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.

Chimi Lhakhang and Tantric Buddhism

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Rice fields are easy to cross: there are narrow embankments along the edges, meant to trap the waters. We took these easy paths to cross stretches of fields, and reached the hillock below which Chimi Lhakhang stands. The monastery was built in 1499 and is dedicated to the “mad monk” Drukpa Kunley.

Gilded wooden Buddha in Chimi Lhakhang, Bhutan

This disciple of Pema Lingpa is said to have subdued the demoness of Dhochu La with his Magic Thunderbolt of Wisdom and trapped her in a rock near the monastery. If you think about the fact that this is a place where women who want children come for the monk’s blessing, then you don’t need to see the wooden copy of the thunderbolt to figure out what it is. In any case, if you are interested, you can be blessed with a tap on the head with it.

Monk, Punakha, Bhutan

The main shrine had interesting paintings and statues, including one of Drukpa Kunley and his dog. Unfortunately it was too dark, and the exposure required tested the steadiness of my hands. The only photo which I managed to take was of this gilded wooden representation of the Buddha. The lobby, on the other hand, was very well lit, and the monk at his rosaries there was clearly interested in our party of six. I should have paid more attention to the paintings on the walls. My memory is that they depicted monks and celestial beings surrounded by animals, being serenely cruel towards demons and other powerful evil creatures. I’m sure the old monk would have explained the meanings of these paintings. We were to see more such paintings later in the day.

Butter lamps in Chmi Lhakhang, Bhutan

Most holy places in Bhutan have burning lamps, and stores of ghee for lighting new lamps. The rooms are nice and warm when you come in from the outside, but also, because of that, smells of rancid ghee. We left the shrine and walked about the monastery. It was full of young novices at work making candles and the lotus-and-dagger wooden pieces which go on top of poles holding prayer flags. They seem to be pretty fired up by the teaching of Drukpa Kunley.

In her on-job avatar, The Sullen Celt had been bringing tour groups to Thimphu and Punakha every year. She was the one who had read up about Chimi Lhakhang and its tradition of Tantric teaching. Drukpa Kunley was a Tantric master who taught that sex and religion were inseparable. The oldest Tantric story I knew was of Kapalika, who, after her lover died and was cremated, smeared his ashes over her body as a mark of their union. In India the tradition remains mainly in temple sculptures showing sexual acts, but in Bhutan it is very alive. Phalluses were painted on walls of huts in villages nearby. The refusal to separate different aspects of life is a very healthy attitude.

However, Drukpa Kunley lived in medieval times, and his poems reveal that his attitude towards women was of his times. As tourists we met few urban people socially, so I was unable to find out how his teachings are interpreted today.

An initiation into Tibetan history

tibetan

This statue in the Lama temple in Beijing reminded me of the Tibetan statuary I grew up with. One of my grand-aunts was an artist and a keen traveler, who collected, among other things, statuary, masks and paintings from the Himalayan, mainly Tibetan, Vajrayana buddhism. Her collection was large enough that it spilled over to all her brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. Even now, the violent imagery and snarling masks induce in me a sense of peace and nostalgia, and clear visual memory of her large house, and in general, of my extended family.

But now, planning a possible trip to Dharamshala and McLeodganj, I became curious about Tibetan history and religion. Religion first: the extreme ritualism and the violent iconography of Himalayan buddhism is completely at odds with what one learns about buddhism in India. Moreover, Nepali and the remnants of Indian Vajrayana buddhism do not have such violent imagery. It turns out that the dominant Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect, to which the Dalai Lama belongs, is possibly a late and syncretic development. The rituals come from the late Indian Vajrayana (tantric) buddhism, carried to Tibet by the monk Padmasambhava. There could be a dash of Bon beliefs and a soupcon of older Mahayana buddhism stirred into this. Some of the imagery could be a survival from Bon, but the violence?

This brings me to the second point: history. Tibetan history has been warlike. From the Tibetan empire of the 7th century, there were continuing wars with Nepal, Indian kingdoms, China, the Mongols, and later with the Sikh and British empires. Buddhism became a state religion by the 8th century, and the Dalai Lamas were involved in Tibetan and Asian politics since the 16th century. It is possible that this warlike stance of the state crept into the iconography we associate specifically with Tibet.

The re-invention of Tibetan buddhism as a religion of peace seems to be due to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. This Gandhi-like political-spiritual transformation is his greatest achievement, and directly responsible for the rock-star status that he enjoys.