Monday, July 20, 2009

Mipham In Bhutan: Part I

What follows is an account of a trip my son Mipham and I made in the summer of 2004 toBhutan, the thunder dragon kingdom that lies nestled in quiet serendipity in the protective bastions of the great easternHimalayas.

We are in our little apartment in westernAmsterdam, its Mipham’s last night before we board the 11hr flight toBangkok enroute to Paro, the somewhat quiet international airport of the somewhat quietKingdomof Bhutan. Mipham’s somewhat excited by the unusual routine of his parents packing in a lot of things in a lot of bags and suitcases, he senses we are about to go somewhere and has a vague idea about it, I quietly suspect. The presence of his friend Ward makes the atmosphere all the more conducive for some horsing around. His parents have got to organize the mess.

I’ve been living in Amsterdam since 2001. This is our annual visit or rather a pilgrimage as I like to think of it, to Bhutan and indeed a special one as Mipham is now nearly four years old and I cannot wait to see what happens next; I look forward to the exchanges to come between him and his extended family up in the Himalayas.

In a way this journey is going to have a deeper significance than the ones undertaken before. Mipham has been in Bhutan but only as an infant, and though he has made a lot of spiritual trips along with his grandparents, cousins and relatives, and especially so with his grandmother Angay Deki, this one is going to be more important because he is a little older now, I feel. Angay Deki thinks this should be his spiritual and cultural initiation into the Bhutanese way of life. I couldn’t agree more, irrespective of the outcome, I get an intuitive feeling that memories like these might serve him better in the months and years to come, as he gets older and more inquisitive perhaps?

The flight was a long and tiring affair but the night over in Bangkok has lessened the time lapses and calmed those sore jetlags. The heat here is unbearable. I can’t wait to get to the airport, check in and be on our way. Finally we are at the airport. This is the moment of truth, boarding the Royal Bhutan Airlines aka Druk Air to finally fly home.

Mipham is excited, he knows he’s going somewhere where the faces are going to be familiar, but how familiar and what kind of an interaction he will have is another question. The last time he was here was a year ago and a young mind is unpredictable and well, susceptible. I’d like him to integrate, soak in the local culture and cuisine if possible and have him experience a bit of everything that is Bhutanese so that one day these journeys and their imprints might come back to him as pleasant memories and reminders of what is truly a unique cultural heritage so rare in these fast paced times we live in. Having said that I’m reminded now and again by my own parents to become more Bhutanese, which is a fine line to being a well-minded Buddhist, a feat easier proclaimed than practiced.

The flight to Paro via Kolkota, India, is pleasant as always. Funny thing about flying in an airline with a monopoly is that you know pretty much everybody. The pilots, the stewards and air hostesses and even your co-passengers! Perhaps it’s a fair reflection of the country’s inherent smallness of things and hence the intimacy and friendliness of the Bhutanese as a people, I feel. Everyone is nice and polite; there is an air of composed relaxedness and calm abiding. Maybe a hint of literally “coming back home” is not that far off the line!

The excitement now hangs thick in the air as the plane descends within sight of the beautiful snow capped mountains and green hills of Bhutan, and of Paro valley, where my father was born and where still lives (at the time of writing. He died a couple of years back) in a village called Hungrel. Getting out of the plane after touchdown and inhaling the fresh mountain air with its quiet and serene atmosphere always feels like you’re experiencing it for the first time.

I never tire of it, perhaps there is added gravity to the saying, ‘home is where the heart is’.

After clearance at Customs, Mipham is already on his way through the exit gates, where he surprisingly or perhaps not, has caught sight of his cousins (who are all in the age group of 2-11- though they are considerably older now) peeking through the huge transparent glass windows and boy is he happy to see them! A huge bunch has come to greet us, my father, my elder brother, my younger sister and their kids. Mipham recognizes them and is at ease with them. It makes me feel happy and relieved. He has not forgotten either their faces or their names!

The drive from the airport to my parent’s farm house is a good 15-20minutes away. The lone road winding its way through the fertile paddy fields of rice and apple orchards, past the Pa Chhu (river) and onto a two-street town that is reminiscent of a Hollywood western with its lines of shops and stores selling everything from liquor, betel nuts, dried hard cheese cubes to Lays potato chips and Cadbury’s chocolate bars.

A shop in Bhutan is a bit like a super-shrunk departmental store in the west, hence all shop boards carry the ubiquitous ‘grocery cum bar cum restaurant’. Paro is one of the bigger towns and valleys in Bhutan. It’s famous for its own unique variety of red rice and dried pork strips. It also houses the National Museum and one of the King’s pictorial palaces (not that he owns them in any personal way; its usage is rather of a more diplomatic nature).

