Updated: Aug 6, 2020
Utopia literally means ‘No Place’, but it has come to signify an imagined perfect place that one can only aspire to. What earns the tiny nation of Bhutan, the sobriquet of ‘the last Shangri-la’ then? That imaginary place where everything is pleasant and you can get whatever you want, or perhaps as the citizens interpret it… you want whatever you can get? For the one thing that characterized the conversations with the Bhutanese that I met on my seven day trip was that they expressed a sense of satisfaction in their way of life. Nestled in between the two Asian behemoths of India and China, Bhutan as a nation started opening up its borders to the outside world only in 1974 and while tourism is a significant source of income for Bhutan, they would rather restrict the numbers of tourists than risk uncontrolled development that would invariably accompany the influx. And therefore visiting Bhutan feels like a privilege and you get the first taste of that when you land at the Paro Airport, which has a landing strip that is tucked in a valley between some pretty treacherous Himalayan slopes.
Immediately one can sense a visceral shift as the air in Bhutan is clean and pure, a miracle as far as developing nations go as Bhutan has pledged to remain carbon neutral and in fact manages to be carbon negative most of the time. The next shift one can sense is being surrounded by nature. The Bhutanese consciously eschew the Western model of development that has been blindly adopted by the rest of the developing world. They are categorical in their commitment to preserving their cultural and natural heritage. Our Bhutanese guide who was a young girl also revealed to us that Bhutanese society is largely not patriarchal and devoid of class biases.
My trip took me to the oft visited towns of Paro, Punakha – the ancient capital and Thimphu, the current capital and the largest city in Bhutan. Most Bhutanese have settled in the valleys carved into the Himalayas by several rivers and the cities I visited are also nestled in the drier plain-like valleys of Paro, Punakha and Thimphu respectively. The drives between these cities take you through relatively gentler and more rolling terrains unlike the steeper ones of the neighbouring Indian state of Sikkim. Situated in the valley formed by the Wang Chhu river, Thimphu is the political and economic capital of Bhutan. The urban character of Thimphu is dominated by small buildings that occupy the slopes and typically embody the prescriptive traditional architectural style seen in all of Bhutan. Corbelled and trabeated painted structures support sloping roofs adorn even the most blasé concrete frame buildings. Similar corbelled features are used to dress fenestrations. All buildings are mandated to follow these rules in order to preserve the visual harmony of the built environment.
Some more notable sights in Thimphu are the Tashichho Dzong (fort with administrative and religious offices), the Memorial Chorten and the recently built Dordenma Buddha statue which is the world’s largest seated Shakyamuni Buddha statue made of bronze and gilded on the outside. Some of the more profane places to visit in the national capital are the farmers’ market where you can see organic produce brought in for sale from all over the country. Apart from a variety of cheeses and chillies which form the staple food of Ema Datsi, you can also find lots of varieties of mushrooms, potatoes and herbs. In addition you can visit the National Textile Museum and the Royal Academy of Performing Arts. Apart from several restaurants that offer Indian and Tibetan food, Thimphu offers some great places to sample traditional Bhutanese cuisine especially to those brave enough to try the cheese-chilly dishes. Personally the Ema Datsi or cheese-chilly dish was quite a shock to even my seasoned India palette but I’d definitely recommend it with caution. For the more seasoned world travellers there are some excellent Japanese, Korean and Thai restaurants also.
Heading east, enroute from Thimphu to Punakha one usually halts at the Dochula pass which is at an elevation of 3100 m and is the site of 108 memorial Chortens built by the Queen Mother to commemorate the Bhutanese army martyrs in their war against Assamese insurgents. After a short halt you continue along the winding road edging along the river until you arrive at the unparalleled Punakha Dzong, magically situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Pho Chhu (father) and the Mo Chhu (Mother) rivers. The second oldest Dzong, it was the ancient power center of Bhutan and is the most elaborate example of a Dzong as well. One enters the Dzong through a beautiful wooden bridge that spans the river and is then greeted by the most awe inspiring sight of lush Jacaranda trees in their full purple bloom. Inside, the Dzong is composed of a series of connected courtyards contained within buildings made of compacted earth, stone and timber. Sadly despite these beautiful ancient examples one can only see ruins of compacted earth buildings in the nearby villages, with traditional construction being replaced by the ubiquitous concrete and infill methods and so while it seems that there is an attempt to preserve the building traditions of Bhutan in effect without actually using the old methods its simply skin deep tradition mostly.
Travelling further east one comes upon the valley of Wangdue Phodrang that’s drained by the Punatsangchhu River. Several villages are situated in this valley and one can see phalluses painted on several of these houses. The paintings of these erect phalluses are believed to ward off evil eye and malicious gossip. These esoteric paintings have their origins in the Chimi Lakhang monastery, blessed by the maverick saint, Drukpa Kunley often called the ‘divine madman’. The temple is visited by those seeking fertility blessings or to offer thanks for new progeny. Beyond Wangdue, one can continue on towards Phobjika valley to spot black necked cranes that migrate here from Tibet during the winters.
I returned back to Paro to spend the last few days of the trip and finish with the greatly anticipated hike up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery that clings to the cliff way above the Paro Valley. In comparison to the bustle and density of Thimphu and the pastoral Punakha, Paro is a well laid out and gridded town. It is also home to some of the most luxurious resorts that Bhutan has to offer, perhaps because most tourists visit here to conquer the Tiger’s Nest hike. One of the resorts that we visited is the Amankora resort by the famous Kerry Hill Architects. Built in rammed earth, wood and stone, the project interprets the Bhutanese mandates on architecture in a very contemporary way without losing the integrity of the traditional built form. The expansive patios of the resort look directly on to the oldest known Dzong in Bhutan or the Drukgyel Dzong. The Amankora Paro is an exemplary manifestation of architecture in harmony with its natural context and as mentioned earlier perhaps more building can take a cue from construction techniques used here.
The Paro or the Rinphung Dzong is perched above the town and is the first monument that one sees on landing in Paro, right from the runway. You can overlook the entire town situated along the river from the vantage that the Dzong provides. Situated on a sharply contoured site the Dzong is also quite unique in that the interlocking courtyards are at different levels and one has to descend from one to the other. While the Punakha Dzong is the most iconic of all, I personally found myself fascinated by the spatial and formal complexity of the Paro Dzong. The large steps descending from one courtyard to the other are placed perpendicular to the primary axis of movement and that intensifies the experience of progressing from one courtyard to the next. The Paro valley is also surrounded by several hiking routes which commenced from there or the neighboring Haa valley. In addition one can also drive through dense pine, spruce and rhododendron forests up to Chele La pass. Finally the trek up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery or Takhatsang was the piece de resistance of the trip. The trail takes one up through lush greenery and the views of the monastery perched on the precipice are a reward in itself after one has made the effort of the demanding climb.
Maybe Bhutan is not complicit with western ideals of Utopia, in that it is not abundance without restraint but plenitude because of sacrifice. Bhutan presents an interesting model of progress but it is embodied in several dichotomies. People are very disciplined yet very happy, they are willing to subdue individuality in favor of a common identity as seen in their architecture. Perhaps the most telling is that the country that is already the only carbon negative countries in the world is targeting expanding their forest cover from 81% to 84%. Where else but in Shangri-La would one gauge progress by such a metric?
All photos © Ekta Idnany