There is that little something about travelling that breaks the shackles of normality, inspires you to take more risks and inserts question marks in those places in life that you only ever take for granted. Bhutan is certainly beyond exception in this regard …
Otherwise known as Drukyul, or land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan is a magical land of melting glacial valleys bleeding into sacred emerald lakes, and lonesome alpine meadows where yaks graze in endless solitude. The silent spell of white capped mountains is interrupted only by the occasional high pitched call of a yak herder, the hollow ring of an animal’s bell, or the whistling drone of high altitude winds fluttering through prayer flags.
It is a land in which the sight of snow partridges signals snow and weather patterns are dependent on the mood of the local deities.
The tiny landlocked Kingdom of Bhutan, lies nestled into the Himalayan folds between Tibet and Nepal. Its topography extends from snowy and surreal alpine landscapes with aqua blue glacial lakes up north, to the central fields of colour rich rice paddies. While in the south, lofty ridges of sweeping sub-tropical forests are draped with dangling langur monkeys, and old man’s lichen, which lull dreamily in warm winds.
Besides being a nature lover’s dream-come-true, a profound sense of spirituality permeates all life in Bhutan. I guess it all starts with the sheer miracle of surviving one of the world’s hairiest airport landing strips, Paro. Enclosed on all sides by green valley walls, only a handful of pilots internationally are qualified, and even brave enough, to attempt the suffocatingly narrow, shorter than most, landing strip. First lesson in gratitude!
Never before have I travelled to a country in which its religion left such a transformative impact on my experience. With Buddhism being the majority religion (69%), there is an unmistakable sense of gentle consideration and respect for all forms of life which guides the behaviour of most Bhutanese, and even their road signs!
“Nature does not hurry, yet it accomplishes everything!”
A journey to Bhutan is a journey into a land of magic and mysticism where astrologers and shamans are consulted on nearly every decision from illness to work partnerships and the position in which to build a house. Folk stories of foul smelling Yeti, flying tigresses and other seen and unseen forces are shared in cold whispers to wide-eyed audiences around glowing fires. Even on trek, mountain and river deities are appeased with chanting, the burning of incense and respectful behaviour, in the hope that the local Gods will grant safe and clear passage. It is true that the summiting of mountain tops and fishing in the lakes of Bhutan is prohibited by law, as these areas are believed to be the abode of gods who are best left undisturbed.
Bhutan’s monasteries on the rooftop of the world signal some of the last remaining pure Buddhist sanctuaries and I believe, places where the real magic happens. If you listen carefully, hilltops resound with the chanting of bald, red-robed monks from local monasteries who are praying both day and night for the upliftment of all sentient beings.
Cultural preservation plays an enormous role in the life of the Bhutanese. Local languages are spoken and traditional dress is worn by all the locals. The Bhutanese sanctify religion. Rituals, blessings, ceremonies and colour rich festivals mark many shared occasions. The countryside of Bhutan is marked by thousands of typical Bhutanese chortens or stupas as well as temples. These religious monuments are receptacles for worship and offering for the pious Bhutanese, both young and old, who circumambulate these structures in a clockwise direction, in order to pay homage and respect. Similarly, prayer wheels are churned endlessly to the chant of ‘Om Mani Padme hum’ in favour of attaining spiritual merit for a more fortunate reincarnation.
Then there are the millions of colourful prayer flags which adorn every significant (and even seemingly insignificant) holy place - be it a river crossing, important rock, tree, temple, or landmark … all are decorated with string upon string of fluttering prayer flags. Each flag is inscribed with prayers and mantras, which are believed to be activated and released by the wind, thereby spreading goodwill and compassion in order to benefit all. Prayer flags are composed of various colours, each representing one of the elements: blue represents sky and space, white symbolizes air and wind, green represents water, red is fire and yellow is for earth. Similarly, in the case of death, 108 towering white prayer flags are erected on tall poles to help guide the departed soul of the deceased. The beauty of prayer flags is that they are believed to send blessings and good fortune to the person for whom they were erected; for the person who erected them; and, for the person whose eyes bear witness. Thus, an all-around lucky omen. (At one stage, there were so many prayer flags erected on one of the bridges in Thimpu that the Bhutanese government had to remove them for fear of creating a traffic hazard!)
One of the most inspirational things about Bhutan, is the progressiveness of this tiny undeveloped country. Despite being smaller in size than Switzerland, it’s policies around environmental protection and it’s regard for the well being of current as well as future generations booms in volumes that should be loud enough for all to hear.
