We were absolute ladies, with thorough ladylike manners, cooing occasionally at pretty things and photographing everything in sight, when I first saw it. Red, sculpted and varnished, it lay, so much at home among the fitfully coloured masks, that it could have almost gone unnoticed. Until, like a really simple anagram, once you saw it, you couldn’t have mistaken it for anything else. The sacred symbol of Bhutan shaped in the likeness (almost too well) of a male organ, poked right through my thinly veiled pretence of poise and the gloves were off. Giggling, I pointed towards the object in sight in the most gauche way.
A regular sight for the salesmen in the quaint Traditional Paper Factory in Thimphu, the capital of the Himalayan kingdom, but not for my fellow travellers. The senior members of the journalistic group studiously ignored me, while contemporaries coolly confessed to prior knowledge.
Clearly, I was the most plebeian of the lot. So, the next time I saw it painted on posters and calendars, cast in moulds, dangling from keychains, pinned as brooches, painted on brick walls, hanging from Bhutanese-style wooden doors or simply as replicas strewn carelessly in every tourist shop, I tried to be as composed as I could.
“There was a monk; slightly crazy but also enlightened. Every time he scared off demons, he would take it out,” a school-going sales girl had informed me in the local market when I’d taken off on my own for some exploring. “It’s nothing to be ashamed about. You should nail it to the door for good luck. It really works.” Not the advice I thought I’d be getting when I landed after a shaky ride in the Druk Air ATR plane, amongst the watercolour green and blue of the expansive Paro airport.
Apart from the piercing cold, the clean lines at the airport and the softly curled, Disney-like cloud motif, what stood out most were the huge, congratulatory posters of the royal wedding of the fifth King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his wife Jetsun Pema, held last October.
Being a young democracy (four years old; there were huge posters urging citizens to vote too), the love for the king was evident every time our ebullient guide, Karma, mentioned him. He is, not to forget, incredibly handsome and has a stellar looking (I heard someone mention ‘superhot’) wife. Probably the real reason behind their sweeping popularity, I guessed.
But like always, love is not enough. Reverence and respect bring a natural balance to the royal equation in Bhutan. I realised this fully while visiting the Tashichho dzong, a two-storied fortress built in the typical Bhutanese style of multi-coloured wood frontages, glass windows, brick walls and sloping roofs, housing the throne room and the offices of the king. We were promptly asked to remove our scarves and shawls and uncover our heads despite the biting cold. And walking down the cherry tree-lined track to the main gate of the dzong, Karma had a warning handy. “Don’t look at the building opposite the river [Dechencholing Palace, where all the members of the royal family live – except the present king]. Not unless you have permission.”
The warning came back when we almost met the fourth king (former King Jigme Singye Wangchuk) as he cycled away with his bodyguards, making us wait for 15 minutes for him to pass, to avoid accidentally running into him. “No, you can’t take pictures or look directly at the king. The royal bodyguards will break your camera or throw it in the river,” cautioned Karma. “If you ever meet him, you can’t shake hands with him, it’s not our custom.”
Though we were informed later, it’s not that one can’t talk to him at all. In fact, he was known to have had a conversation with some unsuspecting European tourists. But it was the one time I truly cherished India’s ability to throw a shoe at anyone we wanted, back home.
Indian in Bhutan
That however, wasn’t the last time I was a happy Indian in Bhutan. I overheard glowing recommendations of the Indian educational system over an exotic jam-and-bread-basket breakfast in the mountain-facing Thongsel restaurant of the Taj Tashi hotel in Thimphu. Reading newspaper mentions of how important Indian currency was for the local economy, I felt oddly patriotic. But that didn’t make me a foreigner, at least not one who was gullible enough to be overcharged for goods that were mostly imported from India. Apart from handicrafts and the local artefacts, almost no product looked Bhutanese, something I discovered on visiting the popular weekend market in Thimphu. You can reach the market after crossing an ancient wooden bridge over a river. (I found the exact jewellery I’d bought from Janpath in Delhi). I ended up buying some fine Bhutanese chilli and cheese, the ingredients in almost all their dishes.
The TV channels I watched at night, as I lay stretched out in the richly carved wooden suite (there’s no nightlife in Thimphu), were also Indian. The exceptions were a few Bhutanese channels which either showed promos of local movies or stage shows, in which local teens performed to dated Bollywood numbers. Apparently, no original content is allowed, yet.
