Four faces pressed against the windows of a Maruti 800 watch our plane as it descends at Paro Airport. Our first glimpse of the valley is spectacular and quite makes up for the disappointment of having missed seeing Mount Everest, thanks to the thick sea of clouds. We saw a couple of snow-clad Himalayan peaks before we were engulfed in white, only relieved towards the end by the rich, green valleys of Bhutan. Houses or monasteries are set in solitary grandeur on impossible perches — on second thought, this country is home to Paro Taktsang, so I shouldn’t really be surprised.
We drive into Thimphu and a drizzle begins as we stop briefly on the bridge at the confluence of the Paro Chhu and the Wang Chhu. A delicious wind whips past us, and we can scarcely contain our excitement at being in the mountains. Prayer flags flutter by the “Welcome to Paro Dzongkhang” sign. A blue signboard shows directions to Thimphu, Phuentsholing, Haa, and Paro. Such lovely names! Being in a new country, amidst strangers, unaware of what the days ahead are to bring, usually leaves me disorientated. I will get there in a few hours, as dusk sets in — but at the moment, all I care about is being in the Himalayas. The Himalayas are home.
I have spent most of my life by the Bay of Bengal in southern India, but I feel an inexplicable connection with the Himalayas. Here, I forget that a complicated, dusty world exists away from the mountains. I can choose what I want to listen to — and above the stubborn engines and the hum of the air-conditioner, I hear the river and the birds. I can look at the mountains for hours, watching the wispy clouds part, seeing sunshine break through and light up the slopes, one patch after another. I can pretend to be Ruskin Bond as I curl up to read and write on my window-seat.
Thimphu is a quiet, gentle city, the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. It is home to a number of government offices and development agencies. Despite this, there is no blazing hurry to get from one place to another. People stroll down the streets speaking to one another, not staring at their phones or with that preoccupied look that haunts us in our crowded cities. They smile. Simplicity reigns in the unassuming shops and the utilitarian houses, with one of the few bits of embellishment they allow themselves coming in the form of motifs around windows and roofs.
When I think of Bhutan, I think of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. Indeed, we aren’t far from Tibet. This is a kingdom in the clouds, with Buddhist influences dating back to the 7th century AD and a sense of mystery emerging partly, perhaps, from its visibly different priorities. For most countries, it is difficult to comprehend placing the achievement of happiness above the pursuit of economic growth and competitiveness in the global market. In Bhutan, local traditions and identity are important. They are adhered to without ostentation. The mountain-sides haven’t been gashed and torn up to build amusement parks or fancy houses.
This isn’t to say that there are no problems in Bhutan. Skim through the papers, and you will come across stories of discontent and concern, some a result of the old clashing with the new. As we begin to navigate the streets of Thimphu, I am curious to see how they balance the traditional with the modern. I want to learn how religion, so maligned as the rest of the world slides into chaos, guards this kingdom. I’d like to look at the processes that infuse colour and creativity into the local markets. I want to find favourite walks and nooks.
We choose to begin our journey at the Weekend Market, followed by Changangkha Lhakhang, a 12th century monastery dedicated to Avalokiteshvara, the compassionate bodhisattva.