Structures and Inquisition in Bhutan

[For lots of pictures accompanying this post, go to my Facebook Wall and the album titled Punakha Valley, Bhutan.]

The landscape of Bhutan wears its people’s spirituality on its sleeve. One doesn’t wander far before facing off with a structural reminder that this country has been knitted together with the Buddhist way. From prayer flags on a remote mountain pass at 17,000 feet, to 16th century Dzongs strategically placed at river confluences, each section of torn fabric, mud roof, or lovingly detailed fortress, connects the dots of a life of spiritual harmony. And the actions of the people when coming upon one of these reminders attests to the influence these memorabilia exude—while guaranteeing to prompt my inquisitive nature.

Our BOC driver Rinzin, who accompanied us on our trip to Punakha, spoke little English, but even before I readily dove in asking him questions about his life during a moment when Karma was off sorting out logistics, I could see he was a very religious man. Karma has gotten used to my style of intense conversation, or ‘interrogation’ as I enjoy calling it, and wasn’t surprised when I found an opening to use it on Rinzin.

As I made a sarcastic remark about my conversational intensity while on the road to Punakha, Karma informed me that everyone in the BOC office has been instructed by the big boss, to listen well and garner as much information as possible from me during my stay. I shared that I’d do my best to continue to offer the staff all the big ripe fruit I’ve acquired—such as being able to give Karma information to help him better know his co-workers—that he never thought to acquire. Though the Bhutanese do not operate in my fashion of straight-up mutual blood sucking interaction (actually, nor do most Americans I know), he disclosed that he feels lucky to be able to spend as much time with me as he has and experience this type of sharing. It warmed me to humbly accept his compliment.

Yet, despite their not being the regular initiators of interrogative conversation, when they do engage, the Bhutanese are as straight up as it comes. MUCH more so than most Americans, because they don’t appear to be looking for a possible ulterior motive behind the questions, get offended, nor try and (mis)interpret why or what you are asking. They just take the questions at face value, which often probe at the inner workings of humanity, and then answer them.

We may be chatting about religion, or politics, or literature, and I casually turn a sharp corner. “Karma, do you think that Bhutan has many prostitutes?”

“No.” He would reply abruptly, while adding extended umph to the capital N and chopping the small o in half, and without flinching from the intimacy of the question. Not believing this is true, I probe deeper, never content with his direct answers.

So in just a minute of respite, I sorted out that Rinzin was from Bumthang where his family still lives, he has two sisters, is divorced and has one son who has been a monk for the past 6 of his 12 years. I also found out while further inquiring with Karma (because humble Bhutanese do not offer this type of information at the risk of ‘bragging’), that Rinzin’s son is the reincarnation of a lama and would himself be a high lama one day. As I observed Rinzin while he drove, he would chant prayers and execute a particular hand gesture implying ‘adoring respect’, each time we moved past a construct of spiritual significance. As with most Bhutanese, Rinzin just didn’t observe these structural reminders, he interacted with them.

The Dzongs of Bhutan are considered to be some of the most beautiful architecture in all of Asia

Punakha Dzong

and were constructed in strategic places for political and spiritual reasons. They contain not only local monastic communities, but the administrative offices of the region—which would be sort of like the people of the Santa Cruz City Council and the people of Holy Cross Church working side by side daily. Dzongs generally contain a tower, courtyard and various additional buildings all surrounded by sloping walls, and are often creatively molded to suit the site on which they were chosen to sit for eternity. The Punakha Dzong auspiciously sits at the confluence of a ‘female’ and a ‘male’ river, is the second largest and the second oldest (1638) in the country and is the site of many significant happenings—including the recent marriage of the King.

When one enters a Dzong the magnitude of the structure resonates—in a calming and stimulating manner—at once. Being in awe of these fortresses is a certainty, but not because they embody some sort of other-humanly-design-feat like say, the Pyramids. Dzongs feel very human. They personify the unfaltering, steady and vast love of the artists who built and painted them and inclusive of flaws, wear, and painstakingly hand placed inch by inch detail. A Dzong is not an exercise in perfection architecture. But rather a result of many hearts laying side by side over years, for love. Though they are intricately designed, when I walk into a Dzong I don’t feel the same as I might while witnessing a surreal engineering marvel, like the Golden Gate Bridge. But rather the easy pull, of a deep loving cuddle from a worn teddy bear that has been your companion for many lives.

Temples are some of the first forms of religious architecture and many in Bhutan are centuries old. There are often several temples in one monastery or fortress in Bhutan and they always house one to hundreds of few inch high, to many feet high gold Buddha statues of various types. On our recon in Punakha we hiked up to the Khamsum Yulley Temple which was built by one of the Queen Mothers for the 5th King. This pristine temple has an extensive view of the valley, is put together like the most decorated super model, yet embodies a natural sense of tranquility that surrounds you as you enter the temple site. With one exception, you will not see any photos of the inside of any Bhutanese temple in the thousands of pictures I’ve shot in this country, because the inside of a temple is the one place its not ok to take pictures.

