Monday, 31 December 2012

Travel Journal ( Milind Nerurkar) : AN INDIAN IN BHUTAN

Why Bhutan?  So many friends asked me this question, and it was indeed very difficult to answer. Honestly, it was not very easy to explain why I chose such an odd destination for my wife's 50th birth day celebration. One of the reasons is that I am not a very religious person and any place with a very sanctimonious environment drags me towards it like a magnet. Also the country was described by everyone as "The Final Shangrila" i.e. the last paradise and a nearly agonistic like me, would definitely like to wash all my sins at such an abode.

          The first thing we noticed was the name of the air line 'DRUK AIR" which is the Royal Bhutan Air-line DRUK means dragon and unlike we Indians the locals revere the dragon. Druk Lager Beer, Druk Handicraft Emporium, so much so I saw, a pizza parlour with a board "Druk Pizza" Long live the dragon, why should we Indians be surprised when we bow down before politicians, mafia goombas, corrupt government servants and police officers, which are worse they any dragons. The Bhutanese air-hostesses were beautiful and compared to the Indigo ones on the Mumbai – Kolkata flight they had a regal and a royal halo.
          I am used to the phrase the "Unwanted Indian" especially in our neighbouring  countries in which I also include the hostile Kashmir, and I had come to know that it was the only neighbourly destination where we are welcome. From my guide Mrs. Tibi, my driver Mr. Difu, one and every one were very friendly and earnestly eager to help to make our stay a memorable one. This was also one of the reasons I have chose Bhutan. We Maharastrians, love to reside in a cocoon; my sons, my daughters, my wife and my house, leaving Mumbai is a great adventure for us. Also one of the reasons is that unlike the Gujarathi's and the Marwari's who are hopping in the domestic and International – circuits we are short of expendable cash. Anyway Bhutan which is much more expensive then
Singapore was and Bangkok was decided one and for all.  My wife deserved an outing for her 50th Birth day and we had embarked to explore the amazing landscape of a magical nation.

          I have a habit of snooping around and talking with any one and every one on topics which matter and don't matter. The flight to Paro airport offers one of the finest experiences at 38,000 ft. The pilot has to navigate the plane through narrow mountain peaks. For that the Air Bus plane, have to be fitted with extra powerful engines to enable the captain to cruise craftily. The weather here is temperamental, and many a time the visibility may turn out to be low, so the pilot cannot land till he sees the tarmac which can be approached through two narrow mountain peaks just far enough to accommodate the Air Bus. A pilot has said that he keeps  circling  till the tarmac is visible. For this function they were send on a special training course to Australia where they have learned their skills religiously! Our safe landing was a proof of that!

The Paro airport runway
My neighbour on the adjacent seat was a Bhutanese. He was returning to Bhutan after eight-month stay in Mumbai, and his eyes lit up when he came to know I am from the same city. He worked for Bhutan Telecom and about seven to eight of them were sent to different cities of India and after completion of their Training, had assembled to in Kolkata to return to their mother country. He said that he had come to the conclusions that Mumbai was the ideal city for the likes of him. The others who were placed in other cities like Bangalore had their times of trouble with the locals. As the plane started descending, he showed me houses surrounded by fields divided into parts. Some parts were painted red, I asked him about it. He said that they were red chillies left for drying.

RED CHILLIES - They always feature in Bhutanese traditional food. Our first meal we were served Ema-datse; red chillies in Cheese sauce, is like our mixed raita. Every non-vegetarian dish with pork or chicken had to have a liberal spread of red chillies in a whole or powdered form. The Ema-Datse did set my stomach on fire and only after having a pint or two of Real Panda the local non-distilled beer, did it calm down. Mutton or lamb is rarity here. At the first red panda tasted liked soap water. But like any other booze after a couple of swigs,  I, started liking it.

          Amazing as it may be, the Bhutanese History is full of folklore and mythology In a temple of in the capital Thimpu we found  three idols one at the centre, very huge : The Buddha; to the left Guru Rinpoches' a little smaller and to the right of Ngawang Namgyal, still little smaller. The same is the set up in every Bhutan Temple, more or less.

