Taktshang Gompa, or Tiger’s Nest monastery
Land of the Thunder Dragon
My desire to visit Bhutan was triggered by listening to a talk by their prime minister delivered at the United Nations. Of course what put us off at the beginning was the cost and so many other difficulties which were presented to the tourist. Indians don’t have to go through so many formalities but since my grand-daughter from Spore wanted to accompany us, the whole trip became quite complicated since we were coming from different places, paying different rates, yet wanting to make the whole trip together. However after spending a couple of days in Bhutan it became quite clear that a trip to Bhutan is not really a wanton luxury but a beautiful discovery of a way of life that does not exist anywhere else in the world. It was like going back in time and finding an innocence in which humans and nature existed in harmony and in which the upkeep of moral values was more important than cheating others to make a fast buck. In fact I would say that the Bhutanese really practice our ancient Vedic way of life which we Hindus seem to have forgotten. Bhutan has one foot in the 21st century and the other right back in the medieval ages. Even more so than in India, Bhutan draws a lot from its ancient heritage.
Geographically the country is a land bound island, hemmed in by China on the North and India on the South. However their karma is so wonderful that to date they have not been overrun by any other country nor have they been colonized by the great colonial powers of the west. Because of this they have managed to preserve their peculiar culture and country in its pristine purity. The air, the water and the people are all pure and uncorrupted. This is the only country in the world with negative carbon emissions, which itself says a lot about it. Their extensive forests are what help to keep the carbon level to the minimum. There are strict laws against the cutting of trees. Sixty five percent of the land is forested and twenty five percent is covered by National parks. The rivers are totally unpolluted. No garbage is thrown into the streams and rivers. All citizens even in remote mountain villages are most conscious of their responsibility. Garbage is collected in big waste holders and children are taught not to throw sweet wrappers on the ground but to put them into their pockets until they find a suitable waste disposal bin. High standards of cleanliness are observed even in the public markets. It is the only country in the world which has a clause in its constitution stating that 60% of the total area should be kept as forest for all times so that its net carbon emissions will remain negative for all times. The government has dedicated one third of its area to national parks and biological corridors for the benefit of humanity. GNH or Gross National Happiness is an intriguing concept in a world driven by greed for money, land and religious conversions. The population consists of a mere 750,000 people who are called by different names according to the districts from which they come. Unbelievably in this small state, nineteen different languages are spoken!!
Just as in India, Bhutan has a diverse cultural basis so that a journey from east to west brings you into different types of environments and cultures.
It has a rich cultural heritage and unique form of architecture and painted wood work. The kingdom is built on the strong foundation of its culture. The people are amazingly friendly and fun loving and very innocent as compared to India. The most amazing thing for an Indian is the fact that no one expects a tip even in a hotel or restaurant. Starting from the highest level, bribery which goes hand in hand with corruption, is unheard of. How I wished that India could follow the same model.
It is well worth delving a little bit into the history of this fascinating country to find out how they have managed to keep up such a wonderful standard of life.
Two names which are constantly heard in Bhutan is Guru Rimpoche or Padmasambhava who was the one who brought Buddhism to the whole of the Himalayas including Bhutan. All the regions have festivals commemorating this event. Another name which occurs frequently is Ngawanag Namgyal (Shabdrung). He was a lama who came from western Tibet. He repulsed three Tibetan invasions, subjugated rival religious schools and codified their intricate and all-comprehensive code of law. He then established himself as ruler over a system of ecclesiastical and civil administrators. After his death for two hundred years fighting was resumed. However in 1907 Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the hereditary ruler of Bhutan. He was crowned on December 17, 1907, and installed as the head of state, the Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King). In 1910, King Ugyen and the British signed the Treaty of Punakha which promised that British India would not interfere in the internal affairs of Bhutan if the country accepted their advice in its external relations. When Ugyen Wangchuck died in 1926, his son Jigme Wangchuck became ruler, and when India gained independence in 1947, the new Indian Government recognized Bhutan as an independent country. In 1949 India and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which provided that India would not interfere in Bhutan's internal affairs, but would guide its foreign policy. Succeeded in 1952 by his son Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, Bhutan started to slowly emerge from its isolation and began a program of planned development. The National Assembly of Bhutan, the Royal Bhutanese Army, and the Royal Court of Justice were established, along with a new code of law. Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971.