“Bhutan is the world’s first and only carbon-negative country, which means that it absorbs almost two-thirds more carbon dioxide than it emits.”
In an irrevocably brave and far sighted move, the amazing 4th King of Bhutan, who is believed to be a reincarnation of the God of Compassion, devised and implemented the famous concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). King Jigme Singye Wangchuck believed that it is the happiness of its citizens, rather than GDP alone, which drives productivity and economic growth. The concept of GNH implies a holistic and balanced approach toward development and progress. It credits non-economic elements of well-being, such as stress and leisure time, as having equal importance to economic factors. GNH, which has often been defined as ‘development with values’, is best explained by its four grounding principles: sustainable social-economic development, cultural preservation, environmental conservation, and good governance. These are further divided into domains, variables and sub-indexes which benchmark achievable and measurable objectives and which inform national as well as international decisions and policies. And the results are obvious, especially with regard to environmental protection. With 60% forestation laws (currently 70% forested), Bhutan is the world’s first and only carbon-negative country, which means that it absorbs almost two-thirds more carbon dioxide than it emits. Moreover, Bhutan aims to eliminate all greenhouse gasses by 2020 and pledges to be free of all waste and pollution by 2030. This is no small feat!
Bhutan is taking conscious steps towards ensuring a sustainable way of life. However, despite their best efforts around conservation, the livelihood of the Bhutanese remains at the forefront of the catastrophes created by global warming. While themselves absorbing many of the environmental sins of the world, the high amount of glacial melt leaves the Bhutanese at the mercy of dams threatening to burst their moraines, placing crops and even entire villages at fatal risk. Nevertheless, Bhutanese policies urge one to take a deeper and more considered look at our role in creating a more sustainable economy. By being the change they wish to see, they are setting a weighty and inspirational example for the rest of the world to follow.
So, from the crisp pristine air of the sacred mountains and unending forests, the intent of good will for all sentient beings, and the look of contentment reflected in the smiles of the aged, you are constantly left with an undeniable and blissful sense that everything is as it should be, and that everything is going to be just fine.
For me, the most profound personal insights happened during the trek. Apart from the sheer outlandish beauty of glacial landscapes and the excitement of camping in a tent out in the ‘wild’, the trekking itself instilled a new sense of confidence, allowing me to leave all sorts of quandaries behind.
There are so many analogies that can be drawn between trekking and life. For one, trekking is all about the journey rather than the destination. From the very first step I was overcome by a sense of complete surrender, in awe of the magnificent nature all around. Learning to appreciate the view with every carefully placed footstep and learning to breathe deeply and rhythmically, was a lesson in consciousness and living in the moment. Facing and overcoming physical obstacles with endurance, though challenging at times, taught me how easily I underestimate myself, and how exciting it is to reach for, and accomplish goals.
“Places of indescribable beauty awakened parts of my soul revealing dreams I had long forgotten I even had.”
But what left the most profound impression was that, the higher above the tree line I ascended, the greater the distance seemed to become between myself and my self-imposed sabotaging mental processes. All of a sudden, as if popping my head through the clouds, I could see my negative ruminations, self-judgement and fear-based thinking, as if they were just another thought, like one of the tiny little villages you look down upon from the top of a mountain. My attachment to these mental shackles just seemed to dissolve like frost in the morning sun. And with that, a sense of clarity and child-like freedom dawned on my soul, in the realization that, from the smallest of goals to the greatest of my personal challenges, it is all completely attainable, and as easily as putting one step in front of the other!
So, on a personal level, my journey to Bhutan was my trek back to self. I was reminded of the exhilaration involved in facing and overcoming my fears and of how my own thoughts are my greatest demons. I realise now more than ever that enchantment lies on the edge of the wild and that clarity lingers on the cusp of new horizons. Places of indescribable beauty awakened parts of my soul revealing dreams I had long forgotten I even had.
Leaving Bhutan, I resolve to live life with a little more consciousness, speak words with a little bit more consideration, act towards others with a little bit more kindness, and judge myself with a lot less negativity. I want to take more risks, live a life of more spiritual significance and be braver in the face of self-doubt. It’s a new dawn and a new me, and everything is possible.
Now the challenge is to integrate these experiences as quickly as possible, so as not to let the profound find its way to the back to the mundane, which school rides and dishwasher duty threaten to obscure.
Oh heavenly Bhutan, may our karmic paths cross again …