Bhutan cannot breathe without India”, commented our co-passenger Padam Pakwal, during our drive from Phuentsholing to Thimpu in Bhutan recently. Indeed, from groceries to cars, Bhutan mainly depends on supplies from India.
Tala Hydro-electric Power Project at Gedu built and commissioned by Hindustan Construction Limited is running a capacity of 1020 MW, 80% of which is supplied to India because there is hardly any heavy industry in Bhutan and the remaining power is sufficient to meet the civil needs of a population of about 12 lakhs. Border Roads Organization of India and GREF are the sole builders and maintainers of roads in Bhutan.
With its wide expanse of mountain ranges, undulating fields, meandering streams, dark thick forests and a fabulous landscape, Bhutan’s natural settings mesmerize a lover of nature. Three main places located in the central part of Bhutan which one can visit in about 10 days are Thimpu, the capital town, Punakha and Paro. However, to visit Bhutan, one has to obtain a general permit from the country’s Immigration Office located at Phuentsholing that entitles you to visit Thimpu and Paro valleys.
Driving up for about 7 hours (a distance of about 200 km) from Phuentsholing, we reached Thimpu on a pleasant evening and were greeted by the sparkling lights of the city centre, sprawling over three km long central promenade with the river Wangchuk flowing along. The next day, after obtaining a permit from the Immigration Office at Thimpu to visit Punakha and Wangdue, we were advised to seek further permission from the Department of Culture, if we wanted to visit various monasteries and Dzongs (old fortresses) in Bhutan. We were pleasantly received by Sonam, officer-in-charge in the ministry and accosted in a very friendly way by another young officer Jigme Wangchuk, who happened to be a cultural guide and official photographer in the ministry. They very generously took us on a sightseeing trip to Thimpu and its surroundings in their own car. We went up to Bhutan Broadcasting Tower and had a breathtaking view of the Thimpu valley. Then we paid our obeisance at a holy Buddhist shrine, where all newborns are brought to receive blessings of the Lord. In an animal reserve nearby, we had a glimpse of Takin – the sacred, rare animal of Bhutan having a head like that of a goat and a body like that of a cow.
Magnificent is the Thimpu Dzong, where, the highest royal, religious and administrative offices, besides those of other ministries of Bhutan, are located. It is open to visitors after office hours, but strangely female visitors are not allowed, although women in Bhutan enjoy a high degree of liberty.
The land of mystifying monasteries, fabulous landscapes and mellow people.
A short distance from the main market is a monument in the shape of a stupa built in memory of the late King Jigme Dorjee Wangchuk. This Memorial Chorten was built in 1974 and is sparkling white in colour.
Bhutan. Singing and dancing to the tunes of Hindi film songs is equally popular among young boys and girls in high spirits.
Punakha, at an altitude of 1350 meters, was the old capital of Bhutan till it shifted to Thimpu in the late fifties. To reach Punakha from Thimpu (a distance of about 70 km), we turned eastwards after seven km on the Thimpu-Phuentsholing road. Driving through verdurous hills we soon crossed the Punakha entry check barrier. After climbing to a height of about ten thousand feet, we reached Dochu La, which, though considered holy, is believed to be inhabited by a variety of spirits. From here, a descent began and we drove down to the Punakha valley. The auburn waters of the Punakha river with vast expanses of gently sloping hills on both sides are excellent material for picture postcards, embodying the tranquillity that reigns in the region. Then, we sighted Wangdue Dzong (built on the trunk of an elephant-like-looking hill), which once guarded the northern entry of the valley. Strategically
located, this gorgeous fort was built in the 15th century under the supervision of Guru Rimpoche, who is worshipped as a reincarnation of Buddha. The fort houses a monastery, in which Lamas live and learn their lore. Its sanctum sanctorum in the highest central tower is not open to visitors, who can however, see the three grand gold-plated statues of Buddha (past, present and future) at the next lower hall. Veering off the main road to the right, we reached Punakha Dzong, built in 1637 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal on a site occupied by a saint, Ngagai Rinchen.
. The left, central and right stairs were respectively used by the Governors of Trongsa, Dagana and Paro, according to the kind of goods they had to offer as state tax. The Dzong houses a monastery, where the coronation of the young and dashing Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk as the 5th king of Bhutan took place recently. Its majestic structure was designed and built with a blueprint in mind only, without using any nails. This dreamlike and splendid edifice represents the perfect harmony between the architecture of Bhutan and the lived reality of its people.
Paro town, at an altitude of about 2300 meters overlooking hills and located at about 65 km by road from Thimpu, has the only airport in Bhutan. This beautiful and neat town is marked by wide roads and a pleasing market with symmetrical shops on both sides having typical Bhutanese architectural facades. Its spellbinding natural settings make Paro Valley a kind of fairyland that we hear about in folk tales. Drive 30 km north from Paro town and you reach the ruins of an old fort Drugyal Dzong, which commemorates the Bhutanese victory over Tibet in 1644. From its high observation point, one can command a panoramic view of the tall mountains, as also of all the routes entering the valley. On your way back, take a 5 km diversion to the left and cross river Paro you reach the base, from where begins the three km long arduous trek to the holy and not to be missed Takshang monastery, popularly known as Tiger’s Nest. It is a gruelling walk during which you gain about four thousand feet and reach the monastery perched on a cliff with a sheer
drop of about one thousand meters. ‘Fabulous’, ‘fantastic’, ‘amazing’, and ‘mystifying’, were some of the words used by foreigners to describe this monastery. The architecture of the monastery fully harmonizes with the stark rock on which it stands.
Takshang is the seat of Padmasambhava or Guru Rimpoche, who meditated here for the weal of the people of Bhutan. Lamas still dwell here in austerity to imbibe the profound truths of Buddhism. Below the hall where the golden smiling statue of Guru Rimpoche is deified, lies the cave maintained in its original shape and form, where the saintly incarnation of Buddha had sat in contemplation. The other two spots at Paro, which one should not miss, are the National Museum and Rinpung Dzong.
Buddhism, with its monasteries, rituals, philosophy and faith is part of the lived reality of the people of Bhutan. Their life rhythms are saturated with the noble ideas of moderation.
the countrymen is perceived as a spot of exotic tourism; hence many a restriction on visiting many a place in Bhutan. There is already evidence of this ethos getting gradually attenuated. However, even today nature as well as human nature at its undulated best can yet be experienced in Bhutan.