Saturday, December 10, 2011
We are in our little apartment in western Amsterdam, its Mipham’s last night before we board the 11hr flight to Bangkok en-route to Paro, the somewhat quiet international airport of the somewhat quiet Kingdom of 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 no 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 airhostesses 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, and ‘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 the visitors from the lowlands- my father (now passed on), my elder brother, my younger sister, their kids and us. 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 farmhouse 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 farmhouse, as they are in rural Bhutan. Bhutanese farmhouses 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. Farmhouses 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 chilies 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 chili 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 kid’s 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 farmhouses. 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 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: It’s 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 time 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 in Japan and Korea and Bhutan 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 are 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 makeshift 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 from Thimphu 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) meaning 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 Kingdom of 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 springtime. 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 watchtower 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 farmhouse 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. An offering of cash or kind normally follows this to the altar. The ‘Kayngey’ or caretaker of the monastery normally collects offerings in kind that 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.
BhutaNizing Me-Farm - II
It’s been a wonderful two weeks stay in Paro, but now it’s time to visit the capital city of Thimphu. Angay Deki is as usual a bit worried about Mipham’s overall well being and in particular his appetite. She would also like him to learn as much Dzongkha as possible. The trip from Paro to Thimphu is one of the shorter and pleasant ones amongst the kingdom’s long and winding roads. The journey is pleasant and the little yellow Indian car is a tough little stable ride. Mipham used to throw up when he was younger but he’s now gotten used to sleeping soon as the car hits about 5Kmph.
Thimphu is the face of modern Bhutan. It lies at an elevation of 2,300m in a valley with the Wang Chhu (river) flowing downtown at the base of the valley. Thimpu is home to the revered Bhutanese Royal family, the Royal Government, the Judiciary and several foreign missions and development projects. Every time the family has been visiting there have been substantial recognizable changes happening. New roads are being built and old footpaths and parking lots around town are being renovated constantly.
There seems to be some sort of renovation or construction happening in almost all areas of the city. The number of automobiles has significantly risen, as has the population (presently at about 50 thousand). Quite a lot considering it used to be some 20 thousand a couple of years ago. The main square has expanded as has many of the neighborhoods, becoming shopping complexes housing restaurants, fast foods, electronic goods, snooker and billiard rooms, Internet cafes and household goods. It’s quite a bustling market and a laid back city all at the same time. The mountains keep the valley shrouded in some surrounded calm.
This is a small Takin reserve located at the top of the valley. The Takin is the national animal of Bhutan, a curious looking animal said to have been conjured by Lama Drukpa Kinley, better known as the ‘Divine Madman’, a much loved saint and hero, whose unorthodox teachings touched peoples hearts and to whom the Phallus paintings on Bhutanese houses can be attributed and traced. This is quite a popular spot to get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Thimphu amidst pine forests and for a birds eye view of the valley below.
Today Mipham is attending the school his two cousins Tobden and Tj go to. It’s called Little Dragon, an elementary school where they learn basic subjects like History, Geography, Math, Dzongkha and English. All schools in Bhutan require the wearing of national dress, the ‘Gho’, a robe like dress tied at the waist, as it with all other official and government institutions. Not just the dress but also the sheer sight of so many children running around amok more than mystifies Mipham. The singing of the national assembly before the school officially begins frightens him a bit, but he seeks solace by looking at Acho (big brother) Tobden and Acho Tj.
Built in 1627, this Dzong is the oldest in Thimphu and the gateway to Thimphu valley. The Dzong houses the Rigney School for Dzongkha and Monastic Studies. The Dzong has beautiful frescos and slate carvings. My brother Tshiteem lives just above the Dzong in a small cottage overlooking the capital 10 minutes drive away. Mipham loves coming here and loves hanging out with Acho Tj. They indulge themselves in video games and superheroes costumes and outfits.
The Indigenous Hospital is located in Thimphu. Today Memay Sherab has come from Paro to visit the hospital and seek some treatment for his ailing asthma affliction. He has tried many western medications and has found some solace and comfort in the traditional method of treatment; taking the prescribed herbs with discipline and prayer. He has made marked improvements and believes it is the spiritual practice that makes and gives the herbs their potency and thus the mental and physical strength to purify and heal and recover.