The Rinpung Dzong (traditional fortress) is the administrative and monastic centre. It’s a beautifully constructed symmetrical fortress overlooking the river and the valley. My own parents’ house is a typical traditional Bhutanese farm house, as they are in rural Bhutan. Bhutanese farm houses are very decorative and surprisingly big. Built & painted in traditional styles, the house is where the family’s home is built, both figuratively and literally. The house can look very big from the outside but it is rather unexpectedly simple inside. Farm houses are normally 2-3 stories high. The ground floor is often used as cattle shed (now they live apart in their own separate sheds) the top floor is normally used for drying hay/shredded beef/pork/dried chillis or as storage and the middle storey houses’ the family’s rooms.

The best room in the house is always kept and honored as a family shrine or alter chamber with statues of the Buddhas, great realized teachers of the past and the present. A visit to a farmhouse can be interesting to see how Bhutanese rural folks live. Interestingly the house is located on a ridge overlooking most of Paro. The last part of the road ends on a curve right at the entrance to the national museum and takes a steep turn up about seven curves as it ascends the house on the hill.

Mipham calls his grandmother Angay Deki (an affectionate Bhutanese term for a grandmother), his grandfather Memay Sherab and the entire entourage of cousins, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, nieces, and nephews are all out to greet us. This is the traditional way and the family way. Mipham recognizes Angay Deki and is visibly delighted to see everyone giving him all the attention. He kisses Angay Deki and seems at home, I’m happy so far the initiation is going according to plan. I can’t help thinking how spacious and free Mipham must feel after the congestion of living in a small apartment.

The cows and dogs are also out strolling about to see what the fuss is about.

Coming home to Paro and gathering there has always been a special experience for family members. Many of the family relatives and children present right now will have to go back to their respective schools, jobs and to other districts around the country. So the togetherness is all the more sweet as they are all aware of obligations around the corner. But for now, the moment is all that counts and Mipham being here with his extended family is the occasion and the celebration.

Cakes and pastries from the Swiss bakery (a well known local bakery founded by, well, the name says it!) are usually brought along by my brother and sisters from Thimphu. It’s a good trade, Mipham’s grandparents like the sweet western pastries while his own father, uncles and aunts love and relish the home cooked meals of Angay Deki and Memay Sherab. Meals are mostly made up of big rice helpings that come in wooden bowl-plates accompanied by beef or pork curries and chilli cheese specialties.

It’s normally washed down with buttered salt tea or yoghurt.

There is a Japanese grant all-purpose 4-wheel tractor and the kids love hanging about in the trailer. They actually have an impromptu disco-session when my sister Rinche blasts her Bollywood disco numbers. They all dance in the trailer.

The visit to the family alter room/chamber is customary. Every Bhutanese home has one. One pays respect and homage to the gods, deities and Buddhas for everything. A safe trip back home, continuing good health and luck, and mostly to preserve a way of life that demands introspection.

Not a bad way to check in on your mental and moral journeys!

The day has been a delightfully eventful one, but now that the excitement of seeing and meeting everyone has been done, everyone is a bit tired. Mipham is literally taking a bathing from his aunt Rinche, who duly shubs him in the plastic tub with his cousin and gives him a real scrub! We don’t bathe him so, owing to his stiff resistance and intense dislike for soap and shampoo, especially on his hair! And here he is letting himself be all shampooed, soaped and scrubbed! Maybe it’s the occasion; anyhow, my sister Rinche has a just reputation for having kids obey her somehow. Anyway Mipham gets the bath of his life as he gets drubbed in a plastic bucket- a la Bhutanese style (where bathing is physical cleansing of the body rather than some luxurious dip).

Meanwhile the kitchen is as busy as always. Kitchens are the centre focal point of all activity in most farm houses. Tonight the activities are plenty and the atmosphere hectic thanks to our arrival. Indian style bread (roti) is being doughed, flattened and baked. Kids come and go, seeking each other and newer adventures. Grown ups do the talking. Conversations are just about everything. How have things been going with Mipham and us in Amsterdam? How is life there as compared to here? What’s been going on in the world? Who’s got a promotion in the civil service? Who’s getting married? Who’s given birth? Who’s dead, and who’s not? It covers a great deal of subjects; family, society, culture, modernism, capitalism, consumerism, spiritualism etc.

This is Mipham’s first morning after, his first wake up call in Paro. He’s been up early with his cousins, half the time no one’s aware where exactly the kids have slept, could have been with Memay Sherab, Angay Deki or uncle Sonam, no one knows! Anyhow their day has begun and so has Mipham’s. They have decided to raid my beauty sleep and are all charging me about as I try to hold onto a hopeless slumber.

