The road to Bhutan

Bhutan was locked away from the world. This is one of the responses that countries have taken in response to the pandemic. The Manas National Park of Assam is part of a larger biosphere reserve that includes the Royal Manas National Park of Bhutan. It is a wonderful idea in these changing times. As the climate changes, one expects species to begin migrating up into the cooler heights, and this biosphere reserve is one of the corridors through which species will manage this. But on this hot day I was an individual in a species which was barred by closed gates. Seeing a small group of Indians on the road, a masked border guard came to watch.

We had no intentions of crossing. This was just a little walk after lunch to a point where I could indulge my romantic memories of a trip made fifteen years ago. Bhutan has changed since then, become a democracy, and bristles at India’s inept advances. I remember the wonderful experiences I had with the utterly friendly Bhutanese long ago, and would, in spite of the changes, like to go back there. Often people do not change, only governments come and go. I circled the border marker as wonderful memories of Bhutan passed through my mind.

The Family and I had long talked of entering the Manas biosphere reserve through Assam and going over to the Bhutanese side to see how the wildlife changes with altitude. We would have done it earlier, except that this was then a disturbed region. On the Indian side, Bodo tribesmen were in revolt against the Indian state. On the Bhutanese side, the Nepali insurgents had hidden away in these forests. Now the Bodos manage the Indian side of the forest, having come to a settlement within the Indian federation. On the Bhutanese side the ethnic conflict has been shut down by the military. But then the world has been struck by a virus and passage is again blocked. I wonder though, whether no wildlife can become a cross-border reservoir of the virus. After all, these forests do have pangolins. The only safety seems to be in the uncertainty of vaccination.

We were a group of birders, eight in all. We spent a while there, loitering at the border. Each of us had to take photos of the border marker. Having taken my photo, I walked around the perimeter of the border guard’s post, at least the part I was allowed to. The fibre glass tiger glared at me as I looked at the old familiar signboards from Bhutan enforcing discipline. Interestingly, unauthorized research was deemed almost as offensive as poaching!

The pre-Buddhist traditions of Bhutan include customs derived from an animist belief system. This is reinforced by the Tantric stream of Bhutanese Buddhism. One visible result is the use of skulls as symbols. I wonder which animal’s skull guards this border. Certainly a carnivore’s, given the long (broken) incisor. But not a tiger’s, the jaw is too long for that. Perhaps not a jackal’s either, since it would have had tearing teeth all the way to the incisor. There are bits of Bhutan which are still a mystery to me.

Travel is awful

View of Tawang town

There seems to be no lack of pithy sentences promising you the world if only you travel. One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The journey is the reward. Travel makes you modest. Focus on the journey, not the destination. Nothing is as tedious as a journey. No two journeys are the same. The beauty of a journey is that it’s unpredictable. If you are 22, I urge you to travel. Wisdom comes with age. Travel teaches tolerance. Travel long enough, and you forget your passwords. Travel stretches the mind. Tourists don’t know where they’ve been. Amazing how much stuff gets done the day before you leave. I have seen more than I remember. To understand a foreign country, smell it. Go see for yourself. There’s no foreign land, it’s the traveller who is foreign.

Bird photography in Arunachal with the wrong lens

The truth is travel is tedious, and not always comfortable. You only have to eavesdrop on two backpackers chatting to figure out how expensive, inconvenient, and downright unhealthy travel can be. I’ve found more disconcerting things about my hometown by overhearing conversations between backpackers than by reading newspapers or doomscrolling. If travelling has taught me anything, it is that it is far more comfortable to stay at home, drinking a tea or a beer as the mood takes you, eating food that you like, and generally being in an environment that you have grown used to.

Fountain in Hamburg when the temperature was below freezing

I learnt that on a freezing winter’s day in Hamburg you should not take a ferry ride through the harbour, or take long walks with a camera in hand. Much better to do what locals do, and stay inside a shopping arcade or sit in a warm restaurant. Better still, go to Hamburg in a different season.

If you focus on details you find that Rome’s most famous fountains require cleaning

Do not look for the telling detail in Rome. Better to step back and take a long shot of the piazza. It would be even better if you just step back into the crowd, find a table to site down at, and order something to drink. i had more fun drinking a coffee and eating a cake at Piazza Navona that I had taking photos of the fountains.

