"You were in Bhutan!! What was it like?" a close friend of mine (Indy) asked me with child like curiosity. "I haven't seen a more beautiful place or met nicer people," the response was on the laptop screen even before I had processed it in my head. "Time flows slowly, people smile with all their heart and there is happiness in the air. You can feel it whisk away the worries, leaving a sense of calm."
I am fascinated by the idea of happiness. I have read every article in Opinionator (NY Times), watched Ted talk and analysed many books written on the theme. Happiness is the one thing all of us want in abundance and yet we understand so little about it. No two definitions of happiness are the same, just like fingerprints. The more I have tried to capture this emotion, the more it slipped from my grasp.
Bhutanese take happiness to heart. They believe it to be a tangible and measurable concept like Gross Domestic Product and other economic indicators. The fourth Drago King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the term GNH (Gross National Happiness) that laid down the path to a more joyful and fulfilling life for the Bhutanese. Thus, the people of Bhutan have rejected the model of fast-paced economic growth for a slower, more holistic approach to life.
By all estimates, they have succeeded in creating a lifestyle more conducive to happiness. This country popularly known as the Last Shangri-La was rated the happiest in Asia and eighth-happiest in the world by Business Week- so much for the absence of malls, discos, Bentleys and McDonalds.
A ten-day trip to the Land of Thunder Dragons offered me a peek into their secret:
The Silent Buddha
As soon as we, me and my friends, stepped in Bhutan a few thing disappeared namely noise, crowd and garbage. The difference stared us in the face. On one side of the border stood Jaigaon (West Bengal) with clamour of a thousand people, shops and hotels. On the other side was Phuntsholing (Bhutan) pristine, spacious and serene. They looked like towns from different eras juxtaposed together for a neat comparison. The change in ambiance uplifted our mood.
On our first evening in Bhutan's capital and biggest city (Thimpu) we went to see the 169-feet tall Buddha statue that stands atop a mountain and bestows blessings, peace and happiness to the region. It instantly reminded me of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. The two structures indeed have an uncanny resemblance in placement and principle.
There is, however, one difference in the DNA of the statues. The Redeemer is dynamic. It opens its arms in a warm embrace to all those who enter Rio. Meanwhile, Buddha couldn't have been more passive. He sits cross legged, deep in meditation, oblivious of the world and at peace with itself. There is a sense of calm and ease in the giant statue. It doesn't overawe despite its stature.
The figure is symptomatic of the place and its religious ethos. Buddhism lets you be. Too many religions tell us what to do and that is the ruin of them. Buddhism demands little from its followers. It encourages people to find their own answers. I found that line of thought refreshing.
After admiring the sunset from hilltop, we decided to walk down to the city instead of taking a cab. There was no rush. We didn't have to be anywhere and we talked about many things that didn't have any bearings on our daily lives. When we were done talking we admired the sky with countless stars. This luxury of time and space in the company of close friends made this place so special. I guess that is what travel allows us to do. We can look beyond ourselves and the madness of our daily lives to the beauty that surrounds us. We find peace in selflessness and travel reminds us of that.
Leap of Joy
We had gone through an extensive phase of planning and meticulously prepared an itinerary. When we finally reached Bhutan, we simply threw the plans out of the window. We didn't hire a guide to take us from point A to point B and repeat the stories shared with every tourist. We wanted to get an authentic experience and what better way to do that than to jump into a freezing river with a deadly current (Manveer's idea not mine).
This is how it happened: We left Thimpu at sunrise and after a two hour drive reached Punakha. This was the countryside I was so eager to explore. We left our bags in the hotel and headed straight to the Punakha Dzong (Palace of Great Happiness).
The Zong is arguably the most beautiful fortress in all of Bhutan. The structure is surrounded by imposing mountains and two rivers of different color flow on either side of its walls. The confluence of male river (Pho Chhu) and female river (Mo Chhu) takes place a few meters ahead of the Zong, and it is a sight to behold.
"I want to take a dip," Manveer said despite being a rookie swimmer.
"You have lost your mind," I replied, looking at the volatile current.
Ten minutes later we were searching for the right spot for a dip. We decided to jump at the intersection of the two rivers. I walked tentatively and carefully into the river when I saw Manveer run past me like a maniac and take the plunge. I threw caution to the wind and jumped right behind him. My body literally froze in the chilly water, but there was no limit to the smile on my face. One dip turned into half hour long antics. At dusk, when we had finally had enough, I took one last look at the river, mountains and the Dzong. That sight was happiness.
The Trek that Never Was
Bumthang is quite possibly the most beautiful place in all of Bhutan. I had decided on a three day trek there that included camping in the forest. I wanted to sleep under the sky, light a bonfire, drink rum with friends and hear the noise from the jungle. The whole idea was exciting, which is why I was heartbroken when it tanked.
