INTO BHUTAN’S SPIRITUAL HEARTLAND
The tarmac had long been washed away by the mudslides and rockfalls that heavy rains had brought months before. All that remained was the vertigo-inducing gravel track meandering around the mountains which seemed to get narrower with each mile. My nerves were already jangling as we edged past another truck-sized boulder that had nestled itself on the road. A slight toot of the horn was the only salvation from oncoming traffic on another one of the endless, blind hairpin bends.
“The only straight road here is the runway you landed on,” said my guide, Ugyen, from the front seat of the car. His dry sense of humour was lost on me on this nerve-wrecking road trip. But, at the end of this ten-hour journey was Bumthang – the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan.
Like most who fly into this Himalayan nation, my journey began a few days earlier at Paro airport, on the “only straight road” in Bhutan. It was February and the cold snap of the mountain air filled my lungs the moment I stepped off the plane.
The specks of snow hovering like feathers in the wind became considerably heavier in the subsequent hours. That night, cooped up in my plush hotel room in Thimphu (Bhutan’s capital), which resembled a 1960s Soviet-style boardroom, I feared I might be there for an extended stay.
My goal was to reach the region of Bumthang to experience and document the place where Buddhism is believed to have started in this mysterious country. A country that for so long remained closed to visitors and that values gross national happiness above GDP.
Thankfully, by mid-morning the following day the snow and ice at Dochula Pass – which stands at an impressive 10,171ft – had been cleared enough by the army of roadworkers for us to continue our 168-mile drive towards Bumthang.
The long drive from Thimphu also meant eventually crossing the Mangde Chhu River, where my guide had to complete formalities at the second and final checkpoint on this route – the first being as we departed Thimphu. But instead of the menacing-looking patrols armed with Kalashnikovs that normally police checkpoints around the world, this was a small, unassuming building resembling a toll booth. The smiling guard who sat inside was more concerned with exchanging pleasantries than stamping documents.
I had barely stepped out of the car to shake off the vibrations that were still coursing through my bones from our drive when Ugyen came striding back nonchalantly to inform me that we were clear to begin our ascent up the winding mountain road.
The climb up was arduous and slow on the gravel track, which occasionally teased us with a bit of tarmac that mother nature had decided to leave alone. As the car slowly made its ascent, Trongsa Dzong appeared in the distance, like a shimmering beacon among the deep-green blanket of forest that covered the mountains. It was hard to resist a brief stop at this mighty stronghold.
By this point my fingers had already lost feeling from holding on to the seat. So it was a welcome relief to make a quick detour to wander around the maze-like courtyards of Bhutan’s largest dzong. These fortified monasteries now serve as religious, military or administrative centres of their district and are a reminder of the daring and incredibly beautiful architectural designs of the Bhutanese in the past centuries.
Built perilously on the edge of a gorge high above the Mangde Chhu River, Trongsa Dzong’s strategic location resulted in great wealth and power for the governor (penlop) of Trongsa. The penlop presided over the trading route of east and west Bhutan as the only road connecting the country used to run directly through the dzong; the gates could be shut at any time, thus splitting the country in half.
On our approach to the dzong, a faint hint of music had begun to echo around the car. The fortified monastery’s position means that anytime there is music playing there the sound carries across the gorge, like a pied piper tempting anyone approaching to visit.
By Bhutanese standards, this festival was a small affair: the local town indulging in a feast in one of the many courtyards, along with the dzong’s 200 monks. Mingling with the locals, who were dressed in their smartest and most colourful ghos (robes for men) and kiras (clothes for women), were the extravagant, customary masked entertainers. Ugyen explained, “Dzongs are also a place for people to get together and socialise so these local festivals are often just an excuse for a party”.
Although the warmth of the afternoon had begun to diminish and the sun was taking refuge behind the mountains, it seemed as though the party was far from being over. But I was in no mood to join in, thinking of the precarious final stretch of our drive to Bumthang.
As we gradually left Trongsa behind, the sheer drops and dramatic views from the road were replaced with gentle rolling valleys and alpine forests. It also meant a return to tarmac, which Ugyen explained was because of the protection that the forested area gives against potential mudslides and rockfalls. We finally reached our destination as the last rays of the sun were peering over the mountains.
Bumthang encompasses four main valleys – Ura, Tang, Chumey and the largest, Choekhor (which is often referred to as Bumthang Valley) – which are all historic and sacred. Carved by ancient glaciers, the lush forest-covered slopes sweep down gently to effortlessly blend into the valley floor where the traditional whitewashed houses punctuate the landscape like a miniature model village.
