The road from Bagdogra, India in the to the Bhutanese border began with adventure. Here my colleague, Dr. Amarjiva Lochan, skilfully negotiates with striking Communist workers in West Bengal who have blocked the road out of Bagdogra.
Along the road, the famous indigo plant linked to Mahatma Gandhi's struggle for the workers
Because of the road blocks by the Communist rebels over the recent fuel hike, commercial vehicles lined the road for miles
Speeding past the tea bushes in West Bengal
Our Sanskrit-chanting taxi driver from Bagdogra to Phuentsholing. The excitement of travel is really all about people.
The distinctive entry gate into Bhutan at the border town of Phuentsholing. I have come to this purported Shangri-la to conduct a site visit, in preparation for a regional conference next year (June 30- July 3, 2011) of the South and South East Asian Association for the Study of Religion and Culture (SSEASR) (affiliated to the International Association for the History of Religions of which I am the President).
Images of Bhutan's beloved kings are never far from view
Once on Bhutanese territory, there are dragons everywhere, even in the tech world. Bhutan is known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon
Pepsi prayer wheels in Phuentsholing
The next day did not dawn bright. In fact it rained and rained, making the mountain drive to Thimphu (the capital) rather treacherous
Our wonderful driver Tashi enjoys some chai at a local restaurant along the way. The proprietor told us that her husband was lured to Bangkok by better employment prospects and remarried there.
Catching up on field notes
I love to be in a country where truck decoration is a local art form!
As the weather deteriorates, so do the roads and we are told to bide our time in this restaurant while the road below is cleared of landslides
Drivers and passengers have a great vantage point on the road repairs further down the road
The staff were delightful and we enjoyed chai and dhosas (Indian pancakes) while we waited
We were allowed to sit in the Officers' Mess - a type of VIP room - where there was a fine picture of the former king crowning his son in 2006, the present king Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk
An ironic image
For the most part the roads are pretty empty, which is not surprising when the population is not even 700,000
The aftermath of the storm - this boulder was uncomfortably close to the road
Tashi the driver literally goes to test the waters. This is a fresh fall and we drive through carefully but speedily
Further deliberations about whether the vehicle can get through or not
We passed dozens of these rock falls and landslides on our 110 km/11 hour journey to Thimpu
Somehow we got around this boulder in the road
I thought I was getting high from being on high, but was told I was surrounded by marijuana plants on the roadside!
One angry, swollen river
We were so close to our destination when the hillside fell onto the road before our eyes
Amarjiva expressing the feelings of all the stranded travelers
We eventually walked across the mudslide. In some parts of the world, people pay for mudbaths..
The butter tea and Red Panda beer helped ease our travel weariness on arrival at our guest house in Thimpu
The next day work began on the planning of the SSEASR conference. This is the planning committee assembled in the office of the Director of the Institite for Culture and Language Studies of the Royal University of Bhutan. The Director is our host, Venerable Dr. Lungtaen Gyatso to my left.
Meeting the Vice Chancellor of the Royal University of Bhutan
Venerable stops to explain a thangka or mandala, concentric paintings that have ritual significance in Buddhism and Hinduism. They are believed to represent the cosmos
The new administration building (2008) of the Royal University of Bhutan
A view over Thimphu (the capital)
Wherever you look there are slogans and messages about the Bhutanese Government's policy on Gross National Happiness (GNH)
A Gross National Happiness message at the Youth Centre (reminds me of Ubuntu in South Africa)
Simtokha Dzong was built in 1629 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It is often said to be the first dzong built in Bhutan. It is the oldest dzong that has survived as a complete structure, and is the first structure that incorporated both monastic and administrative facilities. It now houses the School for Buddhist studies.
An example of one of the newer Bhutanese "heritage" hotels--the Namgay Heritage Hotel
Entrance to the Namgay Heritage Hotel (where I plan to stay next June)
The stunning new Taj Tashi Hotel (high-end prices not suitable for academics)
We stayed in the delightful old-world Yeedzin Guest House.
Next to the guest house one could observe women weaving
The traditional kira worn by Bhutanese women. Men wear a gho. Traditional dress has to be worn on all official duties
Bhutan is known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, so dragon images are found in many locations--here on a table place mat
Meeting with the Director of Culture as part of the conference planning
Looking relaxed at approx. 11,000 feet/ 3140m! The view from Dochu la is spectacular but you have to look fast as clouds can move in
View from Dochu la (see the road below). High Himalayas hidden by cloud
At Dochu la there is a collection of 108 chortens (a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics). They look old but were built in 2005 as an atonement for the suppression of Assamese insurgents in southern Bhutan
chorten plus prayer flags at Dochu la
Venerable Dr Lungtaen Gyatso at Dochu la. He explained to me that the site was built with the help of community volunteers
The mists descend over the chortens and flags adding an aura of mystery to the place. Next year I plan to do a temple trek (half-day) from here
Each chorten contains the same slate image of the Buddha.
Venerable Lungtaen explains the meaning of the different prayer flags
Not far down the winding road, as the vegetation changes to a more moist and green environment, we come upon the new Royal Botanical Park
Lush, peaceful and under construction
note that there are eight different habitats in the park
Snack time en route to Punakha - roasted corn
Roadside vendors - vegetables are plentiful in Bhutan
Bhutanese dogs are ubiquitous
The woman owner of this restaurant in Thinleygang created her own sidewalk garden
This is perhaps the prime tourist attraction in Bhutan - the Punakha Dzong. This was the seat of the Bhutanese government for 300 years (until 1952) and the first king was crowned here in 1907. Construction began in 1637, based on the dream of the architect, who was ordered by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651), the founder of the Bhutanese state, to sleep in front of a 14th century statue of the Buddha in that location.
