“The moment you enter Bhutan, you notice there are no traffic lights. It is almost like you stepped into Shangri-La or a vortex of time 200 years ago. Those kinds of experiences are very much of the countryside of Bhutan, where people are truly happy in the sense of not creating and wanting more.”
Many years ago, I dreamed of going to far off places and meeting people who were very different than me. That dream came true for me in 2011 when I visited Bhutan – a small country, surrounded by the Himalayas and the countries of India, Tibet, and Nepal.
The culture of Bhutan is among the oldest in the world – carefully guarded and well preserved. The country’s name is derived from the sanskrit name ‘Bhotant’ which means the ‘end of Tibet’. It is also known as ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ or Druk Yul- and people from Bhutan call themselves Drukpas. Bhutan does not have 5-star dining and accommodations, but I’ve never felt more welcome.
Gross Domestic Happiness
With all the images of celebrities that everyone is bombarded with every day, it’s easy to get hung up on beauty that is only skin deep. People forget all about the beauty of an individual that lies under the surface. What some may see as a man – poor, homeless and old – I see a man whose eyes emanate kindness, peace, love, joy, humility, and generosity.
I love his smile despite the crooked, yellow teeth. And the deep wrinkles around his eyes appear to be permanent marks of happiness. I can only hope that when I’m this man’s age, I have that same spark in my eyes and deep wrinkles of happiness.
Bhutan is the only country that measures Gross Domestic Happiness. In 1974, Bhutan’s former King invented the notion that his country’s wealth should be measured by the happiness of the people in order to replace western consumption-driven values with the spirituality of a Buddhist society. I can’t say whether this makes people from Bhutan happier than others. I can say that everywhere we went, people had a ready smile and were genuinely happy to interact with our group.
A big part of Bhutan’s culture is it’s religion – Buddhism. While I am not Buddhist, I fell in love with the thousands of prayer wheels we passed by throughout the trip.
Prayer wheels in Bhutan are spun to widely distribute love, compassion and kind blessings for yourself, all those you care for, as well as all beings. Prayer wheels are activated by turning them clockwise.
Oftentimes our group would see old elderly men and women turning prayer wheels in the morning. They will completely surround a building, such as a temple or monastery. If the complex is large enough, there will be up to 108 prayer wheels which is an auspicious number, to be turned. The elderly would walk clockwise around the entire building, turning each prayer wheel. One at a time. Every single one of them. Every day.
Kids everywhere love to clown around and show off when they have your attention. The children in Bhutan are no different. These two brothers were two of many children that I photographed during my trip. Once they knew they had an audience, they began sticking various pieces of food in their mouths for effect. When I started pulling together photos for this post, I knew I would have to include these two as I can still hear them giggling as I showed them their picture.
Temples & Monasteries
While in Bhutan, we visited 5 or 6 monasteries or Dzongs (meaning fortress). Some date back several centuries or more. Dzongs are the most prominent and important building in most villages, and often encompass a monastery in them. Dzongs would most likely be built on a hillside, high above the village, visible to all people no matter where they are.
One of the most beautiful temples is the temple at Dechula Pass. We got up before dawn to make it to this location and photograph it in the early morning light.
The most popular monastery in Bhutan is Tiger’s Nest which clings to a cliff. You know you are not in the US, when there are few railings to protect you from a fall down a steep cliff as you hike. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m afraid of heights. However, you cannot go half-way around the world and not see the country’s most famous temple. So I rallied my courage and started the hike.
It was an unforgettable experience. I made it to the temple despite the fact that I was scared to death. I received a silk scarf from the monk who received us in the temple. My spirits were figuratively and literally on top of the mountain as I descended – I did it. One of the highlights of the trip. The scarf still hangs in my bedroom as a constant reminder.
Monks are treated with great respect by the population and government alike. Young boys of 5-6 years join monastery to learn how to read and write. In addition, their days are devoted to prayers and self-study. Every temple or monastery we visited had a contingent of young monks playing in the courtyards. My favorite photo is of the young monk below who couldn’t fit into the room where others were watching TV (Bhutan has only recently allowed TVs in the country within the past 10 years). He ran outside and jumped up on the ledge to get a view and caught me taking a picture of him.
Another favorite photo is this young monk looking out of a window.
Our trip was timed perfectly to coincide with Tshechu which is a religious event celebrated on tenth day of a month of the lunar calendar. These are grand events where entire communities come together to witness religious mask dances, receive blessings and socialize. In addition to the mask dances, the festival also includes colorful Bhutanese dances and other forms of entertainment.
Every mask dance performed during a Tshechu has a special meaning or a story behind it and many are based on stories and incidents from as long ago as the 8th century. In monasteries, the mask dances are performed by monks and in remote villages, they are performed jointly by monks and village men.
Festivals were a time for people to get dressed up and come out and celebrate. The gentleman below was in a celebratory mood. I believe he had the Bhutanese version of vodka and wanted me to come with drink with him (no – I didn’t!). When I declined his invitation, he insisted I photograph him and show him the picture. He seemed very happy with the result. I’m just sorry that I did not have an instant printer there to give it to him. He is one of the best memories I have of Bhutan.
I have such wonderful memories of Bhutan which I often relive through my pictures. It was honestly hard to narrow down the hundreds of pictures I took to just a few ones that hold special meaning to me. Bhutan reminds me that real beauty goes far beyond new, fancy buildings and perfectly dressed people. Inner beauty can be slightly imperfect. It’s the messy traffic circle. The old man in traditional dress listening to music on his iPod. And, especially the well worn prayer wheels.