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Postcards from Bhutan: Butter Lamps, Fall Chilies & the Biggest Buddha

 

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At Kiyuchu Lakhang near Paro, we lit 108 butter lamps while praying for the world, our family and friends, and ourselves. The 7th century geomantic temple is one of 108 said to have been built in a single day by the Tibetan emperor Songsten Gampo to pin down a “supine ogress” threatening the Himalayan region. This one was constructed on her left foot.

I’ve never before felt such wonder—or the sensation of slipping so easily into a groove—than when returning to this faraway place that has a lock on my heart.

The second time around, the skies were a deeper blue, the silences more resonant, the chilies hotter and brighter.  It’s as if all my senses were revved up: I could feel hidden vibrations and almost taste swirls of brilliant color.  I was stunned once again by the magnificence of the Himalayas, and by the way these unyielding peaks reduce the individual to nothing.  Zip, zero, not even a freckle on the skin of the universe.  I also felt the most intimate connection to the natural world and to the unseen presence of the Buddha.

In Bhutan it’s quite possible to believe in magical tigers that fly from Tibet and temples that are built in a day.  Or that you were a duck in a previous life.  And that only daily recitations of a certain mantra will keep you from being reborn into the hunger world.  Trust me, you don’t want to go there

So how was it that, after flying halfway around the world and descending through clouds to a tiny Buddhist kingdom with golden-roofed temples, impenetrable forests and a gentle people who are hurtling into the 21st century with all its attendant stresses and delights, that I felt completely and absolutely at home?

Frankly, I haven’t a clue.  But for your pleasure, here are a few glimpses of the Land of the Thunder Dragon…

 

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In fall, Bhutan is ablaze with red chilies drying for the winter. They bake in the sun on corrugated tin roofs, occupy blue plastic tarps or woven straw mats, even dangle from clothes lines. One wall of this stone farmhouse near the Bumthang airstrip was almost covered with chilies; the air was so peppery that my eyes began to water.

Chilies, or ema as they are known in Dzongka, the national language, are one of the few seasonings used in Bhutanese cooking.  (Another is thingey, a tongue-numbing, locally grown Sichuan peppercorn.) Ema datsi—chilies simmered in water with onion and tangy, homemade cow’s milk cheese—is served with almost every meal in Bhutan. I couldn’t stop eating it, even at breakfast.  Fluffy red rice, and lots of it, will keep your mouth from being scorched.

The dried chilies are also used whole in dishes such as an incendiary stir fry with braised yak, ginger and garlic that I tasted in Gangtey.  Ground into a coarse powder, the chilies add sizzle to simple dishes such as a soup of turnip leaves simmered with milk, and buckwheat noodles tossed with cilantro and salt.  I quickly learned that when cooks say “Add a little chili,” they usually mean, “Add a few handfuls.”

 

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Eighth wonder of the world? The gilded bronze Buddha Dordenma, said to be the biggest in the world (but actually not), gazes serenely over the capital city of Thimphu to the not so distant peaks of the Himalayas.

A few of the statistics are boggling.  Inside the 169-foot tall statue, still under construction, there will be 17 stories of lakhangs or temples, a spacious meditation hall, and 25,000 12-inch gilded copper replicas of the Present Buddha “placed in multi-layered grid boxes.”  It’s said that the third eye in the middle of the statue’s forehead (not visible from this angle) is filled with 7 kilos of diamonds.

According to the Buddha Dordenma website, the towering image symbolizes “peerless virility to bestow blessings, peace and happiness on the whole world.” Whether seen close up or from afar, its presence is a reminder of the power of kindness and compassion.

 

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All across Bhutan, you’ll see gracefully fluttering prayer flags known as Lung ‘ta—literally “wind horse”—strung over high mountain passes, along bridges, and around sacred sites such as the burning lake at Membartsho. Printed on cotton in the five elemental colors and inscribed with mantras, they disperse prayers into the world with every gust of wind.