There was dearth of time and we had to cancel the trek altogether. It was a bitter pill to swallow and I didn't take it well. This is what I had most looked forward to and a small miscalculation in booking bus tickets took it away from me. I spent most of the morning being distant and insufferable.
Late in the afternoon, we took a long walk past open farms and wide fields. We may very well have been in the Alps. There was greenery as far as we could see beautiful farmland, and mountains to savor. An unexplored trail took us to an isolated patch next to the river. The three of us diverged in the woods and took an isolated spot with a view. We were occupied with our thoughts and in a mood to reflect. There was something personal about that space and we were all the better after spending some time of peace and quiet there.
"You moron, just look at this beautiful vista," I thought to myself. "It is the most spectacular sight you have ever seen and yet you sit here sulking over something that may or may not have happened."
It is not the first time this has happened. In the past I have been guilty of brooding over lost opportunities and people. As a result, I have missed many a beautiful sights that came my way. I realised this had to change sooner than later and I made myself a promise. From now on, I would focus on all that I had as oppose to all that I didn't. Just looking at the view and my friends, I discovered that there was plenty to smile about.
The Trek that Was
Once I left the gloom and doom behind, I realised that all was not lost. We still had time for a day long trek. It wasn't what I wanted but it was something.
"Give me the hardest and most dense mountain with a view to die for. And make it a challenge," I said and the Sherpa took me quite literally.
"Mountain Kitiphu," he said was where I should go.
What no one mentioned was the serious danger of bears lurking in that area. The mammals feasted on red cherries and mushrooms that were aplenty in the forests during the monsoon season.
In a casual chat during the trek the guide confessed to me that he had a sleepless night thinking about the danger of the trek. There had been many cases of bear attacks in the recent past, one as recently as yesterday close to the spot where we were standing. That knocked the wind out of my sails and I found the energy to double my speed. Storm in and dash out was the way to go.
They send two pets with us, a German shepherd and a Doberman. These two beauties looked after us every inch of the way. They walked ahead of us and then came all the way back to where the slowest person was to urge him on. Dogs sure know how to win hearts!! They were no match for a bear, but they were welcomed companions.
The mountain was so dense that we couldn't see past the bushes, and the trail so narrow that we could only walk it in a single line. The message was clear: this was not human territory, we were trespassers.
We stuck together, egged each other on and gave out loud screams every few minutes to mark our territory. Beers have no business coming in this area was the clear message screamed out loud.
The path was steep, slippery and dangerous. A small error of judgement could have caused an injury or worse yet a fall. We persevered against all odds and the incessant rain. After four of relentless and steep climb we finally reached the top of the mountain. Sitting on a small rock, we shared sandwiches (food never tasted so good) and
savored the picturesque view of the valley. In that moment, all the effort and danger was worth it. We were glad bears decided to leave us alone.
The Mystical Buddhist Prayers
What does one do after escaping bears? We headed straight to Tiger's Nest. The last leg of the journey took us to Paro and the famed Taktsang Palphug Monastery known as Tiger's Nest. I can say with authority that any trip to Bhutan is incomplete without this pilgrimage.
Tiger's Nest is a sacred site and temple complex of unparalleled beauty. The structure has sprung out of the edge of the cliff almost like a wild mushroom, as if on a whim. The complex has no right to stay put. It defies all rules of architecture, engineering and even gravity. And yet there it has stood firm since 1692.
It is not a glorious story of human victory over nature but in fact the synergy between the two forces. The walls of the monastery and the hill are almost joined together as one. It signifies everything that Bhutan stands for.
A two-hour long trek took us right up to the mighty waterfall at the entrance of the monastery. On three sides, towering above our head, were rocky cliffs and the water came gushing down from the summit making a thundering sound.
It was like any other monastery in Bhutan with circular bells and plethora of monks in maroon attire. However, to stand at the corner of this edifice was like being at the edge of the world. In that moment, I understood why monks went there for renunciation. Even before they entered the holy chamber, just by walking away from the lights and sounds to this quiet place their renunciation began. This place was not part of our world; it existed in a vacuum. A black hole of enlightenment.
A monk invited me inside the holy sanctum just as the prayers were about to begin. A group of middle aged monks sat in a row and sang in unison. Every time they finished prayers, they followed it up with music and the cycle continued for a long time. There was a mystical energy about the room. After an hour, I took a bow and left the space. It was time to return to reality.
Ten days later, I was back to the noise, madness, and deadlines of the city. However, I returned home with a sense of calm. I promised myself to not let that feeling be hijacked by all the assignments I take up I didn't discover a magic formula for happiness just yet but I came back with some happy memories. I can live with that.
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