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Travel

The Spirit Of Bhutan: Land Of The Thunder Dragon

By Iris Brooks
Published March 20, 2007

Searching for a magic kingdom? Step back in time to a country where an 8th century leader flew on the back of a tiger to rid the land of evil spirits.

Searching for a magic kingdom? Step back in time to a country where an 8th century leader flew on the back of a tiger to rid the land of evil spirits. Bhutan – a peaceful place in Asia only open to tourists since 1974 – has been the last country in the world to introduce television. Wearing shoes first became fashionable in the 1960s. Prayer flags dot the landscape, (even bridges and water pipes) and the only traffic light was removed after locals declared it ugly. “Business monks” carry briefcases and “talking postage stamps” play the national anthem on LP records.

It takes four days and a lifetime of dreaming to reach the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, or Land of the Thunder Dragon, wedged between India and China, just south of Tibet. The journey from New York includes a Hong Kong airport stint (spent admiring contemporary white sculpture), a 24-hour stop in India for a whirlwind spiritual tour of Hindu, Jain, Bahai, and Muslim temples, as well as a traditional Ayurvedic treatment for swollen ankles at the Taj Hotel. Then, in Nepal, the King is being overthrown (rioters in the streets), but the airport remains safe haven.

Finally touching down in Paro, Bhutan feels like hallucinating. Hard to say if it’s jetlag, the rarified air, the intense journey, or just this intriguing Buddhist kingdom where the goal of the King is happiness for each citizen. While one is still occupied admiring the exterior of the beautiful airport building, a woman named Karma offers to help find one’s luggage.

Bhutan is a country where tobacco is illegal, plastic bags are taboo, and national costumes (the gho and kira) are required. Fables, mythology, and ritual ceremonies surround everyone at the Paro Festival, an annual Buddhist Tsechu, where a series of colorful dance dramas in 12-episodes act out the life of Guru Rimpoche, (the Precious Teacher, also known as Guru Padmasambhava). He is credited with bringing Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan in 800 AD. The brilliance of the costumes, glistening in the sunlight, is not limited to the dancers performing the evil deities piece. Equally colorful are audience members displaying their finest weavings and silk brocades while munching on yak meat or cotton candy.

Brightly hued masks are worn by dancers – both monks and laymen – who slowly twirl and hop in stylized movements to the accompaniment of droning long horns, crashing cymbals, and the slow, steady pulse of medium-sized double-headed drums. Periodically a reed instrument kin to the shenai adds a nasal piercing timbre to the mix. When the head abbot arrives, he plays a small drum made from a human skull.

The culmination of the fest takes place with the unfurling of a giant, sacred thangka (literally “rolled scroll”), the size of a building. Viewing this huge, silk-embroidered art is said to wash away all evils. The annual viewing takes place in the middle of the night (sunlight can’t touch this ancient piece or its colors might fade). Needless to say, there is a huge turnout since it is believed the removal of the three poisons: greed, anger, and ignorance, is essential.

In Bhutan, art is everywhere, not just at the celebratory gathering. Painted tigers decorate the police checkpoint, a lovely circular scene of nature adorns the hospital exterior, and the eight lucky symbols of Buddhism are in homes. Medical scrolls teach young doctors about herbs and diagnosis, while mandalas serve as cosmic maps of the universe, “getting to the ultimate truth”.

After the festival I sample the traditional hot stone bath at the Inviting, Uma Paro spa, interview a lama who lived in silence for nine years, and converse with the dean of the traditional medical school, who advises doctors to be stress-free when examining a patient. The Minister of Works and Human Settlement takes time from his archery match to tell me about Gross National Happiness.

Then I exchange my silk jacket for my tru

  Travel notes
How To Get There

Drukair, Royal Bhutan Airlines, www.drukair.net.bt
The only airline into Bhutan connects with India, Thailand or Nepal.

Where To Stay

Uma Paro, www.uma.como.biz
Exquisite villas and lovely spa

Hotel Olathang,
Comfortable and friendly

What To Do
Country Walkers, www.countrywalkers.com
Excellent walking tours with small groups.

Etho Metho Tours, www.ethometho.com
Arranges Festival guides, meals, hotels, etc.