Monday, June 6, 2011

Bhutan: Ancient kingdom, youngest king

Jaideep Mukerji with Veeresh Malik
Jaideep Mukerji steps back in time as he travels through South Asia’s tiny kingdom, untouched by the ravages of civilisation

Bhutan–India’s neighbouring country, is the only country in the world where there are no traffic lights, few traffic crossings and where police boxes are decorated with dragons. It is also the least urbanised country in South Asia with only a few motor vehicles, no high-rise buildings and no symbols of Western modernity. When you travel to Bhutan, you certainly get the feeling that you have stepped back in time. An air of mysticism surrounds Bhutan’s attractions, from centuries-old dzongs (fortresses) unique to the area, to medieval monasteries. Bhutan is a landlocked country approximately 300km long and only 150km wide, situated along the southern slopes of the Himalayan range. The country remains cautious in its contact with the outside world and the flow of tourists into the country is tightly regulated while the government makes great efforts to preserve and strengthen the country’s religious and cultural traditions.

Although archaeological exploration has been limited, evidence of civilization in the region dates back to at least 2000 BC. The original Bhutanese, known as the Monpa, are believed to have migrated from Tibet. The traditional name of the country since the 17th century has been ‘Druk Yul’, Land of the Drukpa or the Dragon People, which is officially portrayed on the country’s flag.

For centuries, Bhutan was made up of feuding tribal regions until it was unified under King Ugyen Wangchuck in 1907. The British exerted some control over Bhutan until India’s independence. Up to the 1960s, Bhutan chose to remain largely isolated from the rest of the world. Its people carried on with a traditional way of life, farming and trading, preserving a culture which had remained intact for centuries. After China invaded Tibet in 1958, Bhutan strengthened its ties with India in an effort to avoid Tibet’s fate. New roads and other connections to India were built and, in the 1960s, Bhutan undertook social modernisation, abolishing the caste system, emancipating women and enacting land reforms.

In 2005, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, Bhutan’s fourth hereditary ruler, outlined plans for the country to shift to a two-party democracy. In December 2006, he abdicated in favour of his son, the Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk who became the fifth Druk Gyalpo (monarch) of Bhutan and head of the Wangchuck dynasty. Jigme Khesar Wangchuck was crowned king in November 2008 and at the age of 30, he is the world’s youngest monarch.
I took the Bhutanese airlines, Druk Air, Airbus 319 flight from Delhi via Kathmandu to Paro in western Bhutan, set in what is considered the most beautiful of the country’s main valleys at an elevation of about 7,500ft. The dominant feature of Paro is undoubtedly the Paro Dzong (fortress/monastery) set high above the Paro Chu River with spectacular views up and down the Paro Valley. Paro Dzong is a typical dzong, and its form is copied by other buildings across Bhutan. It was originally built in 1646, but has been destroyed a number of times, sometimes by fire, other times by earthquakes. Today, it houses the National Museum of Bhutan which displays intricately painted thangkas (hand-painted wall hangings), traditional costumes, stamps (even talking stamps) and objects from archaeological excavations.

Located further up the valley is the well-known Takstang or ‘Tiger’s Nest’ monastery which was completely destroyed by fire in 1998 and has, since, been rebuilt. On the cloudy afternoon of my visit,

I chose not to go for the two-hour hike to the monastery itself but, instead, drove to a viewing point in the valley from where one can see Takstang in the distance through the mist high up on the cliff opposite.

The following morning, I headed east along a scenic mountain road to Thimphu, the country’s tiny capital located at 7,600ft in a broad green valley surrounded by terraced rice fields. The town of about 40,000 people built along traditional lines is the administrative centre of Bhutan since the 1950s. The main street of Thimphu, Norzim Lam, is lined with shops of all descriptions, mainly stocking goods imported from India and China.

The main places of interest in Thimphu can easily be seen in a couple of days starting with a visit to the ‘viewpoint’ (if it’s clear), followed by the zoo, the Memorial Chorten, the National Institute for Traditional Arts and Crafts, the Institute of Traditional Medicine, the Folk Heritage Museum, the Post Office (Bhutanese stamps are famous), and the National Library which houses the world’s largest book.