          Namgyal is sort of the father of the nation, for the locals. He was born in Tibet in a Royal sect. In his teens his rival of the same age was made the king and left him frustrated. In the night he had a raven in his dream flying to the South of Tibet. He took it as a divine signal and started his journey to the south i.e. Bhutan. As he reached have he found that the polity was broken into groups and were fighting against each other to be one up. He united the entire group under one command, one religious leader i.e. himself and gave birth to this new revitalised country. The raven is called Mahakala and he is given a title ZHABDRUNG. Zhabdrung Rimpoche the first amongst the line age of Zhabrungs. The Mahakala's idol is to the left of Namgyal in most of the temples.
          The lama Drupka Kunley or the Mad Monk is an iconic figure in the Local Mythology. This monk was called mad because he took wine, rather enjoyed having it, spoke in vulgar and obscene language and slept with many ladies, many a times the wives of his hosts. I think there was a method in madness; probably he wanted to challenge the people to discard their misconceptions. The Bhutanese national animal is a strange one. It has a face of goat and body of a cow but longer then the former and smaller then the latter: It is a vanishing species and the Govt. of Bhutan is doing its utmost to save it. It is called Takin and the Divine mad monk was responsible for his creation. Once during a discourse his followers urged him to show some divine magic. With great reluctance, he agreed for the same. He had a liberal dose of wine which made him hungry. He asked his disciples to catch one goat and cow which were grazing in the vicinity. The disciple promptly brought the two animals which the Lama ate, so much so that only bones were left. Then he joined the left over bones to create the Takin. Punakha was the capital city of Bhutan till 1953, till they shifted to the present capital city of Thimpu. It has a Temple called CHIMI-LAKHANG, dedicated to this eccentric Monk. We visited it, a sort of mini-hike. CHI means dog, MI. means No and Lakhang means Temple. Temple with no the dogs. The locals revere it and everywhere in the vicinity you find wooden replica of phalluses. Smaller ones were also there for sale. The Japanese and the Chinese tourist took a lot of photographs at the restaurant adjoining the temple for Lunch, by standing near a huge replica of phallus. Touching it ensures fertility, I was told by my guide. I am going to write to their government to forbid Indians from touching it. We do not want to break the Chinese record of being the most populated nation.

 The Stupa of the buried dog.
This monk when walking across the Duchalla pass the highest point between Thimpu and Punakha, saw that the demons were troubling the locals by devouring   their cattle. He caught their leader, a female, one who knowing the power of the monk tranformed herself into a dog which he killed and buried near Chimi-Lakhang and hence, the name. A stupa has been built at the very place when the dog was buried.

          It is holy country! The shrines are also in the order of hierarchy. Starting with stupa, then temple, monastry and fortress in that order. The people are strong in their beliefs. At one place just after the landed at Paro, when he were moving on towards Thimpu the guide stopped us at place strange in nature. It was a meeting point of two rivers and three mountains and it spells destruction to those who pass that place. To ward of the evil spirits we found three stupas one, in  the Nepalese style, other the Bhutanese style, and the last in the Tibetan Style. But I was told it is not a rule, as stupas one also built in memoriam of great Bhutanese. In 2004 their army flushed out the Assamese separatists who were attacking India with Bhutan as their base. They lost many soldiers in the entire process and in their memory; the queen ordered 108 stupas to be built at the Duchalla pass. It is a wonderful memento of the acknowledgement of the Government for their own countrymen and also of the friendship of their country towards us! I really felt at peace while moving amongst the stupas. Buddhism is magical and mystical, I made peace with myself at every shine and monument I  visited.

stupas at the duchalla pass
          A temple, as I have already described its set up, is a place of worship, Lakhang as it is known, it does have monks staying and meditating. These monks have a tough life, they sleep on wooden floors, they meditate, and are always a source of motivation, for others to lead a happy and contended life. GNH – GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS a phrase coined by their benevolent king for his subjects  happiness. These people favour compassisn our capitalism, well being over productivity, all according to Buddhist tenets, which makes me feel that it is the greatest religion in the world. A Monastery is sort of a Nunnery, training grounds for the monks, and where the higher abbots stay and preach, much bigger is size and more regal in appearance. A fortress includes all, a temple, a monastry, some stupas and over and about all the government offices. Fortresses are called a Dzongs and the best one is the Punakha Dzong.

          It is in the bank of the river Punatsangha which further goes and meets the Bramhaputra. It has round about 400 monks learning the tenents of Buddha and his Dhamma. It has everything, stupas, temples, and government offices. It is the winter capital of the government. The Thimpu Dzong where the cabinet meets is also a great sight with similar characteristics. The king and queen live in a small house near the Dzong. Compare this with the gigantic palaces of the Indian princes, we find that their king believes in simple living and high thinking. Our princes were tyrants, womanizers and deserved the treatment they got.. Their religion teaches them benevolence and the more I wandered around, the more I found it fascinating. Every were, i.e. every hotel, every shop, every museum we find the Royal couples photo. He is handsome and she is beautiful beyond imagination.

