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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.