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.
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.
The sacred forest of Mawphlong village, one of over a hundred such places sprinkled through this plateau, is said to be home to a deity called U Ryngkew U Basa. This 75 acre forest is governed by the clan of priests called the Lyngdoh. Since this was the closest to Shillong, we drove down there. A fair was being set up when we reached. There were lots of tents, some signs directed us to empty places which would presumably fill up later. We wandered about, unable to figure out anything. Some people helpfully told us to come back later. When The Family asked about the sacred forest, people pointed in some direction.
Raju had decided to take the car back to the designated parking area and wait there. Later I thought that maybe he was uncomfortable here. That was a time of violent and exclusionary identity politics. Being so obviously tourists, we were safe. But maybe Raju felt he wasn’t. We walked in the direction which was pointed out and came across a field of Khasi monoliths. Typically they are set up in a sacred forest or just outside them, and commemorate either events or ancestors. I wondered about the dating as we walked into the copse of trees under which these monoliths stand. The monoliths had no writing on them, and their purpose can only be explained by someone who knows about then. Having a guide with us would have been good.
We wandered back and watched some archery practice. The people involved were of all ages, but shared a certain squinty eyed gaze at the target. The main competition was much later in the day. The place had the unsettled air of people having arrived too early for what they wanted. The sacred forest was not very close to here, and the disruption of the fair blocked off our way. We walked to one end of the fair ground and looked down at the green fields of the Mawphlong village. The forest held its secrets. We would have to come back another time to walk through it.
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.