Thimphu, Bhutan

Posted on March 08, 2011

Bhutan being a Buddhist country where religion is taken seriously, one sees monasteries, temples, chortens, mani walls, prayer flags, wheels and drums across the country. The most ubiquitous of these are the chortens. Square structures, with proportions about twice as tall as wide, and with a sloped stone roof, the shape much like a cupola, can be as small as a microwave oven or as large as a garage. The structure is solid, with a relic or valuable object secreted somewhere in the base. Always painted white with a rust red band running horizontally near the top. There are variations subtle or extreme, in the design, but the overall look is such that new visitors are soon able to recognize a chorten notwithstanding the varying styles

The biggest of all is the National Memorial Chorten in Bhutan's small capital, Thimphu. Not a strict adherent to the traditional style, it's 3 storeys tall and is not solid, the base houses a temple that can be entered and is home to altars and statues of the Buddha and other dieties. This chorten is about 15 years old, centuries younger than most. It lacks the beauty and grace of many, and has a slightly gaudy look to it, reminding me of many Indian shrines. My aesthetic critique aside, it is very heavily visited by Bhutanese. Students go to ask for good grades, elderly people spend much of the day there, walking around it in the proscribed clockwise directions swinging prayer beads and with hand held prayer wheels they keep spinning with a motion of the wrist, each spin sending more prayers aloft. Others of all ages pay shorter visits to give thanks or pray for assistance in matters grave or trivial. We tourists visit as it's a significant site, and while we may not fathom Buddhism, its impact on locals is touching and profound, and I am always compelled to offer my own silent prayers

This time I'm carrying photographs taken by Marianne, who accompanied me to Bhutan last September. At the chorten her group met a number of elderly women, who spend their days praying. We approached these women, looking like transplants from the 17th century and asked for permission to photograph. Bhutanese always respond well to this request, so it did not seem intrusive. Elderly people always dress in the traditional manner, women in ankle length skirts stitched from locally woven multicolored cloth, then hand embroidered with geometric shapes, the result colorful and restrained. A tunic like top usually of a solid color, secured with silver dollar size ornate brass or copper buttons to hold it in place. The women were born long before the introduction of English as medium of education, so our requests were non verbal, yet easily understood and granted. They loved seeing the images of themselves, and indicated they wanted to be photographed with us. Dorji translated when our sign language failed, and we learned they come every day to pray and spend most of the day. Devout as they are, it was pretty clear there's a good social component to their day. Marianne wanted to know if there was a way for her to get the photos to the women. Dorji's suggestion was to send him the pictures and he'd find them on a future visit.

nstead I arrive today with a handful of her photos. There are thousands of people at the chorten. Dorji hands the pictures to our driver Pema, and in Dzongha tells him to locate these women. From Pema's response, it's pretty obvious he's said something like, "you've got to be kidding." We sightsee for 10 minutes, and find Pema still searching for the needle(s) in the proverbial hay stack. The women are not where they sat 4 months ago, and I'm ready to conclude that we gave it our best and let it go. A few moments later Dorji spies one of the women. We look from picture to person and all of us agree that it is she. He hands me the photo, so I can approach her. This I do, and for a split second she seems to register puzzlement at a foreign face inches from hers. Then she sees her picture and a grin erupts over her face, followed by a torrent of words. I show her the other pictures, and within seconds we have a crowd of elderly people around us. The others in the pictures are there, and they begin calling out and this attracts 2 of the others whose pictures I'm holding, plus many more. All of them smiling, gesticulating and shouting (or what passes for shouting in Bhutan, where voices are never raised). While there's a language barrier, we cannnot miss their excitement. Dorji is fielding questions from the crowd, he says they are all asking for their photo, "where's my picture, so many tourists take my picture, I want my picture." He's left explaining that one person took these photos and we have only these to distribute. As many do not hear he needs to repeat this numerous times. While disappointment might be expected, they all seem thrilled with the photos we have and the recipients pass them around for everyone else to see, and again language not needed to observe how much excitement and happiness the crowd shares.

While we might have made their day (very few Bhutanese seem to have actual photos of themselves), we feel they've made a good part of our day, and it might only have been better had Marianne directly observed the delight her gesture provoked.