Mystic Kingdom
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Bhutan

Mystic Kingdom


Words: Lucy Morgan

Photography: David Hartung

“When I turn the prayer wheel,” says Ugyen Dhendup, “it’s important that my thoughts are pure. I don’t ask for things for myself. The purpose of prayer is to alleviate the misery of all sentient beings, to bring good to all people.”

Known to his friends as UD, Dhendup is an accomplished and highly knowledgeable tour guide. The prayer wheel he turns stands at one end of a covered bridge in Paro, Bhutan. Bridges are considered sacred in this last remaining Himalayan kingdom, a unique domain with a deeply traditional Buddhist culture. Holy relics are buried in the structure’s foundations, and its name, Nyamai Zam, hints at an ancient superstition: “It means ‘no-fish bridge,’” says Dhendup, “and people believe that if you see fish when crossing a bridge, terrible things will happen.”

The noise of the prayer wheel is muffled by the din of the fast-flowing river Paro Chhu. Fed by glacial streams, its swollen waters during the rainy summer season are brown as they churn and foam. In drier months, the river appears purer, tinted with green and the reflected blue of clear skies. In July, however, the steel-colored heavens are softened by drifts of smoke-like clouds.

Listening to the river’s roar and knowing that the ground is often rocked by seismic tremors, it seems fitting that Bhutan is known as Druk Yul, “the land of the thunder dragon.” Nature has been generous to this country: with the rivers’ ferocity generating hydroelectric power and the sun’s energy harnessed as well, Bhutan is practically carbon neutral.

Paro lies alongside the powerful Paro Chhu at an altitude of twenty two hundred meters. Despite the presence of an international airport, a number of luxury hotels, and even a brewery, the town conveys an overwhelming impression of a deep connection with nature.

Land not cultivated or developed for housing remains forested. Cows, mules, and horses wander the few roads. Hedgerows burst with fruits: rosehips, Sichuan peppercorns, apples. The air is scented with mint and marijuana growing wild by the roadside. The mules and cows prefer to browse on grass, but the farmers, believing that it acts as an appetite stimulant and aids the fattening process, pick bunches of marijuana to feed to their pigs.

Perhaps it is its remote and landlocked geography that has allowed the country to remain independent for the whole of its existence. Bordered by India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, Bhutan was closed to visitors for long years, generating great curiosity about this mysterious kingdom. The country began to open up around the mid-twentieth century and now attracts a great many overseas tourists eager to discover its secrets.

The history of Bhutan combines mythology, magic, and spirituality revealed in colorful tales. One of the most spectacular sights in the vicinity of Paro is the monastery known as Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest. At an altitude of three thousand meters, its precarious position embracing a sheer cliff in proximity to the heavens appears to be the work of a divinity. And, in fact, the story behind its creation involves a holy man.

Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan by an eighth-century Tibetan saint, Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche. He is said to have flown on the back of a tigress in order to subdue a demon. After he landed on top of a cliff – the location of the present monastery – Guru Rinpoche found a cave for shelter, where he lived and meditated.

“When I turn the prayer wheel,” says Ugyen Dhendup, “it’s important that my thoughts are pure. I don’t ask for things for myself. The purpose of prayer is to alleviate the misery of all sentient beings, to bring good to all people.”

Known to his friends as UD, Dhendup is an accomplished and highly knowledgeable tour guide. The prayer wheel he turns stands at one end of a covered bridge in Paro, Bhutan. Bridges are considered sacred in this last remaining Himalayan kingdom, a unique domain with a deeply traditional Buddhist culture. Holy relics are buried in the structure’s foundations, and its name, Nyamai Zam, hints at an ancient superstition: “It means ‘no-fish bridge,’” says Dhendup, “and people believe that if you see fish when crossing a bridge, terrible things will happen.”

The noise of the prayer wheel is muffled by the din of the fast-flowing river Paro Chhu. Fed by glacial streams, its swollen waters during the rainy summer season are brown as they churn and foam. In drier months, the river appears purer, tinted with green and the reflected blue of clear skies. In July, however, the steel-colored heavens are softened by drifts of smoke-like clouds.

Listening to the river’s roar and knowing that the ground is often rocked by seismic tremors, it seems fitting that Bhutan is known as Druk Yul, “the land of the thunder dragon.” Nature has been generous to this country: with the rivers’ ferocity generating hydroelectric power and the sun’s energy harnessed as well, Bhutan is practically carbon neutral.

Paro lies alongside the powerful Paro Chhu at an altitude of twenty two hundred meters. Despite the presence of an international airport, a number of luxury hotels, and even a brewery, the town conveys an overwhelming impression of a deep connection with nature.