Guru Rimpoche or Padmasambhava
In 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne at the age of 20. He emphasized modern education, decentralization of governance, the development of hydroelectricity and tourism and improvements in rural developments. He was perhaps best known internationally for his amazing philosophy for national development known as "Gross National Happiness – GNH." It recognizes that development has many dimensions but emphasized the fact that economic goals alone are not sufficient to keep people happy. This was his unique contribution to not only his own nation but I would say to the whole world.
He was the 4th king and is still greatly loved by all. To the surprise of everyone he abdicated in favour of his son at the age of 58 years. What a contrast to the monarchy in the Emirates where the king kills his eldest son since he is terrified that if he doesn’t kill him, he will be assassinated by him so that he can grab the kingdom for himself!! The present king is only thirty seven years old and has already got an heir. The government believes that economic growth must not be achieved at the cost of ecology, culture and moral values. The monarchy is extremely conscious of the duty it owes to the people who selected it 400 years ago.
Since the government policy is to keep the happiness of the people before material gain, tourism which is their only method of making money, is still deliberately kept at a low level. Hence all the problems we have of getting a visa etc.
This is a Buddhist country and Padmasambhva or Guru Rimpoche is the one who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.
The architecture is one of the most impressive things which strike every visitor to the country. From ordinary dwellings to the most impressive government structures and to the Dzongs , fortresses and monasteries and even farm houses all have this fascinating style of architecture and painted wood work. The artists paint these intricate designs in the wood without the use of stencils, totally free hand. Even small shops and way side restaurants have latticed and painted windows.
After passing along the great Himalayan ranges where we could see, Kanchunjunga, Everest, Annapurna and many other wonderful peaks we landed in Paro which is the international airport of Bhutan. The plane was flying parallel to these inspiring mountains which gleamed in the morning sun. This was truly a spectacular approach to the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Even the landing into Paro airport made me hold my breath since the plane had to fly along a long corridor flanked by mountains on either side. We were introduced to their unique architecture and painting at the airport itself. We did not stay at Paro but were whisked away to the capital town of Timphu which is only a couple of hours away. We stayed in a new resort called “Peaceful Resort” which was in the best residential quarter of the town and far above the valley so we could have a bird’s eye view of the town which gave an impression of being a busy metropolis though not anywhere as big as India’s large cities. One thing that struck me was that there were no air-conditioned cars since apparently they added to the carbon emissions!
That evening we went to the huge 51 m. steel statue of the Buddha Dordenma which towered above the valley and commands the attention of anyone who enters the valley. It reminded me of the figure of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The statue was on top of a hill and the massive three-storey base has a large prayer hall. The body of the Buddha is hollow and filled with 125,000 small statues of the Buddha. As can be expected the statue was made in China, cut into pieces and shipped to Phuentsholing and driven by truck to the hill where it was assembled. This is called the Buddha Point. I had to crick my neck to look at the serene face which looked through the valley to the eternity at which he was pointing. Since we were there at sunset the whole figure was lit up and looked incredible.
The seat of the government is a Dzong or fortified monastery and was built like a palace with gold-leafed roof. The strange thing about Bhutan is that the royalty never lives in palaces. Their residences both at Timphu and Punaka are all very modest buildings surrounded totally by forest so that nobody can even see the actual residences which are obviously smaller than the trees. Another important building in Timphu is the memorial Chorten (stupa), which is a white washed stupa with a gold spire. It is a Buddhist shrine dedicated to Bhutan’s 3rd king who wanted to construct a stupa to represent the mind of the Buddha but unfortunately he passed away before starting the project. We noticed that this seemed to be a favourite meeting place for young and old in the evening. The older ones were going round and round chanting their mantras with their beads.
We also visited the central market which could hardly be called a market. It was very clean with beautiful stalls in which all sorts of exotic wares and many types of red rice, for which Bhutan is famous, were displayed. There was no shouting or haggling and more than anything else for one coming from India, the cleanliness was amazing. Of course we purchased all sorts of interesting spices and condiments, “dhupsticks” and all types of articles for prayer.
Next morning we set off for the Dochula Pass which is the most well known pass in Bhutan. It’s only about 30 km from Thimphu en route to Punaka. The pass is really not that high when compared to the passes in Ladakh. It is only 3,150 m and is often covered with clouds. However we were most fortunate to be able to see the beauty of the place without any cloud cover though we couldn’t see much of the Himalayan ranges which were covered with clouds. Here there were many small stupas scattered all over the hillock in order to commemorate the victory over the Assamese who had tried to take over the land. We had hardly taken our photos when the clouds started to cover the hillock and we could hardly see anything.
