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Bhutan
Land of the Thunder Dragon



by Solange Hando
· personal page ·

Bhutan - Thunder Dragon (c) Solange Hando
Bhutan - Thunder Dragon
(c) Solange Hando


It was festival time and luckily we all had shoes. If you don’t, the policeman at the gate waves a bunch of stinging nettles. ‘Lack of respect’, he warns. Draped in their finest clothes and chunky necklaces of turquoise and coral, villagers arrived from afar for five days of merit-making and fun. There were women with babies on their back, old men leaning on bamboo staffs, little girls with their shiny black hair in a bob, monks, farmers, dignitaries. Soon the eerie call of horns made from human thighbones echoed across the mountains and masked dancers pounced on the flagstones to chase away evil. Deep in central Bhutan, the town of Trongsa celebrated its annual tsechu, the ‘10th day festival’, and among the fluttering prayer flags and banners, the golden roofs of the monastery glistened in the crisp winter sun.

In this tiny Himalayan kingdom tucked between India and Tibet, closed to the outside world until roughly four decades ago, modern developments have made a cautious appearance but success is still measured in ‘gross national happiness’. Most farmers own their land and there are no tourists, only ‘guests’ limited to a few thousand a year. It’s a way of preserving the country’s natural and spiritual heritage deeply rooted in Buddhism, and symbolised by the national dress worn as a matter of daily pride, long hand-woven wraps with silver clasps for women, knee-length gowns for men with sweeping cuffs and ceremonial scarves for temple visits and special occasions. English is widely spoken but Dzonkha is the official language which originated in the monasteries and had no written form until the 20th century.

* * *

Here there are no beggars in the streets, children thank you when you take their picture, covering their mouth as they speak to avoid polluting the air you breathe. Archery is the national sport, with ritual dancing whenever a player scores and women singing poetry to encourage their team, or telling jokes to distract opponents. Men rarely fish or hunt for the land is the abode of the gods and respect for the environment is the hallmark of their faith. From hornbills and black-necked cranes to the rare Golden Langur monkeys, from blue poppies to wild orchids, a rich fauna and flora thrive in pristine ecological systems.

From day one, Bhutan amazed us. A snowman with horns like a yak stood by the runway and officers engaged us in a snowball fight before we had even reached the terminal building. The little town of Paro floated past like a dream, its fairytale houses adorned with finely carved eaves and pink phalluses painted on the walls, scattering seeds among lotus, conch shells and wheels of life, to ensure good children and harvests, explained our guide. A covered footbridge leads to the dzong, a typical Bhutanese monastery and fortress all in one, rich in mandalas and paintings, while 2500 feet above the valley floor, Taktsang, the ‘Tiger’s Lair’ and holiest spot in the land, clings to a rocky ledge. Up there, the first mystic landed long ago, having flown on a tigress to bring Buddhism to the kingdom. Today, in a sprinkling of whitewashed buildings cut off from the world, monks meditate for up to seven years. Far below on the pilgrims’ trail, bright-eyed children sell prayer beads, votive bells and human skulls polished into bowls for drinking tea. Life, death, it’s all part of the cycle and nothing is wasted.

* * *

Thirty-four miles and nearly two hours away, Thimphu the capital has no airport for it lies close to the peaks, in the shadow of Jhomolhari, the Goddess Mountain so respected it has never been climbed. In the stepped alleyways, the one-man shops display chillies and spice, sweets, rolls of prayer flags in rainbow colours and sometimes the lucky agate stones, known as ‘tears of the gods’. The National Assembly meets in the dzong once a year while boy monks chase each other around the bushes or scrub the elders’ laundry. The air smells of incense and butter lamps.

We pondered for a while on the Bridge of Prophecy, spun prayer wheels at the Memorial Chorten and felt streams of spirituality flowing from the loose-leafed holy books wrapped in orange cloth, on the shelves of the National Library. An icy wind shook the willows down by the torrent and in the workshops, men chiselled silver and gold into betel nut boxes, women wove traditional fabrics on old-fashioned looms. Creating beautiful things is a pious act which pleases the gods.

