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Bhutan Impressions

BHUTAN | Thursday, 27 October 2022 | Views [194]

Great Buddha Dordenma

Great Buddha Dordenma

Bhutan Impressions


I had wanted to get to Bhutan for a very long time, but the daily government fee of US$250 was always too expensive.  I had decided that I was going to nonetheless do a 10-day trip once the country reopened after closing for the pandemic.  What I hadn’t counted on was that the government raised the daily rate for a single person to almost $400 per day.  My 10-day trip was down the drain, but I still wanted to experience the country, so I took a short 3-day trip from Kathmandu.

The flight goes by the edge of the snow-covered Himalayas, and I managed to get a window seat both on the way there and on the way back. It was wonderful to see Ama Dablam, Nuptse, Everest, and Lhotse again from a different vista. The airport in Paro is quite small, even though it is the only international airport in the country.  Greeting visitors when they leave the terminal is a statue of one of the five sister dakinis who protect the country giving blessings. This is a very Vajrayana Buddhist kingdom. I was met by Phurba, my guide over the next few days, and his cousin who was driving a very nice new Kia Sportage.

We immediately headed to Thimphu, which is under an hour away on a good highway. This led to some of my first impressions. There is only one main east-west road in Bhutan, and this was the one we were on. There are some other local roads, but they are normally not in as good condition as the main highway, but also not at all like the very rough mountain roads in Uttarakhand or Nepal. Driving here is not like in India and Nepal, but rather more like driving in the West. People respect the rules of the road. Actually, it turned out that there are so many rules and regulations in the country that it made my head spin. The reason for the new Kia, was a law that said tourist vehicles needed to be not older than seven years and had to be of a certain quality. As we were driving, I noticed that the houses seemed to be either white, tan, or black and the roofs either green, red, or red and yellow. I found out that there are building codes and laws that restrict the color of the building and the roofs. Residential areas are marked by either green or red roofs and official buildings, temples as well as government buildings, have red roofs with a yellow top. Most of the Bhutanese houses have a lower roof, then a space underneath the upper roof for drying agricultural products.  Interestingly, escaping the other color codes are the window frames, which were often quite decorative with lots of Buddhist imagery.

On the road, we drove by an old fortress by a river. It turns out that this place was built by a major historical leader, Ngawang Namgyal, otherwise known as the Bearded Lama. He was not only an accomplished Tibetan Lama but was also responsible for unifying the country in the 1630s and for bringing iron to Bhutan. He made 7 or 9 iron linked bridges (the stories differed), to help the people get around. None of these bridges is still existent, although pieces of them can still be seen, as they are by this fortress and in the National Museum in Paro. He is credited with establishing a distinct Bhutanese cultural identity separate from the Tibetan. His descendants still live in the fortress.

By the time we got to Thimphu it was dark, but I took a quick walk around the main street to look at the shops that sell everything that one would normally find in a big city. The next morning it was raining, which did prohibit us seeing any of the mountains from the Dochla Pass where the eldest Queen Mother built 108 chortens to commemorate the Bhutanese soldiers who had lost their lives in a battle against Indian insurgents from Assam in 2003. These chorten are squarish with a Bhutanese shaped roof and not like others in Tibet or Nepal. The clouds were sitting right on the site, so it was impossible to even get a feel for the design of the place, but on the other hand, the clouds and mist contributed to making the Pass seem like one was passing mystically from one world to another.

Next, we headed to the Great Buddha Dordenma statue, which was built to honor the fourth King’s 60th birthday. The fourth King had already abdicated a couple of years before in favor of his son, who is the current King. This 52m high gold gilded bronze statue of the earth-touching Buddha is one of the tallest in the world and has over a hundred thousand smaller statues inside along with a prayer hall. While we were there, a service in Tibetan was going on. The entire square was packed with worshippers, and many had come for a month and were staying in tents made out of blue plastic tarps. I asked whether the people could understand the texts the lamas were reciting and was told that they probably couldn’t as the majority do not speak Tibetan.  This led to a discussion on the relationship between Tibet and Bhutan.  According to legend, Buddhism came to Bhutan from Tibet by way of Guru Rinpoche who flew to the country on the back of a tiger, who was an incarnation of one of his consorts, Yeshe Tsogyal. Guru Rinpoche is highly revered in all of the temples I was fortunate to visit. He is portrayed with his two consorts, Yeshe Tsogyal from Tibet and Mandarava from northeastern India, as well as in his eight differing forms. Historically, Ngawang Namgyal, who united the country’s warring fiefdoms, set about clearly defining a difference between Bhutanese and Tibetan cultures and languages. When I asked about the relationship with the Dalai Lama, I was told that he is respected as a Buddhist leader, but in the past previous Dalai Lamas had invaded Bhutan and that Tibet and Bhutan had a tenuous political relationship. This has spilled over into the relationship with China, which must be carefully managed and balanced with that of India. As a land-locked country between these two major powers, like Nepal, Bhutan has to be careful not to offend either neighbor. As a poor country in need of investment, they also have to be cautious about the long-term cost, not just monetarily, of infrastructure aid offered. They need the help, but do not want to be caught in either India’s or China’s grasp.  

