People of Bhutan

Thinking of Bhutan brings back memories of a wonderful country with gentle and friendly people. As tourists we probably saw a larger proportion of monks than there actually are in the population. Also, we saw much more of the countryside than the city. Still, I hope the slide show below captures a not-unreasonable cross-section of the people of Bhutan. Click on any of the photos to start the slide show.

Greek Buddhism

The story of Greek Buddhism seems to be largely forgotten except when events such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas hit the public’s consciousness. When The Family and I chased after a remnant of the neglected Indo-Greek cultures across a flooded river near Bhopal, I had not seen the magnificent schist statue of the Buddha in the National Museum in Delhi (featured photo). The history of the Gandhara kingdom is well documented, widely researched, easy to find, and seldom referred to. In these unsettled days the story is worth keeping in mind.

The Gandhara kingdom was centred around Peshawar and Taxila, and in the period between about 200 BCE and 600 CE it was the meeting place of three cultures: the Greek, the Indian, and the Persian. It was part of the Mauryan empire. The Emperor Ashok was introduced to governance as the satrap of Gandhara, during the reign of his grandfather, Chandragupta the founder of the empire. Buddhism came to Gandhara (and to the rest of empire) with the conversion of Ashoka. The influx of Greek artists and artisans to Central Asia which started after Alexander’s conquests settled into a constant exchange during the Seleucid dynasty, with spillage into the Mauryan empire.

The Indo-Greek melding which created the style we call Gandhara arose during the 1st century CE, during the reign of Kushan kings. Standing Buddha from Gandhara ca 2nd century CE, National Museum, delhi The featured photo is of a magnificent example of this style. Another one which I liked is the plaster statue of the standing Buddha pictured here. The Kushan kings traded with Rome, and the influence of the imperial Roman style is clear in both the statues. The faces of the Buddhas and the flowing dresses remind me of the flowing robes of 2nd century Roman sculpture, and the faces of Apollo. The statues were often painted and occasionally gilded, but I could not see any trace of paint on the ones I examined.

Bodhisattva from Gandhara ca 2nd century CE, National Museum, Delhi

The head of a Bodhisattva that you see above was striking (in spite of being badly lit). The label did not say much beyond the fact that this is dated to the 2nd century CE. A little search later convinced me that this must be a representation of the Maitreya. He seems to have been very popular in the Gandhara tradition, perhaps almost as much as Gautama. The Maitreya sports a mustache in all the pictures that I saw.

The ascension to the throne of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka, who ruled during the period these three artifact were made, dates the beginning of the Saka calendar, the official calendar of the Indian state. Kanishka’s empire extended as far east as Pataliputra and northwards up to Turfan in present day Xinjiang province. Trade with Rome in this period opened up the silk route and is said to be responsible for the spread of Buddhism into China.

I understand that "most of the archaeological finds of Gandhara art have been the result of casual discovery or clandestine treasure hunts". This explains the lack of provenance that I noticed in the labels in the museum. In the absence of modern field data, expert opinions on the history of Gandhara art diverge from each other. Unfortunately, this is a part of the world where the major archaeological sites of Peshawar, Taxila, and Swat valley in Pakistan and Jalalabad, Hadda and Bamiyan in Afghanistan have become less accessible. New scholarly expeditions seem to be unlikely in my lifetime. The full story of the flowering of an Afghan-Greek-Iranian-Indian melding will only emerge in a gentler future.

Mohenjo-daro: a Different Vision

A non-artist like me thinks of animals as they are normally shown in photos or paintings. This iconography, the way of representing animals, differs only slightly across the Eurasian continent; cheetahs painted by Delacroix differ slightly from those shown in Mughal miniatures. But when you come across a representation from a entirely different culture, you realize with a shock that there are other ways of seeing. The four and half thousand year old tiny terracotta head of a bull that you can see in the featured photo shocked me, when I recognized what I was looking at. This was, literally, an eye opener.