At Chorten Nyeabu near Punakha, we watched as three young monks, red skirts hoisted around their waists, running shorts underneath, clambered up the massive Gum Shing tree to attach long strings of prayer flags to its branches. As plumes of juniper incense rose into the air, a young lama read from a book of scripture, its pages held open with a golden dorje or thunderbolt.  As B and I prayed, grains of rice were thrown into the air, and water scented with camphor was poured around us—a ritual for our happiness, long life and good fortune.

The Gum Shing tree is charred black inside—not, as you might imagine, by a lightning strike—but by a stick of burning firewood hurled centuries ago by the Divine Madman, Drupka Kunley, who wanted to destroy the demons cavorting in its branches.  Nawang gave me a twig from the tree:  “Take it,” he said. “Keep it, even if you don’t believe.”  (In case you’re wondering, it’s lying on my bedside table.)

 

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In winter, nomadic yak herders bring their animals from high summer pastures near Gang Rinchenze, at the end of the infamous Snowman trek, down to lower altitudes of 3,300 meters. This majestic creature, wearing red tasseled earrings, was languidly grazing along the road to Gangtey, a high valley where rare black cranes fly in from Tibet for the winter.

Also known as ‘the grunting ox,’ the yak is said to be “hardy, stubborn, frisky and apparently clumsy, though deceptively agile on precipitous rugged terrain” (Gyume Dorje in the Footprint guide to Bhutan).  Exceptionally well-developed hearts and lungs enable them to thrive at high altitudes; in the not-so-distant past they were widely used in caravans to transport goods across the Himalayas.

The herders, known as Jops in western Bhutan or Brokpas in the east, are said to practice Bon, an ancient religion preceding Buddhism in which a yak is sacrificed every year to appease the deities. For the nomads, the yak is also their livelihood:  they use the thick hair to make ropes, tents and sweaters, the milk for butter and hardened cheese known as chugo, the hides for boots and clothing, the dung for fuel.  As well, nomads will sell one or two yak annually for meat; when braised, yak is quite tender and tastes much like beef.

 

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Monks relaxing in the courtyard of the Jambay Lakhang, near Jakar in the Bumthang district. This revered 7th century geomantic temple, another of the 108 temples built in a single day by the Tibetan emperor Songsten Gampo, is said to pin down the left knee of a “supine ogress” threatening the people of the Himalayas. Here, as in other temples, the traditional red and orange robes of the monks create vivid splotches of color against the pale stone.

It’s difficult to know how many Buddhist monks there are in Bhutan.  In the late 1980’s, estimates ran to 12,000, including 1,000 attached to the central monastic body in Thimphu and in Punakha, where the massive dzong serves as winter residence of the Je Khenpo, or Bhutan’s chief abbot.  Today the numbers may be smaller: fewer families automatically send one son to a monastery to study for monkhood, and though subsidized by the government, funds to pay for the necessities of life are limited.  Monks who leave their orders may lack other training and become unemployed.

But visiting a monastery can be inspiring. At the tiny monastic college opposite the royal palace in Wanduechhoeling, we slipped into the dimly lit altar room for prayers one evening. The scent of burning incense, the squeal of ritual horns and the clash of cymbals mingled with the sound of 12 young male voices chanting as the head monk walked among them, pounding a staff on the smooth wooden floor.  The prayers rose and fell, became louder and then softer, went faster and then slower. Sometimes the boys chanted in perfect unison, sometimes at different tempos, but solemn or giggling, fidgeting or slumped in a trance, each monk was in a world that was both private and shared. Do I have to say it was magical?

 

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The palace at Wangduechhoeling, built in 1857 for Jigme Mangyel, the powerful warrior who united Bhutan’s feudal regions and whose son, Ugyen Wangchuck, became the nation’s First King, was the first royal residence not constructed as a fortress. In 2012 the World Monument Fund placed the palace on its watch list due to severe deterioration and vandalism; a restoration project, not yet begun, is estimated to take three years.

Walking through the palace on a cloudy morning, I glimpsed a young red-robed monk disappearing into a doorway—perhaps he was hurrying to early prayers in the private chapel upstairs.  I was mesmerized by the dense patterns painted on the decaying wooden trim and the glowing ochre walls adorned with cranes, deer and other symbols of longevity.  The vivid blue trim paint, which I’ve seen nowhere else in Bhutan, made me think of the old indigo kira I bought last year—it was said to have been woven for the sister of the First King who lived right here.

