My time in Bhutan has been almost impossible to put down in words. I was attracted to what is called Druk Yul, “the Land of the Thunder Dragon”, in the official language of Bhutan, Dzongkha, for its ecological biodiversity and preserved cultural and religious heritage fostered by its geographical isolation. Bhutan opened itself to foreigners only in the 1960s and in 1972 began a process of decentralization and democratization, which shifted the country from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.
Tharpaling Monestary, on the summit of the mountain behind our campus, that some of us hiked to.
It is impossible to write something about Bhutan and not comment on the country’s distinctive governing strategies. I have spent the past couple of months learning about the many endeavors Bhutan is facing from rapid growth that are unfortunately often accompanied with a discourse that posits tradition in opposition to modern development. Looking at any country’s position in our ultra-globalizing world is unnerving, and while I am being exposed to many risks, challenges, and power dynamics of Bhutan in particular, the country’s shared values that precipitate from the state religion of Buddhism offer a fascinatingly unique trajectory of governance; like its infamous commitment to Gross National Happiness (a sustainable and holistic approach that gives equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing).
While I could probably describe my experiences here in thousands of pages of text, the most meaningful times have been when I am able to feel simply connected with people; with my peers who are just as exhausted and vulnerable as I am, with old women I sit next to at tsechus (religious festivals) who cannot speak English (and I definitely not Dzongkha) and offer me guavas, or when I have the opportunity to sit with an old monk and caretaker of a sacred site whose eyes and laugh are warm with passionate life.
A boisterously joyful monk and caretaker of Membar Tsho (Burning Lake) holding the dried mango that we gave him as earrings.
A couple weeks ago we attended the Jakar tsechu, the tsechu of our home dzongkhag (district), which was just a 20-minute walk down the road from our campus, at the Jakar Dzong (fortress). The main part of tsechus are cham (Bhutanese ritual dances) where monks, nuns, and villagers dress in elaborate masks and costumes. During the end of the first day we watched the Raksha Marcham (The Dance of the Judgment of the Dead), which is based on the Bardot hos grol (otherwise known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a text read at a person’s death to prepare them for bardo, the state between death and rebirth).
Raksha Marcham (The Dance of the Judgment of the Dead)
The Lord of the Dead, a wrathful representation of Avolokiteshvara (the deity of compassion) who is joined by Rakshas (dressed in animal heads) who aid in judging two peoples’ actions by weighing the good actions, symbolized by white pebbles and bad ones, symbolized by black pebbles, on a scale. The first judgment is of a sinner who is ultimately sent to hell and the second judgment is of a virtuous man who is then liberated.
After this dance a few of us visited the caretaker of a temple on the outskirts of the Dzong. Despite our lack of language commonality, we were laughing and joking over tea and cookies. Our teacups were carefully observed and we were offered refills after almost every sip. He had actually been to New York before and eagerly showed us a postcard with an image of himself dancing the Shanag (Black Hat Dance) under the Brooklyn Bridge. Every concept that was successfully translated was met with loud laughter and snowballing animation. Immediately following our spirited extroverted-ness, we sat in silence with him in the small wooden temple that was lit by the smoky sunlight, and I was quickly absorbed in another form of stimulation.
During my sit I felt warm and full, and not just from the prior tea. I became overwhelmed by the sincerity and openness of our exchanges and now of our silence together. My eyes became heavy and the colors and designs of the traditional quilt that was directly in front of me, decorating the bottom of the altar, became fuzzy. We stood up, took an offering of saffron water, gestured full-prostration, and promised to be back soon.