Woke up to a dry heat in the room and went down to breakfast, which was simple and not exactly hotel standard. But we would gradually learn to readjust in the days to come. By the time we finished eating Karma was already waiting for us at the door.
This was going to be a busy but interesting day going around Thimphu. First we went to the Memorial Chorten, a stupa modelled upon the classical Tibetan stupa, built by the Fourth King’s Queen Mother to commemorate the late Third King. Situated at the heart of Thimphu, this structure serves as a very good model for stupa architecture. It has four doors, facing four cardinal points, and knowing them by heart (which I do now) can be useful for identifying directions. There, people went round and round the white tower in the belief that they would be in sync with the world’s energies; the more pious ones were performing prostration in front of the doors, at the different statues and icons placed inside.
If we say Bhutan is an icon-worshipping country, it can be seen in the ubiquitous display of religious and royal images. Every passenger who gets off the plane at Paro will be greeted by a huge picture of the present king and queen, and in every house there is at least one framed photograph of any one of the five kings who has reigned over the country. We had a private conversation on this and it was agreed that the Fourth King – that is the present king’s father – is the most handsome of all. Bhutanese see him as the visionary king, and thank him for leading the country towards one that focuses on national happiness. The only spot on his otherwise pristine profile, some say, is that he is married to four sisters.
It so happens that on our second day of visit, it was the Fifth King’s 35th birthday, and there was a huge celebration at the stadium in Thimphu, every one was invited, and early birds would also get a lucky draw ticket with the chance to win a Tata car. We got in at about 10:30am, but the stadium was already packed. Needless to say, there was no lucky draw ticket left for us, but I did get a couple free apple juice.
The ceremony started with laudation of the king by the prime minister and the chief lama. Then everybody stood up to recite a prayer for the majesty, which was in the form of a song. Then the boy scouts and girl guides marched in squads, made formations and danced lethargically to some Bhutanese music. All this while the king is down south partying with the army. The crowd was certainly enjoying themselves very much, and the familial setting was imbued with a general sense of love and peace. Almost everybody was wearing their traditional clothes, which I later learned was compulsory for official occasions (more on their clothes in a separate post).
The highlight for us was the traditional mask dance called ‘chams’, which is performed during festivals to evict devils. There are 16 (?) animals representing 16 different sins, each to be cleansed by the dance. The costumes are made to the last detail, including the animal skin underwear.
We missed the national strong man competition in favour of lunch, which was entirely vegetarian and rather mediocre. It was between my first and second helping of red rice with butter-fried cauliflower that Bhutan’s strongest man was born. Days later, on our way to Paro we would see the parade of the second runner-up, proudly displaying his prize on the highway to his hometown. It is interesting to see how this country is still big on macho in very honest and simple way, while there is a pre-feminist equality between the two sexes, and a very liberal view of intersexual relationship that is inherent of its culture.
Instead of witnessing their physical prowess, we went to admire the tranquilising power of Buddha. Higher up on the eastern hillside sat the biggest sitting Buddha statue in the world, commissioned by the government and sponsored by a Singaporean businessman, whose funding dried up before the construction was completed. When we got there we saw an empty construction site with some Chinese machinery and building materials, a smiling Buddha looking downwards at a world whose desire for religious blessing obscures their understanding of religious teaching.
From there we went to the zoo to see the national animal of Bhutan, takin – a rather ugly and slow animal that keeps licking the fence and bucket rim. Judging purely from the size, I would say these takins are strong man materials. To me, the black goat kid who nibbled the shurbs was definitely more adorable.
There wasn’t much to see in the zoo apart from a few more deer, so we went for a short hike on the hilltop further up, seeing Thimphu from high up. On the bare hillside prayer flags were like colourful lichens clinging onto the vegetation, adorning the otherwise naked hill. From there we could see the seated Buddha statue, reflecting the warmth and light of the golden sun to the city below its feet.