In Asia's happiest nation and the world's last Buddhist kingdom, I wailed in despair and beseeched the Lord. No, the plaintive cry was not an SOS for salvation. In Bhutan, the nation that calibrates success in Gross National Happiness (GNH). I was not even imploring the Buddha for a handful of happiness. Writes Preeti Verma Lal
"Wings. The benevolent buddha. grant me wings." In Asia's happiest nation and the world's last Buddhist kingdom, I wailed in despair and beseeched the Lord. No, the plaintive cry was not an SOS for salvation. In Bhutan, the nation that calibrates success in Gross National Happiness (GNH). I was not even imploring the Buddha for a handful of happiness. In the landlocked country that has no traffic lights (the sole traffic light was removed by the King's orders), I was not in search of a guiding light either.
Actually, I was huffing up to Tiger's Nest, Bhutan's holiest monastery, and losing a million breaths. The white monastery with slanted golden roof seemed too inaccessible and the facts too ominous. The monastery hangs precariously on a cliff nearly 10,240 ft above sea level; it takes at least three hours to reach to the top. On way are felled logs, sharp bends, falling rocks, dangerously slippery dirt track and those 700 stone steps. 10, 240 ft?
That's almost one-third the height of Mt Everest! Phew! That's too high, too far, the terrain too treacherous. And I, with a duff pair of lungs, cannot even pretend to be a bad hiker. All I needed was wings. Not gorgeous plumage. Just simple wings, O Benevolent Buddha. That day, however, the Buddha wasn't listening . I stood wobbling at the base of Taktsang Palphug Monastery (Tiger's Nest) trail and looked around for options. Then, I heard a loud neigh. Not too far stood a few temptations .
Podgy horses decked with plastic flowers and brass bells were prepped to take the lazybone pilgrims up the temple complex that sits on the right side of Paro Chu (river). I was so tempted to take the easy way up, but before I could stick my feet into the saddle, Raj Loja, the guide, ordered like a martinet.
"Here's the walking stick. Start walking" . I acquiesced meekly. In the 8th century, Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) is said to have flown from Tibet to the site on the back of a flying tigress. I had no tigress, just a pair of Nordic walking sticks.
TRANQUIL & SERENE
And reams of history lessons from Loja. Guru Rinpoche who is credited with introducing Buddhism in Bhutan meditated in these caves for three months. Built in 1692, the monastery has four main temples and residential shelters carved out of granite ledges.
But amidst the red rhododendrons and the seductive fragrance of pine, my history lessons got interrupted. Loja was hurrying up the hill; he was nimble like a cat on helium, I was too slothful, too tardy. I panted, slipped, got bruised, but did not give up.
Three hours, sore feet, a pounding heart and a tonne of tan later, I reached the monastery. In the temples, Guru Rinpoche looked tranquil. Butter lamps were arranged tidily at his feet and sacred thangkhas hung neatly on painted walls.
Outside, a waterfall thundered with a crescendo and brass bells clanged solemnly. I muttered a prayer, picked up the blue Nordic sticks and walked down the hill. I had hiked nearly 7 km uphill and I was still alive. Incredible!
With that must-do trek ticked off the itinerary, I walked around the streets of Thimpu, the capital that wears simplicity on its sleeve.
There is nothing called a mall, children wear traditional dress to school, everyone seems to love archery, and PDA (public display of affection!) is frowned upon... There is serenity on every face and there is no trace of hurry in any footstep.
As an Indian, you can fly in without a passport (a Voter ID is enough) and there is no hassle of foreign exchange: Indian currency is accepted everywhere. Add to it peace, loads of peace....
DZONG AND A PRAYER
In the capital I yearned for Ema Datshi, who I met hours later in a sparse restaurant. No,no, Ema is no gorgeous hunk who looked modish in a gho, the traditional Bhutanese outfit for men. Ema is the nation's favourite and came served in a dainty bowl: a green chilli and cheese dish that is tres Bhutanese and became a constant meal companion there.
I loved its edgy flavour and gooey texture; it was such a perfect accompaniment to steamed red rice, sautéed fiddleheads and buttered asparagus. But I had to leave behind Ema as there was happiness waiting in Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong (Punakha Dzong) which translates into The Palace of the Great Happiness or Bliss.
In Bhutan's second oldest and second largest dzong (fort) that houses the sacred relics of the Drupka Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, lilac jacarandas pitched a stark contrast to the maroon of the monks' robes and the white of the dzong and blue of the Po Chu and Mo Chu rivers.
I sat by the river and thanked the moment I chose the chartered flight package to Bhutan that has all the mustsee , must-dos on the 7-day itinerary. That, however, was not the last time I would find happiness in Bhutan.
In the Temple of Fertility, little monks with tonsured heads, loose robes and bright crocs were playing football in the green field. Prayer flags were fluttering all around, a kitten was lazing on the white staircase and the silence was broken by giggles of young monks who had renounced the world much before they could even spell it.
But their enthusiasm was infectious and I joined them in the game. I kicked the football. It went nowhere. The monks broke into a guffaw and I confessed I haven't played football in years. "Kick again. The football will fly this time," a monk, barely 5, egged me on.
I looked at my fur-trimmed boots, held a breath and kicked. Whoa! The football actually flew a few yards away. The monks jumped in joy. The prophecy came true. The football flew.
( The Economic Times)