Kuzu Sangpola from Bhutan,
A week of quietude can do wonders for the soul. It may have been a bloke called Buddha who first promoted the idea. We are here in Bhutan, where they famously measure happiness, and where Buddha left an indelible impression on succeeding generations.
Linda’s happiness index has reached a new high since coming within sight of the snowclad Himalayas and tasting Bhutanese food. This is not to mention walking through rhododendron forests with brilliant blooms on show as well as hiking from morning till night.
Our visit coincides with the birth of the latest heir in the kingdom, an occasion which brought “immeasurable happiness” according to one source. We haven’t been able to ascertain exactly what they measure to compare one year’s happiness with the next. This must be how they reach a figure for Gross National Happiness. I promise to conduct some further research on this topic.
This is a very mountainous country and surface travel from one place to another is fairly slow. At this time of year – like all of the sub-continent – they are near the end of a long dry spell. The steep hills are browned off wherever they’re not covered with pine forests. Also, the valleys are very steep and almost all V-shaped, affording very little flat land.
The connecting roads are almost all high on the mountainsides and almost all a bit disconcertingly hairy for the passenger. In our journey to Phobjika, I was reminded of Arlo Guthrie’s song in which he claims to have been playing his guitar whilst riding a motorcycle – on a mountain road. “On one side of the mountain road there was a mountain. On the other side there was nothin’. There was a cliff in the air.” The roads between the bigger urban places are sealed but badly potholed. They are also narrow and under massive reconstruction and improvement at the time of our visit.
ethnically different to India
It’s not difficult to see why Bhutan exists as a separate nation (from India). These people are ethnically different. They are quietly-spoken Buddhists with soft Mongoloid faces and mountain lifestyles. The population of the entire nation is about 700,000 and deliberate government policy discourages rural-urban drift. Most of the population is dependent on agricultural output.
In rural places, people live in quite substantial houses. These are often two-storey dwellings (ground floor for the stock during the winter) made of granite (abundant), timber (pine) or rammed earth, or a combination of all three. They all have very aesthetically-pleasing protruding wooden window frames, painted decorously with floral, religious or phallic designs.
demons and demonesses
The phallus is depicted in all sorts of ways and places here in Bhutan. Legend has it that a certain hill dweller tamed demons and demonesses with his penis, whilst living a wild life enjoying alcohol, women and conquest. You can just imagine what this guy was thinking: an original carousing Buddhist libertine masquerading as a saviour but enjoying the hospitality of one and all.
By contrast, yesterday we visited one of the biggest dzongs (Buddhist monasteries) called Punakha Dzong. It is a massive complex built nearly four hundred years ago, architecturally comparable to most European castles, but of course constructed for completely different purposes. These dzongs occupy the tops of hills right across the country. As Edna Everage observed – with a different religion in mind – “they always pick the best spots!”
The dzongs in Bhutan were built with defensive considerations – as well as religious – and this one was built in the confluence of two rivers, known as the Female River and the Male River. The ornate painted decorations on the edifice are striking and elaborate.
We rafted down the Female River, enjoying the scenery on a perfect sunny day, eventually passing the Punakha Dzong on our left. Thinlei was one of the amiable guides accompanying us on the journey. He told us that the river was a bit lower than it is in the monsoon season, so the rapids were rated as 1+. He assured us that the Male River was wilder. The inference was that the nomenclature was a commentary on human nature of some kind. Fair enough, Linda reflected.
Log jay gay from Bhutan