Thursday, April 27, 2017

Bhutan – Welcome to the land of serenity and peace- Part II

Go to part I here

To Bajo city via Punakha


Next day morning, after our breakfast of aloo parathas, sauce and butter, we started from Thimpu by 8.30 am. After visiting many beautiful temples on the way, and having lunch at Punakha, we reached Bajo city by 5 pm.


Punakha had served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and, even today, it is the winter home of the central monk body.

Chimi Lhakhang, (Lhakhang means monastery or temple in the Bhutanese language)also known as the “Fertility Temple,” was originally built in 1499 on a short hill that had been blessed by  Buddhist leader Drukpa Kunley, known as the “Divine Madman.”


 Drupa Kunley, also known as “The Saint of 5,000 Women” worked overtime to spread enlightenment through an active sex life. He was known to have had a lifestyle full of wine, women, and poetry. He is also credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, hence the common phallic imagery found throughout the country. The phallus became Drupa Kunley’s symbol,signaling both fertility and the power to bring enlightenment to those who learned from its teachings.



Thousands of people visit Chimi Lhakhang either to pray for children by those who are childless or to seek protection for children that they already have. There are also anecdotes of tourists from the US and Europe who made the pilgrimage to Chimi Lhakhang and promptly got pregnant within a year after the visit.  We were shown an album with photos of western couples with their kids, got after the blessings.

Around the time when Drukpa Kuenley first visited Bhutan, a demoness called Loro Duem resided on a high pass presently called Dochu La. She terrorised all who tried to cross the pass and the people in the valley lived in fear. Two more demonesses lived on two smaller passes and the three of them caused people misery and suffering. When Drukpa Kuenley heard of this, he hunted down the demoness at Dochu La and the three demonesses recognising Drukpa Kuenley’s power ran down the valley and the other two demonesses dissolved into the body of Loro Duem.

When she reached the plains of Lobesa, she transformed herself into a dog to avoid detection. But Drukpa Kuenley recognised the demoness dog, killed it and buried it under the mound of a hill. He then said “Chi-med” (no dog), and built a black chorten on top of this mound. Before killing and burying the demoness, he made the demoness pledge service to the Buddha and become a protector of the dharma. She is now the local deity called Chhoekim who is the guardian deity of Chhime Lhakhang.

Drukpa Kuenley’s cousin Lam Ngawang Choegyal later built a Lhakhang in honour of his illustrious relative and named it Chhime Lhakhang.

I found it very strange that all the dogs (they were not many) that I saw there were diseased, with open wounds on the body, full of fleas and always tired and lying down.

The Punakha Dzong (Dzong means fortress) is one of the most historic Dzongs in the whole country. It is considered to be the 2nd oldest, but most beautiful of all the Dzongs in Bhutan. Once the Palace of the King of Bhutan, the Dzong now serves as the Winter Capital for the monastic body of the country. Built by Shabdrung Ngwang Namgyal in the 17th century, it is located between the confluence of two rivers: Pho Chhu (male) and Mo Chhu (female).





Punakha Dzong had many huge Buddha idols. There was a small temple that housed wish fulfilling Buddha adjacent to it, where I had to witness a sad scene.

Vegetable market- a pathetic scene


 In the evening we walked around in the Bajo town and went into the main vegetable market. The vegetables were all in bad state. Shrivelled brinjals, mangoes, half dried ladies fingers , which we won’t even consider cooking, were there for sale.

Towards Paro


Next day morning we started driving towards Paro. We stopped at Dochula pass on the way. The pass is a popular location among tourists as it offers a stunning 360 degree panoramic view of Himalayan mountain range. The view is especially scenic on clear, winter days with snowcapped mountains forming a majestic backdrop to the tranquility of the 108 chortens gracing the mountain pass.