Punakha. Our next stop was Punakha, which was the capital of Bhutan and seat of government till 1955 when it was moved to Timphu. Unlike Timphu, it was quite hot and is said to be warm even in winter. We passed through sparkling, green rice fields all along the drive. The most important thing in Punakha is the Punakha Dzong which is the second largest and second oldest in Bhutan. It is known as the palace of great happiness and was built by Ngawanag Namgyal (Zhabdrung) in 1637. (He was the lama from Tibet who united the country) It is surely the most majestic Dzong. It is built between two rivers, Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) and it was interesting to see the different colours of the two rivers. We stopped on the road to get a view of this most beautiful and breath- taking structure. The Dzong is joined to the mainland by an arched, fairy- tale wooden bridge which is supposed to contain many precious relics from the days when successive kings reigned over the kingdom. It is supposed to have been damaged 6 times by fire, once by flood and once by an earthquake but it still remains to declare its beauty to all those who visit it. In 1907, Ugyen Wanchuck, the first king of Bhutan was crowned here.
We crossed the fairy tale bridge and entered this magical place. Some of the halls were forbidden for tourists but we wandered all over the halls which were open. The temple inside the Dzong known as the Machen Lhakhang enshrined the mummified body of Zhabdrung who passed away when he was in retreat here in 1651. The place was dominated by his figure on one side and of course the huge statue of Guru Rimpoche on the other. I sat and meditated for some time. It was so peaceful unlike our Hindu temples. There were no vendors or pujaris (priests) or anyone else trying to make a quick buck. The piercing eyes of Guru Rimpoche bored into me even during my meditation. I have had this same experience with him when I went to his cave in Rewalsar in Himachal.
From there we went to see the longest wooden suspension bridge. It was quite a sight but it was the hottest time of day so I was a bit reluctant to cross it. However my two companions did it with ease. We did not stay in Punaka but returned to Timphu and made our way back to Paro which was our next destination. The road was very bad and was being repaired. On the way we saw a strange sight. Many cars were parked on the road and our guide pointed out to a man in the midst of the small crowd and said that he was the Prime Minister and he had come to personally investigate and ensure the quality of the new road!! We really couldn’t imagine this. Wish our officials in charge of road building would be as vigilant.
PARO Paro as has been said, is the international airport at which we had landed. We had been booked at a lovely old place called Gangtey Palace. The main structure was made of mud and stones which is seen only in Dzongs and monasteries. The decor in the bedrooms was in traditional Bhutanese style with paintings done by local artists. In the middle was a central courtyard which is a feature in many ancient and traditional buildings even in India. They even had a conventional prayer room right up on the third floor with a Shambala fresco which is a prized work of art in Bhutan. The room also has a rare collection of religious statues and Thankas (painted wall hangings). The hotel has its own natural spring which is supposed to be protected by a deity who makes sure that the water remains clean. The hotel also has a hot stone bath which is a specialty of this region and which was a boon for me after the climb to Tiger’s nest, the next day. The dining room was new and overlooked the valley. Food as well as service was very good.
That day we visited the museum which again was very well kept, in well laid gardens and contained many beautiful artefacts. After that we were taken to the oldest Dzong which was rather small compared to the others we had been to but unfortunately the king’s grandmother was expected to arrive so we were not allowed to go inside. However I did manage to get a glimpse of her as she came out of the car.
There are actually eight caves in the monastery; four of them are comparatively easy to access. The cave where Padmasmabhava is believed to have entered first, on the back of the tiger, is known as “Tholu Phuk” and the one where he meditated is known as the “Pel Phuk”. Monks of the monastery are supposed to live and meditate in these caves for 3 years. They rarely leave this place and go down to the Paro valley.
I knew that this would be a real challenge for me physically but I also knew that for me it was not just a trek but a huge step in my spiritual journey. All of us set off at a brisk pace but of course my two companions and the guide outdistanced me very soon. Many people were on ponies but somehow I knew that a pony would not give me that feeling of exhilaration which I always experienced on heights. Of course I had done many Himalayan treks but that was when I was much younger. Maybe this would be my last. I was not sure whether I would be able to make it to the top and had already told my grand-daughter and brother that they should not wait for me and could carry on.
