Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 08/26/12 7:55 AM

Travel: Bhutan

Kingdom of happiness

Photo: KV Nair.



Every step I take is hard work. My breath has started coming out in gasps. I am more than halfway up a very steep gradient. 

I just can’t turn back. Is this a time to measure my happiness quotient? Not really.

It’s a cool day, mercifully, and the hills that hedge my destination, the Tiger’s Lair, perched on a 1,000 m cliff face, are densely wooded. Rhododendrons shine a bright crimson.

Arduous but worthwhile climb

Prayer flags flutter noisily as we climb. The way to this eyrie is through a parallel hill and the track is more mud slope than road. Shaggy, ferocious-looking dogs, who are actually baa-lambs in disposition, eye us amusedly.

A little more than two hours later, I’m at the Taktsang Palphug Monastery (Tiger’s Lair) which hangs on the side of a cliff at 10,240 ft, some 3,000 ft above the Paro Valley.

Land of charming legends

The charming legend (Bhutan alert: all legends are charming in this Shangri-La) is that the Padmasambhava, Guru Rimpoche, flew on a tiger’s back to this cliff, where he set up camp in a cave, fasted for 90 days as he battled the demons that inhabited the area and thereafter, started to disseminate Buddhism.

The temple has been standing for well over a 1,000 years; its very isolation cloaks it in mystery. Inside, I chance upon a prayer ceremony complete with lamas in red headgear, chanting, and the sound of the dungchen, the sonorous long hornpipe, which is incredibly moving. My happiness quotient shoots up to an eight, maybe nine, on a scale of 10. This then, is environmental wellness.

It is easy, keeping track of one’s happiness index in the Land of the Thunder Dragon, a land where all the clichés come alive. Sharp blue skies, a brisk breeze that carries the mere suggestion of a bite with it, shallow valleys with a river snaking through them, clumps of white blooms at every corner, the inner Himalayas looming in breathtaking fashion.

Rosy-cheeked adorable little children, a gentle people steeped in courtesy, a relaxed pace of life, majestic dzongs (fortress-like structures). It’s easy to just float along, lightheaded with exhilaration, taking in everything in a state of delicious lassitude. Just the country to be happy in, just the country to have a gross national happiness (GNH) index.

Gross National Happiness

The GNH concept was pioneered in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Buddhist philosophy suggests that human society develops only when material and spiritual development go hand in hand.

The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and the establishment of good governance.

Even though it is near impossible to actually define, leave alone put into practice, this determined country has made GNH the bedrock of planning for all development. All policies in Bhutan must pass a GNH review. The beauty of it is it works.

My happiness quotient takes a dive, though, when I taste the national dish, the ema datsi.

This is the staple for the people of this mountainous terrain, a dish that basically comprises green chillis in a cheese sauce.

As a Malayali who regularly tucks into the red-hot kadumanga pickle (green mango pieces marinated for ages in a fiery chilli gravy), I’m no stranger to chilli. However the ema datsi is one major tongue-inflamer.

Fiery tasty food

I  reach hurriedly for the kewa datsi (potatoes with cheese and chilli) and the shamu datsi (mushrooms with cheese and chilli) as well as the ubiquitous red rice, which has a nutty, very likeable flavour.

No real relief there. Even as I reach out for a glass of water, I realise my happiness quotient (physical wellness) has just fallen to a four. Ah, well, some little rain must fall on every paradise, right?

No Bhutanese dish is complete without ema datsi. Everywhere I went, I tasted a slightly different version of ema, the cheese sauce thicker here, the chillis hotter there.

They grow chillis extensively in Bhutan, drying them on hard ground and rooftops, and by autumn, ropes of ripe chillis are seen strung up or stacked on wooden racks.

The GNH policy is not the only thing unique to this country.

Bhutan’s tourism policy, all about low impact and high value, is a restricted one, and based on a bedrock of sound principles: that tourism has to be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable, and economically viable.

A high tourist tariff has been set by the Royal Government of Bhutan; visitors cannot travel independently, they need to come to Bhutan through a licensed Bhutanese travel agency. Mountaineering is banned; mere mortals are not permitted to disturb the gods who reside atop the peaks, or the yeti who also lurks thereabouts.

This policy works.

Restricted tourism

With all the restrictions, Bhutan got about 65,000 tourists last year and is gearing up for a full 1,00,000 this year.

Much of the country is a beautiful unspoilt swathe and one is reluctant to imagine the scene after tourists overrun the place. I send up a fervent prayer: may that never happen.

Bhutan is a haven for adventure tourism. Trekking, hiking, rock climbing, cycling , mountain biking, rafting, kayaking are all par for the course in the country; actually, even the access route to most lhakhangs (temples) and dzongs involve a fair amount of climbing. After the trek up the hill to the Tiger’s Lair, I imagined I was on a roll.

But Bhutan had a surprise in store for me: it made me face my own terror, in the most unlikely way. Just past the chuzom (confluence) where the Wang chhu (Thimphu River) and the Pa chhu (Paro River) meet and mingle, there stands a seemingly nondescript monastery.

This is the Tschogang Lhakhang, The Temple of the Hill of the Excellent Horse, and it is accessed via a wire-mesh-and-links bridge that spans the Pa chhu.

As I stared at the loud, gushing celadon waters, shallow enough for me to see the huge white pebble bed, my happiness quotient touched an all time low. The bridge looked decidedly rickety, some five feet in width and about 50 feet in length.

Even as I started to turn back, a flash of red caught my eye. A young lama stood near the chorten up on the hill and was beckoning to me most reassuringly. And so, I put my failing heart into the business of crossing the bridge and did it.

Dry-mouthed and with aforementioned heart threatening to leap out of my body, I stood at the other side, not quite believing I had done it.

Bhutan`s magic

And then, Bhutan worked its magic again.

Two young lama boys took me to the main shrine at the lakhang where I bowed my head for long moments, as much to catch my breath as in reverence.

Then they gestured for me to follow them up two flights of impossibly narrow stairs in near total darkness.

Intrigued, I did so. Right at the top, inside a dark room stood yet another golden statue with a row of butter lamps lit in front of it. Yet another incredibly moving moment.

My mental wellness happiness quotient shot up. Buoyed up by that emotion, I crossed the bridge of terror back to the main road in ungainly fashion, but without the paralysing fear of before.

Basic tenet

And when my Bhutan sojourn finally drew to a close, I realised that one need not be Buddhist to appreciate and acknowledge the GNH concept.

Basically, it means a re-balancing of sustainable development, cultural integrity, ecosystem conservation and good governance.

Both inside us and outside. As the fifth king of Bhutan said in another context, it is all about sustaining as well as controlling the dragon within us.

This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 26 Aug 2012.

All photos by Sheila Kumar and subject to copyright.

Related Links:

Travel: Chimi Lakhang in Bhutan

Travel: Samtse, Bhutan


Bhutanema datsiGross National HappinessGuru Rimpochekewa datsiLand of the Thunder DragonPadmasambhavaParo ValleyTaktsang Palphug MonasteryThimphu River)Tiger’s LairTschogang Lhakhang

Sheila Kumar • August 26, 2012

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