Beyond the town, the road climbs up to the Dochula pass, a dark inhospitable place often swept by storm clouds but when you finally approach Punakha, a sub-tropical valley spreads at your feet, aglow with mandarin trees and bougainvillaea. The majestic dzong seems to sail like a ship at the confluence of the rivers, a sacred spot where energy flows freely and myriad flags flap in the breeze. In your cosy traditional lodge, the friendly dragons painted on the walls are said to ensure a blissful sleep.

* * *

Our gentle three-day trek started the next morning, with not a road in sight but much to discover as the trail meanders through muddy paddies and forests of pines and rhododendrons, past sleepy hamlets, waterfalls and shrines scattered at the wayside. Peaks and glaciers shimmer in the distance and lemony butterflies hover among clusters of primroses and sage. We waved to children hiding in stacks of rice straw, refreshed ourselves at the village pump and chatted to an old man gathering wild herbs used in traditional medicine, alongside religious rites, to release energy and ensure good karma. In ancient times, Bhutan was known across the borders as the ‘land of medicinal plants’.

White-faced cows and farmers watched us with equal disbelief (why do you walk when you have a bus?) and for much of the time, the only sound was the crunching of pine needles under our feet and the bells of ponies. Ponies carried camping gear, guides cooked and in the evening, women and children joined us around the campfire to warm their hands and listen to the head horseman singing of romance and love and the spirits dwelling all around. A water prayer wheel tinkled crystal clear and as we gazed at the crescent moon hanging among the stars, we felt totally at peace.

* * *

Toast on an open fire, hot tea, porridge and it’s time to get back to the road, leaving the lush valley sprinkled with banana groves and poinsettia in bloom and the monkeys chattering in the trees. The Black Mountains loom ahead, ice, snow and a vertiginous road crawling up to the Pele La pass where lichen and moss hang on trees like century old cobwebs. An orange prayer bag dangles in the windscreen and keeps us safe. At over 10 000 feet, a lonely shrine marks the highest point, a place to meditate for a moment or two and leave your offerings before heading down to the central valley, all green pastures and golden rape shimmering like a dream. Down there, birds twitter on the river bank and the Buddha’s eyes painted on the stupa gaze in every direction.

At last Trongsa appears, its white walls and shingle roofs clambering above a deep wooded gorge, its forbidding dzong with 23 temples poised on a spur at the meeting point of the valleys. It was New Year’s eve (on our calendar) and in the hilltop lodge fragrant with roses and marigolds, we danced with our hosts late into the night, shuffling in a circle and waving our arms Bhutanese style, with an occasional leap or two.

* * *

We had arrived for the last two days of the tsechu, a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour and sound, brocade, silk, drums, cymbals, masks, garlands of skulls and grains of rice flying through the air, medieval jesters with rope phalluses stuck on their head and myriad deities in passionate embrace on the temple walls. Pleasure is nature’s gift in Tantric Buddhism and an alternative way of attaining Nirvana. There was much laughing and feasting with bulging picnic baskets and large flasks of butter tea and serious moments when we queued for a blessing of sacred threads and holy water flavoured with mysterious herbs.

Soon after dawn, the snow glowed pink and gold on the mountain tops. Flags rose like ghosts in the mist and the mumbling of prayers echoed in the dzong. The monks placed a symbolic sculpture among peacock feathers and with much ceremony, a huge icon was unfurled from the rooftop. Crowds prostrated on the flagstones. Suddenly, amidst the chanting and beating of drums, something passed through the air, mysterious, powerful, sending shivers down your spine.

A gust of wind rustled through the pines, the mountains looked on and in the ancient Land of the Thunder Dragon, the spirits were appeased. It was the start of an auspicious year.

-------


(c) Solange Hando - worldwide rights reserved
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This article was published in
Spirit & Destiny magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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