To Bhutan and Back

by arneet

Climbing to Taktsang monastery, reading Buddhist philosophy, harvest time in Bhutan, traditional architecture, Chelela Pass and mountains - some of the cherished snapshots of those few days of life.

Bhutan opened to visitors in 1974 and permitted entry of internet in 1999, the last country to do so. They look at technological development with scepticism it seems and hold traditional values, peace and happiness as things to strive for. 

I started my six day journey to Bhutan on the early morning of 1st November. Flights for Bhutan are available from Delhi, Kolkata and Bagh Dogra. There is only one International airport in Bhutan, at Paro and not in the capital Thimphu. Bhutan seems to be a world apart from the rest of the world and it so states. Much before reaching Paro, on flight, one starts seeing mountains below. The mountains, snow capped mountains, clouds, inhabited areas, the earthy colours and surreal majesty of it all completes the meaning of the word awesome. The pilot announces that from the windows on the left, Mount Everest and other tall mountains are visible. Mountains seem to get bigger, clouds thicker and whiter, the valleys sharper, shadows longer and the sun brighter as we are about to land. It is the best fictional three dimensional video painting to have come alive. The aircraft landing was a tipsy process. The airport is surrounded by hills on all four sides. There is a road about 200 metres away running parallel to the runway. Paro river runs parallel to the runway on the other side. Being the only airport of Bhutan and being an International Airport, its size still remains smaller than Bhopal airport and almost comparable to Lynchburg railway station! The pilot turns the plane from one side to the other, then seems to find the niche amongst the mountains to land. The place I stay in, Hotel Gangtey Palace, a typical Bhutanese hotel, is a little way up the mountain and about a kilometre from town. I walked down to the town after keeping my luggage and taking some basic directions of time and place. There are cafe and Restaurants, some small, with benches to sit on and that too hardly for 6 to 7 people. Most people know little Hindi and English and so communication is not too difficult. Currency of India and Bhutan is used reversibly and has exactly the same value here. All Indian currency notes are used in the local market, which includes the 500 and 1000 value currency notes. The money is handled by the locals with a lot of respect. People are charming, men more so somehow. It is harvest time in Paro and many people are occupied in fields. The red rice is being harvested. 

The next day I have breakfast in the hotel is an all wood place, at the edge of a mountain and is surrounded by mountains. The harvested fields, the houses on the mountains, the fog clearing and the sunlight streaming in, seem enough to live by. The locals in Bhutanese dress and bright eyes, no make ups and weathered yet resilient skin, are a common sight. The fog clears, sun gets stronger, I eat my toast and chicken sausage, beans and banana, sipping innumerable cups of tea, feeling vibrant and almost impatient to go. I remind myself to absorb the feel of the mighty mountains and the piercing cold air, one having stood forever and one forever moving, changing, blending. 

The Taktsang Monastery also called ‘Tiger’s nest’ was on my agenda for the day. Early morning, I got ready and had breakfast at 7:30am and walked down to the taxi stand. For this 15 minutes walk, a young guy working in an office, showed me a short cut and walked along. People of Bhutan are very informal and start talking as soon as you do. At the taxi stand, 6 to 8 drivers gathered around me to discuss taxi and it’s charges. I felt a little intimidated at first but thought it best not to show it. Soon these guys in their Bhutani dress were listening and discussing how best I could go to Taktsang and then get back and go to Thimphu. Bus from Paro to Thimphu goes only twice, at 9 am and then 2pm. Both timings looked improbable. They finally decided on one of them taking me to Taktsang and then coming to pick me about 4 hours later. Then taking me to to my hotel and taking me to Thimphu was assigned to one of them. Taktsang is on a mountain, at its edge and is considered amongst top 10 holy places in the world. The formidable look and location of the monastery caught my attention and the seed of desire to reach it was sown. The monastery is about 3000 feet above Paro valley and when one looks at the mountains, self doubt on the ability to reach the monastery does arise. I was not part of a group and was not accompanied by any family member or friend, and wanted it to be so. It was not just a personal challenge or a desire to visit Taktsang, it had assumed the proportion of a calling, an unexplainable obsession. The path is brutally stony at places, at some places dusty, steps for some distance in between, sometimes wet and sometimes slippery. Horses rather mules are an alternative to climbing the mountain, but only till about half way up. The mules as they take the same path, leave dust clouds behind and lot of shit! One can see fresh shit or dry shit dating back to a few days perhaps scattered irregularly at places on the path. Almost everyone gets breathless several times along the path and they would stop, stand by and chat for some time as they drank water. A German guy got talking to me and gave me one of his three water bottles which turned out to be very handy. It was a tough climb and I who thought herself to be fit, was quite shocked by how many times I felt breathless. Everyone of all ages did get breathless a few times and that was a solace. The monastery would become visible off and on as we climbed depending on our position and the thickness of the forest between us and the monastery. Look of the mortuary to me was like the artist’s muse, the presence of a lover, the kid for the mother, water to the thirsty. It would make me want to reach it and be one with it. The climb was lovely despite my occasional breathlessness and thumping heart and there were several places I felt compelled to take a picture. A red leaved climber on a tree trunk for example looked stunningly special to me. It said a lot more than its beauty or the creativity of nature could convey. Several things, people and events during the climb seem to have been customised for my climb. Close to the monastery the mountain, the water fall, cliff and the monastery felt so grand as to be unreal. Who could have imagined a monastery here and of this type? Definitely a marvellous vision and execution. On reaching the Monastery I saw a monk resting his forearms on the railing looking at Paro below, now appearing so distant and so small. I wanted to talk to him and so went up to him. He was in such deep thought that he did not even acknowledge my presence and I did not want to break his focus. I looked towards where he was looking and it struck me as if someone was speaking to me. There are people and people who come and go, living lives as tiny specks, then some to rise and execute big endeavours. There will be people who will question the meaning of their lives and some just get on with it, the meaning and beyond. Nobody defines for anyone big endeavours, only small mundane of life. Liberation then is taking up your big picture. Yes I seek liberation and this instance addressed it. Inside the temple, holy water is given to a person when they extend their hand implying they want it. My holy water was a little bitter and had a metallic taste. It took me about 5 and half hours to go uphill and come back, including my tea break in the cafeteria when coming downhill and the several times I stopped when going uphill. 