According to the World Monuments Fund, the palace is a “classic example of 19th century Bhutanese architecture. White stone walls bonded with earthen mortar, wattle and daub partitions, and richly ornamented timber details characterize the complex, which is built around a central courtyard and houses priceless murals, texts, sculpture and textiles.”   I’d call it the most romantic of ruins, one which lets you imagine, however vaguely, the life the royal family led here.

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A rice farmer pauses at her home in a tiny village in the paddies near Punakha. In her right hand, she holds a short scythe still used for harvesting grain. The simple tool, and others like it, may soon be a vestige of the past.

Across the fertile Punakha valley, farmers still cultivate rice by hand, cutting the ripe grain with scythes and winnowing, either by tossing the stalks in the air with pitchforks or by feeding them into a foot-pedaled thresher.  The freshly harvested grains are captured on woven straw mats or blue plastic tarps laid on the ground.  The stalks are saved for cattle fodder during the winter, or burned.

These near-medieval scenes may soon come to an end, however. The new prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, swept to a surprise victory in July, defeating the incumbent in Bhutan’s second round of national elections.  His win was partly due to a list of promises that included a motorized rototiller for every village and a utility vehicle for every district.   There’s less talk about Gross National Happiness now and more about improving the economic outlook for the Bhutanese people.  As the PM told us at lunch one day, “Bread on the table is happiness.”

 

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Children returning from school to their village in the rice paddies near Punakha.

It’s quite possible that none of these children will follow in their parents’ footsteps and become rice farmers.  During the 1960′s, under the Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, English became the language of instruction in Bhutanese schools; increasingly it is also being spoken at home, especially in urban areas.  The literacy rate, 42 percent in 2000, rose to 63 percent in 2012.  Nationwide, almost half of the primary students are girls; as their education increases, so too will their options.

Prime Minister Tschering Tobgay’s “pet projects” include plans to equip 10 pilot schools with studios which will enable the Kingdom’s best teachers to provide live classes, via fiber optic cable, in math, English, science, history and probably ethics.  Also on his agenda: providing WiFi in Thimphu high schools, and making college more accessible.

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A misty view of the rice fields from the terrace at Amankora’s lodge near Punakha.

It’s tempting for westerners to view Bhutan as the “last Shangri-la.” Certainly the Kingdom’s pure air, virgin forests, thundering rivers and gold-roofed temples feed the fantasy—as does the gentle side of the Bhutanese character, and shared Buddhist values of kindness and compassion.

But the country is changing—and quickly. There is a sense, among some Bhutanese, that the culture is fraying.  Standing in line at the Druk Air counter in Bangkok last year, I saw giant boxes containing 54-inch flat screen TVs being checked as luggage.  Satellite dishes have proliferated, even in remote farming communities, bringing Bollywood soap operas and more to an avid audience.  At a 2012 festival for the unfurling of a new thangka at Paro Dzong, the contrast could not have been more pointed: a group of teenage boys were sharing rock music on their smart phones, while next to them, an elderly woman quietly chanted a mantra as her prayer beads slipped through her fingers.

And then there is geography.  Bhutan is a small country, rich in natural resources, that is wedged between two voracious neighbors: China and India.  So far, the Kingdom has managed to walk a tightrope, accepting money and labor from India to build dams for hydroelectric power, yet keeping the Indian army at arms length when guerillas took up residence in the southern part of Bhutan. (The 4th King waged a quick and effective war to root out the rebels.)  Many worry more about China’s intentions:  After years of negotiation, the Kingdom lost one of its most sacred peaks when, you’ll be told, China simply redrew its disputed border with Bhutan. What’s next?

In the past, the Himalayas and Bhutan’s rugged terrain certainly impeded development, but isolation also helped the Kingdom maintain its integrity.   These days, even the highest mountains aren’t much of a barrier to all that technology brings, on the one hand, and neighbors, hovering greedily, on the other.

Change is happening now.  The question is what Bhutan will become.

 

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