Angay Deki has made a lot of arrangements and plans for Mipham to experience as much of the spiritual culture as possible during his stay. She believes he should not be denied the Bhutanese and Buddhist cultural and traditional way of life. Well, if Buddhism is too early for him to start contemplating, the picnics and the ponies he’d definitely enjoy and have no problems with.

So one day the family decides to pay a visit to Kychu Lhakhang (Monastery), one of the most revered temples in the kingdom and the oldest (circa 7th century AD). The day is an auspicious one. Monks are inside the main altar chanting prayers and mantras. Local folks and visitors from outside the valley have come to pay homage, garner good karma and offer butter lamps, prostrations and circumambulations.

Cameras are strictly forbidden inside the temple premises, a government policy introduced to help preserve the holy premises and practices from any unwonted external interference. The prayers wheels along the temple’s walls are spun for good karma. They provide good walking meditation and can be seen in all aspects of daily life. Spun in a hand made hand held fashion, visible in and outside shops, at homes and in public parks. At the temple’s entrance is an elderly Gomchhen or lay Dharma practitioner.

Mipham exchanges a moment with him, there are other older devotees too, spinning their hand held prayer wheels and chanting the sacred mantras. Younger visitors and locals alike circumambulate the temple, spinning the built-in prayer wheels with a prayer on their lips and warmth in their eyes as they all go around and around in a clockwise direction, the traditional Buddhist custom.

Back home Memay Sherab has three mini-prayer wheels built at a vantage point at the main entrance to the house. As he and Angay Deki keep guard or just sit by the worn out chair there, they spin these prayer wheels in some deep spiritual thought or meditation. Daily life is infused now and then by some religious practice. Life is an ongoing religious/spiritual practice, so they keep telling me and nag me on to quit smoking cigarettes and purify myself.

A few days on, we take Mipham down to a cave that cuts into the base of the Dzong. Legend has it that a wandering Indian yogi some centuries ago came by here and decided to take up residence here. It has been his home and the temple today is monument to his spiritual accomplishment. The temple is known as Jawang Ngey, or the “Holy Ground.”

The Jawang Ngey also represents the traditional local village deity, someone who sees over the more practical and temporal affairs of life with the power to affect and enable change. People come and go on a daily basis. Students worried about their examination results seek reassurance, civil servants going abroad on a trip seek success and a safe journey, merchants planning a trade seek good luck, archers competing in a local competition pray for a steady good hand, and the list goes on and on.

Back at the farmhouse and a hot meal awaits us. Meals are eaten with everyone sitting cross legged in a sort of semi-circle with the matriarchal head of the family serving out the dish to everyone; Angay Deki being the provider in chief here. The order of service is normally from the oldest one down. Children are exempt and are served first. Mipham’s great grandmother Aiya Kuri used to be served first. She lived in this very kitchen in a small bed for about a good dozen years.

Mipham had the good fortune to see her and be held by her as the “Chilingpa” (the Cute Foreigner, as she’d call him) when she was still alive. She passed away at the ripe old age of 98. Her absence is always felt around the kitchen, yet that somehow makes her joyfully present.

It’s the weekend and after a nice midday meal there’s nothing better then a game of “Marriage”. An intricate game of cards that has my family captivated and the country addicted. Everybody’s playing it. The family plays for small change and for fun. It’s a relaxing way to idle away the afternoon hours. Traditional betel leaves with betel nut and lime known as “Doma” is duly passed around. It’s mildly intoxicating and seriously habit forming. Legend has it that the Bhutanese used to cannibalize before the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century AD. It was then that the great Guru Padmasambhava came down here from Tibet and spread forth the Dharma, converted the cannibals into Buddhists and presented the natives with the betel nut as an alternative to cannibalism. The betel leaf is supposed to represent the human skin, the betel nut the human bone and the lime representing blood. Hence we all chew the doma and spit out blood red saliva.

I wonder if it is indeed a good replacement!

One day Angay Deki takes Mipham, his cousins Kitso and Tobden (my elder sister Tashi’s children), me and my younger sister Rinche to the abode of Trulku Kinga, a reincarnated Tibetan Lama who’s a spiritual friend to my parents and a dharma teacher. The monastery is located atop a steep ridge at Drukgyel: Its where most of the monks live and practice who also perform most of the Buddhist ceremonies for my parents.