The impressive Tashicho Dzong located beside the river in Thimphu is the seat of the Bhutanese government. The present modern building is a rebuilt version of a dzong that was here since 1641 and it retains many of the features of the original dzong. It now houses all the government ministries, the throne room of the King, the National Assembly chambers as well as the nation’s largest monastery with over 2,000 monks in residence. The Bhutanese are passionate about chilli, almost every village roof is a deep red colour—covered by a layer of chillies laid out to dry. The national dish, ‘ema datshi’ is vegetarian, made from yak cheese and chilli. No trip to the Dragon Kingdom is complete without sampling this tasty, but hot, offering.

Departing from Thimphu, I drove through forests of pine and cedar to the 10,300ft high Dochu La pass with panoramic views north to the snow-covered peaks of the high Himalayas. A long descent finally brought us to Punakha located at a relatively low altitude of 4,265ft in a dry valley. Punakha produces most of the oranges and fruits grown commercially in Bhutan and, despite the warmer climate and the possibility of growing an endless variety of produce, the population of the valley remains remarkably low.

Until recently, Punakha was the winter capital of Bhutan and it is still the winter headquarters of the National Monk of Bhutan (Je Khempo) and his followers who move here every winter. The Punakha Dzong was built strategically at the junction of Pho Chu and Mo Chu (the Sun and Moon) Rivers in 1637 to serve as the religious and administrative centre of this region. The dzong was damaged by four major fires and an earthquake—though fully restored, it remains frequently closed for visitors. I had timed my Bhutan visit to coincide with one of the ‘tsechus’ or monastery festivals where masked dances depicting the events from the life of Padmasambhava, the eighth century Buddhist teacher, are staged. The tsechu provides the local people with an occasion to gather, dress up, and enjoy in a festive atmosphere. Family members travel great distances from villages by foot over passes and along mountain trails to be reunited. It is also an occasion for people to receive blessings from a lama or Buddhist monk and watch sacred dances performed by trained monks wearing ornate costumes and impressive masks.

Every year, tsechu dates are chosen by the National Monk Body of Bhutan based on the lunar calendar and Buddhist astrological charts. Paro has one of the grandest tsechus in Bhutan during April; colourful ones are also held in Thimphu, Trongsa and Jakar. Driving over a series of passes over the Black Mountains,

I reached the small town of Trongsa and then drove further east to the Bumthang Valley deep in the heart of Bhutan. The journey to this less-visited part of Bhutan gives one an insight into a medieval way of life that has changed little over the centuries. Development has brought education, healthcare and electricity, but the local small farm-based economy, that has kept the locals self-sufficient over centuries, remains largely unchanged.

Reaching Jakar town, I spent two days soaking in the sights, sounds and colours of one of the largest tsechus held in Bhutan. With blowing of horns and beating of drums, monks wearing black hats entered the courtyard followed by a dazzling display of swirling brocade dresses, masks and colourful banners. During intervals, clowns (atsaras) added some lightness to the serious religious atmosphere with their crazy antics. Getting to the end of my stay, I travelled by road through the southern Himalayas, descending gradually to the border town of Phuntsholing busy with equal numbers of Bhutanese and Indians. From Phuntsholing, a five-hour drive takes you to the Indian airport of Bagdogra with flight connections to all parts of India.

When To Go:
Although the country is quite small, Bhutanese weather varies from location to location depending upon the elevation. Spring and autumn are the best seasons to visit Bhutan. Punakha is an exception as it is in a lower valley and is pleasant even during winter. In winter, you can enjoy better views of snow-capped mountains and clear blue skies.

Where To Stay:
Travel arrangements within Bhutan have to be made through a Bhutanese tour operator who arranges accommodation, transport, guides and complete travel support. A list of operators, travel itineraries and information is available on and also on

Indian nationals travelling from India to Bhutan do not need a Bhutan visa. A current Indian passport or an election ID card is required at immigration to obtain an entry-permit. You need to take with you two passport-size photographs.

Getting There:
By air with Druk Air from Delhi and Kolkata to Paro in western Bhutan. By road from Bagdogra airport to Phuntsholing (5-6 hours) and then onwards to Paro or Thimphu.

The Bhutanese currency is called Ngultrum (Nu) and is equal to the Indian rupee. Credit cards (American Express and Visa) are accepted by only a few establishments. The Indian rupee is accepted all over Bhutan.

Courtesy: Money Life