Known as the Druk Wangyal Chortens- the construction of these108 chortens was commissioned by the eldest Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk.  The 108 memorial stupas were built in memory of the 108 Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the 2003 battle against Indian rebels during the first ever operation “Operation all Clear” conducted by the Royal Bhutan Army.  

The pass is also popular spiritual destination for both locals and tourists because an important temple is located on the crest of Dochula pass.




The Paro Dzong ranks as a high point of Bhutanese architecture. The massive buttressed walls that tower over the town are visible throughout the valley. We were told that the idol of Buddha here was that of 11 year old Siddhartha. So he was having crown and the eyes were fully opened. But I saw begging bowl in his hand and asked why it was there. The monk explained that it was to indicate his journey towards asceticism. He told it is very rare to see the idol of royal Buddha.

Since we started from Paro at 5.30 am on the next day, we were lucky to see it all lit up, a truly divine sight!



Jangtsa Dumgtseg Lhakhang is a notable Buddhist temple as it is in the form of a chorten, very rare in Bhutan. According to a local legend, the Lhakhang was built by the saint Thangtong Gyalpo. It is believed that he built the Lhakhang in this shape to better pin down either a troublesome demoness or a powerful naga spirit.    It is a repository of iconography from the Drukpa Kagyu school, with peaceful and wrathful deities dancing on the walls of all three floors, which represent heaven, earth and hell.


It is a very old and powerful temple and of all the temples visited during this trip, I felt the maximum vibrations here.


Kyichu Lhakhang is another Buddhist temple in Paro. It is one of the oldest monasteries in the country built in the 7th century by the Tibetan King Songsten Gampo. The story goes that a giant demoness lay across the whole area of Tibet and the Himalayas and was preventing the spread of Buddhism. To overcome her, King Songtsen Gampo decided to build 108 temples, which would be placed on all the points of her body. Of these 108 temples, 12 were built by precise plans.






There’s a belief that the two orange trees here in Kyichu Lakhang bear fruit throughout the year. The trees were totally laden with fruits when we saw them in March 2017.



The Tiger's Nest Monastery is probably  the most famous in Bhutan, having been founded in the late 1600's, and perched on a high rocky ledge 900m above the valley floor allegedly at a place where Guru Rinpoche rested, travelling on a flying tiger.

From the parking area it is a two to three hour walk, mostly through coniferous forest, up a steep path to the view point from where there are spectacular views of the monastery.

Time to leave


After a nice rest at the hotel, we started from Paro and reached Jaigaon by 10.30am. The moment we crossed the Bhutanese gate and entered India, I was hit by the mental noise. 


It was so conspicuous. Six days in that country gave an unparalleled mental calmness. Internet usage in Bhutan is not widespread like in India may be a reason, but the people there are more grounded and satisfied with their lives.

Kudos to the King



I think the Bhutanese king has the well being of his subjects in mind. He encourages local cultivation; even he eats the local red rice. The whole population wears the national dress, including the school children. National television broadcasts in English language, so the people talk good English, there was no difficulty in communication. From what we observed in six days, the interaction between the genders was very normal and neutral. It looked like, to us, that eve teasing may not be a problem there.


Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Bhutan – Welcome to the land of serenity and peace - Part I


Bhutan is a nation that measures success in Gross National Happiness.  Here, Buddhist way of life of meets modernity. Tucked away in the Himalayas, Bhutan has been shrouded in mystery and folklore for a long time. When we were planning our trip to Bhutan, I had no idea that Bhutan was going to leave an indelible mark on my mind.





Indians travelling to Bhutan do not need Visa. An identity document, either passport or an election commission I. D card is, however required for presentation at the immigration during entry, to obtain an entry permit along with 2 passport size photographs. Entry into Bhutan can be made either by land or by air. Our taxi, which was sent by the travel agent in Jaigaon, was waiting at the Bagdogra airport when we reached and it was a scenic four hour drive to Jaigaon. Jaigaon is a town in the Alipurduar district, West Bengal. It is located on India’s border with Bhutan. The main overland entrance to Bhutan is through Jaigaon and Bhutan Gate separates the two countries. He then tdrove us to the Bhutan side, to Hotel Shelgaon, where we slept for the night.

