I want to tell you a story, for I lived this story a year ago. And then I forgot about it, or perhaps the story forgot me, and decided to aestivate in the dark coils of a dense forest. Along came winter, and all I remembered in snatches came in the shape of quaint book shops inhabited by honey brown dogs, Buddha statues so starkly golden, they almost seemed on fire, sheer prayer flags of all colours fluttering in the breeze and a panorama of butter lamps flickering like life in a dark room swaying in the rain…and now, all these images merge into a familiar shape of a luminous curved moon that tenderly comes and sits on my lips.
A visit to Bhutan last summer was not incidental, not when I look back I know, though I had then thought it was. A carnival of elderly women and men, sporting turquoise and coral beads in their ears, bowing not with their bodies, but their hearts it seemed, turning over their prayer beads and silently chanting, their eyes lighted up by crow’s feet, warmth and a belief that we are all incarnations of something or someone. I have since then started to believe I am also an incarnation of something…perhaps chaos. In spite of grappling with poverty and other problems, I did see a smile light up most of the faces there, an ode to the happiness quotient (HQ) that the country so proudly announces as its philosophy. I saw delicate pink rose bushes forming trellises on almost all the walls of Thimphu houses. The roads were neat and inviting, the alleys dotted with little shops selling fresh produce of the most scrumptious peaches I have ever tasted, and the green chili peppers that are ubiquitous in the Bhutanese cuisine. River Thimphu Chu, that flows through the city sparkles clear in the morning sun, till the skies are inundated with clouds. Rains are sudden here, just like a rush of emotions…a spell suddenly overwhelms you with an amazing ferocity and then, there is a rare clarity. People live by the Buddhist credo of love, but then, our friend and guide, Sonam, comments stoically, love does not bring peace with it. The young in Bhutan are seized by a ruthless anxiety to move out of their well of an abode to explore newer pastures. So many of them go to India, Singapore, Japan, Australia and New Zealand for higher education.
One can sit even in a conspicuous place like a market square and meditate. Women shop around in colourful kiras while men wait for them, kids and ice cream in tow. To my delight, I discovered some of the Indian achaars (pickles) and savories that I had not been able to find even in the mainstream Indian stores. The best part was presence of little bookshops where you had lovely browsing sections featuring some rare poets and writers I had not found even in big Indian bookstores. So I had Borges, Llosa, Tagore and Marquez and Neruda staring at me in a wonderful camaraderie. There was a second hand book section with very reasonably priced books in a good condition. The owner turned out to be a poet herself and a very well-read one. The neighborhood dogs lay peacefully at the entrance while she shyly asked us to step in. “I cannot ask them to go away…they are so lovable,” she justified her stance and smiled. We couldn’t help smiling back. Then she offered us some tea as we browsed and we carried back with us a poetry anthology back home as a souvenir from her.
Now back to the story. After four days of experiencing Thimphu, we came back to the picturesque Paro valley. My husband and I were keen to trek all the way to the Taktsang Palphug Monastery (also known as Tiger’s Nest), a sacred site and temple complex, located in the cliffside of the upper Paro valley. The monastery is located 10 kilometers to the north of Paro and hangs on a rather steep cliff about 900 meters above the Paro valley on the right side of the Paro Chu Interestingly, the monastery complex has access from several directions . We decided to take the northwest path through the forest which has a mule track, colorfully festooned with moss and prayer flags.
We had with us, our two children, my son, a thirteen year old, outdoors-loving child, who was ready to trek too, though we had our apprehensions about my seven year old daughter of rather frail built and delicate constitution. But Serena was raring to go…perhaps the mountain air whispered secrets into her ears that they would be her willing escorts. She was flushed and dreamy-eyed, as we all collected our umbrellas and walking sticks to move on. There was no trace of clouds and the river, Paro Chu, shone like a twisted silver ribbon passing through the lush valley abounding in roses and wildflowers. We sighed and started our ascent. Sonam had advised us not to carry much of load in our backpacks as there was a dim chance we would need warm clothes for we would be sweating by the time we reached atop. We also did not carry much refreshment thinking of fresh hot thupka and momos at the scenic cafeteria. All we had was a small bottle of water each and some biscuit packs. The terrain was steep but we climbed some distance comfortably, even stopping now and then to look at the interesting stone jewellery, artifacts and prayer beads being sold there. The blue pine forest breathed serenity and I could easily imagine myself living at such a place forever. Serena and I also got busy with spotting some rare birds there and listening to birdcalls. So we spotted finches, warblers, tits and hornbills and listened closely to the drumming of a woodpecker on a pine tree. We watched, listened, tasted the forest air and felt the birdcalls falling through like flakes in the forest air. It was such a beautiful experience. But then we were asked by those returning to increase our speed if we planned to return by the evening. The children had started to feel the first traces of pain and tiredness, and to our consternation, we realized we were already over with our supply of water. The trek was becoming tougher and steeper and we constantly had to stop for we found ourselves out of breath. Then we met, Pema Choedon, who was selling knick-knacks and prayer beads, and offered us her bottle of water. Smilingly she filled it with water from a nearby cascade and asked us to keep it for the children…(to be contd.)