Why I fell in love with Bhutan
There are places in the world we visit to see new things, and there are places we find ourselves returning to, to keep finding ourselves.
To tell you the truth, if two years ago, you had asked me what I knew about Bhutan, I would have drawn a blank. I would have told you – what I suppose most people already know – that it's a beautiful Buddhist kingdom on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, neighbouring India. Also, it famously did away with the gross domestic product about ten years ago, and instead adopted gross national happiness, to measure the well-being of its people.
And, of course, I would mention Kelly Dorji, the famous Bhutanese actor.
I would have also talked about the friends who have visited Bhutan for holidays in the past, and who'd return and regale us with tales of the beauty of the mountains, forests and rivers, along with the dizzying effect of visiting dzongs, stupas and monasteries. The friends who put up selfies on social media with the backdrop of Paro Takstang (or what we know as Tiger's Nest), and those who return home bearing gifts, which include, among other handicrafts and souvenirs, healthy phallus-shaped wooden pieces of varying sizes, which they would gleefully tell us has actually significant cultural importance.
Bhutan was always on my list of places to visit. I just had no idea when it would happen.
Two years ago, I was graciously invited by Mita Kapur to attend the famous Mountain Echoes Literature and Culture Festival. I was to be on a panel on the rise of digital news media in India, as well as moderate a discussion on mountaineering.
My plan was to spend a few days in Thimpu (the capital city) during the course of the festival, spend a day in the divine Punakha valley, return to Paro, attempt to climb the Tiger's Nest, and fly back home.
I was excited to finally see and explore Bhutan. What I wasn't prepared for, was to fall deeply in love with it.
If you truly wish to encounter a deeply profound experience, I will suggest you to take a flight to Paro, Bhutan.
As a child I grew up reading books about visiting magical places that exist up in the clouds, it wasn't until I stepped out of the aircraft and glimpsed at the mountains and clouds around me that I actually began to feel that such places do exist.
Just the way the plane descends into the valley, gliding carefully among the mountains, through the mist and clouds, and negotiates its delicate landing, is an experience of a lifetime.
When people ask me about my fascination for Bhutan, how in just two visits I have come to form such a deep connection with the place, I struggle to explain the ineffable, mystical effects Bhutan has had on me.
In a recent travelogue, I attempted to make sense of my fascination for it. I wrote, "if I were to tell you that there exists in this world, an ancient mountain kingdom up in the clouds, with monasteries, bookshops, and nightclubs — a deeply spiritual and magical place of kings, holy men, and dragons, which is said to have been discovered by a monk, who came here on the back of a flying tigress, would you believe me?"
As a journalist, it is a force of habit to be sceptical.
When I first visited Bhutan, I was not ready to buy into the happiness quotient. In fact, I remember asking a Bhutanese gentleman of this, and he politely smiled and said, well, of course happiness exists here, but it also doesn't.
Which is true for any place. Isn't it?
It wasn't until I spent days walking in the streets, getting lost in the rain, marveling at the clouds like dragons forming and looming in the sky, drinking a local red rice beer by the Wang Chuu, reading poetry in a bookshop, making friends over conversations about life and death, that I remember one evening sitting in my hotel room, with nearly tears, that this place is the closest I have come to feeling happiness.
While Bhutan is a deeply spiritual and philosophical place with ancient customs and beliefs, it's also progressive. The friends I made during my two visits are well-travelled, well-spoken and extremely profound.
They are also the kindest, most sensitive and empathetic people I have met. They are incredibly proud of themselves and self-contained. They talk about their love for the king in genuine respect, love and affection – their royal family affirms their own identity as a people. Their humility is enchanting.
Most of all, I find, the Bhutanese are compassionate and deeply respectful, something India and the world could learn from, especially in this moment in time.
One thing I’ve realised from my visits is that Bhutan doesn't need the world to look at it with arrogance. In fact, it demands our respect.
Today the small population boasts of a massive youth demographic. The young Bhutanese I met are full of dreams and ambitions, and are hot in pursuit of finding ways to make it on their own.
Bhutan, however, faces a grave challenge in guiding its younger generation to gainful employment and helping them from falling astray.
A young musician I met at the festival spoke about his humble roots. How he came from a broken home. How it led him to drink and fights, until he started expressing his angst through music. Today he raps and raises concerns about alcohol and drug addiction, the importance of family, and how we must protect the environment.
Bhutan is at a great crossroads today, but its future brims with hope and promise.
I believe, there are places in the world we visit to see new things, and there are places we find ourselves returning to, to keep finding ourselves.
For me, Bhutan is that special place of love, prayer, drink and dreams – where you don’t just go to look for happiness, but where happiness finds you.