It is a waltz with the forest green tea gardens for a major stretch and humming Teesta river as we approach the India-Bhutan Gate at Phuentsholing. Navigating through the noisy streets in Jaigaon, WB, our Innova swerved at sharp angles, only to exit through the Bhutan-Gate away from the human frenzy.
Strolling through the two-door entry of the border, designed in a typical Bhutanese architecture, the word that comes to my mind is “quaint”, Cliché, maybe, but it perfectly described my first glimpse of Bhutan. It is hardly surprising considering how the mountain kingdom chose to be isolated from the world for a long time. The country also has a rather unconventional economic metric; GNH (Gross National Happiness), brought into effect by the fourth king. By all accounts, despite not being a rich country, Bhutan is touted as the happiest and greenest country in the world.
Bhutan Gate at India-Bhutan border
One of the first things Sagar, our guide from the local tour company Heavenly Bhutan, told us set the tone for our trip. “The coronation of the fifth king marked the democratic constitutional monarchy and we love our king! Look at all we have – free education and healthcare and so much greenery. Of course there are some problems, but so much more is happening now.” After a cozy stay at a hotel in Phuentsholing, we left early the next day to get our passports stamped. Dzongs are ancient forts built as spiritual and administrative buildings; even the visa office had a wooden warmth to it. We arrived at Thimphu after 5 hours drive through winding roads lapped along the tall mountains. Yak meat jerky and yak milk cheese made the perfect chewy snack for our ride while we acclimatized.
Dzong at Thimphu
Thimphu is a microcosm of the country. Its traffic light-less streets, its museums, and people acquainted us with a gamut of traditions, culture, politics, and life. Thimphu has an antiquated charm, skyscrapers do not impose the views of a blue sky or the distant snowy peaks. Cozy shops and curio stores have not made way for shopping malls, people still spend evenings at the central Clock Tower Square simply to be outdoors, albeit with smartphones in tow. Globalization is subtly creeping in, which explains the rising popularity of snooker. At the end of long workdays, men gather at Thimphu’s many snooker bars, guzzling the local Red Panda beer and betting on games.
Pradeep and I grabbed our down jackets and mittens head out to explore Thimphu on foot in the evening. Mid-December took credit for the temperature drops with every few minutes, some boozy cherries bought off a local store kept us warm company. Thimphu is like being in heaven. It has more quaint drinking dens and eateries than you’d expect in a city of 91,000 people, and as opposed to back home in India, where cheap bars are frequently seedier than Dicken’s nightmares. However, here in Thimphu, we spotted girls gossiping, teenagers on dates, cheerful uncles and aunties having supper, and yes, even the odd Buddhist monk. We settled down at a mellow joint, walls tainted in burnt sienna with yellow cosy lights. A small girl of about 10 years old was chopping cabbages. She hailed out to her dad, who is a bald hefty built manning the kitchen, to steam us a plate of momos and French fries.
Stupas and chortens form an integral part of Buddhist culture and tourism in Bhutan and Thimphu houses the prime one built in the honour of third Druk Gyalpo and conventionally known as the most visible religious landmark in Bhutan. It is one of a kind as it does not enshrine any human remains. This Chorten was the brainchild of Jigme Dorji Wangchuck who wanted to represent the mind of Buddha as the prayer bells and hundreds of oil lamps bring divinity.
Memorial Chorten in Thimphu
I was in awe of the 169-foot tall bronze statue referred to as Buddha Dordenma, constructed at the edge of a hill in Kuenselphodrang, overlooking the Thimphu valley. The Shakhyamuni Buddha statue is impeccably detailed from the midnight blue curls to its robe and is seated on a meditation hall.
Buddha Dordenma on Kuenselphodrang
Even amidst winds of change, legends and folktales drive people’s lives in Bhutan, often intermingling with historical facts. The belief is unwavering and the stories endless; a fact I realised in the most unlikely place: the Motithang Takin Preserve. Opened in 2005, it is the primary home for the now endangered national animal, a curious-looking goat-antelope. According to legends, the takin’s story goes back to a 15th-century Tibetan lama, known as the Divine Mad Man, who is said to have brought Buddhism to Bhutan. When he first arrived, animal sacrifice was prevalent. On being offered goat and cow meat for a meal, he refused and instead searched for bones of the two animals. The takin, it is said, was created from the bones.
A sense of mysticism has surrounded almost everything I’ve seen so far, from Thimphu’s chortens and stupas to the symbolism in art. I am not religious, but lore and legends are intriguing. So, stay tuned while I take you on my journey through Bhutan.