits, his victory is celebrated to overcome the participants’ illnesses and calamities.

The dancers wear colorful costumes and elaborate, often frightening masks. The dances are repetitive and culminate in conquering evil. Drums, cymbals and the long horn accompany the dancers.

At the Paro festival, the enormous crowd from nearby valleys dressed in their flashiest finery. It was a big social occasion with much food and drink consumed. We foreign visitors, with our cameras clicking, were well-tolerated.

On the last day, the great thangka of Rinpoche was unfurled about 4 a.m., exactly when the sun rose. This enormous picture made of canvas, linen, silk and embroidery covered the wall of a three-story building.

Surrounding the slightly smiling figure of the guru were his eight manifestations. The clergy blessed the assembled crowd, but anyone could walk up to the chief abbot and ask for a special favor.

HOME ARCHITECTURE

Homes are large, square buildings, usually two stories; the outside is whitewashed, decorated with flowers and animals and accentuated by beautifully carved door and window frames. Pitched, lofted roofs prevent rainwater from running into the house.

Geometric bamboo patterns often close the space between the roof and the upper floor. By contrast, the inside of the house is rather gloomy and sparse. The lower level houses animals; narrow ladders lead to the next level to the storage space for grain, rice and other foodstuffs.

The family lives on the top floor, which contains a kitchen, bedroom and a room for worship with an altar as elaborate as the family can afford. I saw no running water or inside washing facilities in the few village homes we visited. Comfort does not appear to be the foremost consideration of village living. Cities such as Paro and Thimphu have many modern buildings, which have Western-style apartments with electricity, running water and maybe also a telephone and television.

Not far from Paro, an hourlong hike at the end of the Zondruk Valley took me to a tiny cliff-top village: six houses, a stupa and a private dzong perched atop sheer rocks, a favorite place for building. The inhabitants carry water up daily and hike down to the valley to cultivate their fields. In the eighth century, the story goes, Rinpoche lived there in a cave.

During the Paro tsetchu, I noticed many people chewing betel nuts. According to my guide, when Rinpoche encountered cannibalism here, he introduced betel nuts as a substitute. He convinced people that the nut represents human bones, the leaf is the skin, the lime paste used to soften the nut is the brain, and the juice of the nut is the blood.

Buddhism rejects killing animals, even a fly (it could be one’s grandmother), but adherents eat yak meat, pork and poultry.

Apparently, there are non-Buddhist butchers. When a farmer wants to slaughter an animal, he sprinkles water into its eye. If the creature repeatedly bows its head, the farmer takes this as consent, prays and wishes the animal a better life in reincarnation.

I checked this and some other stories with an old friend from my previous trip. He told me that after a long winter, older yaks are very weak and are slaughtered and that prayers would be offered but not apologies. My friend, son of a yak herder, has a degree in civil engineering and builds communication towers.

TRADITIONAL ATTIRE

As part of preserving Bhutan’s cultural heritage, traditional clothing made from homespun material must be worn. Weavers create colorful designs from cotton, wool or silk.

Men wear a gho, a long kimonolike garment, which is hitched up at the waist and held together by a belt. The capacious folds can accommodate money, a bowl, candles, maybe a knife, whatever a man needs to carry with him.

Women wear a kira, a long, straight piece of fabric, wrapped around the body and held together at the shoulder with two sliver clasps; it is worn over a blouse. A short jacket completes the ensemble.

People-watching can be great fun, and the friendly attitude of the Bhutanese makes this easy to do without offending cultural sensitivities. My little group contributed to the “gross national happiness” (an important government theme of promoting slow development versus rapid modernization) when we threw colored balloons and blew soap bubbles to the children. This was a terrific success with both the mothers and the children.

Bhutan, reacting to the severe forest thinning in neighboring Nepal, has introduced strict forest-management policies. Live trees cannot be cut down. The government retains the monopoly of selling wood for construction purposes. It is because of these policies that 72 percent of the land is covered in pristine forest.

Schooling is obligatory for both sexes, and generally, women enjoy equal status with men.

There are many health care facilities, but the standard of hospital care is mediocre. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the quick action of the government during the recent epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome. I happened to enter the country at the height of this outbreak. In the immigration hall, I received a leaflet describing SARS in lucid and concise terms.

Passengers who came through Hong Kong and had stayed over there within the previous 12 days were unceremoniously quarantined for observation.

Visiting Bhutan is like traveling in a time capsule. While I listened to stories about mighty dragons and evil spirits that were expelled from a new apartment building, I was somewhat confused and dislocated in a world of fairy tales. I could see a promising future, though.

As my young friend said, “I was brought up a devout Buddhist, and although I sometimes question some tenet of my religion, I firmly believe that it is Buddhism’s guiding spirit that leads my country to a better life.”


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