Contrary to what brochures say, Goa is not full of locals busy having a holiday

Do not go off the tourist map. Do not follow the white rabbit. There is no wonderland waiting for you in Goa. Remain where the tourists are, in the places marked out for you. Enjoy the inauthenticity of a big tourist destination. Remember that Alice did not have a great time in wonderland. The world is full of people trying to make a living. Most of them do not have the money to travel.

Bhutan may or may not be the happiest country in the world. But it is not the world’s richest. The always photographable gho and kira which people are required to wear in public are not cheap. The result is that most people only have a small number of outfits, and they cannot always dress for work or leisure appropriately. Do not assume that everyone treats work as a such a joyful activity that they dress their best to work.

The most interesting thing in a village is always the foreigner

Life in a small small village is not carefree. It is often boring and pointless, much like our own, no matter where we come from. If you look different, then you are as much of an attraction for them as they are for you. Even better, you give them an opportunity to forgo dangerous travel to broaden their mind. Also, be sure that any local politician worth his salt will tell his constituents that he has worked hard to make sure that the village is the most attractive in the world, which is why people come from far to see it.

It is not travel which broadens the mind, it is thinking about what you have seen. Anthony Bourdain probably never said that, but Mark Twain may have. Maybe travel has taught me that. Intercontinental flights are boring enough that I get a lot of reading done on trips.

The painted doors of Bhutan

Earth colours against stark white strike you as you approach any Bhutanese Dzong. The brightness of local red earth is the dominant colour, with touches of yellow ocher, contrasting with the pigment from ground black earth. After weeks of travel, separated by a year, I didn’t tire of photographing the same repeated motifs, painstakingly done by hand.

Bhutan is in the middle of large changes. When I traveled through, the monarchy had just imposed democracy on the country. One year I traveled just after a “practice” election, the next, just after a real election. During the monarchy giverning power seemed to be in the hands of bureaucrats, although, in some way that was not clear to me, dzongs played a role. Now the balance of power has shifted.

The old elite was educated in India, traveled to India frequently, reminisced about their times in Kolkata and Mumbai. The businessmen that we met were less enchanted. They were modernists in their country, and set themselves apart from the monks and the bureaucrats in every small way that they could. Even a decade back, when I traveled, the distance between the people in towns and villages was growing. The dynamics will have accelerated by now. It will be interesting to go back to see what has changed. The wooden doors have to be renewed every decade or so, and new artisans come to paint them. How fast will their tools and pigments evolve?

Weekend shooting

Looking back at this day over the years, I realized that we were hardly ever home in this month. If I had a time machine, I could dial it back precisely thirteen years, and go back to that lucky day when I discovered that the perfect way to spend a morning is to go out on the range in Thimphu and practice some archery.

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This is a very popular team sport in Bhutan, and after this first encounter with it, I saw it in many places. It turns out that sledging the opposite team has now become high art, and is an important part of the game.

Snow Lions and lotus: a gallery of paintings from Bhutan

Yak in a mural in Thimphu, Bhutan

Bhutan’s traditional religious paintings appear in many places. Trucks bear the image of the lotus (padma or pema). The tiger, the snow lion, the dragon and the Yamantaka are seen in murals in temples as well as people’s homes. Dzongs, monasteries and temples contain magnificent murals. A sampling of these is in the gallery below (click to see a slideshow).

Climbing into the Tiger’s Nest

Taktsang monastery, near Paro, is situated at an elevation of 3120 meters. The first view of it is spectacular (see the featured photo). But when I reached the base of the climb and saw the monastery hanging on a cliff a kilometre above me, my heart sank. I had really old and bad shoes, and I was physically out of condition. I told The Family I would not be able to climb.

The start of the climb, Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

She wanted to do it, and The Sullen Celt assured her that it was an easy walk. I was not convinced, since The Sullen Celt is a trekker and is unable to compensate for other people’s lack of fitness. Someone else said that the group of buildings that we could see part of the way up included a cafeteria with a great view of the monastery. I allowed myself to be persuaded by The Family that I could sit and have a coffee there while the rest of the gang climbed. The first twenty paces were a little bit of steep rock, but then the path became a dirt track, as you can see in this photo. This would become of great consequence on our way down.

