Our journey into this beautiful Himalyan kingdom started yesterday, as we landed into Paro riding on a Dragon – or Druk Air, the only airline that can fly into Bhutan. The flight itself was interesting, as the plane meandered through the hills, almost touching the rocks and landed on a narrow strip of land. We got out, and casually strolled through the grounds. No one was bothered about the many people photographing the traditionally architected airport, until an official realized that another plane was landing, and gently requested everyone to move away to clear some space!
As Indians, we did not need a visa and got entry with our passports. The bags were a little slow to come, but after that we were soon cruising in a Land Cruiser, having been picked up by our guide. Our guide, Phub Tshering is an interesting character who deserves a whole chapter on him, but for introductions, he is an Economics Graduate from Bhutan University – no mean feat as Bhutan until recently only had one college to which few select could get through (even now it has only two, everyone else either goes to Vocational Training Institutes or goes abroad if they can afford it!). After college, Phub got into a bank, but soon gave it up to become a guide. Why? Because it is a more independent life, allows him to stay in Paro as opposed to the more expensive Thimphu, he can practice archery and live amongst his people. That was our first glimpse of the simplicity of Bhutanese thought, fitting in a Nation which is more focused on increasing its happiness rather than money economy.
Since yesterday, there are many things that I have learned about Bhutan, most of it from our guide, some from observing around. I learned that till 13th century there was no unified religion in the country, or till 16th century it was still largely a collection of querulous chieftains. Then came along Zhanfdrung, who decided to unify these chieftains under one umbrella, and gave the country its identity. An identity unified by name (Drukyul or Dragon Land), dress (Cho for men and Kira for women, which is very religiously worn by most Bhutane), and administrative system most distinctively characterized by fortresses called Dzongs. Dzongs, in each district, were to be used as a seat for both administration and monastic activities. We visited the Paro Dzong, also called Rinpung dzong, which is a beautiful building at the bank of Pachu or Paro river. It is a vast city in its own right, divided in the middle by a tower which separates the monastery from administration. The monastery part has children running around in monk’s dresses, unrestrained at the severity of life chosen for them. But like many other areas, Bhutan shows vision in awarding a freedom of choice to these kids, where at 21 or 25/26, they can decide to not take monastic vows and lead the life of a common man.
We visited the National Museum, a nice place to start if you want to get to know about the country. Bhutan’s museum, not surprisingly is mostly seeped in Buddhism. There are many artefacts related to various forms of Buddhas, his several reincarnations and then the many manifestation of each reincarnation. I did get very confused in the names. But I came to know a little more on the various forms of Buddhism, particularly Tantric Buddhism which is followed in Bhutan. (And in Tibet, Ladhakh, Sikkim, and parts of Nepal). In these forms too, Bhutanese or Western Bhutanese follow the Dragon sect of Vajrayana (or oral) Buddhism. In Tantric Buddhism particularly, the various forms of Buddha are also accompanied by several hundred deities, who are the protectors of a region or home or person. In some way, similar to the concept of ‘Ishta Deva’ in Hinduism.