Saturday, January 10, 2015

Impressions of Bhutan

I've had a few weeks to let my travels sink in. Bhutan is probably the most interesting place I've ever traveled. It is like being in a parallel universe. There is nothing western about the place - except for the hotels where the tourists stay. You will not find a Starbucks anywhere in the country, and I hope it stays that way. These are some of the things I learned and impressions I had during our visit. It is an epically beautiful, mystical and enchanted place. I hope to return someday to the area.


To really understand Bhutan's culture, you have to first understand the religion and the history and mythos that surrounds it. Bhutan is the only place in the world to have Tantric Buddhism as a state religion. Beyond that, it is the Tanntric flavor of Buddhism, which is unique to Bhutan, parts of Tibet and a small pocket of India in Sikkim. The central and western part of the country practice the Kagyu Drukpa sub set of the Kagyu sect of Mahayana Buddhism - our tour guide called it "red hat school". For one thing, it was my first realization of how splintered Buddhism really is. Also, there is a big element of the much earlier Bom (animist) religion mixed in with Hindu cosmology.

Guru Rinpoche

Relief painting of Guru Rinpoche

Besides the historical Buddha, there are 3 main religious figures revered in Bhutan. The first is Guru Rinpoche, who arrived from India in the 8th century. While Buddhism was already somewhat established in the area, Guru Rinpoche really solidified it in the area and the "red hat school" in particular. He was said to be a manifestation of the historical Buddha and he subdued eight classes of demons. He is said to have arrived by turning his Tibetan consort into a tigress and flying to a cliff above the Paro valley where they meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days. This is where that Taktsang Monastery is built in his honor. You may note that he had a consort, which is inline with the Tantric school of thought where union of male and female is spiritual - monks and nuns can marry. The Mahayana path is thought to be more broad and inclusive. Not all of the area was able to accept his teaching, so he hid away some Tantras in caves, which were discovered later. The guru is depicted in peaceful and wrathful or fierce forms - in total he has 8 manifestations, which are depicted in artwork in the temples. He is often pictured with his Tibetan and Nepalese consorts - sometimes in a "joined" position.
A wrathful manifestation of the Guru with the wheel of life

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal

The three most important religious figures

The next important figure is Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. In the 17th century, he fled Tibet and established himself in Bhutan. He freed the country from Tibetan rule and unified all the areas under a new form of government. He also repelled Mongol invaders several times. The government was dual monastic and civil. There is a Jhe Kempo, or head abbot, and a Druk Desi, or king. The government remained completely in this fashion until 2010, when a Constitutional monarchy was established with a prime minister being the secular head and the king a figure head. You can see the government reflected in the Dzongs, or fortresses and seats of government with half the fortress dedicated to offices and half to a monastic body.

Drukpa Kunley

Phallus on the corner of a building

The final important figure is the "Divine Madman" or Drukpa Kunley. He was a 16th century lama who was a bit irreverent. He "enlightened" 5,000 women by "blessing" them through, um, "union". He is known for subduing demonesses into protective deities by hitting them with his penis. As such, his symbol is the "flaming phallus". And, the Bhutanese have taken to it with great fervor. You will find phalluses painted on buildings in graphic detail, sometimes spurting, with ribbons, wings or flames adorning them. Also, you will find wood carvings of phalluses hanging from the cardinal corners of buildings or over the doorways or placed as decoration in a home.
Phallus paintings


There are some practices that I found unique to the area, though my knowledge of Buddhism is admittedly not very deep.

Memorial prayer flags

When someone dies, a few interesting things happen. First, the family will erect between 1-108 white prayer flags as a memorial. These flags are attached to young tree trunks and very tall. There is also thought to be a 49 day period where the person is in an intermediary state. This is somewhat akin to the Catholic idea of purgatory. The person is trying to find their way to heaven, hell or the next incarnation. They will meet many mythical beings that will help them reach either heaven or the next incarnation. These beings will scare those who are not familiar with them, so you will see them depicted all over the temples to create trust and familiarity for the intermediate stage. Also, the person will be cremated and a small piece of bone will be preserved. The family will place the bone in a miniature clay stupa (same a chorten, same as pagoda - a miniature temple) and the miniature stupa will be placed in a cave or other special meditative spot.