Passing time on the route up to the Takhtsang Monastery, Bhutan

The initial climb was less hard than I’d expected. Previous travellers had dawdled during the climb through the rhododendron forest. We saw several small stacks of carefully balanced stone. It is reassuring when you see that someone sat down at a point where the climb was beginning to get steep and caught her breath doing something slow. I recently read a diatribe against them, and found myself agreeing. However, Bhutan teaches you the art of balance: the whole landscape of the country is a lesson in how to live in nature without overwhelming it.

View of Takhtsang Monastery, Bhutan

We left behind the forest bright with red rhododendron flowers and climbed higher. This was the realm of blue pines (Pinus wallichiana). As the road steepened, I had a lovely view of the monastery through the pines. It did not seem to be any closer.

Forest on the trail to Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

Takstang monastery was built by the fourth king of Bhutan, Tenzin Rabgye, in a site that was already holy. The legend of this place, called Taktsang Phelug (Tiger’s nest), is that the Guru Padmasambhava converted a Tibetan princess to Buddhism. She took the form of a tigress and flew with the Guru to this place. There he meditated, and emerged in eight different forms to subdue demons. The tsechu here has been used many times to consolidate national feelings. The first king, Ngawang Namgyal (also known as Shabdrung Rinpoche), performed the tsechu here in 1644 at the beginning of the war against Tibet, and invoked the story of the Guru as a metaphor for the war. His wish to build a temple here was finally fulfilled when Tenzin Rabgye declared the start of the works in the tsechu of 1692.

Turnoff to the canteen near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

Clouds were massing over the mountain, and flowing slowly down its sides as we climbed. The light was now worse, but it made the pine forest into a magical kingdom. Many of the trees were covered thick with orchids. We came to the point where the road to the cafeteria branched off. By now our group of climbers had stretched into a long thin line. If I went off to have coffee I would leave The Family to do the climb alone. Better prepared walkers would have no problem with this, but both of us were terribly out of shape that day, almost exactly a decade ago. So we decided to stick together. At this time I thought that the hard work was done, and it would not be much longer before we reached the monastery. So we went on.

Hand painted shed on the route to Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

There was a little temple, a Lhakhang, nearby. I paused to take photos of the four sacred animals painted by a local artist. From left to right you can see a tiger, a snow lion, a Yamantaka, and a dragon. This may have been the first time I saw these guardians all together, but I was to come across this combination many times over the next decade. The most beautiful representation I came to see was in the Dubdi Gompa in Sikkim. At this time I didn’t know that the Yamantaka was a representation of the Manjushri Buddha, and the snake he eats is death.

View of Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

I was completely wrong about the major part of the climb being over. The steepest part came after this. I have no record of this long climb because I had to put my camera into my backpack for a bit when I had to use my hands to steady myself. After that I was too tired to take it out again. I did not notice the soft sounds of wind through the pines and water dropping on rocks, things that The Family still remembers at times. I was completely out of breath when I reached the highest part of the route, all I noticed as I sat down on a rock parapet was that we were surrounded by prayer flags. The Family went over to the other side and realized that we were at a special place, where we could actually look down at the monastery. This was a pleasant view indeed.

Dog near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan
Moth near Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

We stopped here for a long while. The road dips down steeply beyond this, and a waterfall cascades between this mountain and the next one. We would cross between the two over a bridge and then walk up the next one into the monastery. It is not a long walk, but I had to prepare myself. This stage has two packs of territorial mountain dogs. They stand on the two mountains and bark at each other. I haven’t seen dogs with such a curly tail before. I paused to look at the flags when I noticed a moth sitting on one. As I took the photo you see here, The Family pointed out that the flags were full of moths of many different kinds. I was just beginning to learn to identify butterflies, but moths remained out of reach: then, as well as now. There are just too many kinds.

We went on down. The sound of the waterfall soon drowned out the barking of the dogs. There were Redstarts flying about near the water, flitting from stone to stone. We saw these birds for the first time in Bhutan, but were to see them many times later. The climb after this took all my breath away. I reached the monastery panting from the climb and sat down on the steps. Climbing those last few steps seemed too hard.