When coming downhill, there were several times when there was no person around me and I felt lost, but each time it was sorted out better than I could ever have thought possible. When I come back, I no longer feel accomplished or successful having gone to the Monastery but feel convinced that this journey was meant to be, to understand myself and my directions better. 

Bhutan has several things peculiar to it.Taxi have a different way of working here. You reserve a taxi or share a taxi. Reserving a taxi means that only you sit. Sharing a taxi means that more passengers come into it, either at the beginning or along the way. If they sit along the way, they give some fare too which gets subtracted from the fare to be paid by the main person. It works in quite a smooth way. There are no receipts for the taxi fare. Each taxi has a beautiful soft carpet-like seat cover spread on the seat which gives the taxi a royal look. There was one place in Thimphu where traffic signals were installed for trial. These have been removed since on ground of increasing stress levels among citizens. The crossing now has a traffic policeman standing on that crossroad and giving directions manually from 9 am to 5pm. Local taxi driver says that illiteracy of people did not permit use of traffic signal as intended and with increasing drive on education since last 7 to 8 years, it may be acceptable now. There are no metres on taxi and no bills. 

Police have motor bikes allotted to them and traffic policemen are strict about the rules. Apparently there is no haggling for lower fines or paying directly to policemen informally and not paying anything officially. Incidentally, Indian driving license is valid in Bhutan.

The life philosophy of Buddhism is surprisingly centred around preparation of death. Every life form is believed to be a combination of forces. Coming together of forces creates something as special as life, for example a plant from a seed. It takes sunlight, oxygen, water to turn seed into a plant. Some of these forces when they disappear, the flower dies. Something as transient as life does not deserve so much attention as death, it seems. I am reading more on this and perhaps will be able to understand better and more convincingly. 

Buildings in Paro and Thimphu are predetermined in terms of height or storeys of building permissible as most countries, but what is also ensured in addition is that the architecture and external appearance of the buildings have to confirm to Bhutanese traditional architecture and appearance. This has protected the visual impact the Bhutanese buildings have on a visitor. It is truly amazing how every office, every school, every home confirms to this directive and there are no exceptions. 

I visited the place from where Himalayan range is visible and it was a sight! Here I also met the lady who was travelling with me from Delhi to Paro. It felt like meeting a friend then! 

