Wednesday, May 9, 2007

In The Land Of Gross National Happiness…..

( This was part of my diary written during my last trip to Bhutan: the land of thundering dragan. As I am leaving once again for that lovely country later this month, I decided to put a part from my diary on blog.)

Coming from one of the most populous countries of the world, it was difficult for me to imagine a nation where, there are 700,000 people in all with 20,000 of those Buddhist monks and nuns. One airport, not in the capital city, has two flights a day; one from Calcutta and the other from New Delhi. Paro, where the airport is located is 65 km from Thimphu, the capital.Thimpu is also home to the king and his 4 wives. Two newspapers published twice a week and one radio and one TV channel of its own.
Imagine a state where PM’s house has just 2-3 security guards to protect the place…not that there are no guards neither it is any laxity in protection but simply….no protection is required. My young escort Rinzin was surprised when I asked him “ But Ma’am what is the need for guards?…and to guard against who? or what? We love our government…they are doing such good work. Who would like to harm the PM? ”. He had a point…I must say. No wonder in this small country unlike neighboring Nepal, the king is making clauses in constitution to curtail his own powers….has announced to step down in 2008 and is leading the country for parliamentary democracy by conducting Mock Elections.(the real ones will be next year sometime). Things here are just too utopian…too good to be true…true nevertheless.
Last year when an anti corruption office was formed…many argued against it….they simply don’t find enough corruption in public life to justify the need of such an office. However, I am sure my auditor friends Chimi and Ugyen will have a different take on this. Later, on the dinner table Chimi told me that prices for each essential commodity are fixed ? ”And no one tries to breach them.” I asked. “Why should they try such a thing? It’s the right price after all..” He told me . I felt almost like a scum for suggesting such an unthinkable thing.

The king has declared he is not interested in Gross National Product but is much more concerned with Gross National Happiness. And that sentiment runs down through the last yak herder we ran across. The Bhutanese intensely follow the teachings of Buddha and are happy to discuss how good their lives are and how they have no worries about what they might be missing. Traditional clothing, a knee length wrap-around robe for men with dark knee socks and a floor length, beautifully woven sarong type garment for women, must be worn until 5:00 p.m. each day by law. There is no smoking outside anywhere at any time. (Oh what a relief it was after the Kolkata streets where bhadralok will breach any law against smoking and will force you to become their smoking partner…passively I mean.)
But much before all these when I climbed into Drukair airbus from Kolkata….I knew its going to be a great day. They were playing some chimes like music, pilot had a friendly voice ( and promised to show as many peaks on the way as possible) and air hostesses in traditional dresses were looking smart. A tip to remember that on your way to Paro sit on the left side of the plane and way back on the right I just vaguely remembered some such comment on a website and thus got the best view of Kanchanjangha and many other Himalayan peaks. We were flying so low we can almost count the individual blue pine trees in steep forests below. The airport's altitude is 7000 feet, and we're still in monsoon clouds. .The Paro airport is located in Paro Valley, accessible only by Nintendo type moves flying in and through the valleys and mountains. If the weather drops in at all, there are no flights into can't be done. Soon we can see the branches on the trees, mingling tentatively with loose tufts of vapor, whispering the presence of a mystery. We spot women in small rice paddies, close enough for us to name multiple colors in the kiras, their traditional clothing. Sharp embankments are within shouting distance of our wings, and children on mountain roads stop to wave enthusiastically as we descend. We've been told that a safe arrival in the Paro airport takes a skilled aviator, so it's a good time to remember that miracles are known to happen here. 55 min flight ended just too soon.

