By RAJ LAKSHMI DUBE
I had heard a lot about the happiest place in the world which sparked my curiosity to see the country where people are genuinely happy. As compared to India where a smile would elicit a thought response of ‘do I know this person, who is he, why is he smiling, is he/ she crazy and such like’? All packed and ready, there we were at IGAI, carrying woolens, umbrellas and raincoats in our baggage, prepared for sudden showers which can drench you at any time of the year. We boarded a flight to Paro Airport, the only international airport in Bhutan. As soon as we deboarded, we saw a place least like an airport and more like a dreamland – beautifully maintained and colourful paintings of dragons, etc., in red and gold colour on the walls and very courteous and well behaved staff. As soon as we cleared the immigration formalities, we saw a smart young man in a native dress with a placard of the travel agents to welcome us. He escorted us to a 16 seater bus where we met some more travelers coming from Gujarat, Rajasthan and Kolkata. Once we all were settled, the guide introduced himself as Dorji and informed us that he would accompany us for all the 4 days we would be in Bhutan. Traveling to Thimpu expected time would be around 4 hours. On the way, he started narrating the history of Bhutan of which an average person is not aware. In his own words, the history goes thus: “In the 17th century, a Tibetan monk fleeing from his homeland came to Bhutan. At that time, the country was divided into a number of small principalities headed by local chiefs of tribes. The monk started collecting them together and united the tribes in one cohesive whole, thus he is called the UNIFIER. The Unifier then organised the country into 20 districts and built fortresses in all the districts. The fortresses are called Dzongs in the local language. At the time of construction, the different tribes had different languages or, maybe, dialects, so it was difficult to communicate, as labourers came from everywhere with different languages with them. The Unifier then created a common language – the new language was called Dzongkha, which is being used in the present time also. After the fortresses were built, three governers were appointed – in the east was the Governer, Pello, in the south was Donga Pello, and the middle-east was Tsongsa Pello. Tsongsa Pello was the most powerful of them all. The more powerful one is, the more enemies one has, Tsongsa Pello had many enemies. As per prophesy, Tsongsa Pello would meet a person of humble origin to succeed him. During the construction of the fortresses, he met a person called Chikmy Namgyal, who later became the father of the first king. Chikmy Namgyal was a cowherd who got promoted as a wood fetcher and a water carrier. Tsongsa Pello was impressed by him and after sometime, he was appointed as the secretary. As Tsongsa was very powerful, the other governors were jealous of him and, during a meeting of the governors, they tried to assassinate him. Chikmy came to know of the conspiracy and he saved the governor’s life. Later Chikmy succeeded Tsongsa Pello and became the new governer. He brought the whole of Bhutan under him. Chikmy Namgyal Wangchuk started the dynasty of the monarchs of which the present king is the 5th generation. The first and second kings did not do much development and ruled like medieval kings, believing in corporal punishment, etc. But during the reign of the third king, the maximum development took place in the field of education, medical facilities, construction of roads, etc. During his time, he laid the foundation of Indo-Bhutan friendship. He is also called the father of Bhutan. He, however, passed away at a young age when his son was only 17 years old. Chikmy Singye Wangchuk was helped by his mother to govern the country. The present king is the fifth generation of the Wangchuk dynasty. The fourth king wanted to make Bhutan a democracy, but the people liked the concept of the king so now they call it a constitutional democracy. They have a parliament which discusses and passes laws and bills, but the final authority is with the king. The common people in Bhutan have no surnames, only first names. The national dress for males is called Cho(ko) like a short gown and for females it is chilo(kilo), a loose top and a full length skirt. During all official duties, they are supposed to be in their national dress. The colour and material may differ, but the dress style remains the same whether a king or a commoner. For formal occasions, the males also carry a stole on top of their dress worn over one shoulder crossing the back on the left arm. This stole is white in colour for the common man, white with red stripe for the local leader, is green for the religious leader, orange for the ministers, and yellow for the king.Thus, in an official function, a person’s rank and position can be recognised from the colour of the stole.” On the way to Thimpu, we saw small triangular shapes under the ledges of the mountains at different places, hundreds in number. On asking Dorji, he told us that the poor people cannot afford to build stupas for their loved ones who have passed away, so they make these tiny replicas with the ashes of the cremated dead mixed with mud, in their memory. Quite a sight! By this time we had reached Hotel Migmar in Thimpu. After having a few snacks, we reached the main market by a cab whose number of passengers is fixed to 4 per cab with fixed rates per person. The market was quaint with a clock tower in the centre of a rectangle, steps all around like a stadium where people can enjoy musical evenings. Bargaining in the market is rampant. I bought a Bhutanese top from the government handicraft emporium. The next day, we went to see local sights in Thimpu. The first