The entry permit


Next day morning we got ready by 9 am and went with the travel agent and the taxi driver.  The entry permit was to be obtained from the office in Phuentsholing . Separate permits are required for the visitors and the driver. It was a Tuesday and we managed to get the permit by 12 o’clock. On Mondays usually crowd will be much more and another visitor who got the permit on Monday told that he had to wait from 9 am to 1 pm.

The divine food


We started our four hour drive to Thimpu, stopping on the way for lunch. The lunch was just divine! It was momos, noodle thukpa, rice, dal and mushroom sabzi.  



Momos were so good that on every day we were having them, sometimes even twice a day. When we saw the dal first time, we thought, what a watery dal! And it was just plain dal, not dal fry. But once we tasted it, we got hooked. It was impossible to fathom how such a watery dal can be so delicious. Must be because they do organic farming there.

Even the rice is so delicious that it can be eaten just like that. In restaurants we saw the locals eating just the rice and leaving the whole bowl of dal and part of the vegetable that was served. We don’t believe in wasting food, so it was painful to see so much of food wastage there.

It is impossible to believe that on all the six days in Bhutan it was rice, dal and a vegetable dish for lunch and dinner, and every meal we were looking forward to eat.

The wait can be too long.


After the four hour drive we reached Thimpu. It is the capital and largest city of the Kingdom of Bhutan. The ancient capital city of Punakha was replaced by Thimphu when it was established as capital in 1955, and in 1961 Thimphu was declared as the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan by His Majesty the 3rd Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. 

In Thimpu we  checked into hotel Tashi Gotshal. 


We ordered the food and had to wait for one and a half hours for the dinner to arrive at the table. But the food was awesome, just rice, roti, dal, bitter gourd sabzi and egg curry.

After that we made it a point to give food orders in advance. Breakfast and lunch order on the previous night and dinner order in the morning. Because, literally, they buy the vegetables to be cooked after you order!!

The sightseeing starts


On the next day after the breakfast of aloo parathas (we got on time since it was ordered the previous night) we started our sightseeing tour. First we visited the National Memorial Chorten, which is a monument to the Third Druk Gyalpo and to World Peace. One can see elderly Bhutanese people circumambulating the Chorten throughout the day.






Chorten literally means ‘Seat of Faith’ and Buddhists often call such monuments, the ‘Mind of Buddha’.  It has intricate sculptures and gorgeous painting and is an extraordinary example of Buddhist architecture and artwork.


Our next stop had something very unique.

Takin Preserve


Takin is the national animal of  Bhutan. The Takin Preserve, located in the Motithang district of Thimphu, is a wildlife reserve area for the Takin, which is native to Bhutan, India, and China. They are docile creatures whose unique appearance attract special attention.  





   
Local legends attribute the creation of these animals in Bhutan by a 15th century saint named Drukpa Kunley, popularly known as the Divine Madman.  Drukpa Kunley, who was not only a religious preacher but also a proficient tantric, was requested by the people of Bhutan during one of his religious lectures to conjure a miracle before them. 

The saint agreed to do so provided he was fed for lunch, a whole cow and a whole goat. Once served, he devoured the food of both animals and left out the bones. He then took out the head of the goat and fixed it to the skeleton of the cow and uttered abracadabra and the magic worked. With a snap, he created a live animal, which had the head of the goat and the body of the cow.The animal sprang up and moved on to the meadows to graze. The animal was then given the name dong gyem tsey (takin). Since then this animal has been a common sight in the hills of Bhutan. Because of this magical creation with high religious connotation, the animal has been adopted as the national animal of Bhutan.