Situated in a warm and fertile valley, at the confluence of a Mother River and a Father River, Punakha Dzong is nothing short of spectacular!
Punakha Dzong has suffered from severe flooding of the river, but survived
Since it was built as a fortress, access to the various levels can be challenging
Prayer wheels and paintings of guardian deities greet the visitor at the entrance
Our driver, Tashi, is expected to don a special ceremonial cloth to enter the dzong
Tashi shows us the image of his spiritual mentor that he wears
A popular Bhutanese folk tale and painting known as Harmony - showing four animals supporting each other
One of Venerable's former students accompanies us to parts of the dzong that are normally not visited by tourists
The reward for climbing the steps was a great view of the colorful rooves of the dzong. We were not allowed to photograph the prayer rooms we visited.
A bodhi tree similar to the one under which the Buddha reached enlightenment in the courtyard at Punakha Dzong
A privilege to have expert explanations on hand from Venerable Lungtaen
One of the side temples of the Punakha Dzong
Leaving Punakha we follow the river, aiming for the temple on the hill in the distance
It is considered bad luck to not drive around the chorten on the left so drivers have created an unofficial road
Just outside of Punakha in Yambesa we made a one-hour ascent to this magnificent chorten, Khamsun Yuelley Namgyal Chorten. 30m high, it was consecrated in 1999 and is dedicated to the Crown Prince.
Dr Amarjiva Lochan and Venerable Lungtaen begin their pilgrimage up to the chorten by crossing the bridge
The path took us up through rice paddies
We passed traditional Bhutanese family homes, nestling above the rice fields
The locals told us to hurry up and beat the rain for the descent would be muddy
Another stunning view after the climb
I was very taken with the goddess of offerings at the back of the chorten. She had a prime location
the goddess of offerings
This woman came to greet us and I was struck by her T-shirt. T-shirts can have global lives
A quick shot of the offering bowls inside the chorten
One of the altars with its sensual complexity, bearing an image of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651), the founder of the Bhutanese state,
The chorten caretaker shows Venerable the ritual images on the roof. He told us a story about how one of the Buddha images there purportedly spoke
Another green, peaceful Bhutanese vista from the top of the chorten
How many years did it take to construct those rice fields?
Leaving the chorten I espied this magnificent door knocker
Venerable catches his breath by the prayer wheel before the descent
Peppers are a staple in Bhutan
During the day, the dogs sleep. By night they howl like wolves
On our way back we stop to talk with a group of young monks who are landscaping the grounds of a temple
One of those unplanned shots that any photographer is grateful for
The young boys are learning their lessons in monastic school
Bhutan is very environmentally aware
Our view as we prepare to leave the Punakha valley to return to Thimput
Elderly people spend a large portion of their day engaged in spiritual practices, such as turning the prayer wheels
The Bhutanese are famed for their archery skills
Archery is also a popular spectator sport and cultural happening
Meeting with the Director of the National Museum in Paro (about two hours from Thimpu)
A view toward the airport from the National Museum
The Paro Dzong below the National Museum. It is all so green because we were there at the end of June, just before the monsoon rains
My eyes were drawn to this female guardian river spirit - is she not a mermaid?
One of the oldest and most charming of Bhutan's temples, Kyichu Lakhang. Believed to have been built in 659 by a Tibetan king. In a neighboring building is a 5 metre-high statue of the Indian Guru Rinpoche who is believed to have brought Buddhism to the region in the 8th century before he went to Tibet
Tashi on a 21st century phone in a centuries-old courtyard
Paro airport (the only one at present) is a tourist attraction as planes have to wend their way through the valleys as they land
One of Druk Air's smaller planes landing from nearby Kathmandu
A quick note on tourism in Bhutan which is tightly controlled for fear of its invasive and disruptive power. Currently 25,000 tourists are allowed in annually. This will increase to 50,000 but many Bhutanese are against the liberalization of tourism, wanting to preserve their cultural and environmental heritage.
Visiting a hotel in Paro, we found this symbolic homage paid to the current king
In the hotel courtyard, we were entertained by traditional Bhutanese dancers
Parting view of Paro Dzong from the airport
After the morning rain, staff manually dry the airport surfaces
My colleague and travel companion, Dr Amarjiva Lochan, ready to board our plane to Delhi
Bhutan's cultural history is never far away, even in modern international airports
The Druk Air (druk means dragon) plane tail
Bhutanese PR is impressive - here is the cover of the latest Druk Air magazine. Also check out the stunning Faces of Bhutan: Buddhism in the Land of the Thunder Dragon http://www.zinio.com/reader.jsp?o=int&pub=500351074&prev=sub&offer=500168165
Taking off from Paro
First sighting of the mighty Himalayan peaks above the clouds
We are only a few thousand feet higher than the breathtaking Mt Everest
Looking back on Mt Everest with several more of the world's highest peaks still to see along the way. These are all carefully explained by the co-pilot.
Landing in hot, dusty Delhi
Taxiing past the new airport terminal at Delhi. It was officially opened on July 3 and is now the world's second largest airport in terms of size