The Thimphu weekly market is held on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It is a gathering where Thimphu residents mingle with villagers in an interesting blend of the urban and the rural. The market is set up outside in rows under tents and tarps. People come from outlying rural villages to this market to sell vegetables and fruits and other items including dried fish, chili peppers, spices, tea (in bricks), butter (wrapped in leaves), hats, jewelry, and masks. One can also find all kinds of items that local people use at home, including ritual and religious objects, and wonderfully woven textiles. Today my sister Tashi is out on her weekly market sojourn, she will buy whatever vegetables out depending on the season and shop enough for a weeks cooking. She normally does the household shopping every week on a Saturday. We have brought Mipham along to see what he makes of it. It’s a definite favorite, what with all the candies out on display! He finds the place exciting, and he has already discovered that sweets and candies hang out of every shop, bar or restaurant in Bhutan, and is always on the lookout for them.
Today the family has arranged a trip to the infamous Do Chula Pass. At 3050m and an hour’s drive away from the capital it offers visitors a wonderful welcome respite. The view of the central-eastern Himalayas can be a truly majestic sight if one is lucky and the skies clear to expose that magnificence. Today the clouds hang over and it’ll have to wait till another time. The huge recently built 108 Chhortons (stupas) provides a wonderful spot to circumambulate, relax and breathe in the fresh air. The kids are positively influenced by the atmosphere and play around the Chhortons running and hiding. Kitso and TJ perform the usual prostrations and chant their short mantras aloud. Mipham is just learning and learning a lot by just being around these places and observing what his cousins and others are doing.
The trip is concluded with a visit to the touristic café located at good vantage point. Tea can taste really good at these altitudes and Mipham and his cousins, particularly the ones depicting animals, charge at the traditional arts and crafts on display.
It was a good day’s excursion to Dochhula. A few days have passed by and Mipham has certainly seen and learned a lot. He already does a bit of ‘Namo Namo’ chants whenever he sees something resembling a Buddhist symbol. I’m happy at these small developments; I feel he’s getting the hang of the place and the culture. There are more trips to come and the monastery of Tango, located about 40 minutes away from Thimphu has been on the cards. The trip finally unfolds today and we set out early. The drive across Thimphu’s suburbs, crossing the river and heading toward the Dechhencholing Palace is nice and lovely. From the palace onward the car journeys through rural Thimphu, with paddy fields, apple orchards and farmhouses. The monastery can be seen a few km’s perching on a hill. Once there, the climb up can take up to an hour or more.
The children are all excited and begin enthusiastically to run up the footpaths, till they all run out of gas and have me carrying them all! On the way to the monastery they visit a little retreat hut where a couple of monks are busy making ‘Tormas’ for offerings. These are made of butter and dough and colored. The kids find these hugely enticing and join in with the monks, who are mildly amused and very obliging. A few climbs later everything goes a bit bad when the children get all hungry and there’s nothing to eat! Where did all that Bhutanese picnicking bags go? Nonetheless it’s been a good day, the kids got to meet a very young boy who is also a figure historically and spiritually held in the highest esteem by the Bhutanese people. (His predecessor built this very monastery). The monastery is full of monks who come here for higher Buddhist studies and practices) and the chants are reassuring and peaceful.
It’s been a fantastic trip being in Thimphu and Mipham has settled in so well with all his cousins and the place itself that it is a bit hard when we bid farewell to the capital and head back to Paro, where Angay Deki is anxiously expecting Mipham and all the rest of the family members for a traditional Buddhist ceremony which is going to be performed at the farmhouse. It helps that Mipham is going to have his cousins come along and be there for the ceremony and for the two important trips Angay Deki has all panned out.
The traditional ceremony held at home consists of traditional religious instruments and recital of the sacred scriptures, the teachings of the Buddha, accompany a Buddhist practice whereby monks come and for a period of up to 2-3 days perform cleansing, reinforcing rituals.
The monks here are all from Trulku Kinga’s monastery, and have been performing all kinds of Buddhist ceremonies for Angay Deki’s family. Thus they have become a part of the family, contributing spiritually to the wellbeing and harmony of the house and its family members wherever they are. The monks are well known to the family and it is always a warm feeling receiving them for occasions such as this.