View of Takhtsang monastery, Bhutan

The last photo I have is the one above, taken just a little before the end of the last climb. I walked into the monastery, and must have seen some of it, but nothing remains in my memory. There was a major fire which destroyed Takstang monastery in 1998, ten years before our climb. The fire killed a monk and destroyed many old paintings and statues. What we saw was largely rebuilt with material brought up on the backs of men. What tremendous labour that is! Just a climb with a camera and water had tired me out so much.

It started to rain as we were up in the monastery. Someone suggested that we wait it out, but The Sullen Celt said it was not going to let up soon, and we should start off right now. She was right about the rain, but not about the walk. We made our way slowly back down to the waterfall and up again over rocks made slippery by the rain. Then, as we headed down through the forest the skies opened up and a really heavy rain started. The dirt track through the forest became a river of mud as we made our way down. We slid down parts of it and by the time we reached the bottom the rain had stopped and the sun was out. The warm sun baked hard the mud that we were now crusted in. It was a long time before we could get it off. We would do the climb again if we went there now.

A fun thing about Thimphu

Many things have been written about Thimphu. It is easy to find lists telling you the ten best things to do in Thimphu. All of them miss out on the most fun thing to do: play carrom at night with the locals. Back from Bumthang, we were feeling warm in Thimphu. After dinner we started looking for ice cream, and wandered into a street lined with carrom boards, all in use.

There were groups of young men playing. This is a game all of us had grown up playing, and it was fascinating. The Family noticed that there was no female player. “Why,” she asked, and did not stay for an answer.

Carrom players and kibitzers, Thimphu, Bhutan

We stopped at some of the games to comment on the technique and play. We were not the only ones. Several boards were crowded with onlookers and kibitzers. In India, any carrom board attracts its share of people who give unwanted advice: kibitzers. Bhutan was no exception. If we knew Dzongkha we would have joined in. At some point we did discuss the finer points of strategy on one of the boards. Since we spoke English, and the players did not, we managed not to give away a national advantage.

If you are in Thimphu one night, you can have a good time joining one of these groups to play carrom.

A mountain life is hard

Now and then The Family asks me, “Why don’t we leave Mumbai and go live in the mountains?” The question is not always rhetorical. I have to suppress my impulses and give a rational answer, which is that “Living is hard at the heights we would like to live in”.

There are few people, and fewer roads. Everything you want will have to be brought up from the plains. For a large part of the way it will come by truck. But eventually it will be brought up by mules, and at the very end by people. Can we do it? I don’t have to ask the rhetorical question, because we both know that the answer is no. We are good for ten days around an elevation of 4000 meters. Maybe we can stretch it to a few weeks, but then we would come back to the plains.

Kyichu Lhakhang, Paro, Bhutan

The beautiful and serene Kyichu Lhakhang, Bhutan’s oldest temple (photo above), stands right next to the cluster of buildings where I took the featured photo. This temple was built in the 7th century CE by the Tibetan king, and Padmasambhava is said to have visited the temple less than a century later. One of the wonderful stories about Kyichu Lhakhang is that the two orange trees which you can see inside apparently bear fruit all year round. Seeing the temple, and hearing these stories, one still has to remember that it was hard manual labour which built places like this.

Temple dancers return home to Paro, Bhutan

When we left the Lhakhang and came back to Paro, our car fell in behind this pick-up truck. The temple dancers sitting in the back turned their masked head to look at me as I took photos. Which tsechu had we missed? The only dances in May are the Domkhar Tsechu and the Ura Yakchoe, both far away in Bumthang. I don’t think these masks were for either of those. If I knew the culture of Bhutan better I would have been able to tell from the masks which festival the two were dressed for. Perhaps another trip is called for; it has been nine years, after all.

The Clear Air of High Places

Chele La is the highest motorable pass in Bhutan. We drove up here, 3810 meters above sea level, on a clear day. There was a clear view of the conical peak of Chomolari (Jomolhari), 3506 meters above us. Below us we could see the sun-dappled valleys of Paro and Haa. We had driven up through a road that wound through rhododendron forests, and had seen the spectacular colours of Khaleej pheasants for the first time.