The Family and I were in Delhi for a baking hot weekend, and took refuge in the Indian Museum one afternoon. I had wanted to go there for long, and The Family wanted to go back and see the Indus Valley galleries. At its peak, this civilization spread far beyond the core Indus river valley, to cover a region from Afghanistan to modern day Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat in India, and supported a population of about five million people. The high period of the civilization is usually taken to be 2600 to 1600 BCE. All the photos you see in this post are of artifacts from this era.

Oxen from the Indus civilization, National Museum, Delhi

The representation of oxen, widely observed farm animals, are beautiful. They emphasize the massive power of the beasts. It is remarkable that this degree of beautiful modelling is visible in a tiny piece which is less than 4 cms in size. That is the larger piece. The smaller one is a little larger than a cm!

If we persist in thinking about the Indus civilization in terms of land area and land routes, it is blindness on our part. The Indus people were sea farers. Water trade between Indus cities played a major role in commerce and full-fledged ports for sea-going vessels have also been excavated in Gujarat. I saw a seal (larger than life sized picture here) with clearly marine motifs: a starfish surrounded by fish, an eel and seaweed.

Two indus figurines, National Museum, DelhiWhen I first looked at the little figure which you see at the top of this image, I thought it was a deer or an antelope. The Family read the label and exclaimed "Rhino!" Indeed it is, as you can see from the horn sprouting from its forehead. The massive body is the second, and relatively minor, clue. The other figure is a farm animal, as you can see from the decorative strips of cloth draped across its back. It took me a while to figure out what the prominent snout and large ears tell us. Do you recognize it?

Another fact about this four to five thousand year old civilization which we may forget is that the towns and villages of that time were situated in the middle of cleared forests. The large-scale clearing of forests in India has happened within living memory. My parents remember seeing herds of antelope from a passing train, or a leopard slinking away from the headlights of a car. The Indus civilization left reminders of its highly forested environment in numerous tiny terra cotta figures of wild animals. The armadillo you see in the photo above is just one example.

The collection of the National Museum is vast, and we spent more than a couple of hours just peering at the tiny terra cotta seals and figurines in the part of the museum which deals with the Indus valley civilization. It will take us the reminder of our lifetime to walk through this museum.

Pictures at an Exhibition

I’d never been to the National Museum in Delhi, although it had been on my bucket list for years. For over fifteen years, The Family has had a false memory of the place being very small. So when we had a weekend in Delhi together, we took a couple of hours to walk through a small part of it.

One of the galleries which we visited was of miniature paintings. It is an enormous collection. The range dwarfs every other collection I’ve seen. The beautiful Jain manuscript of which the featured photo is a detail was a style I’d not seen before. I don’t know much about Jain mythology, but it seems to have remarkable parallels to Buddhism, while also being different. The dreams of the mothers is part of the common lore. This was painted on paper in the 16th century CE. The paper and paint are remarkably uniform. Photography is freely allowed in the museum, but then the glass in front of most paintings makes them hard to capture. Some part of the uneven colouration in these photos is due to reflections from the glass.

This picture of the emperor Jahangir is unusual in many ways. Emperor Jehangir with a picture of the Madonna, National Museum, DelhiAlthough Roman Catholic orders were seen in the tolerant Mughal courts from the early 16th century CE, paintings with Christian subjects remained uncommon. This 17th century painting is even more so in that it shows the emperor himself with a picture of the Madonna. There are probably three or four such paintings of the Mughal emperors with the Madonna. I also found this painting a little different from most Mughal miniatures in the very subdued palette: very muted and dark colours.

Another of the paintings which caught my eye was a Persian miniature. It was a fairly common kind of painting, with many different identifiable birds, animals and flowers. Detail from a Persian Miniature, National Museum, DelhiThe reason it caught my eye was the picture of a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri). This parakeet is said to have been found in large parts of India and modern-day Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, as well as in a wide swathe across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf. Although there are reported sightings in Iran, it is not usually said to be part of the ancestral range of this bird. Is this painting perhaps proof that it was found in Iran already in the 15th century CE?

