thimphu, the unusual capital city—a photo essay

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[My below post was published in the November–December 2016 edition of Druk Air’s in-flight magazine Tashi Delek. All proceeds from my fees went to support the Ability Bhutan Society, a charity supported by Her Majesty the Gyaltsuen in aid of persons living with moderate to severe diverse abilities.]

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Imagine. Imagine a city, a functioning capital city, with all its chores of running a nation perched high up in the Himalayas, bereft of any street lights, and one which made its debut in international tourism and on the “world stage” as recently as 1974. Before that, you and I would not even have been able to cross its borders.

Imagine a city with multinationals and media houses, where architecture, culture and everyday life wear the mantle of Tantric Buddhism. By law, buildings are mandated to be modelled on traditional lines, replete with symbolic paintings. Bhutanese have to dress in local attire.

Imagine a city where there are national tournaments in archery at the national stadium coz, yes, archery is the national sport. Monks are not allowed to take part in archery. They play another sport in its place—daygo which involves throwing flat circular discs.

Till the 1960s schooling was limited to religious studies in monasteries. Bhutan lifted its ban on the Internet in 1999. It was the last country in the world to do so. Mobile telephones were introduced in 2003. The only way to reach Thimphu is by road [it does not have an airport].

For all the above reasons, and many more, Thimphu is worth that extra set of miles. It was, definitely, worth mine. Continue reading

the secret, sacred wonders of paro valley

Paro Valley, Bhutan

[My below post was published in the March–April 2017 edition of Druk Air’s in-flight magazine Tashi Delek. All proceeds from my fees went to support the Ability Bhutan Society, a charity supported by Her Majesty the Gyaltsuen in aid of persons living with moderate to severe diverse abilities.]

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Deep in a valley in Western Bhutan, on the banks of the Paro Chhu river, lies a town suspended in time. The emerald green fields glimmer in the sun, punctuated with scraggy scarecrows. A lone woman in a purple kira tills the soil under an azure blue sky.

Lao Tzu’s words, from way back in the 6th Century BC, echo in my mind:

“Be still,
Stillness reveals the secrets of eternity.”

My reverie is broken by hollers and laughter in the distance. The farmers have started setting up their produce in the local market comprising a string of wooden tables piled high with fresh and sun-dried vegetables. The latter help carry the Bhutanese over the cold dry sterile winters. A line of red-robed monks file past me, a gentle smile on their lips.

It’s the crack of dawn, and I am in Paro. The main street I am walking down is lined with traditional buildings and was paved only recently, in 1985. Continue reading

punakha dzong: bhutan’s most beautiful dzong

Magical things happen when nature, history and humankind, with a dash of the spiritual come together. More so when it is Bhutan, and even more so in a 1637 Palace of Great Happiness built on the confluence of two rivers, charmingly named Pho Chhu [father] and Mo Chhu [mother].

If there is only one dzong you get to see in the Thunder Dragon Kingdom, let it be the Punakha Dzong, or the Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong built by Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651), 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche [Great Lama] and founder of the Bhutanese State. Continue reading

bhutan, land of happiness: what it means for the traveller

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[My below post was later published in the Gross National Happiness Centre June 2016 Newsletter.]

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I have a quiet smile playing on my lips. My eyes are content. This is through a daily dosage of countless hours on the road, wake up alarms by wee hour sunrises, and often dodgy plumbing and basic meals. I am in the land of happiness.

Whilst the rest of the world chases gross domestic and national products, the Kingdom of Bhutan has veered towards the road less trodden, in every sense. It chose happiness. And somewhere along the way, this translates to happiness for those who travel through it. This I assure you is no marketing spiel by PR or advertising honchos. It is for real. Continue reading

tibet 6: the rest of lhasa … drepung, sera, norbulingka

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Drepung Monastery, the ‘Rice Heap’

Drepung monastery, the largest and richest monastery in Tibet, was built in 1416 by a disciple of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Yellow Hat sect, under the patronage of a noble family, and enlarged by the 5th Dalai Lama later. Its name means ‘Rice Heap’ in Tibetan. The monastery covers an area of more than 200,000 square meters. At its peak, it had over 10,000 monks. Continue reading

tibet 5: potala palace, the home of avalokiteshwara

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Rising above the holy city of Lhasa, the white walls and golden roofs of the Potala (BudalaGong) seem to grow out of the hill on which it stands. Now a museum, the palace is a labyrinth of rooms, interconnected with countless doors, corridors and stairways, galleries painted or draped with richly coloured silks, and filled with around 200,000 statues. The Potala served both as a monastery and government office. But above all, it was the residence of the Dalai Lamas, the god kings who ruled Tibet for more than 500 years, each one believed to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshwara, the Buddhist embodiment of compassion. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. A Mongolian phrase, Dalai Lama means ‘ocean of wisdom’. The 14th Dalai Lama was only 16 when Tibet was occupied by the Chinese in 1951, under whom he ruled in a limited capacity until 1959, after which he fled to India with 80,000 followers. Continue reading