Mutribo tells us the story how he came to discover Bhutan and to offer tours or rather ‘jouneys’ to this mysterious country.
For the last thirteen years, the Himalaya has been my backyard and, of the lucky countries that lie in the immense shadow of the Great Himalayan Range, perhaps Bhutan is still the most isolated and mysterious of them all. I had always wanted to visit this intriguing kingdom but had never succeeded. It is not an easy place to enter.
How Bhutan preserves ancient traditions
Over the intervening centuries, Bhutan has always been acutely aware of its much larger neighbours and has kept them at a safe distance. This desire to preserve its own, unique identity is still in evidence today in the country’s tourism policy that follows a strategy of ‘high value, low volume’. Bhutan has been remarkably successful in preserving its ancient traditions and avoiding the negative impacts of tourism by only allowing a small number of visitors each year to experience its beauty. To my disappointment, I had never been one of those fortunate few and it might have remained so for some time longer, if Lhasa had not started to burn.
Tibetan borders close
On March 10th 2008, I was in the final stages of organising the annual journey I offer to Tibet. I had friends, acquaintances and complete strangers coming from as far away as Ecuador, Mexico, Europe and Australia to discover the immense beauty that lies hidden in the altitude of the Tibetan plateau.
March 10th is a special day for the Tibetan people. On that day in 1959, 300,000 of them surrounded the Norbulinka Palace in Lhasa to prevent the young Dalai Lama from attending a theatrical performance at a Chinese army base just outside the city. There were very real fears that the Chinese had planned to kidnap him that evening and this mass gathering of Tibetans was the beginning of what became known as the Tibetan uprising. Within ten days, an estimated 86,000 of them lay dead on the streets of Lhasa, killed by Chinese guns, the Dalai Lama had escaped to India to begin an exile that still continues today and Tibet had become a part of China.
Last year Lhasa began to burn again on this very same day of remembrance and rebellion, as Tibetans across the country tried once more to bring the world’s attention to their plight by using the publicity that surrounded the build-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. For the Chinese, the Olympics were their chance to showcase a modern China to the rest of an admiring world. Nothing could be allowed to spoil this party. Within days, massive army reinforcements were dispatched to Lhasa and ethnic Tibetan areas in Sichuan province to stamp out what had started to look like another uprising. Members of the global media were ordered to leave and the Tibetan borders were closed to all foreign travel.
I must admit it took me totally by surprise. I had not foreseen such a turn of events but, with Tibet closed, I had to find an alternative journey for all my long-distance guests. Bhutan was the most beautiful and unique choice.
In the last days of May, fifteen of us landed at Bhutan’s only airport near the city of Paro to start our three week journey through this mysterious country. As we walked across the tarmac, the first thing that struck me was the unusual beauty of the airport itself. The buildings have been designed to look more like a traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastery or gompa than structures that take care of air traffic control and luggage! It set the tone for the beauty that awaited us.
Nestled beneath the eastern end of the Great Himalayan Range, Bhutan shares its northern border with Tibet while the Indian states of Sikkim, Assam and West Bengal lie to its west, east and south. Unclimbed 7000 metre peaks tower over the land that falls in a tapestry of forested hills, valleys, rivers and waterfalls into the plains of India.
As we started to explore the country through the network of well-paved and uncrowded mountain roads, I was hypnotised by the beauty of its wilderness. Bhutan has managed to preserve almost 73% of its forest cover and the Bhutanese have always maintained a living relationship with the natural world. They are a deeply, friendly people, simple and serene. But in the past, this connection with the nature that surrounded them has often resulted in a feng shui nightmare, as the early inhabitants grappled with the effects of demons that inhabited significant, natural landmarks.
Drukpa Kuenley was born in the 15th century and is one of Bhutan’s most beloved and notorious saints, famous for both his spiritual understanding and his womanising. It took all of his prodigious, shamanic power to control one demoness that was terrorising a central valley in the country. He succeeded in subduing her by building a gompa on a small hill that represented her breast. To this day, a woman wanting children will visit the gompa for blessings that are administered by a sharp tap on her head from either a bronze or ivory carving in the shape of a large phallus, said to be modelled after Drukpa Kuenley!