stop was the National Memorial, Chhortan. This was built by in the memory of His Majesty the Third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuk (1928 to 1972) by his wife in 1974. Inside were the three statues of 1st Buddha, 2nd Buddha and the unifier all three next to each other. At the time of our visit, there was a special worship being held by female monks and people were going around with their prayer beads in their hands. We also joined them. Next, we visited the great golden Buddha temple about 168 feet in height, a very awesome sight, with the golden statues of Mara all around the base of the statue. Mara in Buddhism is the demon who tempted prince Siddhartha by trying to seduce him with the vision of beautiful women who in various legends are often said to be Mara’s daughters. Mara is associated with death, rebirth and desire. This was built by the fourth king who is considered a role model for the youth of the country including our guide, Dorji. He is also considered the perpetuator of the Gross National Happiness Index. Dorji explained in very simple words the meaning of happiness. He said, if we are hungry and get food to fill our stomach, we are happy. On that note, we went back to our hotel to prepare for our journey to Punakha, the next day. Punakha is also a three hour journey from Thimpu. This was the old capital of Bhutan. It is one of the larger cities. On the way, we first went up the mountain to Dochula Pass, a cold place about 3,100 metres in height – cold all round the year. There we also saw 108 memorial Stupas known as ‘Druk Wangyal Chortans’ in the memory of Bhutanese soldiers who died in a 2003 military operation. Hot coffee and snacks took away some of the chill. From there, it was downhill to Punakha. On reaching Hotel Kingaling, as soon as we entered our room and went to the balcony we saw a breathtaking sight, right in front of us was the confluence of two rivers – Paro Chhu and Puna Tsang Chhu. In Bhutanese language, Chhu means a river. After Dochullla, it was quiet warm and sultry. The next day, we first visited the temple of the divine mad man, Chime Lhakang, lovingly called Lam Drukpa Kuenley. He was an enlightened Buddhist master who personified the true essence of ‘Vajrayana Buddhism’. He had a non- conventional and outrageous style of teaching, who taunted the hypocrisy of the established orders, including the monastic order. Thus the use of his phallus as a “flaming thunderbolt” weapon symbolises the discomfort the society experiences when facing the truth. Even inside the temple, figures of the phallus were being worshipped and we could also see the same drawings on the walls of the buildings. It is said that if couples who did not have offspring worship in this temple, they are blessed with children. There was an album with a number of photographs of couples who came to thank the monk for their offspring, to prove the same. The next day, we first went to see the museum but it was under renovation so we went to see the Punnakha Fort. The fort was an awesome sight – so grand and beautiful. Inside was also another temple depicting the life of Lord Buddha right from his childhood till he attained nirvana. The fort has many entrances and exits. It was so designed so that the enemies got confused. During a war, only a few soldiers would move in and out and enemy would keep counting them again and again so the force looked mighty. Dorji told us that it is the second biggest structure built by the Unifier. Outside the temple is a picture of the wheel of life depicting the life after death depending on your ‘karmas’. The next morning, we travelled to Paro, reaching around noon at the Tashi Namgay resort. After checking in, we went to a place where we could get ourselves photographed in traditional dress or learn Archery. All of us opted for archery. It was fun all the way, trying to hit the bulls’ eye, then back to the hotel where there was an arrangement for some local dances and yak and lion dance. In the end we also joined in the dance. The next day was saved for the best, visit to the world famous ‘Tiger’s Nest’. Tiger’s Nest is a monastery way up in the mountains. From the outside, it seems to be perched on the sheer mountain face. From a distance, the mountain face looked like the face of a tiger. It is said that the Unifier came to Bhutan on a tiger’s back and landed here. As we started the climb, we saw that there was no proper way to climb up we had to look for every step which could be on the root of a tree or some stones. The alternate way was on horseback, but as per Dorji, if visiting a monastery, we should not give pain to the animals. So huffing and puffing, I managed to make it only half way, breaking into a cold sweat every few steps, then had to stop at the midway restaurant. The children went up to the monastery and later told me that it was really tough with 750 steps up and then down. Totally exhausted, we just collapsed on our beds. Next morning was departure back to Delhi via Kathmandu. If you are lucky to get seats on the right side of the aircraft you can see the mighty Mt Everest, a breath taking sight indeed. After returning, I started wondering why Bhutan was the happiest place on earth. I now believe as to what made it so are a few practices in Bhutan. First and foremost, all education and medical care is totally free. Medical treatment even for tourists is free. Next, everywhere we went, I saw children in the workplace whether it was shops or restaurants, so no worries about the kids. By and large, there is little crime in Bhutan. The Bhutan Government encourages the youth to go abroad for higher studies but are expected to return to serve the country. Bhutanese currency is equal to Indian rupees which is accepted everywhere, so carry enough and enjoy.