Happiest Kingdom in the World - Bhutan
The huge 51m-tall steel statue of Buddha Dordenma commands the entry to the Thimphu valley. The massive three-storey base houses a large chapel, while the body itself is filled with 125,000 smaller statues of Buddha. The Buddha looks best in morning light, or at night when it is illuminated.
The name Bhutan means “End of Tibet” in Sanskrit, but the Bhutanese call their remote country Druk Yul, or “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” In the 1600s, Vajrayana Buddhist monks came over the passes from Tibet and built their fortresses in Bhutan’s great valleys. Their stern form of theocracy eventually gave way to the Wangchuck monarchs, who focused all of their energies, until recently, on keeping their subjects sheltered from the vagaries of the modern world. Few people beyond the Himalayas knew Bhutan even existed until the late 1800s, when one or two hearty Victorians trekked into the country’s remote valleys. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, there were no written laws in Bhutan, no electricity or telephones, no hospitals, no form of standard currency.
The capital of Bhutan, Thimphu combines a natural small-town feel with a new commercial exuberance that constantly challenges the country's natural conservatism and Shangri La image. Folk Heritage Museum (above), this restored three-storey, rammed-earth and timber building replicates a traditional farmhouse and is furnished as it would have been about a century ago to provide an interesting glimpse into rural Bhutanese life. It displays an impressive collection of typical household objects, tools and equipment. The museum also organizes regular demonstrations of rural traditions, skills, habits and customs as well as hosting educational programs for children. The Folk Heritage Museum Restuarant here serves good Bhutanese meals.
The clay statue maker at Folk Heritage Museum was fascinated with the art of sculpturing and his 21-years of life as a monk proved advantageous as he learnt to sculpture clay statues within three months. Kuenga is perhaps among the first private individuals in the country to make clay statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and also provides services such as filling (relic) and conducting rabneys.
The National Library at Thimphu was established in 1967 to preserve ancient Dzongkha and Tibetan texts. For tourists, it's of interest mainly as a fine example of traditional Bhutanese architecture, but there are some great historic photos and on the top floor is a copy of a letter sent from the Druk desi (secular ruler) to British army officer and surveyor Samuel Turner in 1783. Traditional books and historic manuscripts are kept on the top floor and include texts from the famous Tibetan printing presses of Derge and Narthang. Scriptures from all religious schools are represented, including the Bön tradition. Most of the books are Tibetan-style, printed or written on long strips of handmade paper stacked between pieces of wood and wrapped in silken cloth. Also on display are the carved wooden blocks used for printing the books.
Buddha Point gives a beautiful view of the Thimphu City in almost all the directions. The most enjoyable experience of being in Thimphu is to taking strolls around the streets. Hordes of villagers sell vegetables, red chillies, traditional Bhutanese masks, and carpets. Native Dzong-style architectural features still grace every building and Buddhism colors just about every aspect of life. Approximately 1 lakh people live in Thimphu, which also has several restaurants, cafes, shops and museums. Among favourites are the Art Cafe, Ambient Cafe and Karma’s Coffee (where the coffee is so good that a sign on the wall reads: ‘Give me my coffee and nobody gets hurt’).
The Tiger’s Nest, or Paro Taktsang as it is known locally, is what drew my attention to the country of Bhutan. The seventeenth-century Taktsang Monastery is one of Bhutan’s most fabled and visited sites. Taktsang Lhakhang, perched on a cliff 10,240ft above sea level and approximately 3,000ft above the Paro Valley. The monastery was built in 1692. Legend has it that the seer sage Padmasambhava (or Guru Rinpoche, as he’s known in Bhutan), who is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan, meditated at this spot for three years, three months, three days and three hours in the 7th century. Tiger’s Nest is accessible only through a narrow, winding road. The air is thin and the climb, arduous. Tourist guides will tell you that it is a four-hour trek, but chances are you’ll take much longer. But the views that this climb offers are so spectacular that you will, at least for a bit, forget that your calves are on fire.