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A REPORT ON PARO :-

Despite dismal weather and minor hitches, Suvankar Sanyal couldn't help responding to the air of grave dignity that is its quaint appeal.


The road to Paro is a roller-coaster ride. The cab we're traveling in, careens treacherously on the outer rim of the road overlooking the terraced rice fields latticed by the streamlets rushing to join the Paro River way below us, before swerving back towards the side of the road hugging the mountain. This happens every two seconds. I slam into my companion, involuntarily, and find myself, the very next moment, being flung in the opposite direction, across the window, outside which rain and sleet pour relentlessly, churning the surface of the ashen green river.

At 7000 feet above sea level, Paro is arguably the ideal gateway to Bhutan, if you are the sort who likes mystique and majesty spiced with dash of adventure. On a rocky outcrop of the steep hillside, stands an ancient watch-tower overlooking the Paro fortresses. Exploring the corridors of the spinal-shaped structure which now houses the National Museum of Bhutan, one is overcome by an eerie feeling. Row upon row of costumes worn by generations of kings and spiritual leaders, hang loosely on impersonal clotheshorses. In the basement (three floors of the structure go down into the rocky underground), huge cauldrons, intricately carved metal goblets and samovars encased in glass alcoves line in the deserted tunnels that seem to get narrower as one proceeds, ending suddenly in the dark, claustrophobic royal armoury, full of rusty metal weapons, decaying leather quivers and stacks of arrows once used by warriors and sportsman(archery is the national sport in Bhutan). It's more unnerving than the taxidermied heads of leopards and bisons glaring at the visitor on the third floor.

Thousand-year-old exhibits - the manuscript of Ashta Sahasrika Prajna Paramita with 800 slokas written in golden letters(10th century AD), for instance, and an original watermill stone(11th century AD) abound, evidence of ancient Buddhist culture, although the "golden miraculous footprint" of Bodhisatta or the "self-embossed" auspicious letter Hun on a rockface, now framed in a glass case, may not have too many votaries. Thangka paintings, done on once-luminous silk scrolls, now faded and shabby, crowd the picture galleries, with various avatars of the Buddha and the entire clan of green and blue grimacing monsters(they are the defenders of faith) staring one down. The extravagant use of gold, the intricate detailing on dragons and chalices and the proliferation of human skulls in the paintings gave them - and the silent corridors of the museum that go round in concentric circles - a curiously pagan feel.

Outside, the steady pitterpatter of rain roars into a pelting shower. Swinging bridges suspended by cantilevers rattle violently, battered by the gusty wind. The narrow and sprightly Paro Chu - its waters so clear that one can see shoals of thout swimming beneath the surface - hurtles past boulders at the breakneck speed, grinding pebbles in its path into grit. The Paro Airport, of which one is allowed a bird's eye view on the way into town, blurs into the white haze of the lashing rain.

With just about 50 shops - eateries, groceries, tailoring and handicrafts - flanking the road for less than half a mile, there isn't much of a town in Paro. Shabby and rundown, the shops have little to stock. Ladies at the counter are polite and preoccupied. They avoid looking you in the eye and speak only if they are spoken to, talking a good three minutes to recall the price of the article one has enquired about, before they quote an invariably prohibitive sum. In fact, no shopkeeper in Bhutan seems to be interested in business. They keep odd hours(the handicrafts outlet, a quaint cottage tucked into a lush grove near Paro Airport, is open between 9 and 11 am and again between 3 and 5 pm), and often do not open at all!

A few miles to the north, overlooking the Paro Chu, is the Kyichu Lhakhang, an eighth-century monestary, one of Bhutan's oldest. The gold-roofed structure, with the familiar red-gold-and-blue murals painted all the over its rain-drenched walls and rows of prayer-wheels resignedly getting soaked by the incessant drizzle, look kind of sad - a picture of dereliction. But it's hardly a sanctuary in this torrential downpour. The dooars(you've guessed it) are firmly locked. After we spent some time running around, trying to find the awning that might gave us maximum cover from the rain, a head pops up from the adjacent one-room tenement. "You need a permit from the government to get in"

Back in the thin cluster of buildings called Paro town, which looks even more attenuated after the heavy shower, we sit down to a late-afternoon lunch of shamu emu datsi. There's not much to choose from. Emu datsi(chilli and cheese) are the constants, served in different combinations, with shamu(chicken), kewa(potatoes), pasha(pork) or gondo(mixed meat) and an abundance of red-hot chilli sauce. Bhutanese food is low on calories and rather bland. Soups are highly nutritious and very light. Piping hot momos are, of course, a great takeaway option, ideal for on-the-road consumption.

On our way back to Thimpu, the rains come marching in once again, beating down relentlessly on the fluorescent green of the thick, heavy foliage, the gravelly mountain road, the rock spurs and turgid Paro River. Pint-sized children swadled in gho and kira (long, ankle-length robes tied at the waist with slim belts), on their way home from school, pace the slippery roads with amazing dexterity. We stop the car to pick up one of them, sheltered against a jutting rock face. Within seconds, a whole army of children - 11 in all - squeeze in, piling themselves on top of each other, a tangle of rain drenched faces, arms and satchels sticking out at impossible angles. There's more excitement on the way: landslides with hold up traffic for a good three hours and the lonely immigration officer at Wangdo checkpost who invites you to play Chinese chequers.


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