Auspicious Days in Bhutan

Posted on July 19, 2013

I’ve never known a country whose holidays are so poetically named as in Bhutan. Blessed Rainy Day is my favorite, though yesterday was First Sermon of Lord Buddha, and just our good fortune my group and I were making our ascent to Tiger’s Next Monastery, the most sacred and iconic spot in Bhutan. Made sacred when Guru Rimpoche, (who is regarded as the second Buddha and is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan) arrived here from Tibet in 746 CE astride a flying tigress. The Guru meditated in a cave on the concave face of the cliff, and the spot ever since sacred, and the site of a monastery since the 13th century.

Thin cotton cloth, about a foot square, died blue, yellow, green, red or white and printed with Sanskrit prayer, strung together in strips of 12, they’re purchased in the religious supply shops found everywhere in Bhutan. Generally they are pre-blessed (yes, only in Bhutan), so one needs only string them up in any place where a breeze will catch them, as this is how the prayers are released.

Today’s monastery more elaborate than the original, and it draws pilgrims from all over Bhutan, who believe a visit will gain them merit. Certain days are more auspicious for a climb than others, and yesterday’s First Sermon of Lord Buddha day perhaps the most auspicious. I was unaware of this event, though soon as we hit the trail it was apparent to me that there were more pilgrims than that of most days.

Most everyone greeted us and we were inundated with smiles, and words of welcome and explanations. Gross National Happiness does not make Bhutan the happiest country of earth (though it scores pretty high), but if one simply wanted to observe people and count smiles, yesterday’s ratio of people to smiles seemed to be about 1 to 1, and it must have been infectious as we all felt pretty happy.

The trail leads uphill though forest with enough level areas to catch ones breath. About half way up we make the customary stop at the tea-house and are served hot tea and a sugary cookie for quick energy. For those doubting their ability to reach the monastery, the views here are seductive, often providing the motivation to carry on. Yesterday’s group enjoyed a high level of fitness, once fortified with sucrose we pushed ahead. A cross section of Bhutan is seen on the trail; groups of hip teenagers, families with infants slung over their backs, or toddlers walking unassisted in flip flops, the elderly and many red robed monks. As Bhutanese must enter the monastery in national dress the trail was ablaze of color. Traditional garb for women is an ankle length skirt, the kira, often made from swaths of hand loomed cloth, usually employing several colors, this is complimented by a tunic like top, the tegu. Men wear a robe, which when folded falls to the knees and looks like a dress, the gho also made from the same sort of material as the kira and employs as many colors; what one might think is a combination of too many colors works so well that the aesthetic seldom fails to elicit favorable comments from visitors to the effect that these are a people not afraid of color. By contrast, my group and I appear drab.

We are in and out of forest for the 2.5 hours it takes us to climb the trail. The forest is mostly conifer, though with good numbers of rhododendron trees and the native dogwood, just about finished with blossoms this time of year. Near the top, the branches of the pines are covered with old man’s beard lichen, very similar in appearance to Spanish moss, though a bit wispier, so that they dance in the breeze like some kinetic sculpture. Dorian immediately nicknames this the enchanted forest.

Horizontal strings of prayer flags are never out of sight, though close to the monastery they dominate the area, and in some places are so dense they blot out whatever’s behind them. Thin cotton cloth, about a foot square, died blue, yellow, green, red or white and printed with Sanskrit prayer, strung together in strips of 12, they’re purchased in the religious supply shops found everywhere in Bhutan. Generally they are pre-blessed (yes, only in Bhutan), so one needs only string them up in any place where a breeze will catch them, as this is how the prayers are released. Holy or auspicious places, and Tiger’s Nest is both will find the greatest concentration of prayer flags. Pretty as rainbows.

Once inside the monastery it’s obvious to my clients that this is a special day. The number of pilgrims makes for a big crowd. We encounter many we’ve passed on the trial (never mind I’m hiking with a fit group, Bhutanese spend a lifetime walking in the mountains, and they’ve arrived before us) and the greet us, making us feel all the more welcomed. People are praying and prostrating themselves in each temple. Previously I’ve entered 3 different temples in the monastery, though today 6 temples are open. Each has an altar with metal bowls of water, the customary offering as water is available to all, rich or poor, making everyone’s offering equal. Most have statues of the Buddha and other deities. Multi-colored butter sculptures, known as torma sit upon the altars. The torma are unique to Bhutanese Buddhism, and replaced pre-Buddhist animal sacrifices. One temple is crowded with red robed chanting, horn blowing monks, so numerous one can barely move, and must rub shoulders with the monks in order to have a look. Other temples have only a single monk, who dispenses scented holy water into ones hand from a vessel that looks like a samovar topped with peacock feathers. Bhutanese sip the water, then rub the rest on their hair. Foreigners unsure of the purity of the water do not offend when they only rub the water on their hair. In one temple a monk has a large bowl of holy rice (as a Catholic, holy water is a familiar concept, holy rice a new one for me). He ladles it out into ones palm, then I eat it as I see the others doing, it’s slightly sweet and seasoned with some unrecognizable herb.

