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Bhutan: An act of faith

This remote, lofty Himalayan kingdom remains one of the region’s least-visited countries. A journey through its peaceful alpine forests and valleys offers a window into a uniquely preserved Buddhist culture

Bhutan: An act of faith
Tiger’s Nest, a sacred Buddhist monastery, Paro. Image: Scott A Woodward

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Amleamo is committed. She decided to wake up this morning and wear red — all red. Her outfit spans shades of crimson and claret: from T-shirt and fleece to ankle-length skirt and big woolly hat askew on her head, revealing unruly salt-and-pepper hair. Even her teeth are red, stained by a lifetime of chewing doma (areca nut and betel leaf), which she spits sporadically on to the pavement, its juice collecting next to her in small puddles.

Her commitment to her ensemble is a sartorial expression of her larger commitment to her faith: she’s visited Jambay Lhakhang — one of Bhutan’s oldest temples — every single day for the past 18 years, she says, instinctively spinning a handheld prayer wheel. A garland of wooden beads with tassels is spread across her lap, used to keep track of mantras. When I ask the current count, she fumbles with the beads and scrunches up her face, making the deep lines carved by her 78 years more prominent. It takes her a moment before she answers: two million in two years.

“The most important thing in Buddhism is rebirth,” explains Tshering, my portly guide who wears a knee-length gho, the national dress for men. “The best way is to pray for your future because you don’t know tomorrow,” he adds, as Amleamo begins thumbing her beads and mumbling mantras to the Guru Rinpoche.

You don’t have to travel far in Bhutan to see images of this mustachioed Buddhist master. Regarded as the second Buddha, the Guru Rinpoche founded Tibetan Buddhism in the eighth century and is revered for spreading the religion across this Vajrayana stronghold — a school of Buddhism particular to Tibet and select neighbouring Himalayan regions.

Religious conventions still wield a strong influence over life in this mountainous kingdom. It’s peppered with thousands of monuments and monasteries, while handmade chorten (stupas) crowd remote caves, bald-headed monks pray in temples, and clusters of white prayer flags mounted on poles dance on windy mountains. “We believe animals can hear the sound of the prayer flags, and in the next life they are reborn as human beings and have a better life,” says Tshering.

Perhaps in order to preserve its unique identity, the country sat in isolation for years, only opening to visitors in 1974. It currently charges a steep daily fee of $250 (£179) for all-inclusive organised tours — a cost-induced exclusivity that means Bhutan is often blissfully crowd-free. The tourist tax is just one way the country has kept environmental conservation high on its political agenda. Government decrees say that 60% of the kingdom’s land must be forested; plastic bags are prohibited; and mountaineering was banned in 2003. 

This enthusiasm for eco is especially evident here in Bumthang, a mountainous, Switzerland-in-Asia central region that’s packed with alpine forests and broad, fertile valleys covered in fields of buckwheat. This bucolic area is the religious heartland of the nation with some of its oldest temples — many of which are linked to Guru Rinpoche’s visit over a thousand years ago.

“Bumthang is considered one of the holiest places in Bhutan,” adds Tshering. And this temple is one of its holiest highlights. Jambay Lhakhang is made up of a series of square orange and white buildings topped by golden roofs. It doesn’t hide its age: stones have come loose from its facade, while cracks creep into intricate carvings that frame the doors and windows. Prayer wheels are inscribed with ancient scripture, handles worn by the devout who have kept them spinning for centuries. Around the squat buildings are little silver stupas containing handwritten prayers and plastic cups with stones used for counting circumambulations.

Built in AD 659, Jambay Lhakhang is one of numerous temples simultaneously constructed on top of a demon, according to legend. “The demon’s body covered all the Himalayas,” explains Tshering. “One hundred and eight temples were built to hold the demon down — we are here on the left knee.”

This ancient place seems to attract fittingly ancient devotees. “Whatever they committed — a mistake or sin — during their young age, they’re trying to clean it up,” Tshering explains. I watch an elderly man wearing pink polka dot pyjamas and a glitter-blue hat walk clockwise around the temple. When he heads inside to pray, I slip off my shoes, and follow him towards a sunny courtyard.

Inside, I spot an old woman with a laminated image of Guru Rinpoche among her possessions. She’s mumbling mantras while moving in half-prostrations on a mat; her hands are in the shape of a lotus bud, which she places on her head, to her throat and her heart before dropping to her knees and lowering her head to the ground. “If we shower, we clean only the outer part. It’s different to clean inner part,” instructs Tshering, adding that prostrations are a means of purifying the body, speech and mind of karmic sins.

Flanking the old woman are dark circles on the pavement — imprints of knees and a forehead left by former pilgrims. “That’s like, one-hundred thousand times — the marks there,” says Tshering as the woman finishes praying. She picks up her mat and shuffles out of the temple, spinning a large prayer wheel as she goes. Its loud dinging fills the reverential silence.

Butter lamps at Thangthong Dewachen Nunnery, Thimphu. Image: Scott A Woodward

Butter lamps at Thangthong Dewachen Nunnery, Thimphu. Image: Scott A Woodward

Eye of the tiger

“The Bhutanese people, they try to visit once in their life,” Tshering declares as we walk through dense pine forest festooned with prayer flags on my last day in Bhutan. The scenery is alluring, but I can’t stop myself from looking up at our destination — the Tiger’s Nest, a Buddhist monastery clinging to a near vertical cliff 10,232ft above the lush western Paro valley.

