bhutan, dochula pass, chortens, buddhist worship

5 reasons to visit Bhutan – The Kingdom of Happiness

I have started making reason-lists because they compel me to summarize what I love the most about each experience. If you want to see my other reason-lists, do visit: 5 reasons to visit Kochi-Muziris biennale  and  6 experiences at Kala Ghoda festival


Reason to visit #1: An incredible idea called ‘Kingdom of happiness’!

Imagine someone who declares themselves the happiest person on earth. Wouldn’t you consider it fanciful? How on earth was an entire nation doing it? A positioning statement that said ‘Happiest place on earth!’ I wanted to jump on the bandwagon right away.

 

enter the kingdom of happiness. India-Bhutan border at Phuentsholing
We drove down, crossing the border from West Bengal, India into Phuentsholing, Bhutan. Here, we met our guide who had been to college in India.

 

The phrase ‘Gross National Happiness’ or GNH was first coined by the 4th King of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 1972 when he declared, “Gross National Happiness” is more important than the conventional measure for development as “Gross Domestic Product.” or GDP

 


Reason to visit #2: Dzongs and their spectacular Architecture

Dzongs are magnificent fortress-like structures that can be regarded as the visual metaphor for Bhutan. It’s incredible to know that Dzongs were constructed without the use of architectural plans! The construction proceeded under the direction of a higher lama who established each dimension through spiritual inspiration.

 

Bhutan, Punakha Dzong at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Pho Chu rivers
Jacaranda in full bloom at the Punakha Dzong ‘The Palace of Great Happiness’. Situated on the confluence of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, this is where the royal coronation happens. Until 1955, this was the government capital of Bhutan after which it has moved to Thimphu.

 

Dzong architecture Bhutan. Taschichho Dzong, Thimphu
Taschichho Dzong, Thimphu, Bhutan. Dzongs fortify massive courtyards that contain both administrative offices as well as monasteries.

 

Dzong architecture, Thimphu, Bhutan. Exterior of building
Dzongs are compelling structures with towering exterior walls with no windows in the lower parts and flared elaborate roofs.

 

Tashiccho Dzong courtyard, Thimphu Bhutan
The Courtyard of Tashiccho Dzong, Thimphu, Bhutan. It is the headquarters of Bhutan’s Government and also houses the Kings office, a monastery and the chief Lama’s office.

 

Dzongs are a perfect representation of how integrated heritage, Buddhist faith and the government are in Bhutan’s day to day life


Reason to visit #3: Explore the Traditional Art and Design

There are thirteen traditional arts that are part of Bhutan’s heritage called Zorig Chusum.

But the one that captivated me the most was Shing-zo meaning carpentry and woodwork. It’s the identity or I would say the signature art form of the country. You can find it all around you- Shing-zo plays a major part in the construction of Bhutan’s dzongs, temples, houses, palaces and bridges that are mostly made from timber.

woodowrk at the Dzong. Traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan
In Bhutan, handcraft continues to be a part of daily life. Creating each masterpiece is not just a creative act but a spiritual one.

 

architecture, woodwork, handcraft, wood carvings at Punakha Dzong, Bhutan.
The Dzongs are some of the finest examples of woodwork in the country. Almost everything from designing, measuring, carving to completing the work is done by the master carpenter who is also the architect.

 

In ‘Shing-zo’ meaning carpentry and woodwork you can see supreme devotion.

Design elements like attention to detail, rich ornamentation and a bold and wide colour palette are harnessed to reflect balance and divinity.

 


Reason to visit #4: Bhutan’s Culture – A lesson in civility

Everybody is polite. There is a gentleness and easiness in their manner. The first person we met was our local guide Chimi who greeted us in a soft-spoken manner that we soon realized is a standard behaviour in Bhutan. . While we were processing our permits/visas, the government officers were extremely helpful and polite. Shopkeepers barely hard-pressed you to buy or chased you.

 

Bhutan culture, manners and traditional etiquettes. Culture of utmost graciousness
Learning Bhutanese manners and etiquette. The culture of utmost graciousness.

The most astonishing observation of this behavior can be seen on the roads – nobody tried to overtake us or drove rashly. People dutifully waited for pedestrians to cross. I did not see a single traffic signal. Not even in Thimphu which is the capital. A country without traffic lights? how do they operate? There are fines to be paid if you broke the rules & regulations but its amazing to see how well this is followed on the ground. For a few moments, I hallucinated about Mumbai without traffic lights.

Tashiccho Dzong Government headquarters of Bhutan. Butanese flag peacefully flowing with the wind

People in Bhutan are at ease with formal procedures and understand the importance of following them. There is faith in the government and I noticed a deep-seated reverence for the monarchy.

 


Reason to visit #5: Discover how Balance is not just a concept, it’s a lifestyle

In Bhutan, the Buddhist way of life is slowly assimilating new influences but the pride and faith they have in their culture and heritage shines through.

bhutan prayer flags, buddhist, rituals, culture, colour

 

As a designer, the element that fascinated me most in Bhutan was their traditional dress. Men wear the Gho, a knee-length robe somewhat resembling a kimono that is tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as Kera. The pouch it forms in the front was used to carry mobile phones or wallets. Women wear a long, ankle-length dress; Kira accompanied by a gorgeous outer jacket known as a Tego made with beautiful textiles, mostly silk with brocade.

They effortlessly blended modern accessories like watches, stylish shoes, sunglasses and the hottest hairstyles with their traditional wear. I must say, its very swanky. I bought myself a Kira and Tego and hope to wear it with the same élan!

Bhutanese culture, traditional dress, Dzong, Our guide Chimmi
Our guide, Chimi, wore the traditional dress throughout the trip. I noticed that the fabric was exclusive and when asked where I could buy something similar, he said it was woven by his mother who took many months to complete it.

 

There is a visual uniformity and harmony that I felt around me and it took me a while to realize why. The urban design is governed by norms that have resulted into a consistent architectural style. The design is inspired by Dzong architecture but uses modern techniques for construction.

Bhutan, Kingdom of happiness, Thimphu city view
Cityscape – Thimphu, Bhutan. At the center is Taschicho Dzong; the government headquarters and on your right you can see some part of the parliament building.

 

Bhutan, Kingdom of happiness, Thimpu city view, houses architecture style
Cityscape – Thimphu, Bhutan. The urban design norms are inspired by Dzong architecture but use modern techniques for construction.

 

I do understand why Bhutan has nicknames like ‘The Forbidden Kingdom’ or ‘the last Shangrila’. As the country cautiously assimilates modernity into their way of life, they yet possess that elusive, secret recipe for happiness.

 

Bhutan the Kingdom of happiness, prayer wheels, monastery

 

“Om Mani Padme Hum”

(Buddhist mantra on the prayer wheels and flags:

Through the practice of a path that is a union of love and compassion with wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech and mind into the pure exalted body, speech and mind of a Buddha)


In my next article, I will write about our trek to Paro’s Taktsang Lhakhang or the Tigers Nest, Bhutan’s most iconic landmark.

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