Miniature stupa effigies

At birth, children do not receive a name. When they are 8 days old, the family takes them to the local lama with an offering and they receive their name from the local lama. As such, a lot of people have the same name. So, last names are largely made up for differentiation.

Something from the earlier Bom religion pertains to building a new home or building. One must receive the blessing of the naga or serpent deities in the area. So, the local lamas are hired to do rituals to seek the blessing before the house is built. If you build without consulting the naga, you risk an illness falling on someone in the home or some sort of catastrophe.

Because the path is wide, sexual relations seem fairly open, within the heterosexual sphere. The government distributes condoms. Marriage is usually taken upon conception of a child and is not that rigid or sacred of a contract. Broken or open marriages and composite families are rather the norm than the exception. There is apparently a bit of homoerotic activity in the monasteries according to the New York Times, but no one would openly admit to that being common.

Dogs are revered as being the closest of the animal realm to humans in the wheel of life and reincarnation. So, many people feed stray dogs to accumulate karma. This results in an all-night symphony of barking dogs in any populous area.

Music at the festival

The important stories of the religion are passed to the people via all-day festival events called tshechus. We were lucky enough to attend a festival at the top of Do Chu La pass - it was quite a feast for the senses surrounded by the theater of the high peaks of the Himalayas.

Masked dance at the festival

During our time there, we witnessed a tshechu, naming ceremony, a death anniversary ceremony, a memorial flag ceremony and also the local monks chanting at the end of the day to appease the local deities. All of these ceremonies were accompanied with ample incense, which was omnipresent in the air. For me, the smell of Bhutan is the smell of incense tempered by the smell of trees.

Incense can be burned anywhere


In 2010, the 4th king of the modern era established a Constitutional monarchy. He abdicated the throne and made his eldest son the figure head. Now, the people elect a prime minister. People don't seem all that excited about the voting thing. They liked their king and trusted him to act in their best interest. They don't seem to trust themselves. Also, there seems to be a general distaste for distention in the society which is stirred up with an election.
School girls in uniform

Everyone has access to health care and education. Elementary education is provided within approximately a one hour walk of all villages and is ensured by the government. Secondary education depends on test achievement or a family with enough resources to pay for a private school. Families who cannot even pay for books and uniforms typically send their children to the monasteries for a religious education.
wood carving students at arts and crafts school

Medical care is extremely basic. In the Haa valley, we visited the basic medial unit. They have 10 beds and one doctor for the entire valley. They don't have any testing facilities as their single x-ray machine was found to leak radiation - and only have access to a very limited range of pharmaceuticals. They do have ambulances, though travel across distances can take several hours for what would take 15 minutes here. And, some areas are only reachable on foot. The single doctor told us he travels on foot to make house calls to villages once per year. There is no medical training in country, so he was trained in Sri Lanka. Due to the relatively low level of education and lack of medical training, there is a severe shortage of doctors in the country. By our standards, one would only want to come down with a minor illness or injury in Paro and something relatively major like appendicitis could likely only be treated in Thimpu, the capital.

Rustic farmhouse in Haa

Most native Bhutanese have a decent standard of living as compared with the developing world. And, they live in relative harmony. Access to food is good. Many rural villages have access to electricity, television and some have indoor plumbing via rain harvesting or diversion of streams. In the cities apartments are spacious and have indoor plumbing, electricity and heating. Most rural areas use space heaters and the homes made of rammed mud have no insulation and no glass in the windows, so it is quite cold in the winter.

The worst standard of living is evident in migrant workers who maintain the infrastructure. The Indian Army is contracted to maintain the roads and many government buildings and they hire Bengali and Nepalese laborers for $1.50 a day to work. You see shanties constructed of corrugated metal or thatched bamboo erected by the side of the road where road crews live for months or years in squalor. The work is done in an extremely inefficient manner with small women, often with babies on their backs working on widening the road by taking a pick axe to the mountain side. I guess these inefficiencies can exist at $1.50 per day per person, which is apparently 3x what they would get in India for the same work. However, the roads show the lack of engineering and are in extremely primitive condition - often no asphalt, less than one lane with lots of vertical exposure and erosion. It is a good thing the Bhutanese are extremely patient and cooperative drivers, or catastrophe would be the rule of the day.

