Ethereal stops

Ethereal stops

When I returned from a blissful holiday in Bhutan, a friend asked me, "Is it exotic?" Actually, it is a pastoral paradise whose beauty has a cathartic effect. Tiny, and nestled in the Himalayas, it's an abode of peace and tranquillity, far from the madding crowd, noise and pollution. The clean, crisp air and the misty mountains do wonders for the spirit.

A small population, one major religion, an enlightened monarch (Jigme Khesar Wangchuck is called 'the people's king' who is known to join the locals in a game of football), make it a homogeneous society where the National Happiness Quotient is greatly valued. I learned that Bhutan is the only country in the world to have banned the import and sale of tobacco products.

Bhutan believes in organic farming and the fruit and vegetables are fresh and flavourful. Ema datshi  is the national food item made of 'ema' (chilly), 'datshi' (cheese) and onions. A variant is 'kewa datshi' ­- made of potato (kewa), cheese, onion and chilly powder. Curd is notably absent from restaurant menus, but it can be bought from local shops. A Bhutanese speciality is butter tea, for which I acquired a taste. Being Buddhist, Bhutan doesn't kill animals. Meat, as well as milk products, are imported from India. (Amul butter packs caught my eye.) The rupee is accepted. One rupee is equal to one 'ngultrum' (Bhutanese currency). Bhutan doesn't mint coins, only paper currency.

In winter, the Land of the Thunder Dragon beckons visitors from Europe and the USA, who indulge in skiing on the snowy slopes, as well as climbing and trekking. In summer, when the weather is mild, tourists arrive from India, China and Japan. Tourism is the main source of income.

Garbage is notably absent. Recycling is done in a big way. Paro, Thimpu and Punakha are well-maintained because they are tourist places. The government has decreed that all new concrete buildings have exteriors similar to the old wooden houses with their artwork. So the old world charm of the developing kingdom is unspoilt.

Edgy roads

After getting off at Paro International airport, we drove to Thimphu, the capital. The smooth road is carved out of a hill on one side. Below the road, and running parallel to it, is the gurgling River Paro. At Chuzom, it is joined by River Thimphu. The confluence is marked by three stupas - Tibetan, Nepalese and Bhutanese.

The visit to Simply Bhutan Museum was memorable. A guide with a flair for narration and humour offered wine in keeping with tradition and walked us through it. We got a good idea of the Bhutanese way of life in the past, slow and leisurely, with plenty of time for handicrafts and weaving. We tried our hand at archery, without much success.

The National Memorial Chorten or shrine is an impressive monument with its golden spire. It was built in memory of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck by his mother in 1974. The deities here depict the peaceful and wrathful aspects of Buddhism. At the magnificent Buddha Point, the 53-metre Buddha, the largest to be built atop a hill, sits on a ridge overlooking Thimphu. The statue is made of gold and precious stones. It faces east and protects the city. Buddhists from the world over participate in developing this place.

After seeing Changangkha Lhakhang, the most ancient temple there, we entered the enclosure where the takin, the national animal of Bhutan, grazed. According to legend, Lam Drukpa Kunley, a Tibetan, (nicknamed 'Divine Madman') came to Bhutan to preach. The people asked him to perform a miracle, whereupon he asked to be fed a cow and a goat. He devoured their flesh and then attached the goat's head to the cow's body. The animal came to life. Our day ended with a visit to the Zilukha Nunnery where the cloistered nuns lead a life of contemplation.

We drove to Punakha through the beautiful Dochula Pass high up in the mountain. It was of strategic importance as the soldiers could see the approaching enemy. The 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens here attract tourists. Wandering through the Punakha Dzong that afternoon was a rare experience. A dzong is a fortress within whose walls is a complex of temples, administrative offices, monks' homes and courtyards. On the drive back to Paro, we went to the fascinating Rinpung Dzong. The galleries lining the inner courtyard illustrate Buddhist lore. Our stay concluded with a trip to the famous Taktsang Monastery, 900 m above Paro Valley. It is believed Guru Rinpoche arrived there from Tibet on a tigress's back to meditate, so the name Tiger's Nest (change of gender, not my doing!). Perched on the side of a precipitous cliff, it is an arduous climb, not meant for the faint-hearted.  

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