I have never been in a country where the religious underpinnings of society are so omnipresent. Even in Morocco where Islam is the foundation, the presence of that faith did not impact me as much as Buddhism does here. Now, I have to admit that I have been in more monasteries in the last week than I have been in churches in the last year and that, no doubt, is partially responsible for my feeling inundated …but it is truly more than that and it is difficult to explain. In Bhutan, Buddhism levels the playing field. It is the common denominator in a society that to start with, does not swing two standard deviations from the mean as in other countries. The very rich, are spiritually rich more than monetarily so. The very poor appear to be rich spiritually even if materially poor.
In addition, most of my life, thanks to my mother and grandmother I have been engaged in, and intrigued by, hand crafts. I hoped that when in Bhutan I would see some of their hand weaving and spinning. The techniques they use and the exquisite nature of their textiles is known around the world. Both traditions were developed through necessity. Today, these skills keep the past alive and are fundamental to the culture. Material for ghos (the national dress for men), kiras (the national skirt and jacket for women) and kabneys (the raw silk ceremonial scarf worn by men) are still hand made.
Today, I woke up to the sound of loud banging. I thought that it came from the street and it seemed that things were being heaved into a dumpster. Or maybe, it was just my head that is pounding as it is working constantly, integrating and trying to make sense of my thoughts and experiences in this place.
It seems that everything here requires many hours and a great deal of dedication. Becoming a monk takes years of commitment. Learning any of the art forms, as I saw yesterday in the school, is exacting work. And raising crops in the rice paddies is tedious or at the least repetitive and back breaking. There is no quick return on investment here. They are in for the long haul on everything. But the people seem joyful, not depressed and weighed down by their lives. They seem to “spin a mani” and get on with life. It is refreshing and grounded.
When we were driving back into Thimphu from the Phobjika Valley several days ago, I spotted a large Buddha high on the far mountain. I teased Jaim Yong that if I was going to have to climb to it, he had better let me out right then as it would clearly take me most of the rest of my natural life. He laughed and said, “No, we go tomorrow”.
Well, it’s “tomorrow” and we weave our way up the mountainside on a paved road that follows many switchbacks to a site that was once the location of Kuensel Prodrang, the palace of Sherab Wangchuk. Here a gigantic, 169’ Buddha, known as the Buddha Dordenma is under construction. Cast in Japan, it was transported in pieces and assembled on site. When complete, the bronze statue will house over one hundred and twenty-five thousand smaller statues of Buddha. It is gilded and has a diamond embedded in the forehead.
The Aerosun Corporation of Nanjing, China is building the Buddha Dordenma at a cost of $47 million US dollars. The entire project including the monastery and the gigantic courtyard is expected to surpass $100 million. Although it was initially to be completed by the fall of 2010, there are still several more years of work ahead.
The building of this amazing statue fulfils two prophecies. Last century, a renowned yogi, Sonam Zangpo prophesied that a large statue of the Buddha would be built in the region and that it would bestow blessings for peace and happiness on the whole world.
We were to visit the Textile Museum this morning too, but I have the sense that Jaim Yong and Dorji are getting a little anxious to start back to Paro. Following our visit to Buddha Dordenma, we are clearly headed out of town until LeeAnn speaks up and asks about the museum. Dorji seems a little miffed but obliges as Jaim Yong directs him to a weavery that apparently is nearer than the Museum. I should have spoken up earlier as he seems surprised by my interest.
The shop is a lot like the paper factory. The work area is poorly lit and the weavers, who sit on the floor in front of their backstrap looms, are wearing their coats to keep warm. Their work is very fine and the supplementary warp patterns intrigue me.
In the show room, the lengths of cloth are stunning. They are priced in accordance with the type of fiber, the complexity of the weave and the time required to complete the yardage. The fine silk work that catches my eye is over $2000 US. Humm, … mine to admire while here and remember later.
We follow a modern stretch of highway towards Paro. The honk and pass protocol of the mountains is still in effect. As we near Paro, Dorji pulls over and we disembark to view the valley and the monastery on the far shore of a raging river. Monks are working on the sunny slope to dry chilies that they will take to market in winter when the prices will be better.
We follow a path down to a suspension bridge. Built in the fourth century, the bridge is now constructed from wire mesh taken from other bridges that have been dismantled. At one time the span was covered by cane but now it’s open mesh and I just try not to look down and try to work with the swing and bounce, rather than against it, as I make my way to the other side. LeeAnn and Jaim Yong arrive safely before me. I bounce around and try to capture the moment. Like I am going to forget it!
A chorten and prayer flags greet us on the far shore. Grey slabs of slate serve as a roof on this memorial and on the structures that support the bridge. Rocks hold the slate in place. Even multi-storey buildings in Thimphu use this method!
We climb to the private monastery and gaze across the landscape. High on the slopes I can make out traditional homes. Jaim Yong says that water is a problem there, particularly in the winter and it often has to be piped in from adjacent valleys.
As we wind our way into Paro, below us on the shores of the Paro Chuu, the local jail stands out because of its fenced exercise yard. Theft is an issue here but more serious crimes are rare.
By the airport it is noticeable that people have been working hard over the last week as many fields have been tilled and there are a lot more haystacks sprinkled across the landscape.
We are dropped for one last wander through Paro and when we return with a few souvenirs in hand, Dorji is stretched out on the back seat of the van and Jaim Yong is sleeping in the passenger seat. Maybe it was the stress of the week but maybe it was the effect of the doma they chew. It is a form of betel nut that is wrapped in a leaf smeared with lime and then chewed. The juices leave a red stain on teeth, lips and sidewalks. It is a mild stimulant. Not strong enough, obviously!
The van takes us to the Hotel Olathang that was built in 1974. It is a western style hotel and a large barn of a building not unlike the Monasterio in Cusco.
I am saturated with images and experiences from this short stay in Bhutan. Sadly, it is time to dump everything, and reload my suitcase in preparation for tomorrow when we begin our journey home.