Bumthang: Balcony of the Himalayas

by Partha S. Banerjee, The Tribune of India, June 19, 2005

Partha S. Banerjee travels to the steeped-in-culture Bumthang valley of Bhutan

Bumthang, Bhutan -- IT?S a fabled valley deep inside Bhutan with the prettiest women anywhere. Or so, at least, goes one story about the origin of Bumthang?s name. For, bum in the local language means girl.

<< A patch of paradise

If the women are beautiful, the land is a patch of paradise. Ensconced in the heart of the eastern Himalayas, the Bumthang valley (rather valleys, for there are actually four of them) is what you would imagine Eden to be: rolling stretches of green ringed by forests of fir and gently sloping mountains, scattered homesteads with pretty cottages, gurgling streams, bracing weather.

Tall flapping Buddhist prayer flags, crumbling old temples with ancient paintings on their walls, laidback lamas in maroon robes, shaggy haired yaks lazily grazing in the fields and the seemingly invincible medieval dzong (fortress) high on the hill. If you edit out the few odd vehicles and the handful of new shops and hotels from your view, Bumthang indeed seems a place where, like the Shangrila of James Hilton?s Lost Horizon, time stands still.

The journey, if you aren?t taking the Druk Air flight from Delhi or Calcutta, begins at the border town of Phuentsholing, 170 km northeast of Siliguri. Bhutan may be the smallest nation in the subcontinent but it can teach a lesson or two to its big neighbours on maintaining civic standards.

From Phuentsholing, the road quickly climbs into the hills. Suddenly, you get a birds?s eye view of the plains with rivers meandering into the far horizon. The view stays for almost an hour as your vehicle ascends what one writer has described as the "balcony of the Himalayas". Finally, as you pass little townships that have come up in the wake of hydroelectric projects, you are into the Himalayas proper and the rest of the six-hour journey to Thimphu, Bhutan?s capital and only major city, is largely through wooded hills punctuated by the odd terraced fields and those beautiful Bhutanese houses.

A masked man at the Bumthang festival  >>

Bhutan?s quaint houses are indeed a special feature of the country. Built of rammed earth or stone, the two (sometimes three) storeys of white and chocolate-brown houses with two-tiered sloping roofs and elaborate wooden embellishment around the first floor windows, look unmistakably like Swiss Alpine chalets, at least from a distance. Thanks to government regulations, even modern buildings in the kingdom must feature traditional architectural facets like the window embellishments; the regulations have helped prevent the mushrooming of ungainly concrete structures, the bane of Indian hill stations today.

The Bhutanese call themselves Drukpas and their country Druk-yul (Land of the Thunder Dragon) and they mostly practise the Drukpa-Kagyu form of Lamaist Buddhism.

Druk means dragon in the Tibetan language; in 1180 a Tibetan holy man, Gyare Yeshe Dorji, named his newly built monastery Druk when he heard rolls of thunder that sounded like the call of the dragon. The monastery lent its name to the new religious sect that Dorji established; the adherents came to be called Drukpas. And when in the 17th century, the Drukpas under the charismatic ?Shabdrung? Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1651) migrated south to Bhutan and unified the country, Druk became the national nomenclature. The Shabdrung is today deified as a god in Bhutan along with the Buddha and Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the Indian missionary who brought Buddhism to Tibet and other Himalayan regions in the eighth century.

One of the Shabdrung?s great legacies is the dzongs, formidable fortresses that are the seat of both civil and religious power. It is from Thimphu?s dzong even today that Bhutan is ruled; as we journeyed east from the capital towards Bumthang (270 km), several famous dzongs, most notably Trongsa, came our way.

After Trongsa, the road climbed steadily through hills festooned by rhododendron flowers to reach the Yutong La pass (11,155 ft). The vegetation changed dramatically after the pass with tall fir trees taking over. We were descending into Chhume, the first of the Bumthang valleys, and as the forests cleared, the road followed a burbling stream through grassy slopes with an ancient chorten (stupa) standing sentinel. Soon the valley widened and we passed the first of many lhakhangs (temples). Our guide pointed to an old royal residence and historic temples on the other side of the valley, some perched on hilltops.

At least one of those temples is associated with Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), Bumthang?s most revered native-born saint. Belonging to the Nyingmapa sect, the oldest of Lamaist Buddhism?s many schools (the most dominant being Gelugpa, headed by the Dalai Lama), Pema Lingpa is called a terton for his discoveries of terma, or religious texts hidden by Guru Rinpoche 800 years ago, apparently because the people of Bumthang were then unable to comprehend them.

At Zungney, at the end of the Chhume valley, we stopped at workshops making (and selling) yathras, attractive hand-woven wool strips with geometric designs unique to Bumthang. The road zig-zagged up another ridge to emerge into the second and most important of Bumthang?s valleys, the Choskhor.

The town of Jakar with its dzong is the hub of Choskhar, surrounded by sweeping stretches of breathtaking scenery. At an archery field, Bhutanese men attired in traditional striped knee-length robe called gho (mandatory dress in offices and other institutions) were playing the national sport with much aplomb. In the distant slopes, the chocolate-brown farmhouses around maize fields looked as though they had been transplanted from an alpine meadow.