It’s claimed that the Guru Rinpoche arrived to this sacred site from Tibet on the back of a flying tigress. “He came to Paro to subdue the local deity,” adds Tshering, who has swapped his dress shoes for hiking boots. This complex was then built in 1692 around the cave where the great sage meditated.

Though we’re steadily climbing through cloud forest, the monastery looms above — and without a flying tiger, it’s a leg-taxing ascent of over 1,700ft. There isn’t vehicle access and horsepower only delivers pilgrims halfway, so we trudge skyward with locals and claret-robed monks through pines draped with tendrils of moss. In this thin mountain air, my shallow gulps are mocked by a giggling white-throated laughing thrush. 

But over an hour’s hike has brought me to a clearing in the bottle-green forest — and at eye level with the Tiger’s Nest whose golden pinnacles and red rooftops are set over whitewashed walls that cling to granite ledges. The buildings are on the opposite ravine, so I hike down stone steps and over a 200ft waterfall that nosedives towards the valley. Icicles break free from the rock face, and as the sun hits them, they sparkle like glitter. From the vantage of a wooden bridge, the valley unfolds — golden light casts an ethereal glow on tree-covered mountains and sacred, snowy peaks. Prayer flags with tattered ends that have been eaten by a hungry wind are strung precipitously over a deep gorge. 

Steep steps finally deposit my altitude-racked remains at the sanctuary with its series of nine temples and chambers carved into the rock. I take off my shoes before heading towards incense that wafts through thin air from within a room. “We call this the wish-fulfilling temple,” Tshering tells me. The focal point is a giant golden statue of Rinpoche, whose head is cocked to one side indicating that he’s listening. An altar is crammed with Buddhist iconography and heaped with offerings: water, incense, milk, crisps, money, burning butter lamps. Artistic ritual cakes are made up of circular patterns intricately painted all the colours of the spectrum.

Locals in their national dress stream in; I take my place against the wall and listen to the soft thudding of knees and heads on the floor. One mother places a note in her baby’s hand as an offering; another worshipper adds a block of butter to the table, which a monk gratefully accepts before pouring holy water into her hands; she brings it to her lips, slurps and splashes the remainder on the crown of her head. Another woman begins full prostrations, taking up the width of the floor once horizontal.

I tiptoe between temples, my feet growing numb on frigid stone. One contains gold pillars surrounding a hole piled high with money. “Some say the Guru Rinpoche died in there, some say he subdued the local deity there,” explains Tshering. A monk approaches, pulls a 20 Bhutanese ngultrum note out of his wallet, touches it to his head and drops it. “This should be the bank of Taktsang [Tiger’s Nest],” jokes Tshering.

“Now we go to the last one,” he adds, ushering me towards the Temple of Longevity. I head to a window on the far side and my heart races as I look a few thousand feet directly down at the pine-packed valley floor. I turn back to the altar, which has three statues of Buddha, as a family enters carrying a bag of rice. A young boy takes a handful, bows his head to the altar and sprinkles his offering on a bowl of notes. I ask Tshering what the pious are expected to offer in temples. “Whatever you do, your heart should be pure,” he replies.

We leave this temple, and head towards an opening in the cliff. A small sign above it reads ‘Tiger’s Nest’. Tshering tells me this is the place where the tiger supposedly rested during the guru’s meditation, and warns me about the tricky descent into the deep cave crevice. I’m not much of a speleologist, but I’m curious, so I leave Tshering behind and slide across a slanted wooden panel before crawling down a ladder wedged between rocks. I squeeze around the ladder and drop into a giant slice of cliff.

There’s a crack in the precipice to one side with a vertical drop, so I head blindly the other way, feebly feeling damp rocks to guide me through the dark. I squint towards the outline of a huddled family. When they stand up to leave, a monk and I flatten ourselves against a wall to let them pass. I blink against jet-black darkness as the light of a solitary butter lamp comes into focus, illuminating a small shrine with white ceremonial silk scarves and a picture of Rinpoche. As the lamp flickers, I think of all the lights brightly burning across this Himalayan kingdom and Tshering’s simple words about their significance: “Whoever is in darkness, it clears the way.” 

Traveller’s checklist

Hot stuff
Ema datshi (chilli cheese) is practically the national dish and comprises a sinus-clearing heap of fiery green chillies with local cow’s cheese.

Bath time
Sink into a sizzling hot stone bath — once fire-heated river stones glow red, they’re dropped into a wooden tub, where they crack and pop, infusing river water with healing minerals. 

Get dressed
National garb doesn’t get much easier on the eye than the kira (ankle-length sari-like skirt) and gho (knee-length robe). Some take over a year to produce — watch weavers at Thimphu’s Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre.

Time for a cuppa
Warm up with a steamy cup of suja, a salty and savoury butter tea; the leaf is collected from the forests and churned with butter, water and salt.

Get jiggy with it
Struggling to conceive? Chimi Lhakhang assists with a ceremonial head tap using a 10-inch wooden phallus. This is the temple of the Divine Madman — and due to his influence, male members are on walls across the region.

Fly away
Each winter, graceful black-necked cranes migrate to the protected Phobjikha Valley from the Tibetan Plateau, flying over some of the world’s highest mountains.

Essentials

National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures has a 10-day Wonders of Bhutan tour, which starts from £2,699 per person, excluding flights. It includes accommodation, most meals, transfers and guides. bhutan.travel

Drukair flies from Delhi to Paro from US$600 (£450).

Published in the Trips of a Lifetime 2018 guide, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)