A look at the sky and I knew I was nearer heaven. It was blue…a perfect dark blue sky….and there were green conifers all around. The river moved side by side our way to Thimpu. All the houses had the typical wooden windows and doors with colourful paintings on it…each one of them worth a picture postcard shot.”(Later in the day Chimi-Ugyen informed me that it is illegal to deviate from the traditional Bhutanese architectural style while building houses…hence the homogeneity….even in the UN buildings here) We crossed a confluence of Paro-chu and Thimpu-chu from where 2 roads parted for Thimpu and other for Gedu and Haa.
Once in Thimpu…I was glued to the scenery outside… a clean nice small hilly town. And such wide roads. We passed through a number of beautiful buildings…various ministries ….election commission…royal monetary authority (their central bank), monasteries…and others. In the car, Bhutan Broadcasting service was relaying news….eldest queen on a trip to eastern districts, Japanese delegation met with ministers and India will support an urban development scheme.
My escorts took me to Takin Preserve area…a reserve forest to protect the national animal Takin. This unique mix of a goat and a cow is found only in China (Tibet) and Bhutan….they have a myth for the animal’s origin. Lama Drukpa Kuenley , the 15th century saint known for his outrageous antics once ate a goat and a cow….and then put the goat’s head on cow’s bones and upon a command from the lama this strange animal came to life…and they called it Dong gyen key (Takin) . I really liked the drive up to Takin Preserve area. Rinzin pointed out to some rather simple looking houses on the way as residences of the four queens. Then to my astonishment said that the King lives alone in another house on the other side of the mountain … a very common looking place. So there is no magnificent palace for the most good-looking king of Asia….sounds bit unreal and a lot more unromantic to me.
Royal family mingles with commoners quite a lot…not so much in Thimpu though. There are 11 princes/princesses….but 25 yr old crown prince (son of third queen) is the most popular one.

At the most central point in the Thimpu city Memorial Chorten stands tall to remind the Bhutanese of their 3rd King . I also went to Dechenpnog Monastery…. The monastery is existing since 1400 AD and is about 25 min drive away from Thimpu….on the way we passed through the army training school. I was told that Bhutanese army has about 8000 soldiers but now it has been decided to reduce the number and to make military training compulsory for all men-women. We also passed through the India Estate ….area when Govt. Of India offices and embassy is situated. A nice location…they have their own golf course as well. India has definitely the biggest foreign presence for the country. Other consulates are Thai, Bangladesh and Nepal. For other countries, they get visas from India. . Nearer this in a golf course the 25 yr old crown prince, heartthrob of the entire nation, was playing golf. Rinzin informed me that the King is not interested in golf…he plays basketball and used to be a good footballer. We climbed up to the monastery through about 100 stairs….The main building was closed…in any case even when it is open only monks and males are allowed. Visited the other deities….there were colorful tankha paintings all around. There was Guru Riponche and some other deities. The wall paintings were looking quite ancient ……on our way back Rinzin showed the trek route to the monastery…we followed it downwards.

A memorable trip to Drachula with Ugyen and Chimi followed next morning. Drachula was no way what I was expecting it to be…first it was no way old…it was build in 2004….second it was not a pass…as I thought it would be. It’s a place where the eldest queen built 108 chorten stupas…..for king’s victory and long life. I was told that no king of Bhutan so far lived to see his 50th birthday …so when the present king turned 51….and at that time there was this insurgent problems in the eastern parts…queen decided to build these chortens to please deities. All the labour provided was voluntary and guess what…even Ugyen and Rinzin worked here for few days as labourers …. Need to learn a lot from these simple folks.

The Bhutanese have a cultural proclivity for butter. Butter is used extensively in their cooking. They make butter sculptures for the interior of the temples, use butter for all their small candles in the temples and homes and the high point - butter tea. Most easily described as melting a pound of butter, tossing in a few herbs for seasoning, into the teacup and "Here's to your health." It must be an acquired taste as I could not get through more than a lip touch, even with the addition of puffed rice said to ease the taste...just couldn't do it. The most delicious “Ema –dachi” is also prepared with lots of cheese and green chilies. Initially the food tasted bit strange but after a while I relished it .
Things were so different from India…so close by and yet so distinct in its ways. After a while it was great to be in a country where people feel happy for the small things and have time for leisure. I can jolly well agree that Gross National Happiness is much more desirable than Gross National Product and if the latter is not leading for former….well, there is a problem.


ugyen said...

Wonderful post, simply awesome,!!

Sweet aLiZzzz said...

Wonderful Diari sister :)