          The fortress of Punakha Dzong has been built in midst of two rivers one male river phochu and other female river mochu; chu means water. At the huge temple, with a huge Buddha statue at the centre, Guru Rampoche  (Padmasambhava) to the right and Zhabdrung I (Namgyal), to the left. There was also a Buddha statue with folded hands. i.e. The future Buddha, he is called Maitreya, the past was Gautam Buddha and the present Buddha is also there but I could not find him and to hide my ignorance I did not have the inclination to ask my guide about it. The guides are a rare species found in abundance, when crossed with a tricky question, they make a face as if "what should, I do with this dumb man”? But he himself told me a Buddha is born everyday but we do not know where; Buddha, Buddha, Buddha, here a Buddha, there a Buddha every, where a Buddha Buddha i.e. Bhutan.!

The Buddha that can be viewed from Thimpu
          It is a country which has excess power. It exports the excess to India and gets hefty revenue in return. It is strange that we Indian know so little of our neighbours, but then we know so little of so many things, that we living a comfort zone with our ignorance. Three hydro-electric projects are in full swing and two are in the process of completion. Next revenue earner is  Tourism. The SAARC countries’ citizens do not require a VISA. The others have to get one and also pay dollars 250 dollars per day for their stay in the country. It was really nice to know that the money includes lodging, boarding and travelling and is shared without any problems by the agents, The Hotel Owners and the Tourism Council : what a fantastic way of sharing the spoils!

          The remaining are the 13 traditional crafts like painting, woodcarving, weaving … etc. We went to the school where they teach these fine arts to students. The magic in their hands was admirable, but some thoughts came to my mind. What they lack is colleges of humanities and science in every district How many years they can survive only on artisanship. A bulk of the tourist will be from India, in future and the Indian tourist is not interested so much in handicrafts. He likes good food, good wine and good surrounding 

learning  artisan skills
          Bhutan is covered on three sides by India and one by China. Its strategic value is great for us. If we continue to take this dependable neighbour for granted, things might get sour. We have to try to make them modern in their approach. We have to help them to establish a sound middle and higher education set up. We should remember that if we throw peanuts monkeys will gather. I must have done nearly 700 km by road. I noticed coasters by Toyota as public transport. The guide showed me some buses which were introuduce in the public transport which were imported from China. This in a warning signal, as our buses made by Tatas, Ashok Leyland are much better than the Chinese ones, but by sowing small acorns the Chinese will convert their into mighty oaks. So much for our foreign policy and other economic doomsday neglects.

          Some little different things which I noticed really amazed me. In every hotel, as soon as we checked in, the luggage was carried from the car to the room by ladies. They were really young girls in their teens. The waitresses in the restaurants all over were just girls. I had a feeling that if they had been in Mumbai, they could have been my students learning Mathematics. Whatever the Bhutan government may talk of GNH, they would have been more happy learning different subjects which matter in developing GNK, GROSS. NATIONAL KNOWLEDGE. Every where I found the boys as guides or helping the girls. It is beyond imaginaton to comprehend the hard work done by there lovely maidens. The males were drivers, monks,tourist guides and assistants to female who were doing the main hard work everywhere.

 students at Art and Craft School
          But things are changing all round. In Thimpu I saw a new township developing. New Thimpu: the new one is well planned with parking, broad roads and well arranged buildings. The sectors are very much similar to New Mumbai. These new developments are going to bring new waves, where the young will seek new challenges, experiment new styles, new avenues and thirst for  more and more satisfaction to suffice their hunger for debonair and different horizons. GNK will have to be given its due by the authorities The national dress of Bhutan Gho and Kira. Gho for men and kira for women. It was nice to see that 90% of the population sticking to their national dress. But for how long and till when? I hope their utopian tradition do not get crushed the new tornadoes of Laplops, internet, ipads, windows and other flood of Rock Music, Bollywood and fashions, Long live the Mountain Kingdom!

