Prayer Flags

Bright and colourful prayer flags greeted our tired faces, as  our jeep entered ‘ Bhutan’, the land of thunderbolts. Young monks surrounded our jeep, shouting ‘Khuzu zang po la!’ (Greetings from Bhutan), distracting me from the peaceful aura of the prayer flags fluttering in the air. 

Having trekked through North Eastern India, my college friends and I  were keen to witness Bhutan’s mystic beauty and decided to cross the Indian border. Thank God for spontaneous decisions because a picturesque scene hypnotised us just as our jeep crossed the border and entered the beautiful Bhutanese town of Paro.

Flanked in the middle of India and Tibet  along the south eastern slopes of the Himalayas, the tiny land-locked country of Bhutan has always been an exotic place every traveller yearns to visit. Influenced by a mixture of Nepalese, Indian, Tibetan and Chinese culture the place has a lot to offer. But the economics geek in me had to see Bhutan for a different reason. It is one of the only countries to measure its productivity on the basis of the gross happiness of the people. I grew up learning about how Bhutan was a land known for its thunder storms but these days it is renown for being the happiest country in the world. So a trip to Bhutan meant understanding the real reason behind this happiness and how the country functioned by measuring this happiness

Paro is a serene and beautiful valley surrounded by the Himalayas. Most of the people live beside the crystal clear Paro river, while the rest of the valley is untouched wilderness. A very traditional town, people roamed the streets only in their traditional attire called the ‘Gho’, which resembles a Japanese Kimono . But the men and women look very smart in this attire and carry it off like they were born runway models!  Some of the women were very interested in the clothes we were wearing. They explained that  though they are let to experiment with fashion, being a conservative and religious country most people prefer wearing their traditional attire in public places. I admired how the locals respected their traditional culture. This is something which has disappeared in my hometown so it was a pleasure watching the Bhutanese uphold their heritage.

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But Paro had something else which really caught my eye. For a change it was not the thrilling landscapes which always lure the adrenaline junkie in me. This time it was  cylindrical dome-shaped structures which were constructed along the walls of every Buddhist stupa and monastery in Paro. These were the Prayer Wheels of Buddhism, spun by every person who entered a Bhuddist stupa or monastery.Buddhism is the main religion in Bhutan so prayer wheels are very common. But I was intrigued by them, and set off to explore them in the renown ‘Paro Taktsang monastery’ also called as the ‘Tiger’s Nest.’

Nestled up on a cliff, trekking to this monastery was a pleasure as we took short breaks in the middle to try some of the traditional Bhutanese tea (Instant energy booster!). But as soon as we reached the monastery I rushed towards the prayer wheels and was instantly amazed by their intricate design.‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, a Bhuddist psalm to spread compassion , is inscribed on every wheel and Sanskrit scriptures are placed inside the wheel. Though spinning them seemed a bit tricky to me at first, it wasn’t really rocket science. The wheels have to be turned clockwise to follow the movement of the sun through the sky.

Turning the first wheel in the row of prayer wheels, I could instantly feel a positive energy flowing through my veins. Just like the prayer flags these wheels seemed to soothe my mind and soul giving me an instant sense of tranquility.  I found myself smiling for no reason at all! I guess the sudden calmness I experienced just made me happier. But interestingly, I was not the only person with a smile on my face. There were several people from different parts of the world besides the monks and locals of Bhutan who were smiling and spinning the wheels. It suddenly felt like I was in a utopian society where everything was just happy and peaceful. This was an odd feeling I had not really experienced in any other place. 

A young monk beats the gong to begin the afternoon prayer

Exploring the monastery, I loved how the monks were deeply engrossed in the scriptures but the young monks brought a little life to the monastery as they enjoyed a game of cricket. Though these youngsters led very disciplined lives they were the happiest people I have ever met. Spending a day with some of these young monks , I realised that though they had given up most of the worldly pleasures and materialistic luxuries, they didn’t seem to be missing out on much. They did spend most of their day reading their holy scripture, but playing cricket seemed to be the  most awaited hour of their day. Their happiness was reflected in their simplicity. 

‘Ema – Datshi'(Image from indochinatourguide.com)

After a spiritual experience in Paro we set off to get a feel of the Bhutanese culture in Thimphu, the capital city. This city was starkly different from Paro with a commercial aura. But the happy Bhutanese faces continued passing by me. Walking around like typical tourists learning their traditional dance and music and visiting the heritage sites of Thimphu, I had to try the renown Bhutanese dish ‘Ema Datsi'(Chilly Cheese).  Being a person who enjoys extremely spicy food,  I was sure I could handle the Bhutanese spice, but their version of “spicy” was literally fire in my mouth! Poultry and rice forms their staple diet but they consider chillies as ‘valuable vegetables’ so beware :p 

Thimphu was a beautiful place but after Paro’s peaceful demeanour the only spot I really enjoyed in Thimphu was the Buddha Point. I spent my last few hours in Bhutan at this place, where a gigantic golden statue of the Buddha overlooked the entire city of Thimphu. Built by the Chinese,it is secluded from all the noise of the city but can be viewed from every part of Thimphu. The locals enjoy marketing this spot to tourists as the point from where their Buddha overlooks each of their deeds.

Buddha Point

Walking around the golden Buddha and looking down at Thimphu, I realised that the real truth behind Bhutan’s happiness lies in the manner in which the people managed their materialistic and spiritual happiness.No doubt, their rulers have developed policies to ensure maximum welfare. But it is the people’s nonchalant and positive  demeanour which makes Bhutan a tranquil paradise.