A raven comes to rest on a flag in Chele La, Bhutan

I love the sense of calm at such heights. The sun was warm on my face, but the wind carried a biting chill. The wind blew through the massed prayer flags. The crack of blowing flags was a constant sound around us. There was a deep call of a raven, and I saw one come down to rest with its claws on the dagger of knowledge, completely oblivious to religion and revelation.

Chorten at Chele La, Bhutan

I walked down the road. A little way down was a chorten and next to it a heap of stones. At this height, your rational self can recede behind oxygen depletion. The magical longing to leave a little mark on the earth takes over, and you place another stone on the growing pile left by previous travellers.

View of Chomolari from Paro, Bhutan

I look at Chomolari and remember the two expeditions: one of 1937 and another of 1970, both over the southeast spur of the peak. The 1937 climb is described in a book. Dorjee Lhatoo and Prem Chand never wrote about their 1970 climb. I will never make a climb like this, not even over the newer routes pioneered more recently. But I sit on a cold grassy mound and dream about it.

Prayer flags at Chele La, Bhutan

I’m walking closer to the sky than I usually do: thoughts like this arise with hypoxic magic. On another rise is yet another group of flags. I walk between them. The wind is made visible, audible. Magic surrounds you. The fraying flags are supposed to release good wishes, calm and peace into the wind. These wash over you in gusts of the wind. Bhutan is supposed to top the world in Gross National Happiness. Can you doubt it when you stand so close to the sky?

The Exquisite Punakha Dzong

If there is only one Dzong that you have time to visit when in Bhutan, there is no question that it should be Punakha. The wonderful location at the confluence of the Po Chhu (Papa river) and Mo Chhu (Mama river), the beautiful Jacaranda and Magnolia trees surrounding it, the exquisite woodwork and paintings (featured photo), and its renowned history, make this undisputedly the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan. Don’t take my word for it. The present King was married in this Dzong, and all the kings have been crowned here.

Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

The Punakha Dzong was constructed in 1637 at a site where an older and smaller Dzong stood since 1326. Construction was completed in 1638, and the gold dome was added in 1676. In the second courtyard (dochey) I saw several buildings with beautiful paintings. The one above shows a monk with his left hand, holding a lotus, extended in a gesture that wards off evil (karana mudra). I liked the painting because of the detailed study of black-necked cranes at the monk’s feet. I’, not able to identify who this could be. I guess he is a monk and not a celestial being by the fact that he has a halo, but it is brown in colour.

To reach this place we had to climb a steep set of stairs. It seems that this is protection against invaders as well as flood waters. Entrance to the main buildings in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan The ladder that you see in this photo is apparently pulled up at night and the door behind it is locked. The ladder is so steep that I had to hold the handrail to climb up. The height is a protection against floods. Since Po Chhu is snow-fed, melt-water often floods in early spring. Even so, the Dzong has flooded several times in its history. The waters eventually cross the border into India and feed the Brahmaputra river. We spent a long time in the halls around the second dochey, admiring paintings and statues.

Mural in Punkha Dzong, Bhutan The two images here were taken because the light was good. They depict celestial beings of great power. This is clear from the green halos that surround their heads. Apart from that I’m clueless about who they can be. They are neither the Sakyamuni (since they do not hold a begging bowl) nor are they depictions of the Maitreya Buddha (since their feet do not rest on lotus flowers).

They are not Avalokiteshwara (since they are looking forward), nor are they Tara (since they are male). They do not hold a sword, so they are not Manjushri. They are not surrounded by flames, so they cannot be Mahakala or Vajrapani. Mural in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan Both are bearded, so they could be Padmasambhava. But I have no idea whether the Guru is depicted holding a musical instrument, as the one on the left does, or a prayer wheel, like the one on the right. The identified images of the Guru that I have seen show him with the Sakyamuni seated on the crown. That is not the case here. These could be someone else, but I like to think of them as the 8th century sage who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas.

View of Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

This was the second time we visited the Punakha Dzong. Both times we arrived in May, and found the Jacaranda in bloom. The beautiful purple colour looks wonderful against the white walls of the Dzong. It would be nice to come back here in another season to see what it looks like.

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