On a whirlwind tour of Bhutan, C Gangadharan Menon learns how the country owes its happiness to its innumerable legends that prompt the locals to revere nature, worship animals, conserve the environment and make the most of what life has to offer them
There’s a beautiful folktale in Bhutan about how all life is interconnected: ‘Once a hungry elephant came to a tree to pluck its fruit. A monkey came running and said, ‘Stop, I have the first right to the fruit as I guarded this tree ever since it started bearing fruit.’ Just as he jumped on to the elephant’s back to pluck the fruit, a rabbit came scurrying and said, ‘Hey, you guys, I have the first right as I protected this tree ever since it was a sapling’.
There are several picturesque landscapes in Bhutan like these mountains enveloped in mist. Pics/ C Gangadharan Menon
And as the rabbit hopped on to the monkey’s back to pluck the fruit, a bird flew down and landed on the rabbit’s shoulders and said, ‘You may have all looked after the tree in its various stages of growth, but I was the one who brought the seed here in the first place! So let’s all share the fruit, and give some to our big friend, the elephant, on whose back we are all perched.’ That, indeed, is a food chain where all living things are considered equal.
Bhutan has nature in its full bounty as this waterfall near Phobjikha
According to Bhutanese law, 60 per cent of their land always has to be covered with forest, the home of these wonderful animals. That figure stands at an impressive 72 per cent today, thanks to the Forest Day on June 2 when every year they plant thousands of trees on their hill slopes.
The drive from Paro, along the blue-green Pachu River, is a visual delight. There are pine, cypress, deodar, willow and maple trees. And there are yellow, orange, red, green and pink trees. The maple trees look the most gorgeous as they reflect the hues of sunlight.
A yellow-beaked blue magpie.
The riot of colours continues in Bhutanese culture too. There are white manider flags to pray for dear departed souls, and five-colour lungta festoons to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled. All along the innumerable passes you find them fluttering in the breeze, as the Bhutanese believe it’s the wind that carries your prayers to God.
The view from Chele La, the highest pass in Bhutan
The Bhutanese, predominantly Buddhists, revere all living things. So felling of trees, hunting of animals and even fishing for commerce is a complete no-no. This extends interestingly even to inanimate objects. Mountaineering is prohibited in Bhutan as tall mountains are held in high esteem. The Bhutanese believe that opening up these mountains to humans willend up with the litter of civilisation flowing down their pristine mountain-slopes.
An old monk in one of the monasteries of Bhutan. The Bhutanese are predominantly Buddhists
On our second day in Bhutan, we wake up before sunrise to reach Dochu La for our first glimpse of the unconquered peaks of the Bhutan Himalayas. But once we reach there, we freeze at -4 degrees as the sun hadn’t risen yet. Slowly, the sun appears and melts our frozen moments, making us realise the importance of the life-giving sun in the neck of these cypress woods.
We then drive down to the Phobjikha valley: one of the only five valleys in Bhutan, the rest being mountains stitched by roads. When we reach there by dusk we see the last of the endangered black-necked cranes settling down to roost. As I look at them landing on the dry river-bed with only memories of a monsoon flowing along them, I remember what Tashey, my friend, had told me. These migratory birds, when they first come to Phobjikha, encircle the monastery and then, only then, land on this river-bed. This could be explained by saying that they are surveying the place to make sure it’s safe to land. But the amazing thing is that they fly around the monastery once again before they make their final flight to the land of their birth.
Later, we drive down to Trongsa through the Gangtey Pass. En route we stop at Tashiling, the Land of the Melodious Water. Legend has it that the presiding deity of the mountain here fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a farmer. In exchange for her hands, he was willing to give anything. Since there was no source of water here, all that the farmer asked for was water, the very source of life. And soon, a spring started gurgling through the crevices. It is believed that anyone who drinks this water ends ups having a melodious voice. The empirical evidence are the villagers here, all of whom are good singers. Next to this spring we see faces young and old: happy faces with smiling eyes; and I realise why the young King of Bhutan talks about Gross National Happiness.
The Bhutanese are a happy lot, content with what they have. In fact, they are the only country in the world to have an International Day of Happiness, which is celebrated on March 20 every year. Our final stop is at the highest pass in our journey: Chele La at 13,000 feet. Here, we set off on the hunt for the elusive Himalayan Monal, a bird that migrates from very high altitudes and comes lower down in search of warmth. Interestingly, they don’t fly when they migrate, but merely walk down the slopes. En route, we see dried rhododendrons, with only memories of a colourful yesterday clinging on to the branches.
There is a waterfall, too. And at the bottom of it is a small rainbow. Being close by, I look for the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but in vain. Though we are looking for the elusive Monal, what we end up seeing is a small, nuclear family of the Blood Pheasant — a bird that looks like its neck has been sliced, and is bleeding profusely.
The blood reminds me of another legend of Bhutan, Drukpa Kuenly. He was a Buddhist monk known as the Divine Madman. Sitting in Tibet, in the year 1499, he shot an arrow from his bow, which landed in Bhutan. Following his nose and his arrow he landed here and proclaimed himself to be a Buddhist Lama. When the King asked him to show his resume, he asked the King to bring him a dead goat and a dead cow. And he ceremoniously joined the head of the goat to the body of the cow, and lo and behold, the strange animal started walking. The descendants of this animal still walk the mountain slopes of Bhutan and Yakin is their national animal.
On the last leg of our eventful journey, we pass by the mighty Mangde Chu River where they are building a massive hydro-electric dam. The blasting at the site rings death-knells in my head. So does the acts of sand-dredging, illegal tree felling and forest fires that we witness sporadically in our stay in this land of happiness.
Bhutan is blessed as far as land-to-people ratio is concerned. In a land mass that’s equal to the state of Kerala, they have just seven lakh people (which is the population of a Mumbai suburb!). Will increase in population, and an all-consuming human greed, result in the loss of this paradise? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, celebrate the joy of living with the most joyful humans on earth.
When to go: March to May, when spring sets in.
How to go: Fly to Kolkata and take the Druk Air flight to Paro.
Whom to contact: Bnhs has an upcoming trip in April.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, and for other months, call Sudhir Sapre on +919423868355 or +912166222457 or email email@example.com.