A brush with beauty and mortality in Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon
With its druk, dzong and datshi, holidays in the landlocked Himalayan country offer a glimpse of forever
Written by Arefa Tehsin |
Updated: July 24, 2022 6:30:29 am
A Walk in the Clouds: Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Credit: Adityavikram More)
Peace is overrated. When our life flashes before our eyes in that penultimate moment, will we remember the calm or the torrents? The quiet or the adventure? One such life-flashing memory for me arrived in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, as close as you can get to the last Shangri-la. We were driving from Phobjika to Bumthang Valley. The dells and hills were ablaze with blinding snow. The freshly snowed-in mountain road was as treacherous as Judas with his kiss, making our car skid to the edge of the great fall with the slightest break. Our hearts were sinking like the Titanic as my partner, Aditya, drove us through not one, but four mountain passes before the roads were completely snowed in. And we lived to tell the tale.
Druk Yul—the Land of Thunder Dragon—is a place at the edge of imagination. A song passed down centuries in a timeless rhyme. It is a land of fiercely guarded traditions, no traffic lights, pink-cheeked dzongs against brilliant blue skies and thasha—the ashes of ancestors—arranged by the hillsides and eternalised in clay. A land where every other ravine is associated with an ogress, where 70% of the landlocked country is shrouded in primeval forests, where butter is not on toast but in tea and chilly is not an ingredient but the main dish!
A Crystalline River Flows Through Paro City (Credit: Adityavikram More)
Bhutan opened in the 1970s for the world and today tourists spend a mandated $250 a day to witness its wonders. A marriage was arranged between the mystic and modern with the monarchy lifting the ban on television in 1999. The mobile toting monks, men and women clad in gho and kira, prayer wheels swirling in mountain streams, and music bands playing guitar to the tune of ‘Lamborghini’ in the night clubs of Paro are a proof of arranged marriages that last.
At the Indian border town Jaigaon, it took us more than 45 minutes to scramble through grueling traffic and garbage dumps. As soon as we crossed the Bhutan Gate and went a few feet away from our motherland, we were profoundly embarrassed to see the orderliness. It was a place free of mayhem, plastic bags, tobacco and men peeing on walls. One country striving towards ‘vikaas’ and the other towards happiness. It posed before us a pertinent life question: If two aliens landed on earth, one on each side of the Bhutan Gate, would they think they were on two different planets? It is mandated in Bhutanese constitution that the country will have 60% forest cover for all time to come. “Bhaisa’ab, such total waste of land!” an Uncleji would shake his head and declare, “Good we don’t have such bloody nuisance in our constitution!” At least there are some things in which most Indians stand united.
A Snowy Morning in Phobjika Valley (Credit: Adityavikram More)
As we drove across the kingdom, grazing yaks, snow-fed rivers in deep gorges and forested hills stretching to the horizon remained our constant companions. The houses and buildings made of rammed earth, wattle and daub and intricate woodwork gave the pockets of civilisation the feel of medieval towns.
Who can forget the nightlife in Thimphu and the hulking dzong above a serpentine river blinking up at the sun in Paro? And ah, the Tiger’s Nest. A monastery perched on sheer granite cliffs. The tantric Guru Rinpoche flew there on a tiger’s back, pinned a demon and meditated for three months. We raised a toast of red rice beer to the unfortunate demon responsible for this miraculous monastery (giving us the pleasure of an exuberant hike) at the cafe My Kind of Place. It came highly recommended by Sunil of Unwind Tours, who had planned our self-drive trip. We could sense why. The chef Karma from Haa valley, who spoke about momos like the raga of malhaar, made us see the music in food.
Super Monk! (Credit: Adityavikram More)
We revelled in stories Bhutan is made of. The fairy tale-ish Dochu-la, pinned with icicles, waiting to house a fable. Mebar-tsho, the Burning Lake, of buried treasures and butter lamps. The 17th century Punakha dzong at the chuzom—confluence of Mo Chhu (female) and Pho Chhu (male) rivers, flowing forever in a symphony. Chimi Lakhang, the temple of the giant phallus of the divine madman, who would shoot an arrow from a mountain-top and make love to a woman in the village it landed. Yes, I know, the last story got your attention.
In this land of happiness, one factor that contributed significantly to ours was the low-priced, good quality spirits, be it Raven, the vodka or Zimzun, the peach wine. We flitted across the realm like nectar-happy butterflies. At our lunches in farmhouses, there was always the home-brewed Ara to go with ema datshi, buckwheat and generous dollops of yak cheese and meats. This chewy drink is made of rice, eggs and fire, is served hot and looks like molten moonshine. Ara found us even in the blazingly beautiful, glacier-carved valley of Tang.
Punakha Dzong (Credit: Adityavikram More)
There was beauty everywhere, sure, but the one we lost our hearts utterly to was the sweeping valley of Phobjika. Luminescent. Lyrical. The winter home of the stoic black-necked cranes who famously eluded Salim Ali all his life. The valley has sunburst meadows dotted with charming little houses and farms. Pines shoulder the horizon, stars put the mountain sky on fire and bukhari warms the feet of winter nights.
A Himalayan Farm, Phobjika Valley (Credit: Adityavikram More)
Who says cold is frigid and aloof? It is opportunistic and tactile, wrapping its fingers around every little thing within reach. It can draw confessions out of cluttered hearts. And can tease with a glimpse of forever. Another memory that might flash before my eyes when all is forgotten is that of a cold, dark evening when we were out on a drive in the solitary Phobjika valley. The night had settled with her knees drawn. Her breath carried the perfume of slumbering pines. When just like that, the wintry illusionist sprinkled salt. We stopped the car and stepped out. Snowflakes melted on our warm skins. And we sensed, fleetingly, the cold lips of eternity pressed on our cheeks.
Arefa Tehsin is an author of fiction and non-fictions books and Ex-Hon. Wildlife Warden, Udaipur. www.arefatehsin.com. Latest book: Gupshup Goes to Prison