I’m content with my religious beliefs, though favorably inclined towards Buddhism. It’s not often that I feel moved spiritually by an event, though this is one of those times and events. I doubt I could adequately explain it, but devotion exhibited by so many people in one place at one is contagious, and little as I comprehend the occasion, I am none-the-less touched by it.

The descent is faster than the ascent, easier going, though tougher on the knees. As we had an early start, many are still on their way up, and we garner lots of praise from having made this pilgrimage so dear to the Bhutanese. Again most want to talk to us, or at the very least greet us and wish us a safe journey, the standard farewell in Bhutan. Matt remarks on the number of young kids in flip flops and elderly on the trail says if he ever felt like complaining he was cured by seeing 3-year old kids soldier on. Michael, the oldest in our group is the fastest up and down, suggesting he might have been Bhutanese in a previous life, a concept the Bhutanese grasp much more easily than us westerners.

Once at the bottom of the mountain we’ve nothing more to do than go have lunch. Dorian announces it’s Red Panda time, the local wheat beer that she and I are very fond of, so we wash down our vegetarian pizzas with Red Panda’s. Exhausted and contented.

The next day, July 13, is another sort of special day in Bhutan. The second ever elections are to be held. Democracy came late to Bhutan, only 5 years ago when the extremely popular king announced his abdication in favor of his son, and that his son would be a constitutional monarch with the advent of a parliamentary democracy. This was unpopular news to the Bhutanese, who revered the king and felt he knew what was best for them. True the king had ruled well, and benevolently, though he told his people that a modern country needed modern institutions and a democratic government was an important institution.

The first elections saw one a landslide win by the DPT, (commonly referred to as the bird, as the black necked crane is its logo). Five years on, the bird looked tarnished, promises of a better life not realized by most, along with some allegations of corruption and mismanagement, and the once very popular prime minister saw his ratings plummet. This seems par for the course in a 2 party system, but I’d forgive the Bhutanese for thinking they could believe all the promises made to them by politicians, never having experienced this concept of democracy and voting. On the campaign trail the opposition leader, Tashi Tshering of the PDP, (known as the horse, from its logo) positioned himself as a man of the people, a humble man who was often seen in public as an ordinary Joe, as he jogged and bicycled around Thimphu and blogged about the better government his party would form. He made a show of handing back his government vehicle at the end of his term, saying it was the proper thing to do, while several ministers in the ruling DPT government held on to theirs. Up until election day it seemed there was no clear front runner, so no sense of who’d win.

The Bhutanese electoral commission treated the election as a very serious matter. For three days prior to the election there was no campaigning permitted. The population was told not to use the social media to post political messages (surprisingly to me, most complied according to the press). The clergy not permitted to vote, as in such a devoutly Buddhist country it was thought they could influence people, so they are locked out of the political process. On voting day all businesses were closed. I’d arrived in the capital, Thimphu that day. It appeared almost a ghost town, the main street empty of cars, just a few pedestrians and teenagers on bicycles. Most voters had to go to their home districts to vote (postal ballots not easy for all to obtain), and the few days surrounding elections deemed holiday, so getting to ones village seen by many as opportunity for vacation. Yet many grumbled about the time and expense in traveling to their districts. Overseas monitors were invited to watch the elections, lest anyone deem them unfair. After voting one received an indelible ink mark on the thumb nail, ensuring no one voted more than once.

I wanted to observe the voting, so hired a taxi to take me to polling stations. The driver supported the ruling party, he was happy to tell me, and was from the eastern part of Bhutan, and he and his wife had already voted by postal ballot. Though it was only early afternoon, the polling stations were largely empty, and the very friendly but no nonsense officials explained that most everyone had already voted. They apologized for not letting me enter and have a look, saying it was not permitted. About 90% voter turnout was expected I was told. From what I’d seen on morning TV, people were taking the voting very seriously, interviews with exiting voters, saw them all express pride with being able to participate in this new democratic process.

In the afternoon I found one establishment open, The Ambient Café, my favorite hang out place in Thimphu. The owners also run an attached small hotel, and hotels were the only businesses permitted to remain open, so coffee and election gossip were available. Most who I know supported the horse. At Ambient I bumped into a friend, and we later agreed to meet for dinner at one of the hotels, hotels being only dining option this business shuttered election day.

Upon beginning dinner the election results unknown. Towards the end of the meal we heard whoops arising from other diners and from the street, any other day I’d attached no significance to this, though now felt it an indication of exuberance on the part of supporters of the winner. At the front desk it was confirmed, the Horse, the PDP had won by a landslide, capturing 32 seats out of a possible 47. My friends at the front desk told me they all supported the horse (adding that all hotel employees but for 2 did the same). Walking out into the warm Thimphu night, some businesses had begun to open, and people (but few cars) flooded the streets, so Norzin Lam, (Main St.), now a pedestrian zone, and a festive air pervaded the Himalayan night.

Postscript: the elections were deemed free and fair. The horse engaged in some mild gloating, and the bird in some mild pouting, though the press and people (now back on social media with a vengeance) congratulated both parties and the Bhutanese people, and wished for progress, prosperity and a bright future to the nation.