I’m afraid The Family and I are not very good museum-goers. We weave back and forth through the galleries and talk too much about things like this.

Strike a gong

On recent visits to Delhi I’ve managed to catch up with This Niece who’s studying architecture. When I told her about dinners at the India Habitat Center, she said she wanted to come with me the next time I went. So one hot afternoon this weekend we went for lunch at the IHC.

Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The smallest Malay rabbit
Deplores this stupid habit.
In Hong-Kong
They strike a gong and
Fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand each inmate
Who’s in late
—Noel Coward (1931)

While the rest of Delhi was baking in the super-40 temperature, there was a breeze through the linked atria of the centre. As we walked through them, The Family and I looked at the organizations which have their offices there: Housing Development and Finance, The Energy and Resources Institute, the NCR planning Board, are part of an interesting set of environment, planning and development organizations which sit there.

The radical building from the early nineties is typical of the architectural practice of Joseph Allen Stein: the brick facade broken by the tiny accents of coloured tiles whose differences mark which atrium you are in, and the remarkable melding of inside and outside. This Niece walked around exclaiming about this feature and that: the framework with sunscreens which you see overhead (featured photo) came in for several comments. The Family remarked on how that lets in enough light for plants to grow by. We stood and watched a group of young people preparing a stage for a play in a sunken amphitheatre built into one of the atria. Eventually we left when we ran out of water to drink.

Signs of Spring

Is it really the flowers that are the sign of spring? In the plains of India it is the heat which announces that the brief winter is done and calendrical spring has begun. In today’s springtime Delhi I had to take a little walk on the road in a blistering 43 degrees. In Bhutan ten years ago the spring temperature never rose above 15 degrees. So the weather is not a sign of spring.

Wasp in Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan

Nor are flowers. I saw enough flowers in Bhutan that year to make it seem as if it is. But then every winter gardens across India burst into colourful life. It is not the flowers, but the profusion of pollinators which announce spring. Winter’s pollinators seem to be only butterflies.

Bee in Punakha, Bhutan

In spring every insect seems to jump into the role. Moths and wasps have backs dusted with pollen, just as much as bees or bumblebees. In Bhutan I even saw a fly pollinating flowers in spring!

Memories of Phobjika valley

The six of us struck off eastwards across Bhutan with no particular destination in mind. We had a vague idea that we would stay one night each in a valley. Phobjika valley was the first we came to. We made a turn off the forested east-west road, and drove for a little more than an hour until the forest opened up very suddenly. In front of us was a wide valley carpeted in green (featured photo). We took a second look, because the carpet of greenery was not grass. It was a stiff ankle-high plant, which was very hard to push through. We decided not to climb the first hills we saw, but to go on ahead.

In 2008 Bhutan was still in its last year as an absolute monarchy. You could not book hotels outside the Thimphu-Punakha-Paro triangle on the web. We knew that some tourists came to Phobjika, so we were pretty certain that we would find a few rooms. We drove along the road, and soon came to a little village. We stayed in this village in Phobjika valley, Bhutan There was a family-run hotel, and they had rooms.

People in Bhutan are extremely friendly and informal. We gathered in a little dining room with the family. A baby was handed to us, and as we kept him entertained the table filled up with snacks. There was a mixture of dishes made with local produce, and simple packaged things like biscuits and tea. The long transport lines needed to bring them here made them extremely expensive. Dinner included a wonderful thukpa made with vegetables freshly plucked from the garden.

Layers of blankets and a wood-burning radiator in the middle of the room kept us warm through the night. Phobjika lies between 2900 and 3200 meters in altitude, but in the middle of May temperatures could dip down to 4 Celsius at night. In winter there is enough snow that some villagers move away to more comfortable valleys.