Changangkha Lhakhang


Changangkha Lhakhang is an old fortress like temple and monastic school perched on a ridge above Thimphu.   It was established in the 12th century on a site chosen by Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo, who came from Ralung in Tibet. The central statue is Chenresig in an 11-headed, thousand-armed manifestation. There are enormous prayer wheels to spin and even the prayer books in the temple are larger in size than usual Tibetan texts. It has a beautiful courtyard.




The Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan


The Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan was established in 2001. It was set up to promote Bhutan's textile arts and to serve the interests of the weavers in order to preserve traditional textile patterns.
Weaving is an integral component of the culture and tradition of Bhutan. With the aim to preserve and promote this living art, the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan was instituted in May 2005 under the patronage of Her Majesty Gyalyum (Queen Mother) Sangay Choden Wangchuck as a non-government, non-profit organization

The RTA operates a state of art museum to display its collection of artefacts to further the understanding of Bhutan’s rich textile traditions and way of life. The Museum consist of two galleries: The upper gallery which has a permanent display of the various types of textile weaves in the country and the lower gallery that showcases temporary exhibitions on special themes. These temporary exhibitions usually run for nine months.

Zilukha nunnery, Tashichhoe dzong, and Buddha Dordenma


While watching the nuns pray and chant mantras in a narrow space in front of a small shrine in the Zilukha nunnery, I had the spontaneous recall of a similar life when I spent the whole life doing the same and died without experiencing any peace. 



Suddenly I was engulfed by a wave of depression, which left me on coming out and watching the beautiful nature outside. 




We got a great view of Tashichho dzong (a Buddhist monastery and fortress on the northern edge of Thimpu) from this monastery.

Known as "fortress of the glorious religion", Tashichho Dzong, or popularly known as Thimphu Dzong, is an impressive structure that houses the Bhutanese government and stand on the right side of the Wangchu River. 






It houses the secretariat, throne room, and offices of King of Bhutan. The northern portion is the summer residence of the Je Khenpo and the Central Monastic Body.  

Great Buddha Dordenma is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue in the mountains of Bhutan celebrating the 60th anniversary of fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Its Construction began in 2006 and was planned to finish in October 2010, however construction did not conclude until 25 September 2015. The completed work is one of the largest Buddha rupas in the world, at 169 feet (52 m) and contains 100,000 8-inch-tall and 25,000 12-inch-tall gilded bronze Buddhas. 









A shocking revelation


When we started our sightseeing tour we realised that our driver was coming for the first time to Bhutan. He had lied to the travel agent who hired him that he knows Bhutan. It was God’s grace that my husband had chartered out the whole itinerary and had downloaded the google map. So he was guiding the driver throughout.

And during the visits, he would run before us to explore, take selfies in different poses, and even ask us to shoot his photos!

In Thimpu, we had to obtain permit to visit Punakha on the next day. The driver’s permit had to be obtained from another office and since the driver didn’t know the location, we were driving around for an hour to locate the office!

When we reached our hotel, our dinner was ready at 7pm since the order was given in the morning itself. Steaming red rice, rotis, dal and mixed vegetable sabzi were waiting for us. 



Go to Part II here

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The stick that was falling on me

The Sun was going down and cold breeze was caressing my cheeks as we climbed the stairs to the monastery in Bhutan.


 It was evening, my prayer time at home and I was slipping into the bhakti mode. We got inside, I closed my eyes and started slowly slipping into the world of nothingness. Suddenly I was jerked out of my state by the sound of a beating and soft cry of a boy.

A heart rending sight


My eyes opened automatically and I looked around. Just outside the prayer area, a Buddhist monk was sitting with a teenage lama boy, who was reading his lesson. As he read, the pronunciation was wrong and he got a beating with a long stick from the monk (the sound that startled me), before correcting his pronunciation.

I closed my eyes and again tried to get into the peaceful state. But no, it was not supposed to be. Because the boy continued to read and was making mistakes. Each mistake brought a beating from the monk and many times he was hitting on his shaven head. When the boy put his hand on the head for protection, he got the beating on his back.