There was an old Bhutanese man, aged 90 who was doing it for the first time. He was already laboring a bit and I felt I was much better. Many young couples insisted on walking with me and helping me over the difficult patches. It was a wonder that I actually caught up with the other two at the small café which was supposedly half way to the top. Of course they were pleasantly surprised to see me loping up without too much strain. However for some reason of his own the guide tried his best to dissuade me from going forward. He insisted that I would never be able to make it and that the temple would close at 12 noon and would not open for another hour. I agreed with everything he said and told him to go ahead with the other two and I would come on my own. He was not too happy about this. However he went ahead and after some time he came back with my water which was with them. From this point onward no ponies were allowed. This was a great boon since it was quite difficult to find a reasonable place to perch when the ponies tried to pass you. From that point onwards it was really a wonderful climb through the fairy tale hill-side festooned with a cobwebby type of liana which was dropping from every tree and creating a surrealistic effect. When you looked up you thought you were part of this gigantic cobweb. It was rather a pleasant sensation since I felt it was Krishna who was cradling me in this, taking care that I would not stumble and fall. The weather was perfect for me. Had the sun been shining I’m sure I would never have made it but it was misty with slight drops of rain falling on my head like a benediction. And indeed as far as I was concerned it was a benediction since it revived me and enabled me to get the required strength to push forward. All through this at some points in the climb you could get tantalizing glimpses of that mystic castle perched so high above on the opposite mountain. Sometimes it was clear and I could get some lovely photos at other times it would look like a fairy castle glimpsed through the clouds which kept coming and going. I could not imagine how I could ever get to that impossible site on the mountain on the other side of the deep valley. No wonder Guru Rimpoche had brought a flying tigress who took him there without too much difficulty. While my mind was contemplating on this and trying to figure out who this tigress could be, I suddenly found that my mantra had changed. It was my custom to chant the 12-syllabled mantra of Krishna whenever I trekked in the Himalayas. This was a mantra which kept tune to my steps and was a tremendous help in walking. Suddenly my mantra changed to the Chamunda mantra. Chamunda was the particular name given to the divine mother when she subdued the two demons called Chanda and Munda. I gasped in delight when I realized that the tigress was Chamunda herself, who had helped Padmasambhava to subdue the demons! I was filled with her energy and kept repeating her mantra and pushing forward with ease for quite a while leaving my younger friends behind. The trail hugged the side of the mountain and at last came to the mountain on which stood the temple so it was no longer visible to me. Till now I had been walking on the opposite mountain so that I could get frequent glimpses of the temple which was really so thrilling that it had kept me going but now that I was on the same side of the mountain as the temple, I could no longer see it so I began to get fatigued. The guide suddenly materialized and told me that unless I hurried my companions would miss the opportunity to enter the temple and would have to wait another 2 hours before going inside. I was quite fed up with him by this time – with his numerous appearances like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, so once and for all I told him to scoot off and help the others get in and I would make it by myself if I was meant to do so. By this time we had come to the top of the trail. The temple loomed across the chasm and I could see my grand-daughter and brother standing in the front courtyard waiting for me. The guide was in a fever of impatience by then and I told him not to waste his time on me anymore. He gladly left me to my own devices and nimbly bounded up the steps leading to the complex. Just there at the top of the trail where I was standing was a small room for keeping butter lamps. Normally these lamps are kept inside the temple but apparently the great fire was caused by the overturning of the butter lamps so now most people were requested to put their lamps in this little hut before proceeding.
From there the track took a sharp downward drop. I shuddered when I looked down. The trail led straight down and then there was a steep, steep incline going right up to the crag on which the Tiger’s Nest crouched like a feline about to leap!! I went down with difficulty and came to a wonderful waterfall which was about the same height as the temple and came thundering down 200 feet to a sacred pool. The whole area was strung with prayer flags which waved merrily in the cool breeze. All through the trail, one could see that the crevices of the rocks were crammed with tsa-tsas, which are small pyramid structures containing ashes of the dead as well as the prayers of the living. At last I reached the bottom of trail where the spray of the water- fall cooled me and gave an impetus to my flagging spirits which flagged even further when I saw the last, brutal flight of steep steps hewn out of sheer rock with no support whatsoever. This was the final approach to the monastery. Someone from the hotel had been kind enough to give me a stick using which I started the frightful climb. Of course every inch of the way I felt Chamunda’s strength literally lifting me up step by step until I reached a place where people were giving holy water. And there most surprisingly or perhaps not so surprisingly, I found a bunch of peacock feathers hanging from a post. I laughed in ecstasy and knew that Krishna was the one who was responsible for this whole journey and that he had wanted me to do it and had told Chamunda to help me. It was such a relief that I almost bounded up the last few steps to the top where the guide was impatiently waiting and hurried me to the place where our papers were checked, and all our stuff, shoes, bags, phones etc were given into custody. The security guard checked to see if I had anything but it was only a cursory check. One look at my face and he waved me forward. The other two had already gone to some of the caves. There are four main caves connected by stairs carved into the rock. In one cave there was a door sealing another cave which was the one used by Padmasambhava long ago. It is opened only once a year. I was given some holy water and some prasad. The other cave had a statue of Padmasambhava in a sitting posture. I went in and found a quiet place near the balcony and meditated for 5 minutes. I really wished I could have sat longer but our guide poked his head round the pillar, which was hiding me, and told me that the time was up and they would close the doors. I got up reluctantly since I felt a great peace coming over me in that cave and would have loved to have sat there for an hour if possible. All the caves had balconies with breathtaking views of the mountains.