View of Phobjika valley, Bhutan

The next morning after breakfast The Family and the rest went off bird watching. I decided to take a walk down the valley. Bhutan is built from material laid down half a billion years ago near the Tethys Sea, and carried here by the Indian continental plate. The geological events that made Bhutan occurred mainly in the last 20 million years, and have been mapped extensively by the Geological Surveys of Bhutan and India. As the Indian plate pushes up the Tibetan plate, the sheets of ancient rock concertinaed and folded vertically along the east-west axis we were traversing. Wild plant in Phobjika valley, BhutanAs a result the Tethys rocks metamorphosed into the minerals seen here today.

The gently sloping Phobjika valley lies over white granite rocks distinct from the geology of Paro to the west and Bumthang to the east. Glaciation in the last few thousand years may have initially started the valley. However, its present form is due to the action of monsoon, repeated frosts and snowfall, and the wind that constantly blows across the valley, carrying topsoil with it. Interestingly, there is evidence of pre-historic human slash-and-burn agriculture in the last two thousand years in the form of deeply buried charcoal. This ancient abuse is perhaps what cleared the valley of the forest cover which lies around it, and caused the soil to turn unproductive. I wonder whether the two rivers which wind through the valley today, the Nake Chu and the Gay Chu, flowed in those days.

I walked along an unpaved road with the valley sloping away to my left. The weather was mild enough, even with the breeze that brought clouds tumbling over the far hills. Along ridges I could see rows of flags: white for mourning and coloured for prayers. Beetle in Phobjika valley, BhutanThe Buddhist belief here is that the winds blow these prayers and distribute them over the valley.

The poor soil needs prayers. As I walked along, I noticed the rocky ground with a thin covering of red dust. Hardy wild plants straggled across it, and strange insects scuttled between patches of growth. Ferns grew out of the soil, hiding spiders in their spiral folds. In the distance I saw farmers at work. Once I passed a cow which turned to follow me with her eyes without interrupting her mouth.

A truck drove by and the friendly young driver leaned out to smile and wave. A young child scuttled away from me and then gathered enough courage to peer at me from around his door. The mother came out to investigate, and gave me a friendly wave. After a while I saw school children walking back home. This gang of four planted themselves in front of me and told me in their broken English to take a photo. They stood grim-faced for the photo, but immediately after that broke into smiles and started pushing each other. It was time for me to get back for lunch and find out which birds The Family had spotted.

Wangdi’s place

It was evening when we reached Wangdue Phodrang; the name means Wangdi’s Place. The highway passed by a dzong high up on a cliff. In the evening light it looked forbidding, as the intention must have been once. A dzong is today the administrative headquarter of a district (called a dzonkhag) in Bhutan. The origins of the country are tied up to these dzongs, which once were the religious, military and administrative centres of a region. Even today a dzong has rooms for the Penlop (governor) of a province as well as monks. I hear that the Wangdue Phodrang dzong burnt down a few years after I took the featured photo, and is still under repair.

Telephone shop in Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan

Soon after this we left the highway and turned into Wangdue town. It is the smallest town I’d seen in Bhutan till then. It population must have been a few thousand. The center of the town seemed to be the main bus stop, where you could take a bus to Punakha, Trongsa, Gasa, or Thimphu. There were a few people waiting for buses. Shops were open, and one prominent place was taken up by a phone center. Mobile phones were new in Bhutan, and connectivity was very poor. So the B-mobile shop also had booths where you could use a land line. At that time these STD/ISD centers were common in India too. I took a photo partly because of the policeman, the first I had seen outside Thimphu.

General store in Wangdue Phodrang, Bhutan

We wandered around the town center for a while. The Family admired the two-story wooden house whose ground floor was the town’s main general store. It sold everything from cooking gas to toffee. The Family likes to buy local sweets. She inspected the collection and found that most of them came from India, but a few were from Bangladesh. She bought a stock which would come handy during our long drives. We admired the traditional Kira (skirt) and Tego (jacket) that this lady was wearing. Bhutanese wear traditional dress to work. The men wear the Gho (gown) in public, tied at the waist with a Kera (belt).

