Land of the Thunder
By Aparna Datta
Nothing quite prepares you for the dramatic descent at Paro
Airport. On a Druk Air flight from Kolkata, the plains and
tropical forests suddenly give way to the foot-hills of the
Himalayas and you begin to wonder where at all the plane could
land in that mountainous terrain. Then a green valley emerges,
an idyllic patchwork of paddy fields, streams and an airfield
at an altitude of 7,425 feet, with one of the shortest runways
for take-off and landing in the world. Even as you catch your
breath, the plan would have landed, and you are ushered into
a small, elegantly decorated terminal building.
Welcome to Bhutan. As a travel destination, Bhutan is perhaps
one of the best-kept secrets on the Indian sub-continent.
Bhutan, or Druk Yul – Land of the Thunder Dragon –
as the locals call it, is still a mysterious and relatively
unknown destination. In the same region, Nepal and Sikkim
are better known; this is largely due to the policy of the
Bhutanese government that places strict limits on the number
of tourists allowed in every year. As a result, a tourist
can look forward to pristine natural beauty: a countryside
of rolling mountains and deep gorges, bubbling streams and
yak pastures. No plastic bags in paradise!
The country is listed among the world’s 10 hot spots
for bio-diversity and the natural environment makes a strong
impact. From the moment you land, what strikes you immediately
is the pollution-free atmosphere. Clean air, clean rivers
and streams, greenery all over – the country has green
cover f 72% - and an unchanging rhythm of life.
Along with the mountains, the other dominant features of
the landscape are the monasteries, the chortens or memorials
and the prayer flags fluttering in the wind. The Buddhist
ethic prevails and lends a distinctive character, both in
terms of visual appeal as well as the cultural heritage. Early
morning, you will notice columns of smoke rising from the
small structures in a garden – a fire would have been
lit to purify the air and frighten away the evil spirits that
roam around during the night. A waft of breeze would bring
the sounds of rhythmic chants from a nearby monastery. The
peace and tranquility are awesome.
In Bhutan, the spiritual and the temporal go together and
symbolic of this is the dzong, the monastic fortresses that
dominate each valley. The dzong is the administrative center,
while also providing guidance in religious matters, and all
major festivals are celebrated under their shadow. The daily
life in the villages is strongly linked to the dzong.
As one of the few functioning monarchies in the world, Bhutan
is till a hierarchical society. With an area of 47,000 square
kms, the country has never been colonized, thanks to its geography
that has helped in preserving its independence, and the 750,000
people are keenly aware of their cultural identity.
The Bhutan brand is evident everywhere. People uniformly
wear their national dress – the knee-length gho for
men and the ankle-length wraparound kira for women –
and could get fined if they are found wearing western dress
in public places. The Bhutanese are justifiably proud of their
colourful hand-woven textiles, using silk, wool and cotton
with the most exquisite geometric patterns.
The national sport is archery, now often played with high-tech
equipment but traditionally with bamboo bows and arrows. An
archery contest is a major event and sees as large turnout
of spectators. Apart from the male participants, women cheer-leaders
are also a distinctive group, dancing and singing in support
of their own team and distracting the rivals! When the arrow
lands close to the target, the men whoop in delight and do
a little celebration dance.
The national dish is ema datsi, a stew made from green chillies
and cottage cheese that can set one’s mouth on fire!
In fact chillies, red and green, are integral to most of the
dishes, which are eaten with red rice, buckwheat noodles and
pancake and sometimes barley and millet. Dried yak meat and
pork are most popular.
Bhutanese architecture has distinctive characteristics and
all buildings conform to a definite style, using lots of timber
and mud walls with painted facades. They blend so neatly into
the landscape that, with the mountains in the background,
there is a picture postcard prettiness to all structures,
big or small.
The tourist trail begins either at Phuntsholing on the overland
route from India, or at Paro which is the only airport. The
national airline, Druk Air, is the only airline to fly into
Bhutan and connects Paro with New Delhi and Kolkata, besides
Kathmandu, Bangkok and Dhaka.
Paro valley is unbelievably beautiful. The Paro dzong sits
nestled on a hillside with the must-see National Museum located
in an old watch-tower a little higher up. Other local tours
include the Drukyel Dzong, which got burnt down in the 1950s
and is now a protected monument, the Taksang or “the
tiger’s lair” which literally clings to a vertical
rock-face and the monastery Kyichu Lhakhang.
Moving on from Paro, 65 kilometers away is the capital city
Thimphu (7,920 feet). Like all capital cities, the city feels
“official” yet would rate as one of the most photogenic
in the world. The Tashichodzong, housing the central secretariat,
sits dramatically in the valley, while the National Chorten,
a memorial to the third king Jigme Dorje Wangchuk is yet another
important monument. Depending one one’s interests, there
are a number of other places to visit, ranging from a hand-made
paper factory, incense-making factory, hospital for traditional
medicine and the school of arts and crafts.
There is also the National Library, which has a wonderful
collection of books on Buddhism and Himalayan references,
and a variety of emporia stocked with Bhutanese handicrafts.
Beyond Thimphu, one needs a permit, best organized through
a tour operator, and a specific reason to visit such as trekking,
fishing or bird-watching. The major tourist attractions are
the festivals, which are held round the year at various monasteries
and dzongs, on auspicious dates. Apart from the religious
ceremonies in which the locals participate in large numbers,
tourists can also watch colourful dances. The highlight of
many a festival is the unfurling of the thongdrol, a gigantic
religious appliqué made of silk, the darshan of which
can bring deliverance from suffering.
But Bhutan is not for everyone. If you go expecting shopping
malls, theme parks, discos or pubs and an exciting nightlife,
you will be disappointed. Bhutan is perhaps one of the few
destinations in the world that still retains a raw, natural
beauty and has not succumbed to the commercial side of tourism.
So, if you want silences that speak, an atmosphere that elevates,
then Bhutan is it. For more information, visit: www.kingdomofbhutan.com
© Aparna Datta
Published in Deccan Herald,
Bangalore June 17, 2001