The Dordenma site is still partially under construction, not all of the many stairs to the plaza in front of the statue from the main parking lot are tiled, although those at the top are.  Despite the rain, the tents for worshippers to sit were completely filled and many people were sitting on the wet ground under umbrellas outside the official tents listening to the lama’s recitation. Simply listening with an open and good heart leads to good merit.

After these two sites a bit outside of the capital city, we headed back into it. We briefly stopped by the main government buildings and King’s palace, both built in the former fortress style. By the palace there is a small building, where citizens can come to petition the King if they believe someone or something unjust has happened to them.  Phurba assured me that this King is quite conscientious about responding to the needs and wishes of his people. The King’s photograph and that of he and his wife and children are visible throughout both Thimphu and Paro.

The royal family seems to have built many of the major attractions in the city and on the outskirts. While the elder Queen Mother built the chortens on the Pass, the mother of the third King, in 1974 built the National Memorial Chorten, for her son, who had died at the young age of 42.  That he died at such a young age, is one of the reasons for the major celebration of his son’s 60th. The National Memorial Chorten, does look like a traditional Tibetan Chorten, with eight ringed spire representing Buddha mind, the square base and toranas (gates) in the four directions. It is filled with images of wrathful deities with their consorts in Yab-Yum positions, which I found to be common among many of the temples I visited later in the trip. These deities represent the marriage of wisdom and compassion, action and thought, and warn against complacency and acts that lead to bad karma. It doesn’t hold relic remains but does have a picture of the former King. The gate leading to the Chorten has images of the three major protective Bodhisattvas, Avolokiteshavara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Knowledge and Judgment, and Vajrapani, the Symbol of Buddhist Power. On the inside are images of Ngawang Namgyal, Gautama Buddha and Guru Rinpoche. Inside the complex is a large room housing a set of very large prayer wheels. People, especially the elderly, sit here and use it for worship, but also as a community gathering spot. In the back is a separate room/house for the butter tea lamps. The separate building is needed as otherwise fires can occur in the temple areas. While we were there, lamas were reciting a Milarepa text accompanied with Tibetan horns and drums. A crowd gathered in the rain to hear them. I was told that people of all ages come to do koras (circumambulations) around the stupa every morning as part of a daily ritual.

In Thimphu we also went to the local museum, again under the patronage of a queen. It is in a renovated 19th c house and showcases agricultural tools from the past as well as a nice shrine room at the top of the house.

From Thimphu we drove back to Paro as I really wanted to get to the National Museum and didn’t want to be pressed for time the next day, as that was scheduled to be the hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The National Museum is in an old watchtower, constructed by Ngawang Namgyal. It is a circular building on a hill above Paro, from where one can see the entire wide, supposedly the widest in the country, valley. Photography was unfortunately not allowed inside, so I don’t have any photos of the many incredible thangkas and mandalas that were on display.  The exhibits are more extensive than looking at the tower from the outside would presume, as one goes in a circular fashion around the building and then into rooms in the middle and this on about five floors.  While there weren’t any neolithic goddess figurines, the thangkas and the accompanying explanations, offered insight into many of the local Bhutanese deities, including a set of five protective goddesses, in addition to the goddess of the Jomolhari mountain I had previously read about. It was good that we took the extra time at this museum as I found the artifacts and the descriptions fascinating.

At the hotel, the Mandala Resort, which lies on a hill just outside of Paro, an organized group had arranged for a local dance performance.  The young people performing presented five song-dances that ranged from a 17th c classical tune sung by three young ladies to a shepherd-yak dance with two fellows in a yak costume chasing the shepherd around, to a traditional ritual mask dance to chase away evil spirits. Accompanying the singer-dancers were two musicians, one on a flute and the other on a drum. The flute player’s instrumental songs sounded very much like the Native American flute songs in the Four Corners region of the U.S.