Transported to my childhood


I felt that each strike by that stick was coming over my body. My eyes were welling up and my throat getting choked. When I was about three years old, my mother started teaching me Malayalam alphabets. One day she asked me to write the Malayalam letter  'ദ '(Da). I was not in the best of spirits at the time and thought, “This is a very easy letter and I know it. So I am not going to write.’

My mother got angry and told again. I just kept quiet. She took a small stick and beat me. Still I didn’t write. She really got angry. She was a school teacher and a very good disciplinarian. It was not easy for her to take this behavior from her own daughter. She continued asking me to write, I simply didn’t move and she kept beating me. Our maid who was standing there tried to save me from the beating and in the bargain, she got beaten.

A good decision


When she couldn’t make me write the letter, she made a decision, ‘I am not going to teach you  again, ever.’ I think that was a good decision. I was a self-motivated child and did my studies well. Continuous beating would have scarred me for life. She asked me later why I didn’t write the letter. I told, ‘It is such a simple letter and you should have understood that I know it.’

Both of us took the lesson and progressed in our own ways. After that many times she used to ask me, ‘Write the letter for which you got thrashing’, and I would promptly write and show her.

Beatings from a monk?



Every time the stick fell on that lama boy, I was flinching. A monk, who is supposed to be the epitome of non-violence (according to me), doing this violence to a small boy was beyond me to take in. By the time we came out, the tuition was over and I was terrified to look at the monk’s face which reeked of violence.


 And the boy was standing there and wiping his tears!


It was time to close the praying area for the day and every body left.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Malabar whistling Thrush following me


When we  reached Sikkim by about 4 pm, it was drizzling and foggy. We settled in our room and I peeped through the window. Part of the city was visible, with mountain silhouette at the back. It was a mesmerizing sight.


I sat down on the bed and just took in the beauty outside the window. There were many trees, I could see huge trunks and dancing leaves. Peace was settling into my being and I got this urge for an open eye meditation.



As I went into meditation for some time, a black bird came and sat on the branch in front. It just sat there, fanning its tail intermittently, looking at me. I was reminded of the Malabar whistling thrush that danced in front while meditating in Valparai. But this was a black bird. I remembered that  as the spiritual path keeps  opening, birds start appearing.




Blackbirds and birds of dark colors are special among their airy clan as they are symbolic of magic, mystery, secrets, the unknown, pure potential and unobvious perception. Through consistent unveiling of our inner depths, (as our coal-black avian friends would have us do) and positive/active utilization of these inner impulses, the esoteric secrets become exposed to the light of our own consciousness.  Usually they never come to a person who is not equipped to read the deeper meanings behind its presence.  


Next day morning, to my great surprise, there was the melodious song of Malabar whistling thrush at 5. 30 am. It lasted for about ten minutes only, not like extended periods of time that we heard in Valparai.  Also, in Valparai it started at 4.30 in the morning.  I am not sure how Malabar whistling thrush was singing in Sikkim. We joked that it has followed us all the way from Valparai to Sikkim.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Changing concepts of ‘Ahimsa’

Compassion personified


There are some memories from childhood that never fade. One such memory that left me deeply influenced was a lesson in primary school. The title was something related to ‘Ahimsa’ (non- violence), but the picture in that lesson is still fresh in my mind. It was Mahatma Buddha walking along with a herd of sheep and a shepherd, carrying a lamb.


The story goes that as Buddha was walking, he saw that the shepherd was beating a lame lamb as it could not walk as fast as the other sheep. Out of compassion, he picked up the lamb and started walking with it. The lesson was that we have to show compassion to every living being. It seemed such a noble idea to my young mind and I was in awe of Buddha.

Non-vegetarian momos?