It is the night before the ceremony actually begins and the kids are all in the altar room mystified by what the monks are doing; mainly making preparations for the next day in the form of Tormas (buttered and colored dough) that come in different shapes and sizes with symbolic meanings attached to them. Experiences like these do help a child comprehend the complexities of Tantric ritualism later in life, but for now, it is just massively mystifying and wonderfully entertaining, I guess.
The ceremony begins and the chants and the musical notes from the traditional instruments ring out loud and calm throughout the day. Meals are served in-between and family members called when required at specific times to be there when a certain ritual is being performed.
The last day is the climax and the rituals take on an urgency of its own. There is a deep feeling of relaxation around the house and even with all the hectic activities involved, everyone seems calm and collected. The main Torma (an animal in this case) is finally taken out of the altar and kept at a place where ravens may come and feed. Ravens are considered auspicious and the immediate presence of one after the offering is placed is indeed very auspicious.
Taktsang is a monastery in the valley of Paro. It happens to be one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in the Buddhist Himalayan world. The monastery itself is perched on a granite cliff that drops about 2,000 feet to the valley down below. The name is derived from a popular legend that Guru Rinpoche flew across the mountains to this spot on the back of a tiger, reaching a cave in which he meditated for three months, converting the people of Paro valley as well as heralding the arrival of Buddhism during this period. It is one of the holiest Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Bhutan and is popularly known to the outside world as the ‘Tiger’s Nest’.
The path to the monastery steadily and gradually winds upwards through forests of oak, blue pine and rhododendron, with small water streams murmuring continuously along the way until it arrives at a small Chhorten surrounded by prayer flags flapping in the wind.
For the family’s trip, ponies have been arranged to carry the children. The kids are all excited and raring to go; they all want to play cowboys. There is a palpable sense of adventure and excitement in their faces. Tied up in traditional men’s scarves, they are tightly bound to the ponies and guided by the owner of the ponies. A man who has led many up this path to the holy site, some to come and wonder at the sheer sight of the monastery and others to fulfill a dream of seeing and being blessed by Guru Rinpoche’s Zangtopelri (paradise). The lure of the cave is nonetheless magical, and no matter how many times it is visited, it somehow always feels like the first time.
The national indigenous hospital treats patients in the traditional way. Most of the medicines prescribed are natural herbs that grow in the country. Doctors are trained in the traditional method that is closely knitted with the country’s religion. Patients undergo medication along with meditation at home. My father visits the hospital for his treatment of asthma. He has been on traditional medication for sometime now and takes them with a lot of religious discipline. He has though come here today to get himself checked both with the traditional hospital and the modern hospital at the JDW National Referral Hospital.
My parents have been planning a trip to a distant monastery called Jhela for sometime now. The whole family has been looking forward to it. It is a good 5-6 hrs walk, with all the kids on ponies.
The trip to Jhela was as good as we expected it to be. Though the rains came down and had us all soaking wet, it was well worth the effort. The monastery of Jhela is an auspicious one, and making these trips to far-flung places always feels extra special.
Tonight is our last night in Bhutan. My mother gives me some words of advice and concern mostly regarding Mipham and our way of life back in Holland. She’s worried about the traveling, the flying and the finances involved. She speaks about her happiness at having had Mipham come and visit so many times. She hopes we can do this once a year at least. Even with the communication gap with Mipham, she’s still happy to see his face, know that he’s done many pilgrimages and been to many monasteries. She’d like me to keep him and show him the Buddhist and Bhutanese way of life back in Holland, and let him derive the best out of two very different cultures.
Tonight is our last night and we are in the altar room where my mother sits to talk about our visit. What has all of these time spent together means for her, and how she feels about Mipham and our life back in Amsterdam. She is happy we made this trip. She is happy with the time spent together. But most of all she is happy Mipham managed to make so many pilgrimages. She advises me, cautions me about the need to keep Mipham as rooted in our way of life as possible. She understands he lives in a world that is completely different to her own, but recognizes the reality of it, and stresses again the fact that he should try and take the best of both cultures. She does not mind the fact that mipham and she still cannot communicate, but would love him to learn the language as well. For the moment, she is just happy we are able to make these trips once or twice a year, and hopes we can keep that up in the future.
Be well, take care, do not forget our culture, our traditions, and our dharma and live as peacefully and as sensibly as you can, she says with all the love and wisdom, as a mother and as a grandmother.