Today Bhutan is the size of Switzerland with around 700,000 inhabitants but it had remained a rural, feudal society ruled by regional lords up until the beginning of the 20th century. It was only in 1907 that Ugyen Wangchuk finally unified Bhutan under one leadership and became Bhutan’s first king. He created an hereditary monarchy to rule the country and in the 1950’s under the third king, Bhutan began to emerge from its chosen isolation and start a slow and careful process of modernisation.
As we drove and trekked through the abundant wilderness of Bhutan, many hillsides would reveal the country’s most iconic, architectural structures. Bhutan is famous for its impressive dzongs or forts that have served over the centuries as both the political and spiritual seats of power. They dominate the surrounding countryside and are visible from miles away and, despite their huge size, are extremely aesthetic structures both on the outside and within. Many of the inside walls are decorated with Buddhist paintings and the doors and passageways are full of delicate, carved statues. I have never seen such well-kept, Tibetan monasteries as those I saw in Bhutan. Every time we entered a gompa, the monk would remove his shoes and step onto a cloth that he would drag with him as he walked to polish the floor!
The fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, ascended the throne in 1972. He introduced to the country the remarkable concept of Gross National Happiness that aimed at combining economic progress without sacrificing individual contentment. In the face of a growing, global materialism, he outlined developmental goals that have allowed the country to gently modernise without losing its own rich traditions and unique identity. In 2008, he himself introduced democracy to Bhutan and abdicated in favour of his son.
But it is the lush Bumthang valley that is both the geographical and spiritual heart of the country and has a peace all its own. All of us felt a different pace descend, as we settled in for a longer stay in this beautiful place. Aside from the luxury of a herbal bath heated by hot stones, the tangible relaxation in Bumthang stems from its deep historical connections with Bhutan’s most famous mystic: Padmasambhava, more affectionately known as Guru Rimpoche.
Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rimpoche
Born in the eighth century in the Swat valley that now lies in Pakistan, he brought Buddhism to both Tibet and Bhutan and his influence and image follow you at every turn. The oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism – the Nyingma – grew out of the Tantric teachings that he left behind. There are four very beautiful and isolated gompas in Bumthang that mark the four corners of the compass where both he and we meditated under huge cliffs. It was a luxury to walk through flowering rhododendrons and climb isolated hillsides to sit quietly within the gompa walls that had captured deep silence for hundreds of years: an effortless and easy journey within.
Unlike the more ascetic Gelug sect of the Dalai Lamas, you will often see Guru Rimpoche portrayed with the women in his life. Many Thangka paintings show him seated between his two consorts who were bestowed with miraculous powers. One of them transformed herself into a flying tigress and transported him to another cliff where he meditated in the west of Bhutan. Those towering cliffs became the site of one of man’s most stunning pieces of architecture – Taktsang gompa or the Tiger’s Nest.
Climbing up to Taktsang gompa, the Tiger’s Nest
Clinging to rocks some five hundred metres above the valley floor, the walk to Taktsang is one that demands awareness. The Bhutanese say the impossible structure is tied to the cliff with angel’s hair and the path itself demands your absolute attention. But what you find at the end of it is quite remarkable. Tiny meditation cells dot the hillside and we were fortunate enough to participate in a special ceremony that was happening inside the main gompa buildings. We sat in enclosed caves where Padmasambhava had meditated silently so many hundred of years before us. It was a very deep and unforgettable experience for everyone.
But the rich, cultural tapestry of Bhutan is not just limited to its special version of Tibetan Buddhism, its tremendous natural beauty or its vibrant and ancient traditions. I found something more unique and present in Bhutan than all of these and something that perhaps holds a deeper relevance for Western people. It is something worth seeing for yourself if you ever have the chance.
As our financial structures crumble and attempt to re-define themselves, many people have started to take a fresh and deeper look at what a good standard of living might really mean. Bhutan has decided that it cannot be defined by material wealth alone but needs a more harmonious solution that rests on individual balance rather than collective greed. It is rare to see a country so united in honouring and using the wisdom of its past to create an intelligent and healthy future.
I think they are succeeding.
His next journey to Bhutan is happening in October 2010.
text and photos by © Mutribo – first published in Osho Times Germany