The interior of all the caves had gold-plated domes and flickering butter lamps which lit up the golden idols. In the hall of the thousand Buddhas all carved into the rock, was a large statue of a tiger to remind us of the legend of how the Guru Rampoche was brought here on the back of a tigress. After that came a small room reserved for lighting butter lamps and I lit some for all my friends who were in urgent need of prayers.
Since I had hurried into the temple complex I had missed the huge prayer wheel which was located in the courtyard in front. Apparently every morning at 4 am it is rotated by monks to mark the beginning of a new day.
It was with great trepidation that I started on the return journey. The water- fall at the bottom of the final steps to the monastery sprinkled water on me as I passed and I felt slightly revived. I smiled and started the climb to the room of the butter lamps. Many of those who had climbed with me hadn’t made it to the temple before the doors closed. They smiled and waved as I passed. I was filled with a tremulous joy till we reached the cafeteria where we had lunch. The ponies had come up till there and I was hoping that I would get a pony back. Imagine my despair when I heard that the ponies never took anyone back since the incline was too steep and people might be catapulted over the head of the pony. I was really at the end of my tether and had been depending on a pony lift back. I really didn’t know how I was going to make the journey back. I felt like a deflated balloon. All the way up I had been carried on a wave of exaltation. I was a mindless machine simply repeating the Chamunda mantra, never thinking of anything else. But now my mind came into focus taunting me with my age, with my waning strength and waning spirits. Most people had not waited for lunch so the road was quite lonely, suddenly filled with potholes and huge boulders which had to be manipulated with great difficulty. My grand-daughter insisted on staying with me. I would never have made it had it not been for her who gave a hand when necessary, who did not intrude or jabber without reason, and who encouraged me whenever I despaired of ever making it to the valley far, far below. Sometimes we looked back and saw the magic monastery hugging the cliff, looking as if it might drop off the edge at any moment. Sometimes I thought I saw the mysterious figure of the tigress with the Rimpoche on her back, his cloak flying behind like a sail. Sometime I looked up at the dainty cob-web- like festoons hanging down and trying their best to touch our heads as we passed. Somehow I stumbled on till we reached the prayer wheel at the bottom of the mountain which was being turned by the small stream which was running below it. I turned back for one last salute to the fairy tale monastery.
As soon as we reached the hotel, my grand-daughter took me to the hot stone bath she had pre-arranged before we left. These baths are a peculiarity of Bhutan. The stones are specially picked from the mountains for their mineral properties and heated in a huge wood fire. We had individual wooden tubs filled with spring water and aromatic herbs. The hot stones are placed in a portion of the tub partitioned with a wooden lattice through which the heated water passes from the rocks to the water. I slipped into that fragrant, steaming water and felt as if I was being given another special spiritual uplift. It was truly a most beautiful and healing experience. Everything had been arranged so perfectly. Despite the pain in my muscles and body my spirit felt nebulous and as if floating into the atmosphere far, far away into an unknown destination.
The next morning my grand-daughter had to leave. I had wanted to have a local experience and we had booked ourselves into a “homestay” called Nivvana. It was a lovely house run by a single mother with three children. She was most helpful and the next few days we roamed around the villages, meeting people and having food with them at roadside cafes. The funny thing was that when we went for a walk down the road we looked up and saw the Tiger’s Nest far off, hanging on the cliff. It was as if it never wanted to leave us. Every day I would go for a walk and commune with the Guru on his flying tigress. I felt truly blessed. At the end of the week we returned to the airport and the plane took off, straight into the arms of the silver mountains, the Holy Himalayas!
Hari Aum Tat Sat