Land not cultivated or developed for housing remains forested. Cows, mules, and horses wander the few roads. Hedgerows burst with fruits: rosehips, Sichuan peppercorns, apples. The air is scented with mint and marijuana growing wild by the roadside. The mules and cows prefer to browse on grass, but the farmers, believing that it acts as an appetite stimulant and aids the fattening process, pick bunches of marijuana to feed to their pigs.

Perhaps it is its remote and landlocked geography that has allowed the country to remain independent for the whole of its existence. Bordered by India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, Bhutan was closed to visitors for long years, generating great curiosity about this mysterious kingdom. The country began to open up around the mid-twentieth century and now attracts a great many overseas tourists eager to discover its secrets.

The history of Bhutan combines mythology, magic, and spirituality revealed in colorful tales. One of the most spectacular sights in the vicinity of Paro is the monastery known as Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest. At an altitude of three thousand meters, its precarious position embracing a sheer cliff in proximity to the heavens appears to be the work of a divinity. And, in fact, the story behind its creation involves a holy man.

Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan by an eighth-century Tibetan saint, Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche. He is said to have flown on the back of a tigress in order to subdue a demon. After he landed on top of a cliff – the location of the present monastery – Guru Rinpoche found a cave for shelter, where he lived and meditated.

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A few hours’ drive from Paro is Thimphu, the nation’s busy capital, overlooked by the magnificent golden Buddha Dordenma statue completed in 2015 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the fourth king.

“It means ‘no-fish bridge,’” says Dhendup, “and people believe that if you see fish when crossing a bridge, terrible things will happen.”

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Centuries later, in 1692, a temple complex was constructed around the area of the cave. Fire destroyed the buildings in 1998, but the monastery has been sensitively restored to its former beauty. Pilgrims, hikers, and tourists make the steep three-hour climb to visit this most sacred site.

Although the route is narrow and rocky, it is possible to ride horses to a halfway point, where the proprietors of a welcoming restaurant prepare warming dal over a stove fueled by wood from the surrounding forest. Tired guests are revived with steaming cups of strong tea.

Prayer flags are strung across the path at regular intervals to trap the wind and flutter delicate applause for the walkers passing beneath. Toward the end of the path, a skein of cloud catches on the cliff under the temple buildings and, with the rock foundations concealed, the temple appears to be floating in the sky.

A few hours’ drive from Paro is Thimphu, the nation’s busy capital, overlooked by the magnificent golden Buddha Dordenma statue completed in 2015 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the fourth king. In a temple beneath the fifty-four-meter-tall figure are 125,000 smaller Buddhas made from gilded bronze.

Centuries later, in 1692, a temple complex was constructed around the area of the cave. Fire destroyed the buildings in 1998, but the monastery has been sensitively restored to its former beauty. Pilgrims, hikers, and tourists make the steep three-hour climb to visit this most sacred site.

Although the route is narrow and rocky, it is possible to ride horses to a halfway point, where the proprietors of a welcoming restaurant prepare warming dal over a stove fueled by wood from the surrounding forest. Tired guests are revived with steaming cups of strong tea.

Prayer flags are strung across the path at regular intervals to trap the wind and flutter delicate applause for the walkers passing beneath. Toward the end of the path, a skein of cloud catches on the cliff under the temple buildings and, with the rock foundations concealed, the temple appears to be floating in the sky.

A few hours’ drive from Paro is Thimphu, the nation’s busy capital, overlooked by the magnificent golden Buddha Dordenma statue completed in 2015 to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the fourth king. In a temple beneath the fifty-four-meter-tall figure are 125,000 smaller Buddhas made from gilded bronze.

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“Rice is a valuable high-yield crop. Just one acre of rice paddy can produce up to three hundred kilos.”

Farmers travel from surrounding villages to the city center to sell their produce in a sizable market arranged over two floors. In summer, local food is plentiful; in winter, some vegetables and fruits are imported from India. Fiddlehead ferns, tomatoes, okra, slender aubergines, and chilies of every shape and hue are arranged neatly in stone troughs. Feathery asparagus spears stand proud in a vat of water to keep them crisp. Brandy and whisky bottles enjoy a second life filled with wild honey harvested from the forests.

Upstairs, the market feels less familiar to the foreign tourist. A pile of objects resembling animal bones turns out to be a stack of coiled, dried yak skin, to be soaked and boiled to make a gummy snack. Cubes of dried cheese are threaded on strings, a treat rather like candy, which needs to be sucked until the cheese softens enough to be chewed. Both treats evolved from the need to preserve food by drying, an ancient technique that the Bhutanese have retained. Another dried delicacy seems rather out of place in landlocked Bhutan: highly pungent dehydrated fish heaped on concrete tables. Behind them, the noisy river competes with the calls and shouts of vendors.

