Almost half way through the year, routine had begun to chafe, and I jumped at the chance to visit the happiest place in the world, the exotic Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.
The stunning Punakha Dzong is the second oldest in Bhutan, and is where all the royals have been crowned. We were fortunate to visit it when the jacaranda trees were in bloom. Photo Courtesy: CheExperiences
My travel motto is 'expect the unexpected'. But I must admit to being stunned in that country, or rather struck in the face by - wait for it- a phallus!
I had read about the Bhutanese reverence for the 'divine madman' in a book but it didn't quite prepare me for his all-pervasive presence. On walls of buildings, on key chains and other places too numerous to recount, there are fully erect renderings that are believed to ward off evil spirits.
While we in India also worship the phallus, albeit, in the form of the Shivaling, in Bhutan, it is flagrantly graphic and does not fit into the esoteric eroticism of Tantric sex. In all probability, the phallus worship could be a remnant from the time when the locals practiced animism, before Bhutan became Buddhist.
In common belief though, these images honour Drukpa Kunley, a 15th century Buddhist teacher, who laughed at sanctimonious ways of teaching and living, and fornicated copiously.
Young women ringing a bell at the monastery honouring the Divine Madman.
At the Chimi lhakhang monastery, there is a silver-handled bamboo version of Drukpa Kunley's phallus, the 'thunderbolt', with which he supposedly subdued a demoness. Childless women come here to pray for a child.
A 169 ft tall Buddha, made of copper and gilded in gold, just outside Thimphu seems to contemplate the world and its follies.
Most of us are completely taken in by Bhutan's tag of being the happiest country in the world. It was the first country to measure gross national happiness instead of gross domestic product, a fact that its good-looking Dragon King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, proclaims from billboards.
local weaves, wood carved masks, thangkas (hand embroidered in wonderful detail), and incense are must-buys.
I did expect a la-la land with ever smiling, sweet countenanced people everywhere. So, are all Bhutanese an enviably happy lot? let us just say that not everyone is happy all the time; but it is certainly easier to be happy in Bhutan. This small Himalayan kingdom is not rich, there's hardly any manufacturing. But nobody is homeless, nobody has to beg. The mountain air is clean, the snow-fed river water pure, and the roads motorable (thanks to India's Border Roads Organisation). Yet, there is a growing drug problem amongst the youth, rural to urban migration, and worst of all, too many tourists from India.
The dancing policeman in Thimphu; there are no traffic lights in all of Bhutan and the single traffic policeman is a picture of grace as he choreographs traffic.
While Bhutan tries to control the numbers and quality of visitors from the West; (It doesn't like backpackers, and wants tourists who will spend in the country), it does not restrict Indians. With Bhutan's Ngultrum on par with the Indian Rupee, just about anybody is getting on to package tours or even day trips from West Bengal to Bhutan. And when Indians travel in packs, whether by plane or bus, they carry the habits of shouting, littering and over-eating. A sad way to return the hospitality of a gentle populace.
Did I find happiness in the Himalayas? Outside each dzong, I felt a deep sense of serenity, a lightness of being, and an almost otherworldly detachment from desires. Time seemed to stop still, and the stillness set me looking within and reflect on what I want from life.
This novice nun encapsulates all the joy and serenity in the world in her smile.
If you fancy a taste of Bhutan, check out our post DIY recipes for yummy Bhutanese food.
Bhutan is a trekker's heaven. While the five hour round trip trek to the Taktsang Monastery or Tiger's Nest, is most popular, zealous trekkers go camping for a few days at a time. Photo Courtesy: CheExperiences
The 'Dragon King' Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck with his Queen and the little prince. The utterly handsome royal family advertise 'the happiest place on earth' on billboards across the country.
Most Bhutanese wear the national outfit; women wear the Kira, a long, ankle-length dress, an inner layer Wonju and a light outer jacket, Tego . Men wear the Gho, a knee-length robe.
Sonam Yezer, our guide donning the traditional long scarf that is mandatory for locals at dzongs and administrative offices (known as khaney for men, and rachus for women). The guides in Bhutan are required to pass an exam before getting their licence. They are easy to get along with and give accurate information.
Text & Photos: Sandhya Mendonca