Kuzu zangpo la! Hello! in Dzongkha, the language of Bhutan. The beginning of this week found us still in the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” as it is known for that weather phenomenon’s regularity during the wet monsoon. Loren and I learned so much from our young Guide during our short visit – about the culture, geography and history of the country, about Buddhism and local wildlife, and, we benefitted from and perhaps even contributed to GNH – their Gross National Happiness initiative. To begin with, Bhutan is home to more than 2,500 monasteries. We visited only a few of them in the four of Bhutan’s twenty districts that we visited: Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Wangdue. Many of the monasteries are located in former dzongs – fortresses, originally used for defense by the army, that today house both administrative offices and temples.
We learned that the Bhutanese people are steeped in cultural traditions, one where buildings and public sites are often decorated with beautiful pictures or crafted symbols of The Eight Lucky Signs, which include for example the Buddhist symbol of the Wheel of Dharma. Another is to erect fields of white prayer banners to honor the souls of departed loved ones. Similarly, many of the houses are protected with painted designs of the four strongest guardians: ferocious Tigers, imaginary Snow Lions, an imaginary Garuda bird, and, the formidable Dragon. Loren and I learned how the three most revered figures in Bhutan include Buddha, Guru Rinpoche who is originally from modern-day Pakistan and who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 7th century, and, Zhabdrung, affectionately known as “Beard Man,” who united the country in the 17th century.
Another cultural belief in Punakha, where two rivers meet, is that the faster moving – more aggressive – Phochu, is labeled male, and the deeper, wider, slower moving Mochu, is considered female. Past their joining point, they are called the Combined Male-Female river. All over the country there is a penchant for the ancient craft of archery, but now played with high tech equipment in the larger cities. A friend suggested that we must see a tournament, which our Guide helped us to do. In seeing the “two football fields” length of the target being hit, we watched the opposing team members enact the tradition of calmly singing and dancing briefly, to honor the achievement.
In many of the temples we were taught about the pleasant- to fearsome-faces of heroes and guardian gods. For example we learned those of the Directions, where North holds the lucky sign of victory, East is portrayed a heavenly musician, South bears a sword, and West lifts up a stupa. On temple walls and even painted on trucks, we found the Norbu image, representing imaginary jewels to be sought from chhu, or water. Our guide also pointed out images of the Gods of Compassion, Wisdom, and Power, of the scenes of a very old man to be prayed to for Longevity, and, of the Wheel of Life, a 6 realm mandala held by the Lord of Death to represent certain aspects of life to avoid and to strive for, that we encountered in each of the various monasteries.
One pictorial representation we often encountered too is of the parable taught by Buddha of the Elephant, Monkey, Hare, Bird and a fruit tree. The one version explains how the four animals pleasantly worked out who was eldest to teach respect for elders, another is on learning to work together. Loren and I also had the chance to have a Monk give us an astrological reading, where he affirmed aspects of our individual lives, and pronounced the strength and stability of our relationship.
We also learned of the more than 110 years of monarchy in Bhutan, and of how the third of the five Kings is considered the Father of Modern Bhutan. He died at just 46 years of age in 1972, when the 4th King-to-be was only 17 years old. He was their youngest King crowned at age 19. It was prophesied that he would have 4 wives, and it was his second of the four who gave birth to the next heir to the throne. When the 4th King was in his fifties in 2006 he turned the throne over to the 5th and current King, who is now 37 and has a son. We saw numerous venues proudly display photos and images of the lineage of the monarchy, and especially of the current king and his wife. One fellow American who we met over dinner suggested that a benevolent King is the best form of government.
In our travel further east in the country, we saw firsthand how every winter the Bhutanese must reconstruct their narrow cliffside roads, because every summer harsh monsoon rains cause destructive landslides and rockslides in the Himalayan mountains. Our driver was adept at navigating the boulders that blocked many parts of the unpaved roads, and around the heavy equipment working to create new pavement.
What we also found is that Bhutan is socially and ecologically minded. There is much gender equality visible and citizens receive free healthcare. The #1 industry is the export of hydroelectricity, with tourism and export of agricultural produce #2 and #3 respectively. In 2008 the country voted in their constitution a mandate to retain 60% of their land as forested. They have 72% forestation currently. We also noticed much clever signage along hiking trails, reminders for keeping the nature free of trash,
and, along the more traveled highways between the large cities of Thimpu and Paro, such encouraging and inspiring reminders as:
Alert today: Alive tomorrow…
Drive slower: Live longer…
Let’s go green to get: Our globe clean.
Perhaps my favorite part of the week was seeing wildlife. While hiking we saw monkeys in trees and Samar deer near a monastery. While driving we came across several yak in a remote meadow. One morning we saw the national bird, the Raven, then we visited the Black-Necked Crane Visitor Center to learn about these unique “Heavenly Birds.” Then we went hiking to see them in the Phobjikha Valley where lucky for us they are overwintering from their home in Tibet. Near the “Combined Male-Female” river, we saw Ruddy Shelduck who reminded me of Egyptian Geese that we had seen in southeast Africa. And, while hiking to Tiger’s Nest, we were treated to a flock of scavenging Yellow Billed Blue Magpie. We were not so fortunate to see the endangered White-Belly Heron nor the rare national animal, the Takin… two reasons to someday return to Bhutan.
We ended our tour with a hike up to Taktsang, more famously known as Tiger’s Nest, and visually familiar to me from cliffside temple photography. It clings to rocky outcroppings far above Paro’s forested valley. While hiking I repeated the Bhutanese word that sounds phonetically like go-leh-beh, which said twice means slowly, slowly, which I needed to go on the steep uphill stretches. The temple was originally built in the late 1600’s, a tribute to Guru who meditated for extended time here. He is fabled to have subdued a hostile tiger demon by transforming into a formidable persona, riding his consort in the form of a tigress to the cave dwelling where the demon lived. Previously I have found fierce images such as of Guru unpleasant to behold. Now, I so appreciate what these dangerous looking figures represent – protectors of the people from destructive forces of evil.
Thank you for following along again on our Journey! Back in our cheerful Room 405 in Kathmandu, we send you a last Bhutanese sentiment, for now:
Tashi delek (said tah-shee de-lay), meaning Best wishes!