This region is home to some of the oldest and most revered temples in the country, like the small Jambay Lhakhang, built in AD659 by Tibetan king Sogtsen Gambo. Legend has it that the temple was one of 108 that were built in one day in order to pin down an evil demoness who lay across the Himalayan region. Each of the temples was strategically built to pin down one part of the demoness, with Jambay Lhakhang – the oldest of Bhutan’s lhakhangs (temples) – holding down her left knee for eternity.
Folklore and myths of demonesses and evil spirits dominate Bhutan’s history. To genuinely appreciate the country, you need to suspend your own beliefs and embrace these legends and stories of magic and miracles. It is through one such myth that the origins of Buddhism in this country began to take shape.
This is where one name that visitors hear repeatedly in Bhutan – Guru Padmasambhava, otherwise known as Guru Rinpoche – comes to the fore. Believed to have been a native of the Swat region in Pakistan, he is regarded as the Second Buddha and credited for introducing Buddhism to Tibet and establishing the first monastery there.
As the king lay dying, word was sent to Guru Rinpoche to visit Bumthang in order to use his supernatural powers to cure the king and defeat Shelging Karpo, who had retreated to his cave. Upon arrival, Guru Rinpoche began to meditate in a rocky cave and produced so much energy that he left an imprint of his body on the rock. (In 1652 this became the site of Kurjey Lhakhang – one of the holiest and most important monasteries in Bhutan.)
To tempt Shelging Karpo out, Guru Rinpoche began to dance in the field next to a temple. Although this spectacle attracted all the local gods, Shelging Carpo remained hidden away.
Guru Rinpoche eventually lured the mischievous deity out from hiding by sending the king’s daughter, Tashi Khuedon, to fetch water in a golden vase. Intrigued by the flashing sunlight reflecting off the vase, Shelging Karpo ventured out – at which point Guru Rinpoche transformed into a mythical bird called Garuda.
His fearsome talons grabbed Shelging Karpo and forced him to not only restore the king’s health but to also become a protector of Buddhist teachings and followers. In return for restoring the king’s health, Guru Rinpoche demanded that the king make amends with his enemies, and thus peace was restored. It was from this visit and from this region that Buddhism is believed to have spread across the country.
Myths and legends like this can be found all around in these parts – like whispers as you journey through this region. Every holy site has a story that combines fact and fiction, which is ingrained into each and every child and adult alike. As I wondered around the temples, streets and villages, speaking to locals who welcomed me as if I were an explorer of yesteryear, one thing became abundantly clear. The complete devotion of the Bhutanese people to their spiritual beliefs is not something that is in danger of wavering. I didn’t witness any occasions on which someone would pass a prayer wheel without spinning it. Or a relic or shrine devoid of money and prayers.
The more time I spent in Bumthang, the more I found myself embracing these tales and yearning to get a better understanding of the deep-rooted traditions of the region and its people. This culminated in an invitation to observe evening prayer in one of the monasteries in Choekhor on my final night.
As the lights went out and candles were lit, the hypnotic and rhythmic chanting of monks filled the ornate red interior of the room with the gusto of a full orchestra. As strange it may sound, even with sound echoing around the temple, I felt a complete sense of calmness and silence descend over me and began to deeply appreciate how special this region was.
It is impossible to fully understand and appreciate Bumthang in a fleeting visit. But I will never forget the magnificent four days that transported my imagination and beliefs in this spiritual heartland of the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. Suddenly the ten-hour journey back on a spine-shaking gravel road didn’t seem as daunting.
NEED TO KNOW
Getting there: The most convenient way to reach Bhutan is a direct flight from Delhi or Bangkok. However, be aware that flights are limited, and weather conditions can sometimes mean delays.
Best time to go: It’s best to avoid the winter months (December to late February) when many of the mountain roads can become inaccessible due to snow and ice. With major festivals throughout the rest of the year, a visit between March and November provides a good chance of coinciding with one of these events.
Time zone: GMT+5
Food: Bhutanese food includes curries, barbecued meats and fried vegetables. Traditionally, dishes are spicy and cooked with lots of chillies, but they are made milder for tourists.
Must-pack item: Motion sickness medication for long car journeys. Altitude sickness medication is also advisable (speak to your doctor in advance).
Why go: An example to the world of living in harmony with nature, Bhutan has resisted much of the over-development that has happened elsewhere in this part of Asia. Its constitution ensures that at least 60% of the country is covered by forest and as such provides ample walking, hiking and wildlife-spotting opportunities, together with a rich cultural experience.