“Carbon Negative Happiness Positive”, is something that appends a simple yet mesmerizing experience while in Bhutan. The salubrious climate, mellow townhouses, indigenous spaces interjected with the majestic monasteries best illustrates this peaceful and tranquil country.
While contemplating through the porthole window of the Druk Flight, I was excited to explore the country of Bhutan, which is said to embrace global development along with its Buddhist tradition and culture. The ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ possesses many varied landscapes, and it’s a country where the rice is red and where chilies are the main ingredient of the local people. Essentially a Buddhist land, Bhutan is not a land frozen in time and it’s the blending of the ancient and modern that makes Bhutan endlessly enchanting.
The walk down through the traditionally embellished Paro airport was suggestive of a unique cultural realm that I was to get into. One senses an air of peace and tranquility as if gone back into time, and far from the hectic polluted urban city from where I had left. Arriving in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, one inevitably passes through the wonderful market street. The delicate amalgamation of old and new building all bonded by traditional elements gives it a harmonious unity, one that’s was very different from European streets. In this unity, there is diversity of color, scale and an oriental quality. While the western world emphasizes system and dissolves the individual, here the individual has a unique expression, evident even in their dresses, the ‘kira’ for women and ‘gho’ for men.
Here in Thimpu the facades elaborate itself through color, patterns and symbols, all forming a characteristic culture which is organic and unique to the cities of Bhutan. The houses are introverted with small windows and a characteristic sloping roof, and buildings box like and suited for the cold climate. Here one can expect a smile and greeting “Kuzuzangpo La” from hospitable, simple people.
The modern buildings in Thimpu are rcc structures and smooth finished with application of the Bhutanese element but later I was to experience their time-honored and authentic architecture of Simtokha Dzong built in 16th century. The Dzong is an introverted form that housed the temple. The stark white base made of local stone and painted white complemented with the ornate upper part that opens to the outside.. The white and earthy tones of the external facade change to a very colorful interior of the temple. The earthy painting on walls, the suspended colorful elements are all symbolic with a story and meaning, and that is what separates the natural world from the world of art. If nature is a science then art communicates messages, stories, meanings world views and architecture is one of its mediums. So here was a building built of local natural materials and with local techniques and sensibilities, with the purpose to protect its place of worship and evoking spiritual experience within. The stark rough stoned white walls complemented with upper base made of wood, which was painted and elaborated with carvings and symbols. This narrated a unique contrast of raw nature and a refined art.
The Tashichho Dzong was again similar in character but majestic in scale and against the backdrop of the mountain ranges. This fortress is yet another architectural blend that is currently the homestead of Bhutanese government. The concept of three distinctive sections, monarchy section, the administrative section as well as the spiritual section next to the banks of the Wang Chhu river emanates as an impressive and thoughtful combination
While departing from Thimpu, I felt a strong conservative culture that protects its values, its ways and its natural surroundings. Here for the people it was essential to be similar and that implies a subtle individual difference, something that one sees in the natural world. In a sense, the culture here is an extension of nature.
My expedition from Thimpu to Punakha via Dochula pass at 3000mt above sea level offered a panoramic view of the snow covered majestic Himalayas and mountain ranges of Bhutan. With 12 distinctive landscapes in Bhutan depending upon the altitude, whether Alpines Steppe on the highest level to Fir and Pine forests at mid-levels to Subtropical forest at lower levels, these expansive landscapes and untouched wilderness leaves us overwhelmed. From this high point of Dochula pass was a meandering road down to the town of Punakha and the wonderful Punakha Dzong that was to await us.
The first glimpse of Punakha Dzong was no less than a dramatic experience. The building sitting on the confluence of Mo chu and Pho chu river and evening light falling on its formation compelled one to stay absorbed in its visual delight. The walk towards it through a bridge over the river was just as dramatic as its intricate architectural elements started revealing. The arrival point was at an altitude and one had to clamber over innumerable steps explaining its significance. From the vestibule one entered into a large court. The organization was linear having 3 courts separated by building in between and around it. With an introverted organization that was reminiscent of the Indian temples, each court would have its characteristic facade with the last one as most elaborate and was the entry court to the temple. Each of these Dzongs in different parts of Bhutan had a peculiar characteristic that gave it Bhutanese style, bold and local. Here, the architecture that was built centuries back was indigenous, unaltered by foreign influences much like the territorial flora. The immediate implications for architects here, is the need to understand these local aspects and find bold characteristic ways to interpret the purpose of buildings.
I have been greatly benefited by my sojourn during the festival season here. Witnessing the traditional Bhutanese style masquerade dance; the re-enactments of the Bhutanese victory over invading Tibet amidst the firecrackers, the battle scenes are acted out in– Punakha Dzong. It is believed that divine blessing of Paro Thongdrel unfolds during the festive ceremony.
As a final exploration, it was to the cultural icon of Bhutan, Paro Taktsang, famously known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery. A revered place of pilgrimage in the Himalayan region, the Tiger’s Nest is an emanating rock overlooking a vast chasm, with the monastery on the other side. Beneath the rock, and across the chasm from the monastery, the cliff ropes a couple of thousand feet to the canyon below. The place itself is reached after 4 hours of climbing through a steep landscape, the journey alternating between tiring moments and breathtaking vistas and finally culminating to the Tiger’s Nest.
The culture of Bhutan is distinct and defined, its varying landscapes much like the different states of Bhutan that have peculiar patterns that emanate from local ways and genius loci. Here, it’s not about conquering, it is about merging and flowing with nature. The positive vibes around here persuades me to quote the lines by environmental philosopher John Muir “In every walk in with nature one receives far more than one seeks”. It is here that one can be in peace, slow down and be with oneself in this wilderness. It is the last great Himalayan kingdom, shrouded in mystery and magic, where a traditional Buddhist culture is carefully orchestrating with the global developments.
Photos by Author