The Bhutanese have a co-dependent or symbiotic relationship with India. India maintains their infrastructure and provides agriculture and goods. Bhutan provides hydro-electric power to India and manual labor jobs for its citizens. Bhutan has a trade deficit with India in the $20 million dollar range. They seem to be aware of their vulnerability in the region, and their relationship with India seems largely a hedge against the fate of Tibet. They are very proud of their cultural and religious heritage and strive to protect it from the ever-encroaching world. After hydro-electric power, tourism is their biggest industry. They are working on developing infrastructure to support 50,000 tourists a year - up from 20,000 a year today. This will be a delicate dance to make sure that so many tourists do not dilute their unique culture.

Art, Food, Dress, Sport and Language

Art in the country is largely religious. Paintings are mostly Thankas, or depictions of the main religious figures and their manifestations. The paintings are beautiful and precise and very detailed. They are often approached as meditations by the students who are trained in the arts and crafts schools. Similarly, these are depicted in wood carvings and weavings.
Victory of good over evil banners

I've heard the decor described as "early over the top", which I find to be accurate. The spartan mountain landscape has led to a lot of brightly colored patterns all co-mingled together in ways that really wouldn't work anywhere else. And, of course, you will find phalluses thrown in everywhere for good measure. Art in temples and other buildings is often over the top in colors, done in an apocalyptic style with silk victory banners hanging all over in a myriad of colors and patterns.
Lady in a kira at the market in Thimpu

A lot of people wear the traditional dress. The woman in a jacket and long wrap skirt called a kira, and men in a short bathrobe-like garment called a gho. These are usually in vivid colors and patterns - again only working somehow in this mystical place.
High mountains
Conifer forest and rice paddies
The fertile Punakha River valley

The landscape is extremely varied, with the 200 mile wide by 100 mile high country having the elevation change from 700 feet to 22,000 feet. There are subtropics, high cloud forests, fertile river valleys, oak and confier forests and high alpine regions. The mountains are stunning and are made more beautiful with the adornment of ample trees - something that much of the Himalayan region is lacking. We were absolutely treated when a rare December snowstorm covered the middle peaks in white making the valleys seem truly magical for a couple of days.
typical food

The food is healthy and nutritious, though not very exciting. There is some Indian cuisine, which adds some variety. The staples are jasmine and red rice. They also grow buckwheat in the higher altitudes. They typically eat the rice several times a day with their national dish, which is chili cheese - a soupy warm cow's cheese with chiles stewed in it ranging from tepidly spicy to nuclear - one never knows until you try it. You will also find vegetables with the larger meals - typically stir fried fresh veggies or vegetables manchurian, which is tempura style. They have dumplings, called momos, which are like dim sum - mostly with veggies, sometimes with meat. And, some meals come with a stewed chicken or fish in gravy called a curry. The chicken is typically butchered in all sorts of strange ways, leading to a minefield of bones to avoid. They don't really do sweets, though they do like fruit - usually bananas, apples and oranges. After a few meals, I was ready for some more variety.

You better like tea if you go to Bhutan. You will get lots of it. For something different, try the butter tea with butter and salt. I found it pretty good. Coffee is almost exclusively Nescafe, and no, it does not taste any better after a few days. You can find a decent cup of coffee in one of two coffee houses in Thimpu or Paro.

If you are a fan of wine, this is not your place. The wine they produce ranges from moderately horrid to "gag me with a spoon". The beer is drinkable pilsner similar to most of what is found in the region - cheap and mostly unsatisfying. The arac, or grain "wine" or distillate, is pretty foul. It's like bad sake for the most part.  One shining exception is the grain whiskey. Their top shelf brand, K5 is a good mid-range whiskey by our standards, and being that it costs about $6 for a bottle, it's darn good. If you are more adventurous, you can try the local stimulant - betelnut. I did not try it as I try to stay away from known carcinogens.

Archery match

Archery is the national sport, practiced on very long fields with very tiny targets. Bows are made with bamboo and not extremely accurate. Men from opposing villages take on tournaments that last most of a day to several days. A hit on the target results in an elaborate dance. We witnessed a real tournament in Thimpu and a friendly match in Haa.

Stupa made of rock with script

The official language of the country is Dzongkha, which is not spoken anywhere else in the world. English and Dzongkha are taught in all the government schools. The way to greet someone is Kuzuzongpo or Kuzuzongpo-la to be more polite. It is a south-Tibetic language. The script is based on Tibetan.  The language is spoken in the center to western part of the country and many other hybrid languages are spoken in the east.

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