I’ve personally come to know many of them over the many ceremonies they have so kindly conducted on our behalf. Trulku Kinga shows us around his recently built house and talks about his journey from Tibet to India to Bhutan. He’s now a Bhutanese citizen and this monastery is his centre in Bhutan. His memories about leaving Tibet and coming here is free of any seriousness, as if that was that and this is this.

I try to nudge out the details but Trulku is more interested in talking about things here and now.

Tobden and Kitso role-play the Trulku routine. It is the Buddhist practice to offer prostrations and receive blessings from the palms of teachers. The kids are already play- practicing Buddhism in an innocent way.

Kitso really digs Mipham. They have spent many a times together whenever he’s been here on visits. Mipham and I mostly stay with my sister Tashi whenever we are in the capital city of Thimphu where she is a practicing vet with the Department of Agriculture (And now she’s with the National Bio-Diversity Center).

The days at the farmhouse unfold slowly yet steadily. The farmhouse is surrounded by an orchard with mostly apple trees; seasonal vegetables gardened by Angay Deki and other assorted fruits and vegetable plants. The farmhouse and the apple trees are a couple of years younger than I am.

In other words they were always there. Probably that provides some of the answers to the question why all of the family members find this farmhouse so stable and settled. It is the nucleus from wherein everything else flows in my own life and in the lives of mipham’s cousins now as they do through my brother, sisters, cousins and relatives without any exaggeration.

Dusk sets in and is announced by the buzzing of insects, birds chirping away to their nests of fledglings but mostly by the loud invisible cicadas. The sunny sky is replaced by crystal clear nights sparkling with distant stars that seem so close.

Here the skies seem closer somehow, and smaller than in Holland. The kids all gather in front of the television. The 1998 world cup finals in France demanded that satellite television be introduced. Fast forward four years later to the 2002 world cup finals inJapan and Korea andBhutan had joined the cable satellite fraternity. Local cable operators in partnership with Indian companies now beam across 40 channels ranging from HBO to CNN, BBC to ESPN and dozens more regional and international channels.

They have affected how Bhutanese folks live and view the world, negatively or positively is a matter of some debate that is pretty hot in the highlands.

Mipham seems to be enjoying the enormous sudden little surprises around the orchard. The make-shift little hut (a watch out for wild animals foraying into the orchard from the forests and hills above) is a welcome playground for them. So is the hunt for insects amongst the grass.

All that walking around the orchard has exhausted the kids. Most of them are catching amidday nap.

The altar chamber is the most sacred room in the house, as it is in most traditional Bhutanese houses. This is where many Trulkus and Rinpoches (reincarnated teachers) are received and seated. This is the chamber where all the necessary Buddhist ceremonies and rituals are held and conducted (which is quite often). It also serves as the room where Angay Deki and Memay Sherab do their practices, reading the sacred scriptures, performing prostrations and sitting in meditation.

Every morning as Angay Deki rises, she washes up and fills in the seven water bowls, offerings to the Buddhas, milks the cows and brings the first cup here as an offering. The stones she uses to keep count of her prostrations. She’s reached quite a significant number and counting! Her days also conclude with a retreat into this sacred room, when she again performs her spiritual routine. The water bowls are emptied and a kettle full of fresh new water is set up for the coming morning.

Angay Deki always kept cows since we were kids. Some of the cows are of my own generation while others have passed away and to a higher realm of being I hope. They go back a long way right unto Angay Deki’s mother, Angay Kueri. Every morning she milks them with a little help from Tshering, a next of kin from Bumthang- another wide fertile valley in the central highlands of Bhutan, where Angay Deki originally comes from.

Cows contribute a lot to the family. The milk is used to churn and produce butter and cheese, the remnants usually drunk as yoghurt. They provide a lot of work too, but Angay Deki would rather do the work and have her cows then do without them. Mipham’s uncles and aunts fromThimphu use a lot of the products. Today the local dairy milk van is here to collect as much milk as possible. It’s sold for roughly about 25 Euro cents per liter.

I grew up watching this as a kid and did milk deliveries to neighbors and guests at the wireless guesthouse when my father was still a wireless-man, a post he held as joint director in service of the department of wireless, days when telephone was still non existent and amateur wireless radio the only means of communication in the kingdom.

It is quite amazing now some thirty years later seeing Mipham so engrossed in the cows being milked as I used to be.

Well, Mipham’s in the countryside, he’s in Bhutan and this is rice country, so there you go li’lle bugger, forget the rombottertjes and macaronis and get try getting used to the rice. He actually helps himself. Though sitting cross legged and making palmed rice balls are still some canals and mountains away.