Years later when we visited the Buddhist NamdrolingMonastery, also known as the Golden Temple in Kushal nagar, I was shocked to see that Lamas ate non-vegetarian food.  When we asked for momos in the canteen, they asked, ‘Vegetarian or non-vegetarian’?  Where was the non-violence that Buddha talked about and killing animals for food? I was very disturbed by these contrasting views.

I found out that if an animal dies of natural causes, Buddhism permits eating its flesh. But looking at the amount of meat being consumed, is it possible that such a large number of animals are dying daily of natural causes?

Vietnam, a nightmare for vegetarians


In Vietnam, a country with a significant Buddhist population, it was very difficult to get vegetarian food for us. Every meal, right from breakfast, included lots of meat for the local population.  My husband got so paranoid that he used to get his dishes made in front of him, by pointing out the vegetarian ingredients to be added in the dish.

Bhutan visit


In 1972, the fourth King of Bhutan announced that Gross National Happiness was more important than Gross Domestic Product. In this paper, the basic conceptual features of Mahayana Buddhism are discussed particularly as they relate to the Mahayana Buddhist view of happiness. The primary purpose of Mahayana Buddhism is to spread happiness and compassion to everyone in the world. As this paper shows, the goal of modern Gross National Happiness is also based on Mahayana Buddhist principles to increase happiness for everyone.  


Right Livelihood includes engaging in occupations that do not cause harm, pain, or injustice for others (Gethin 2004; Snelling 1998). The Buddha included engaging in the sale of weapons, harming animals, and producing intoxicants as examples of harmful types of livelihood.”


But when we look at the Bhutan food, Bhutanese cuisine is influenced by Chinese, Tibetan and Indian culture. Their main dish generally includes white or red rice, seasonal vegetables, and meat often cooked with chili or cheese. Pork, beef and chicken are eaten regularly.

Searching for details


I was so confused with these conflicting situations that I did some research.

Buddhism was founded in about 500 BCE by Prince Siddhartha Gautama. He was a fully trained and certified warrior and scheduled to become king, but instead escaped from the palace by night and wandered about India as a mendicant trying various methods to achieve enlightenment. He finally succeeded while meditating under a Bodhi tree (Sacred Fig Tree Ficus religiosa), and from that time on was known as Gautama Buddha.

The Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the dharma (the underlying order of life, nature and the cosmos). Upon his death at 80 his well briefed disciples continued the teaching and Buddhism became a major influence on the Indian subcontinent and beyond. The major branches of Buddhism are Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.

General Rules


·         No killing of any sentient being (similar to Jainism) nor using animal products (milk, eggs, leather, feathers, etc. - similar to vegan). Oddly, the cuisines of all the predominantly Buddhist populations feature meat.
·         Alcohol and other intoxicants are forbidden because they may result in violations of others of the "Five Moral Precepts": no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying or partaking of intoxicants. Also intoxicants cloud the mind and interfere with the concentration needed to achieve enlightenment.
·         Onions, Garlic, Scallions, Chives and Leeks, "the five pungent spices" are forbidden for some sects (China, Vietnam) for pretty much the same reason as in Hinduism, they're said to lead to anger (raw) and passion (cooked), but the Buddhists add that their odors repel Gods and attract hungry ghosts and demons.

Non- vegetarianism among Buddhists


Given the rules stated above, it may seem strange that the world's Buddhist populations are predominantly meat eaters.  Strict adherence to vegetarianism is the rule for priests, monks, nuns and those who feel they are on the Bodhisattva path - except in some schools and sects.

The Buddha himself is reported to have died from eating tainted pork. Some apologists say it was mushrooms but pork is well documented.

It is said the Buddha sometimes ate meat that was prepared specifically for him in violation of the exception rule. This is said to be to demonstrate freedom from attachment - even attachment to the rules of Buddhism.

My Dilemma


Being a Keralaite, I am a non-vegetarian by birth. Though I turned into predominantly vegetarian, I do enjoy an occasional fish preparation. Still I can’t bring myself to believe that taking another life for enjoyment is not ‘himsa’.