Source: National Geographic Traveller
Tiger’s Nest, a sacred Buddhist monastery, Paro. Image: Scott A Woodward
This remote, lofty Himalayan kingdom remains one of the region’s least-visited countries. A journey through its peaceful alpine forests and valleys offers a window into a uniquely preserved Buddhist culture.
By Stephanie Cavagnaro. Published on 11th June 2018
Amleamo is committed. She decided to wake up this morning and wear red — all red. Her outfit spans shades of crimson and claret: from T-shirt and fleece to ankle-length skirt and big woolly hat askew on her head, revealing unruly salt-and-pepper hair. Even her teeth are red, stained by a lifetime of chewing doma (areca nut and betel leaf), which she spits sporadically on to the pavement, its juice collecting next to her in small puddles.
Her commitment to her ensemble is a sartorial expression of her larger commitment to her faith: she’s visited Jambay Lhakhang — one of Bhutan’s oldest temples — every single day for the past 18 years, she says, instinctively spinning a handheld prayer wheel. A garland of wooden beads with tassels is spread across her lap, used to keep track of mantras. When I ask the current count, she fumbles with the beads and scrunches up her face, making the deep lines carved by her 78 years more prominent. It takes her a moment before she answers: two million in two years.
“The most important thing in Buddhism is rebirth,” explains Tshering, my portly guide who wears a knee-length gho, the national dress for men. “The best way is to pray for your future because you don’t know tomorrow,” he adds, as Amleamo begins thumbing her beads and mumbling mantras to the Guru Rinpoche.
You don’t have to travel far in Bhutan to see images of this mustachioed Buddhist master. Regarded as the second Buddha, the Guru Rinpoche founded Tibetan Buddhism in the eighth century and is revered for spreading the religion across this Vajrayana stronghold — a school of Buddhism particular to Tibet and select neighbouring Himalayan regions.
Religious conventions still wield a strong influence over life in this mountainous kingdom. It’s peppered with thousands of monuments and monasteries, while handmade chorten (stupas) crowd remote caves, bald-headed monks pray in temples, and clusters of white prayer flags mounted on poles dance on windy mountains. “We believe animals can hear the sound of the prayer flags, and in the next life they are reborn as human beings and have a better life,” says Tshering.
Perhaps in order to preserve its unique identity, the country sat in isolation for years, only opening to visitors in 1974. It currently charges a steep daily fee of $250 (£179) for all-inclusive organised tours — a cost-induced exclusivity that means Bhutan is often blissfully crowd-free. The tourist tax is just one way the country has kept environmental conservation high on its political agenda. Government decrees say that 60% of the kingdom’s land must be forested; plastic bags are prohibited; and mountaineering was banned in 2003.
This enthusiasm for eco is especially evident here in Bumthang, a mountainous, Switzerland-in-Asia central region that’s packed with alpine forests and broad, fertile valleys covered in fields of buckwheat. This bucolic area is the religious heartland of the nation with some of its oldest temples — many of which are linked to Guru Rinpoche’s visit over a thousand years ago.
“Bumthang is considered one of the holiest places in Bhutan,” adds Tshering. And this temple is one of its holiest highlights. Jambay Lhakhang is made up of a series of square orange and white buildings topped by golden roofs. It doesn’t hide its age: stones have come loose from its facade, while cracks creep into intricate carvings that frame the doors and windows. Prayer wheels are inscribed with ancient scripture, handles worn by the devout who have kept them spinning for centuries. Around the squat buildings are little silver stupas containing handwritten prayers and plastic cups with stones used for counting circumambulations.
Built in AD 659, Jambay Lhakhang is one of numerous temples simultaneously constructed on top of a demon, according to legend. “The demon’s body covered all the Himalayas,” explains Tshering. “One hundred and eight temples were built to hold the demon down — we are here on the left knee.”
This ancient place seems to attract fittingly ancient devotees. “Whatever they committed — a mistake or sin — during their young age, they’re trying to clean it up,” Tshering explains. I watch an elderly man wearing pink polka dot pyjamas and a glitter-blue hat walk clockwise around the temple. When he heads inside to pray, I slip off my shoes, and follow him towards a sunny courtyard.
Inside, I spot an old woman with a laminated image of Guru Rinpoche among her possessions. She’s mumbling mantras while moving in half-prostrations on a mat; her hands are in the shape of a lotus bud, which she places on her head, to her throat and her heart before dropping to her knees and lowering her head to the ground. “If we shower, we clean only the outer part. It’s different to clean inner part,” instructs Tshering, adding that prostrations are a means of purifying the body, speech and mind of karmic sins.
Flanking the old woman are dark circles on the pavement — imprints of knees and a forehead left by former pilgrims. “That’s like, one-hundred thousand times — the marks there,” says Tshering as the woman finishes praying. She picks up her mat and shuffles out of the temple, spinning a large prayer wheel as she goes. Its loud dinging fills the reverential silence.
Butter lamps at Thangthong Dewachen Nunnery, Thimphu. Image: Scott A Woodward