We go down to the traditional wooden bridge (the gateway to Ringpung Dzong) meanining fortress on the Heap of jewels. Built during the time of Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel in 1646, the great spiritual master, ruler and unifier of what is today the modern independent Kingdomof Bhutan. It is also the venue of Paro Tsechu (Festivals in honor of Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche as he’s revered in Bhutan), held once a year during spring time. In days gone by they’d lock up the huge wooden doors and stand guard in vigilance. Bhutan then was a feudal land with many warring clans known as 'Penlops' presiding over their own hamlets. The Paro Penlop led one of the more powerful clans.

He not only had to watch out for enemies from within the country but also from across the western border with Tibet.

Nowadays it’s the pedestrian entrance to the Dzong and other institutions, notably the National Institute of Education and the cave of Jawa Ngye. The bridge and the Dzong acquired some fame when Bernado Bertolucci chose the bridge and the Dzong for his opening scene in the film, “The Little Buddha”.

A little refreshment of tea and biscuits and other assorted goodies from the local market provide a welcome respite from the exhausting hike and the many other activities that goes on in a chaotic yet orderly fashion. Picnicking is a very popular activity in Bhutan, almost always done when on pilgrimages. Nothing like a good combination of hiking up to some religious spot, temple or monument and concluding it with some picnicking in the fragrance of a quiet pine shade or in open green meadows.

Located on a strategic hill overlooking Ringpung Dzong is the castle shaped Ta–Dzong or “Watchtower.” It was used as a watch tower to defend the Dzong below much as the bridge acted as a strategic gateway to the Dzong. Now that the feudal days are behind the tower has been reestablished as the National Museum of Bhutan boasting a fascinating collection of Buddhist arts, relics and religious Thankha paintings (sacred painted murals).

Mipham and his cousins are particularly thrilled with the intricate passageways and secret tunnels inside the museum’s web like structures. The section housing animal skins and other mammalian trophies are fascinating to the kids. Mipham has quite a comprehensive collection of animal toys.

The snow leopards are a big hit.

Back home at the farm house Mipham gets the Buddhist blues; trying his hand at the prayer wheels. It just might be something amusing/playful to him but in Bhutan all kids learn things the simple way, imitating what they see and hear around them, until they get older and realize the significance of such actions.

Angay Deki ties dolls on Mipham and Kitso, the Bhutanese way. This is the fashion most mothers carry around their infants as they go about their daily chores keeping house. It is a strong, safe and comfortable bind. Lot of infants can be seen slung over and deep asleep on their mothers backs blissfully unaware and peacefully asleep.

Another day we go to pay homage and respect to the village temple. It is called 'Gensakha Lhakahang' and it is situated right below where Angay Deki and Memay Sherab’s apple orchards fade away to the falling steep ridges around the bend.

All villages have a certain temple that they are traditionally associated with. The walk down the hill with the three kids all dressed in animal costumes is amusing and playful. There is little house along the way which is actually a cave where many have come and meditated.

I fondly recall my late uncle, my father’s eldest brother who lived here for many years practicing the dharma and bringing us rich walnuts and juicy pears and peaches. These days the occupant is a nun. The party has arrived in good time, for there is a ceremony of some kind being performed in the temple by monks from the Dzong below.

The children are all excited by the sound of religious instrumental intonations and vocal mantras the monks are performing and chanting out aloud. Prostrations are performed, mantras are chanted, prayers and thanks offered. This is normally followed by an offering of cash or kind to the altar. The ‘Kayngey’ or caretaker of the monastery normally collects offerings in kind which is almost always solidified oil that lights the butter lamps. Money collected is used for the monastery’s purposes. Blessed water from the altar kettle is offered, received in the palms of our folded hands and sipped.

The rest of the session is followed by tea and refreshments served to the visitors. People are very hospitable in these parts and refusal is not always an option.

Angay Deki has just finished her evening rituals. She is sitting down facing the altar and reciting her prayers, reading the scriptures. Now the kids want to re-enact the scene. They just imitate what they see. Tobden is especially fond of religious rituals; he would always imitate Buddhist mask dances and talk about becoming a monk. It’s appropriate that he should be in the altar room pretending he’s some lama, sitting as he is on the seat of spiritual pride.

Mipham is just following suit. These innocent simple acts of long held traditions are reinforcing experiences the children will carry onto their adulthood. Perhaps that is one reason why children always accompany their parents and families for pilgrimages and visits to temples, monasteries, rinpoches, trulkus and lamas. It is the very foundation that will later help them deal with the more complicated world of adulthood, life and all the existential packages that come with it, if one can call it that.

Ps: YourLustForLifeStartsRightNow!

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