Art Your Heart Out
Dance and song are closely connected in Bhutanese culture and are known to ward off evil spirits. I never felt as touristy as when the Taj Tashi organised a welcome dance by the Chipdrel dancers, who hopped and clapped on our arrival. Or the same night when, at a dinner organised in the courtyard, we witnessed about eight different dance performances, all religious and evil-warding. The general manager of the hotel, Ravi Nischal, even managed to drag our unenthusiastic group on to the courtyard. Dressed in the traditional costume for women – kira (a silk wrap-around), we eventually stepped on each other’s toes.
Piercing through the sky The courtyard of the Taj Tashi,Thimphu, is perfect for an evening by the hills
India is a sought-after educational destination, but vocational courses earn you great respect in Bhutan. I realised this at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum or the School of Arts and Crafts: an open-air school whose uniform was Bhutan’s national costume (kira and gho – a robe raised to the knees for men).
Courses such as needlework, sculpture-making, embroidery, carpentry and stitching were not only detailed and extensive (many students were doing six-year courses), but also provided employment. Most shops set in front of the hotel were run by former students of the academy.
But Bhutan didn’t grow on me till the hotel snuck in this surprise. Hidden carefully in the itinerary as a ‘picnic by river side’, we were treated to the breathtaking sight of a bright yellow tent perched on the crystal-clear riverside of Thimphu Chuu.
With Country Roads streaming from an iPod dock, recliners dipping in the river, a grand bar set up under the tree and a luxurious spread on the table, there was nothing more one could ask for. Dipping my feet in the cold, just-turned warm water of the river, it dawned on me. This was what I had come looking for. When To Visit
The ideal months to visit Bhutan are between September and mid-November, when the weather is generally clear and the days are sunny and pleasant. However, it’s advisable to always keep raingear handy since a downpour is never too far away.Also Visit
The pristine architecture of the religious fortress located in Thimphu houses the throne and the king’s offices alongside a Buddhist monastery. Warning: don’t even think of ringing the bell. It’s not a temple!
Built over several stories from wood, it has the Guinness record for the largest book in the world. Don’t miss a black-and-white portrait of Jawahar Lal Nehru with a young Indira
National Memorial Chorten
A stupa built in the memory of the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in Thimphu. The stunning contrast of the inky blue sky against the pure white walls will blow you away
Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest)
Moving the heavens and earth to reach God, this two-and-a-half hour long, almost vertical trek will take the most out of you. Built into the rockface in Paro, the trek is extremely scenic and makes the destination even more rewarding
Dechen phodrang monastery
The young boys training to become monks are very friendly and don’t shy away from a photograph or two.
Rotate the 108 prayer wheels three times and sit for a chanting session
To heaven and beyond The trek to Tiger’s Nest is vertical as the monastery built on the edge of a cliff
Way to go
By Air: Board a flight from Kolkata, Delhi, Gaya, Siliguri or Guwahati on the national carrier Druk Air. It’s the only operational airline in the region to reach Paro, the sole international airport.
By Road: You can catch a bus from Kolkata for an 18-hour journey to Phuentsholing located on the Indo-Bhutan border. Or take a bus from Siliguri, which takes around four hours.
Visa: Visas for Indians and Bangladeshis are given on arrival and one doesn’t need a passport to travel. For others, visas will not be issued without pre-paid bookings for a tour, which costs upwards of US$200 per person per night, plus the $20 cost of the visa.
How To Spend Your Money
One unit of the national currency, Ngultrum, is equal to one Indian rupee. There are no ATMs and it’s advisable to carry hard cash in denominations less than R500. That and R1,000 notes are not accepted.
INR is widely accepted in the country but you can change it into Ngultrum at Immigration.
Curios, jewellery and the national costume (kira and gho) are popular buys for tourists, but you could buy local cheeses and chillies too.
The sale and import of tobacco products is banned. You can carry your packets after paying a 100 per cent surcharge.
Gross National Happiness – It’s Real
The idea was first proposed in 1972 by Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s former king and father of the incumbent, instead of ‘Gross National Product.’ Signs proclaiming Bhutan to be among the happiest places on earth abound in Thimphu. The idea stems from promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. It broadly measures health, psychological well-being, time use, education, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and living standards. GNH also mandates that at least 60 per cent of the country remains under forest cover at all times and all agricultural produce should be 100 per cent organic. And it seems the results are already visible, with life expectancy having doubled since the previous generation and almost 99 per cent of children studying in primary schools.
(The writer’s trip was sponsored by the Taj Bengal, Kolkata, Taj Tashi, Thimphu and Druk Air)
From HT Brunch, September 2
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