Traditionally the major event of all tours to Bhutan is the hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Taktsang Phalphug. This monastery is on a sheer cliff about 20 minutes’ drive outside of Paro. The hike goes though forests most of the way, and the government has placed logs to form steps to prevent mud slides.  I was glad that the day was sunny, and we didn’t have to deal with the mud the folks who did the hike in the rain the day before had to.  As it was, Phurba and I had a beautiful day and enjoyable hike.  According to the website, it was supposed to take between 2-3 hours, but we made it up in about 1:45. The hardest part for me, were the uneven steps at the very end.  After a delightfully flat path above the café that marks the halfway point, there are a series of about 500 steps down to a waterfall, and then about 400 more going up to the temple area where shoes, cameras and bags are to be deposited, prior to going up another set of high uneven stairs to the temple areas.  There are four shrine rooms for visitors, each dedicated to a different deity, although most deal with Guru Rinpoche as this was his site.  This is where, according to legend, he arrived on the back of a tiger to mediate and then subdue the local demons and Bön priests and convert them to Buddhism. There are two caves, out of eight, that are visible, one where he arrived on the back of the tiger and the other where he meditated. In rooms above them, there is an opening in the floor to look down into the sacred caves. Worshippers offer money in his honor. It is a remarkable place and the shrines, (photography not allowed) are beautifully done.  The monastery suffered a fire in 1998 and had to be completely rebuilt. The stairs are newly redone and are much easier to navigate that what I heard had been a steep mud slab before the renovations.  As in Tibet, I wondered how in the 17th c, the people who originally built and lived in the site got their construction materials.  Carrying all the wood and metal for the roofing, in addition to carrying the statues of the deities up to the site required monumental effort. On the way back down to the car, Phurba showed me the outline of a goddess, supposedly Yeshe Tsogyal, in the rockface below the cave and once down an image in the rock above the monastery of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) in his wrathful form as protector of the valley.  One can believe or not, but the people here do, and I find that refreshing. The visit to this monastery was definitely the highlight of my brief visit. The hike was good and the images in the Taktsang Palphug fascinating. 

As we had made good time on the hike, we were able to visit two more temples in town.  One was a new one, and I was able to keep my travel agenda on target with my plan to bring my guides to at least one place in their country that they hadn’t yet been to. Phurba had not been to the newly – and beautifully – constructed Zangdopelri Paro monastery. This complex sits on a hill not far from the airport and, like the watchtower on the diagonally opposite side of the valley, has a commanding view of the entire region. The center of the prayer room has a large golden statue of Guru Rinpoche flanked by his two major consorts and smaller statues of his eight manifestations. The walls are newly brightly painted with Yab-Yum images, images of the Buddha, and Avolokiteshavara. The artwork is breathtaking! (Naturally, no photography allowed….)

From the newest monastery in the valley to the oldest, the last official stop was at the 14th c Dumtseg Lhakhang Stupa. This site was restored, again under the patronage of a queen, just prior to the pandemic.  It still has the old feel, but the images on the interior walls are now visible, whereas I am sure that they weren’t clear prior to the renovation. This stupa is interesting in that as one makes the interior kora, there are wooden ladders with very small rungs that to the next level where there is another set of paintings telling another set of teachings, and then that kora leads to yet another wooden ladder that goes to where on the outside the spire is and on the inside a final set of teaching images.  The pillar in the center and the walls are completely covered with imagery.  The pillar in the middle represents the axis mundi of the world and the circumambulation the perpetual changing nature of reality. It was a fitting message for my last Bhutanese temple.

Before going back to the hotel, I wanted to get a book specifically on the Bhutanese deities, but our search for one at the three places that sold books, was unsuccessful. It’s possible that I’ll find one in Nepal.

As far as final impressions go, I found Bhutan to be a deeply religious country. This is partially due to the incredible number of laws that promote religious ritual as well as due to tradition. In one of the shops selling thangkas, I was struck by a poster that had an image I’d not seen before and asked what it would cost. I was told by the shop owner that the image wasn’t for sale as that was on her personal altar. There was no visible demarcation between her shrine and the paintings she had for sale.  Then in the grocery store where we stopped to get water, there was a shrine next to the cooler with drinks and a stuffed yak on top of the cooler. These are things, I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. The landscape from Paro to Thimphu does have a mystical quality to it and the blending of myth with history appears to be alive and well here. Phurba mentioned how the country is struggling to modernize with a young population that wants to leave as they don’t see how they can make a living in Bhutan. This problem is coupled with the migration from the villages to the urban centers, emptying the agricultural heartland of the country. Thimphu, like Kathmandu, seems to have mushroomed over the past few years while the basic population of the country, ca. 700 thousand, has stayed more or less constant. The balancing act between India and China is a constant source of worry for the government. The new policy and fee for foreigners has the tour agents very concerned, and rightly so, and most believe that it will either lead to what the government hopes is an elite foreign clientele, or to a tremendous loss of tourists. Time will tell. Tourism makes up a sizeable portion of the nation’s income, so a major deficit in this area, as has been the case during the pandemic, could lead to other issues. From what I could gather, Bhutan is facing a number of challenges, but the people are determined to master them, guided by a deep religious faith and trust in the King.

 I want to thank Michal and the staff at Firefox Tours and Travel for all their help making my visit enjoyable and educational.



Tags: buddhism, museums, sacred sites


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