Bhutan: Tantric Buddhism in the land of Gross National Happiness

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Ever since the Fourth Dragon King of Bhutan announced that he measured his country’s progress in terms of Gross National Happiness, not Gross National Product, this tiny land-locked Himalayan kingdom has become something of a Mecca, some might say a trophy, for cluey Westerners seeking respite from their highly paid but stressed-out lives.

Today Bhutan… which is about the size of Switzerland and on much the same latitude as Cairo… has developed a low-volume, high-value visitor policy to preserve its unique culture and generate a sizeable income from tourism. Visitors pay about $250 a day for accommodation, food, guide, and driver.

Tiger's Nest Monastery near Paro in Bhutan

Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Six of us decide to find out whether Bhutan’s “Gross National Happiness” is the modern evocation of a centuries’ old philosophy valuing what is really important in life…or simply a gimmick.

Flying from Bangkok on one of Druk (Dragon) Air’s planes, we marvel at the sun glinting on the snow-covered Himalayas. As the plane weaves around 4,000 meter forested “foothills” on the jaw-dropping descent into Paro, we spy the stark white Tiger’s Nest Monastery, impossibly wedged into a nook of sheer granite cliffs. Legend says that in the 8th century Guru Rinpoche, the Tantric master who established Buddhism in Bhutan, rode a winged tigress over the mountains to meditate here before converting the local spirits. Today mountaineering is still banned, so as not to disturb those same spirits.

Within minutes, as though riding on our own magical tigress, we are on the ground.  Waiting for us at the terminal is Thunderbolt of Bliss or Lha Wang, our smiling, diminutive 29-year-old guide dressed in the traditional gho.

Phallic Farmhouses

On our way to Paro, we pass lime-green fields and solid two-story farmhouses of rammed-earth, some plastered white and decorated with painted phalluses.  Penises can be found adorning houses all over the country, as both guardians against evil spirits and larger-than-life fertility symbols. Bhutan is the only country in the world to maintain the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism as its official religion, which is to say that sexuality can be a means toward enlightenment. Notch number one on the “happiness factor.”

But there is much to explore in this most mountainous country on Earth, bounded in the north by Tibet and cradled in the south, east and west by India. A series of high mountain ridges and valleys traverses the landscape as far as the jungles of the tropical south making travel circuitous along Bhutan’s only east/west road. Our phallic farmhousesdriver blends a New York cabbie’s bravado with the nerve of a rally car driver as he honks his horn round blind corners and swerves to miss trucks decked out like parade floats to navigate our Toyota minivan to Thimphu, the capital. Cars were not introduced until 1961, televisions in 1999 and the internet just 11 years ago. Cigarettes are banned.

The majority of Bhutan’s 700,000 people are farmers. Men wear the traditional gho, a white-cuffed knee-length robe that is wrapped and belted and worn with long socks while women dress in the colorful ankle-length kira tied with silver clasps. Farmhouses, temples and fortress/monasteries (dzongs) all share a sort of Indian sub-continent Swiss chalet style. The valleys are splashed with golden wheat fields and viridian rice paddies. Trails of fragrant juniper smoke rise up from temples to waft past prayer flags fluttering from precipitous passes and join the clouds swirling around the snow-covered peaks.

The capital: Thimphu

Thimphu, is a haphazard “Wild West” boom town where white-gloved wardens choreograph wheeled vehicles with balletic gestures. We watch street theater, admire intricately embroidered and woven cloth at the Textile Museum, shop for inlaid turquoise jewellery and carved wooden masks, and buy hand-made paper, pressed with delicate flowers, at a tiny traditional factory.

Thanks to its Buddhist beliefs and enlightened environmental practices, Bhutan is a bio-diversity hot spot. It is home to some of the Himalayas’ most exotic animals including the endangered snow leopard and red panda, plus 770 species of birds and an astonishing variety of rhododendrons. Another notch on the Happiness Factor. Fully provisioned hikes, with rhododendron-blossoms-on-the-trail-72mountain pack horses, are a popular way to experience this lush mountain landscape, which could be in the Alps or Rocky Mountains but for its yaks and blue sheep.

Gangtey Walk

We enjoy the three-day Gangtey Walk starting in the Probjikha Valley, the largest glacial valley in Bhutan and winter resting ground for the endangered black-necked cranes. Hardy mountain ponies carry tents, tables and chairs, pads, sleeping bags and packs. Our entourage comes to eight with guide, cook (who creates remarkably tasty meals), assistants and pony handlers.

After visiting the octagonal crane observation center with its detailed biological and folkloric descriptions of the cranes that migrate from China each winter, we head into the hills, zigzagging past bright red flowering bushes to climb a rocky path into an enchanted forest of oak and maple, lichen-draped blue pines and massive moss-covered weeping cypresses.  Our way is strewn with the crimson blossoms of rhododendron trees, ten meters high. At the end of each day we are greeted by roaring fires at our fully laid-out campsites at the top of wide green valleys.

Temple of the Divine Madman

The time passes in a feast of the senses. We visit the temple of Bhutan’s beloved 17th century lama nicknamed the Divine Madman who, in the holy-fool tradition, overcame demons, ridiculed dogma and preached a joyful version of religion. Happiness Factor Notch 3. We watch initiates, dressed in robes of gold and crimson, play under the temple of the divine madmanjacaranda trees before chanting the sutra in the temple under the guidance of large golden buddhas peering down from the altar, bowls of ata or local moonshine lined up as offerings and, discretely to one side, a large phallus, in case a visitor needs a fertility blessing.

We explore Bhutan’s most majestic dzong in Punakha. In its sun-drenched courtyard a lone cock, saved from the gallows, struts like a king.  Outside the golden doors of the central temple, our guide Lha Wang, or Bliss as I prefer to call him, explains the Buddhist philosophy about the circle of life, how it is important to avoid anger, desire and ignorance on the path toward enlightenment.

Bhutan may not be perfect but it does offer an exquisite mixture of the sublime, the sybaritic and the surreal that might just make it the world center of happiness.

Logistics

There are so many  fascinating adventures in Bhutan, but you must travel with a guide. Consider timing your visit during some of Bhtuan’s festivals in September and October, where you will see remarkable dancing and vibrant costumes. For more information, contact Travel on Q, which has extensive experience in planning all sorts of travel itineraries.

 

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Schoolgirls in the Gangtey Valley

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Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

3 comments to Bhutan: Tantric Buddhism in the land of Gross National Happiness

  • RT Williams  says:

    Thanks for this great post. Loved all of the details!

    • Sue Gough Henly  says:

      I’m so glad you liked the post and I hope it encourages you to consider a visit to Bhutan.

  • Judy Philips  says:

    Beautiful storytelling and images. Appreciate your take on it all and hope to visit sometime…

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