          The last day in Bhutan, after five days of enchantment, was reserved for the best. If you have not seen the Taj, you have not been to India, the same way if you have not seen the Tiger's Nest Dzong, you have not seen Bhutan. We were on to the Taktshang monastry, but when we reached the base camp we started getting nervous about the climb which was steep.  We looked for an alternative mode of assistance. We were suggested horses, but all were booked in advanced. There was a mule and a horse, just brought from Ethiopia as they looked well starved. The guide told me that mule was for me as it could carry a heavy load. But as we embarked on our trot along the sleeps climb, we started getting jitters. At any point of time we were feeling sorry for both the animals. It was a scene where the half starved carried the over fed. The Tigers Nest or Taktshang Dzong is at the highest point in Paro. The fittest can finish the hike back and forth in four hours. With the sedentary life style in college or otherwise any one can give a thought to our plight when we started our climb. Even on the horseback we were breathless. The animals walk ON the edge of the mountain pass, where a fall is a direct short cut to heaven, right down the valley. We stopped half way, where there is a cafeteria with complimentary Tea, Coffee and crackers from the government Tourism council and then returned back .The only problem for a  Travelling  Indian is food. They do not say so much, but I feel there are two circuits, one Indian and other for foreigners (Europe, America, Japan, Thailand) Unfortunately we were in the European Circuit. The food all around were boiled vegetable and chicken The other extreme of their culinary exploit is spicy beyond imaginations. Bhutanese preparation of chicken and egg are as good as boiled ones. Hence break- fast was eggs to order, some fruit, beacon (never eatable) toast jam, butter, Tea & Coffee in abundance. For me breakfast is Iddli wada Sambhar, Batata wada, Dosa, nothing of that sort here. On the fourth the and fifth day with temperature falling only quality wine which is very reasonably priced by Indian standard saved me from starvation. J & B special, Black and white Scotch whisky was just 100 Rs. a peg. The technique of gulping food with whisky is tough job till you get used to it. Any way on last two days I put my foot down and insisted for an Indian menu. The chef was summoned and food with somewhat Indian style was served to us.

          Our vacation or pilgrimage to an enchanting land was coming to an end. Anything about Bhutan in cold print without the mention of Guru Rampoche is meaningless. He bought Buddhism to Bhutan. Before that the locals were nomadic tribal’s, eating anything and everything and also indulging in cannibalism. By bringing religious order he gave the land a nation hood. He had divine powers. At the Taktshang Monastery before it was built he came riding on tiger and destroyed the demons. He is the most devotedly revered saint in the country.

          Gangtey in a small village like from at a height of 2500 ft. above sea level. It is a place which the black necked white cranes migrate form Tibetian plate from September to Novermber. The  Govt. is serious in preserving this variety  and has the Black necked crane preserving Dept. From a very powerful  binoculars we watched the cranes eating worms and bamboo shoots in the marshes of Gangtey . The hotel there was made completely of wood and everything from floor to cots creaked with weight. Me and my wife and another European couple were the only occupants in the 40 room fantasy of a hotel. The temperature fell to Zero at 4 p.m. and only a powerful heater, served us from freezing. The Dining hall had an amazing heater which made the surroundings warm by wood planks continually put for burning in the furnace, but the smoke getting released only from the CHIMNEY on the roof.

          The owner, a local lady insisted that I should have a STONE BATH. A wooden tube filled with water divided into two part 20% for red hot stones, and 80% for human body. The stones are made red hot by building a fire of wooden logs, one hour prior to the start of the bath. The hot water comes from the smaller wing to the bigger wing through four shafts. The cold stones are replaced by hot ones throughout for one hour.

          Some medicinal herbs are put which give a very musky aroma, but which definitely freshen you up. It was a great experience, sub-zero temperature outside, and very warm feeling inside. The whole set up is in a tent with cloths acting as curtains and doors. This stone bath has medicinal values and I feel giddy after completion. The guide said the feeling of guideless is confirmatory test of healthiness. Long line guides and the likes of them!

          The Bhutanese believe that spirits do exists. Just as there are classes of humans, there are classes in spirits. They have the same feelings as homo sapiens. Spirits do show traits of love, anger, fear, generosity and revenge. Just like us there are good and bad ones in them. We are many times scared of spirits but the spirits are also scared of senior lamas and abbots. Mating between male spirits and female humans result in progeny with extraordinary powers. Mind you when you are here, you are in wonderland.

          The currency is called Nutrerm, (1 Nu) is equivalent to one rupee. We were told that 500 and 1000 denominations are not accepted, but we found that to the contrary to our experiences. They took Rs.500 everywhere and Rs.1000 at selected places. What I found odd that credit cards are rejected everywhere. The prefer cash to credit and if definitely goes with their philosophy that credit should be only in form of blessings.

          As the plane took off from Kolkata, random thoughts passed my mind: Buddhas, Lamas, Dzongs, spirits, guides, mountain peaks, stupas not in any particular order. The more I thought about them the more I became down to earth in my approach towards life. To be happy and contended individually is easy, but to be the same enmasse for a population can only be found in the Divine Land which I had just left for my hometown Mumbai. The further you go from your house, the more you start longing to get back to it. So much so for an Indian in Bhutan!
- Milind Nerurkar.

Milind Nerurkar
Is a lecturer in Math’s at Wilson College for the last 34 years. He is an excellent teacher, who in spite of teaching MATHS has first love for English language. Thanks to the help received from his illustrious colleagues from the English Dept., he could polish his skills for English in cold print. Their encouragement only made him write the travelogue, which he feels, deserves the critical appreciation of those who read it.
Milind Nerurkar :

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