A tryst with Thimphu

Best of Bhutan

A tryst with Thimphu

Sandwiched between Tibet and India, Bhutan deliberately cultivated a policy of relative isolation. Even today, it isn’t easy for outsiders to enter the country. Non-Indian foreigners have to cough up a hefty daily fee, and Indians get only a seven-day permit, renewable with some difficulty, at the border. Yet, this hasn’t prevented Bhutan from becoming a popular tourist destination, and today tourism is one of the country’s major sources of revenue.

After a bumpy three-hour ride in a jeep on a crater-ridden road I arrived, much exhausted, at the Indian border town of Jaigaon, in north Bengal. Slipping through the ornate entrance gate into Bhutan, I entered the Bhutanese town of Phuntshoeling, where I spent the night. The next morning, I took a van to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital and largest town.

The six-hour drive to Thimphu took me through stunningly beautiful mountainous countryside. Unlike in India, there weren’t any bill-boards or buildings along the road to spoil the view. We passed only a few small settlements on the way — neatly-built houses, all in the same typical Bhutanese style: two-storey structures with sloping, gilded pagoda-style roofs, traditional wooden windows and painted frames, and neatly whitewashed walls decorated with religious motifs: floral and geometric patterns, dragons, snakes, snow lions, thunderbolts, and flying beasts.

Small surprises

Surrounded on all sides by towering mountains, Thimphu is said to be the smallest capital city in the world. With a population of under 2,00,000, one could possibly walk all around it in under three hours. As elsewhere in Bhutan, Thimphu is, by Indian standards at least, clean and relaxed, the traffic orderly, and the people polite and helpful.There’s enough to see in Thimphu to keep you occupied for a week, and perhaps the best way to explore the town is on foot. At the far end of the town is the gigantic 18th century Trashi Chhoe Dzong, which houses the government and monastic authorities.

Close by are a host of places worth a quick visit: the Institute of Traditional Medicine, where treatments based on Buddhist medical texts are offered for a range of ailments using Himalayan minerals and herbs; the National Library of Bhutan, which has a large collection of Buddhist texts in Tibetan and in Dzongkha (Bhutan’s official language), and which also possesses the world’s largest published book (weighing more than 60 kgs); and the Textile Museum, which houses samples of brilliant hand-woven cloth from various parts of the country. Thimphu’s General Post Office is also well worth a visit.

It houses a small museum, which showcases some of the country’s most amazing postage stamps. Not to be missed, too, is the Institute of Zorig Chusum, where you can observe students honing their skills to make the stunningly beautiful crafts that Bhutan is famous for: carved wooden tables, giant masks, brilliantly-hued cloth thangka paintings with a range of religious motifs, statues of the Buddha and various boddhisatvas, and delicate embroidery.

Most Bhutanese claim to be Buddhists, and there are several Buddhist temples (called lhakhangs in Dzongkha) in and around Thimphu. One of the oldest of these is the Changangkha Lhakhang, from where you can get a magnificent view of the valley below. You could spend hours here watching people as they go about their worship, rotating ornately-painted giant drum-like prayer wheels and making their prostrations, while a somber-looking lama strikes a gong and mutters mantras in a low drone. Every inch of the inner walls of the lhakhang is richly decorated with frescoes of spirits, ghoulish and benign.

Enormous statues of a bewildering range of deities adorn the centre of the prayer hall, before which are placed a range of offerings: bowls of water, plastic flowers, painted figures made of stiffened butter, grains, and packets of biscuits and chips! Popular Bhutanese religion isn’t quite the same as the simple teachings of the Buddha. It is suffused with magic, superstition, rituals, myths and a host of godlings that are sought to be propitiated, being a mixture of Buddhism, Tantra and Bon-Po, the pre-Buddhist religion of Bhutan and Tibet.

Sights & sounds

If you have had enough of trotting around museums and monasteries, you could spend several hours window-shopping on Thimphu’s main street — Norzin Lam. Almost every shop here deals in exquisite Bhutanese handicrafts, and there are a host of little confectionaries and food stalls, where you can sample local dishes. You mustn’t miss the amazing market, across a wooden bridge festooned with colourful prayer flags, along the narrow brook that Bhutanese call a river, which comes alive every weekend.

If you have a taste for the exotic, you could buy bits of dried yak cheese, strung together like a necklace, or packets of aromatic herbs. If you have the time, you could make a quick trip to Motithang, to see the takin, Bhutan’s national animal that looks like a cross between a cow and a goat, and you could even stroll around in the expansive lawns of Thimphu’s Botanical Gardens.

You won’t quite be able to recognise Thimphu going by the glossy leaflets handed out by Bhutan’s tourist authorities. It certainly no longer remains the last Shangri-la, where time and tradition have remained frozen since eternity. As elsewhere across the world, Thimphu, like the rest of Bhutan, is rapidly westernising, notwithstanding claims of the government to preserve local culture. But, still, Thimphu is well worth a visit, for a taste of a culture that is rapidly vanishing.

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