On two separate visits to the Land of Thunder Dragon, two years apart, Jairaj Singh finds that reality and myth are not so disjointed in Bhutan as in the rest of the world.
“You’re all broken inside,” she says. “You can’t even smile.” It’s 4.30 am on a Friday night.
I’m sitting in one of the dimly-lit basement dives in downtown Thimphu that come alive when all the neon-lit clubs in the city dotting the mountain side go off. The woman sitting beside me is someone I met few a hours ago at another bar. She has brought me here to catch a glimpse of the other side of Bhutan nightlife, saying, “This is where stories come alive.”
She turns to look at me, with an all-knowing poise, as if she can see thoughts pass through my mind like clouds drifting across a full-moon night. We’re talking about happiness in a country that, not so long ago, decided to do away with gross domestic product, and instead, famously adopt a programme called gross national happiness to measure the well-being of its people.
The bar is filled with mostly young people who, like we, have come from other watering holes. Everyone seems to know one another. Although smoking is banned in Bhutan, I see cigarettes—mysteriously available to locals behind shut windows across the city—being lit around me. A man with close-cropped hair and heavy-set shoulders is introduced to me as someone who is close to the fifth and present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. He meets us like we’re old drinking friends, and after regaling me with zany tales of his years studying in Delhi University, tells me a story that he requests be never repeated, because he realises I am a writer. It’s about a night of drinking such as this, many moons ago, when things went horribly wrong, and shows the king to be an extremely kind and forgiving man. His eyes glimmer with gratitude.
The bartender slides me a drink. She is an attractive woman in her early 20s and is wearing a red lipstick that matches her top. I’m drinking K5 (named after the present king), a local Himalayan malt whisky, which tastes of snow-fed spring water, wild fruits, oak, honey, prayers, and a wisp of wet wood smoke. I’ve downed way too many to say a few. My friend signals for another vodka, takes a drag from her cigarette, and exhales with a smile: “Bhutan is happiness,” she says. “You’re here now. Stop searching for meaning. Let it heal you.”
If I ever tell you that there exists in this world, an ancient mountain kingdom up in the clouds, with monasteries, bookshops, and nightclubs—a deeply spiritual and magical place of kings, holy men, and dragons, which is said to have been discovered by a monk, who came here on the back of a flying tigress, would you believe me?
Two years on, I’m at the Royal University of Bhutan again to attend the annual literature and culture festival, the Mountain Echoes. The auditorium is filled with students in their traditional goh and kira. A young boy sitting on the floor next to me is playing a video game on his phone, while a girl beside him is spinning a pen on her fingers. A hush falls over the room. Everyone rises. In walks Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, in a traditional silk kira, as gentle as a cool mountain breeze, with the kindest of eyes. She stops to meet one of the guests of honour in the front row, and, with her right hand, gently touches the person’s right cheek as if she’s blessing her with warmth, affection, and humility. A young girl behind me is so enamoured by the beauty and grace of the Queen Mother that she imitates the same gesture to her friend.
This year is the ninth edition of the annual three-day festival, and it features 74 speakers in all, including 42 from Bhutan and 26 from India. Among the big international names are American poet Sarah Kay and noted environmentalist Daniel C. Taylor. It also marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between India and Bhutan. It’s heartening to see the festival’s focus is more on Bhutanese literature, arts and culture, ecology, religion, sub-cultures from rap and hip-hop music to avant-garde dance forms. At a session on whether the yeti, the mythical creature that is widely believed to live in the Himalayas, exists, the discussion dexterously swerves between what is empirical scientific data and deep-rooted beliefs and folklore. Tshering Tashi, writer and co-director of the festival, puts things in perspective on stage and tells the audience why we must cast cynicism aside when talking about the yeti. “Until 1905, the West believed our national animal, takin, was the ‘Golden Ram’ from Greek mythology. Some even said it was the unicorn, until a British officer came here and stumbled upon what our grandfathers knew all along as the takin, and declared it budorcas taxicolor after himself, and said it exists. Similarly, blue poppy, our national flower, which our ancestors ate and fed to the yaks— the West thought it was some mythical flower. This is the arrogance of us humans, in thinking we know everything.”
Bhutan, Tashi tells us, has so far conducted four expeditions in search of the yeti. I step out of the hall thinking about mythical creatures, and I’m struck by the beauty of the cover of dark silver clouds looming over the valley. In Dzongkha, Bhutan is called ‘Druk Yul’ (Land of the Thunder Dragon), and I can’t help but believe what I’m sure many others have felt before me—the dragon here is no fantasy, but very much real like in the local folktales collected by Kunzang Choden. It lives deep in the sky, fervently circling behind the clouds, playing hide and seek. I ask a young bespectacled boy in goh, with his hair slicked back with gel, whether he believes the dragon exists. He says that as a child he did. Whenever there was a thunderstorm, he would run indoors, fearing the dragon was unleashing its fury by snarling in the clouds.
in two years, Thimphu has undergone a perceptible change. At nearly every corner of the city, there is construction work taking place. There are newer and fancier cafes and restaurants opening in the neighbourhood—some offering authentic Japanese and Korean fares. There’s also a new, organic, Bhutanese wheat and red rice lager in bars and clubs, which comes in beautiful pint bottles from a microbrewery in Paro. It’s easy to lose yourself in thoughts and time while exploring Bhutan, especially on foot. You can take a scenic walk up to Buddha Point, go down to Wang Chuu (River Raidak), or walk aimlessly around city limits. At a time when the world seems to be losing empathy and compassion, there’s much to be learned and felt of love and acceptance in Bhutan.
As dusk falls, I head to Junction Bookstore to meet the charming owner, with whom I had spent a poignant evening talking about books on my previous visit. Inside, I find a group of five people around the counter. The owner recognises me, greets me warmly, and tells me they’re in the midst of a poetry appreciation night. She asks if I would like to join them and read a poem. I nod. A petite girl standing beside me begins to read The Laughing Heart by American poet Charles Bukowski: “Your life is your life/Don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission./ Be on the watch./There are ways out./There is a light somewhere./ It may not be much light but/It beats the darkness…”
The best way to reach Bhutan is by air. Drukair is the official flag carrier of the Kingdom of Bhutan. You can fly to Bhutan from Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Singapore, and India (Kolkata, Gaya, Guwahati, and Delhi). You land in Paro, a picturesque valley in Western Bhutan. Thimphu, the capital city, is only a 60-minute drive away.
TIP: If you’re coming in from India or Nepal, be sure to get airplane seats from which Mt Everest is visible.
Taj Tashi combines traditional Dzong architecture with modern amenities and Bhutanese murals in its 66 spacious rooms in the Thimphu Valley. Dhensa Boutique Resort offers 24 suites set in six cottages.
You must see Tachogang Lhakhang Bridge, Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest), Buddha Point, and Punakha Dzong. Tshechu (masked dance) is an annual religious Bhutanese festival held in each district. It is usually 4-5 days long. Paro Tshechu takes place in late March, and Thimphu Tshechu is celebrated in September.