The next day I visited the local hospital. Thimphu has one hospital, which is a 380 bedded government hospital. There are 3 to 4 hospitals in other districts of Bhutan. Life expectancy is 69 years in Bhutan which has increased by about 20 years in last 50 years. A Faculty from department of Physiology took us around the hospital. A lot of the general information regarding the medical college and hospital is based on what he shared. There are 3.3 doctors per 10,000 population in Bhutan which is one of the lowest in the world. There is no medical college in Bhutan so far. Post graduate training has been initiated for few specialties. In Forensic Medicine department, there was one Professor, two Assistant Professors and an Intern. Autopsy is not done in the real sense of the word. External examination of the body and visit to the spot where body was found is usually done. The data on  number of various cases done annually was displayed in the department. The data for the recent year, 2015 included about 32 suicidal cases. A single case of homicide in 2015 (the last 15 years) immediately came to mind of the Forensic Faculty on mention of cases of homicide. He could easily recall the cut throat case of a taxi driver with several cuts on the neck. The Forensic department runs mainly a ‘One stop Crisis Centre’ for victims of assault, domestic violence or sexual assault. They thus are primarily running a clinical forensic medicine unit. They examine, provide counselling and give report for the same. Domestic violence cases seem to be around 350 in a year. Cases of interpersonal violence were about 550 per year and sexual assault victims about 30 – 35 in a year. Somewhere around 2008 the cases under all the heads started appearing and escalating steeply for a few years, then maintaining a plateau for last 3 to 4 years. This could be related to better reporting of cases or increasing incidence or both. Bhutan has undergone lot of changes in last 8 to 10 years, becoming a democracy around 2008, laying more emphasis on education and focusing on educational and academic growth. 

The hospital was quite clean, not crowded and did not have the odour one encounters routinely in hospitals and labs. Meeting the Head of Pathology and Biochemistry was quite impressive in terms of the facility available and their academic training and experience. They seem to have struggled more to be better skilled and in the bargain being more confident with their work practices and direction of their work and progress. They seemed to have brought in ideas, taken effort and time in convincing health administrators and managed to bring what was required in the circumstances with their vision. The modesty of the Faculty, their non assuming nature and hospitality and their openness to us in sharing details of their work and aspirations along with limitations will be the outstanding memory of this visit. 

The last day in Bhutan, we decided to go to Chelela pass via a place called Haa was the detour for our travel from Thimphu to Paro. Haa was named as ‘Aha’ by me and ‘Haha’ by Shagun. Shagun, Preeti and Dr Shashank were with me in this trip. This added an immense quantum of fun which was unexplored by me so far. I understood why people travel in groups. It cuts expenses and becomes more enjoyable. Travelling with like-minded people and having a kid further adds the wonder and appreciation factor. The visit to Chelela pass matured for me because of us being in a group. We hired a taxi and stopped and moved by our convenience. We came to Chulzum the place for Paro and Thimphu rivers to unite and emergence of Wanchuk river. The place where they meet had a bridge which proudly displayed that it had been constructed by the Indian government and that it was a mark of Indo Bhutan friendship. Extensive length of mountain roads have been constructed by the Indian government. The military centres have flags of both countries and display close ties between the two countries. The bridge on Chelela pass is a cantilever bridge and while standing on it to take pictures, one notices the excessive vibrations and swaying movement when a vehicle moves on it. It is a strange feeling to feel a slight swaying of the concrete bridge over these confluence of rivers, standing between the mountains. Driving over winding roads on the mountains made me nauseous for a while. We stopped near a dwelling where they also had an outlet for sweets, biscuits, etc. The phallus painting on the walls, the colourful painted wooden window sills, the red chillies put on the sloping roof for drying, the buck wheat spread on a plastic sheet for drying and the language Bhutanese gave us the taste of Bhutan on the hills. The road on the mountains has pine and other trees in abundance. A red leaved climber appearing strikingly red and beautiful entwined the trunks of trees occasionally. The view of mountains and valleys, sparkling waterfalls as a surprise, pine cones on the roadside, tall trees, the scanty traffic on narrow roads, the strong sun and cool breeze, the almost 360 degrees curve of the road kept us occupied all along the journey. Haa was a small town where some royal birthday was celebrated the previous night and so the hotels in town were closed. Dr Shashank came up with a life saving idea. He bought 4 packets of Maggi and in a clean restaurant a few buildings away, asked them to cook it for us. This Maggi as lunch was a blessing as we were all very hungry. Chelela pass was a mesmerising place with snow topped mountain range at a distance, the valley beneath and groups of white flags fluttering in the wind. The white flame we were told are put here by family members in memory of the family member who has died. At Chelela pass one encounters the peace of the mountains and distancing from civilisation, the two feelings making one feel connected to the inner self. The excitement of being a witness to the immense and impressive natural beauty almost simultaneously detaches one from physical beauty and kindles appreciation of inner self. The switch is so complete and so peaceful and the chilly cold wind numbs all other thoughts. 

Bhutan is a place which could take seven days or more to really understand and get the feel of. One needs to be on the winding roads on the mountains to know the mountains. On these roads, the changing view all around and the magnanimity of the mountain interspersed by a small spring off and on, the play of light with sun and shade, the river flowing beneath washing the feet of the mountain together complete the image of the mountain. They breathe warm air, cold air, look blue or green or brown, challenge, invite and pamper you, but most of all reflect you for you and make you feel that they were waiting for you all these years!


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