The unspoiled countryside of Bhutan is home to many rare creatures, including the national animal, a native species of goat-antelope. Its truly magical backstory involves one of the most fascinating characters in the nation’s lore, Lama Drukpa Kunley, a fifteenth-century Tibetan saint nicknamed The Divine Madman.

As legend goes, upon arriving in Bhutan, the teacher was challenged to perform a miracle to prove his religious worth. He agreed on condition that he was given a whole roasted goat and cow so he wouldn’t have to work on an empty stomach. After eating them both, the teacher attached the goat’s skull to the cow’s bones while repeating a mantra. This act brought to life a remarkable-looking creature, one the size of a small cow with a long caprine face and hefty horns. The Divine Madman named the beast dong gyem tsey or takin.

Farmers travel from surrounding villages to the city center to sell their produce in a sizable market arranged over two floors. In summer, local food is plentiful; in winter, some vegetables and fruits are imported from India. Fiddlehead ferns, tomatoes, okra, slender aubergines, and chilies of every shape and hue are arranged neatly in stone troughs. Feathery asparagus spears stand proud in a vat of water to keep them crisp. Brandy and whisky bottles enjoy a second life filled with wild honey harvested from the forests.

Upstairs, the market feels less familiar to the foreign tourist. A pile of objects resembling animal bones turns out to be a stack of coiled, dried yak skin, to be soaked and boiled to make a gummy snack. Cubes of dried cheese are threaded on strings, a treat rather like candy, which needs to be sucked until the cheese softens enough to be chewed. Both treats evolved from the need to preserve food by drying, an ancient technique that the Bhutanese have retained.

Another dried delicacy seems rather out of place in landlocked Bhutan: highly pungent dehydrated fish heaped on concrete tables. Behind them, the noisy river competes with the calls and shouts of vendors.

The unspoiled countryside of Bhutan is home to many rare creatures, including the national animal, a native species of goat-antelope. Its truly magical backstory involves one of the most fascinating characters in the nation’s lore, Lama Drukpa Kunley, a fifteenth-century Tibetan saint nicknamed The Divine Madman.

As legend goes, upon arriving in Bhutan, the teacher was challenged to perform a miracle to prove his religious worth. He agreed on condition that he was given a whole roasted goat and cow so he wouldn’t have to work on an empty stomach. After eating them both, the teacher attached the goat’s skull to the cow’s bones while repeating a mantra. This act brought to life a remarkable-looking creature, one the size of a small cow with a long caprine face and hefty horns. The Divine Madman named the beast dong gyem tsey or takin.

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The stunning Chimi Lhakhang monastery, close to the beautiful town of Punakha, celebrates the saint’s reputed powers of fertility. Couples desperate to be blessed with children make pilgrimage to the holy place to perform rituals. Its success rate is impressive: albums housed in the temple display letters and photos from visitors from around the world who are seen holding their longed-for newborns.

As we reach the monastery on foot through rice fields, a small number of women are ankle-deep in water, planting bright green shoots with deft speed. Three men use wooden implements to shore up mud as flood prevention. Two oxen pull a plough to prepare the ground, and a small boy sits on a rock, watching the activity. “Rice is a valuable high-yield crop,” says Dhendup, our guide. “Just one acre of rice paddy can produce up to three hundred kilos, but the biggest enemy comes in the form of wild pigs and deer, who enjoy feasting on the young plants.

“These people you see working together in the fields are not from the same family – they’re neighbors,” says Dhendup, after speaking to the group. “They take turns helping each other work their plots of land. They also look out for predators to make sure all the rice fields around the village will have a good crop. We Bhutanese are a very communal society.”

The stunning Chimi Lhakhang monastery, close to the beautiful town of Punakha, celebrates the saint’s reputed powers of fertility. Couples desperate to be blessed with children make pilgrimage to the holy place to perform rituals. Its success rate is impressive: albums housed in the temple display letters and photos from visitors from around the world who are seen holding their longed-for newborns.

As we reach the monastery on foot through rice fields, a small number of women are ankle-deep in water, planting bright green shoots with deft speed. Three men use wooden implements to shore up mud as flood prevention.

Two oxen pull a plough to prepare the ground, and a small boy sits on a rock, watching the activity. “Rice is a valuable high-yield crop,” says Dhendup, our guide. “Just one acre of rice paddy can produce up to three hundred kilos, but the biggest enemy comes in the form of wild pigs and deer, who enjoy feasting on the young plants.

“These people you see working together in the fields are not from the same family – they’re neighbors,” says Dhendup, after speaking to the group. “They take turns helping each other work their plots of land. They also look out for predators to make sure all the rice fields around the village will have a good crop. We Bhutanese are a very communal society.”

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