Chortens are almost as prevalent as prayer flags, come in all shapes and sizes and are also built in

The 108 Dochula pass memorial Chortens

their particular location as advised by the local monks. In the mountains you see collective piles of rocks emulating a Chorten, and formed by the many hundreds of people who have passed by and inclusive of leaves, branches and other items offered up. A Chorten can be a small cement egg shaped structure, a square building the size of an outhouse, a narrow rectangular structure 50 or more feet long, or a several hundred foot high ornate dome that you can walk into. In all cases a Chorten is a ‘receptacle for offerings’ or what we might call a memorial shrine. In the Himalayan world they symbolize Buddha’s Mind (in Buddhism the ‘Mind’ loosely resembles the ‘Soul’ in Christianity). There are Chortens large enough to drive around and others placed as tiny reminders in ones front yard, but in any case, the Chorten always has a well worn path beaten around it—clockwise.

Chortens are built where they are advised to be built and on our descent into Punakha Valley, we happened upon one of the most randomly placed Chortens I remember seeing when here in the Fall. During Expedition Bhutan, Greg and I took this downhill fast on our mountain bikes while chatting handle bar to handlebar. We suddenly swerved apart after turning a corner while finding ourselves face to face with this several foot high structure built right into the asphalt in the middle of the road.

I’d inquire with Karma about the oddly located Chortens we experienced—as their placements looked as though someone put a blindfold on, then stuck a pin randomly on a map to select a spot.

“The monk says thats where it goes. One doesn’t question these things,” He replied.

I then might randomly ask Karma if women are into giving oral sex to men in Bhutan. Without batting an eye he’d reply, “1 in 10, maybe.”

“Bummer for the guys, eh?” I’d respond.

“Yes, ma’am.” Even though we are close friends, Karma will forever call me ma’am, because I am a special guest in his country.

Prayer wheels come in a diverse array of sizes, from a couple inch high wheels you can hold via a handle, to immense standing structures around which one can walk and meditate while turning. They are free moving, built around a spine and are ornately made of metal, wood, stone, leather or fabric. Each wheel has MANY prayers in and on them and with each turn of the wheel one is “saying” all the thousands of prayers or mantras, which are then passed to the universe. It is difficult to pass a prayer wheel without turning it and I’ve found myself more than once, backtracking to execute, when initially I didn’t bother.

While thinking of the prayer wheels at the Khamsum Yulley Temple we had just visited, and as we passed the cremation site in Punakha Valley, my interaction continues, “Karma, if I die while I’m here will you cremate me?”

“No ma’am, you must be Buddhist to be cremated.”

“I think you’re wrong on that one—I’ll look into it—but lets say you are correct.” I probe. “If I can’t get cremated whats another option?”

“We can chop up your body and feed you to the animals in the mountains,” he explained. “If you have good karma the animals will eat you. If not, you will rot.”

“I like that option. I’m going to look into this cremation situation, but Plan B would be the body chopping option, correct?” I clarify.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Prayer flags tend to be prevalent anywhere the wind might blow well—along the ridges and mountains, across bridges, from tall trees or to surround a Dzong, Temple, or Chorten. They are used to bless the surrounding countryside with their imbedded prayers. There are 4 prominent types of prayer flags in Bhutan and the most common type you string across, tend to come in sets of five colors in a specific order; blue (sky/space), white (air/wind), red (fire), green (water), yellow (earth). I’m drawn to the sound that the flags make in high wind and have an obsession with taking pictures of them—sometimes highlighting their movement, while other times looking to capture them in crisp, twisted stillness.

In some recent inquisition/interaction, Karma told me that when he first encountered the Expedition Bhutan Team, he had an instant good feeling. When we landed in country last Fall, our film team was given first-ever permission to film on the runway as our Team’s plane approached the Paro airport. After having fallen in love with this country even prior to arriving, my eyes welled up as we disembarked—like seeing an old friend after much time had passed. Witnessing our individual as well as connected emotion with each other and with Bhutan, Karma knew things would work out well on our journey and beyond. His premonition seems to have spilled over into Round Two here. But just in case, I’ll look into that cremation option.

Due to the three road blocks we encountered on our day of marathon course recon in Punakha, we were very late in getting back to our hotel for dinner. Because I’m taking some high powered medication for the giardia I acquired, my stomach doesn’t do well when it gets empty. I started to get nauseous and cranky and gave Karma a heads up on my status. While insisting we finish up our initial proposed route that night, he was sharing with me about how close his wife’s family was and detailing that if provoked, her older brother would stab someone if they threatened Karma’s wife.

In a half starved stupor I chimed in as he continued his story, mumbling under my breath, “I’m going to stab you if we don’t eat dinner pretty soon.”

He continued chatting for another 30 seconds or so. Paused. Then we both cut loose into the kind of insane unabashed laughter one engages, with close friends who are both very tired and way too hungry—and therefore think the joke is a lot funnier than it really is.

“Did you say you would stab me?” Karma was rolling in laughter now.

“Yes, sir!” I howled.





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