Evening fell quickly. The warm interior of this tailor’s shop contrasted with the restaurant next door which had shut after the last bus left. We decided it was time to find accommodation for the night. Our driver, Dinesh, knew two options. The nearer one was ruled out, it had been completely booked by a company of people who were riding motorbikes across the country. The other had rooms for us.


Dhochu La is the pass to the whole of central and eastern Bhutan. We drove east from Thimphu and reached the pass in the mid morning. The road was sunny, but the view was obscured by dense clouds. When the weather is good one expects to see Bhutan’s highest mountain, Masanggang with its peak at an elevation of 7158 meters, from this pass.

Druk Namgyal chorten, Dhochu La, BhutanThe previous year we had seen a little pavilion hiding a small party of the royal family who had stopped here for tea and the view. This year we only saw the 108 khangzang chorten which were built in 2004. They commemorate the Bhutanese army’s victory in a fight against Assamese insurgents who launched attacks on India from a presumed safe haven in Bhutan. Travellers on the road stop here often, and one can observe a cross section of Bhutan wandering among the ranks of chorten.

The Emmet’s Inch and Eagle’s Mile
Make Lame Philosophy to smile
— William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

The road which descends from the pass is beautiful. It hugs a hillside full of deodar (cypress) trees. As we travelled along it we found ourselves looking at a beautiful rainbow over the road. I guess rainbows are not uncommon in spring, but to us it looked as if this was an augury of welcome: the weather had opened a gate for us to enter Bhutan. It turned out that this was quite an accurate reading of the weather for the next week.

A Himalayan Spring

We flew in to Paro on a wet and gloomy morning. This was the most wonderful weather that we could think of. The previous night in Kolkata was hot and sultry, like Mumbai. A place where spring means something was wonderful. Paro is at an elevation of only 2300 meters, so the local wild flowers are likely to be similar to Europe. I initially mistook the flower in the featured photo for a Forget-me-not. It is not that, but I don’t know what it is.

Just outside the airport we began to see flowers growing wild. This small but beautiful white flower was very common. I think this is some kind of a Himalayan wild rose.

Forget-me-not, Paro, Bhutan

When I saw my first Forget-me-not of the trip, I realized that it is hard to mistake it for something else. The problem is that you can mistake something else for it.

I saw this hardy little weed growing out of a crack in a metalled road. It was doing well enough to flower. Looking at the photo now, after almost a decade, I realize that the camera I had then was much better suited to macros than the one I have now.

This flower stumped me. All I remember about this is that it would grow into a small green fruit; the bush was full of them. I don’t know whether it is edible, or what it is called.

This flower is another enigma. Unknown flower, Paro, Bhutan Even more so than the previous one, since I do not even remember where in Paro we saw it.

We had to wait in Paro for a day for the rest of our group to meet up with us. We took our car and drove up to Chele La. At a height of 3700 meters above sea level, this is the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. On our trip to Bhutan the previous year, we came to Chele La on the last day of the trip. Now, more or less just off the plane, I realized that I was not yet comfortable at this altitude. No headache, but I had to move slowly.

A species of primrose called Primula denticulata grows widely in higher parts of Bhutan and Sikkim. The long stalks of the plant with a globe-like inflorescence could be seen in many of the meadows. It is a beautiful colour when it catches the sun.

Rhododendron, Paro, Bhutan

The star of the season at these altitudes is the Rhododendron. You get it in all shades from white to dark red. Here is a close up of a pink rhodo. There were large groves of Rhododendron around the road as soon as we left Paro, and they came up fairly close to the top of the pass. We would see them again and again as we travelled through Bhutan than May.

I was happy, but The Family was very sad. The previous year we had our first view of Khaleej pheasants near Chele La. As we drove back down, we saw a pair run across the road and disappear. Now we were both equally happy.