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Spirit of the ancients

DRAGONS peer at us from cornices, overhangs and window-frames. They wriggle over murals in the hotel foyer, across monastery walls and even squat on the covers of menu-cards. We have, indeed arrived in Bhutan - " The Land of The Thunder Dragon". Radiating from the clock towered main square, its capital, Thimpu, is a living example of how the country has allowed the whiff of change to filter through the chinks in its traditionalism. Five-star hotels rub shoulders with pokey curio joints, Marutis and Toyotas co-exist happily with men and women clad, by law, in the traditional mediaeval costume. While it is compulsory for all buildings to confirm to the traditional 14th century style of architecture, television broadcasting was introduced in 1999 to mark the silver jubilee of the present monarch's reign. Development and progress may be a functional necessity in Bhutan, but respect for tradition animates its soul.

We are, of course, armed with identification slips issued to us by India House in Phuntsholing (the first town, as you enter from West Bengal) against submission of proof of Indian citizenship along with two passport-size photographs. And we have hired a car from Phuntsholing for Rs 3000 for our three-day-two-night trip across Bhutan.

It has been a tiring six-hour journey from Phuntsholing, the road winding uphill, but undulating so dramatically, that often we found ourselves penetrating a wall of cloud or riding along the valley floor. Coniferous trees clothed the hill side, with swatches of wildflowers peeping in between. Down below, mountain streams sparkled in the light like silver threads. But here we are now in Bhutan's capital. Lying within the valley of Thimpu Chu or Thimpu River, this remarkably uncrowded city is well-geared to handle international tourists. Most of the hotels are scattered around the Clock Tower. Nearby is the Tashichhodzong or the administrative hub containing the offices of the king, the throne room, the National Assembly hall, the Main Secretariat and other important buildings. Within the same complex lies Bhutan's largest monastery, the summer headquarters of Je Khempo (the supreme Monk) and his retinue of 2000 members of the order. Special permission is required from the office next door to see the valueable collection of icons and scrolls housed here.

Thanks to its long isolation and Buddhist connection, Bhutan has succeeded in preserving its historic treasures. According to local religious history, Guru Rinpoche arrived in Bhutan in the eighth century and established several religious sites. There he conceded scriptures and other artifacts for the benefit of future generations. And as we traverse the countryside, we discover that the spirit of the Thunder Dragon continues to dwell among the rocks and groves and mountains.

Monasteries of varying importance dot the Thimpu Valley. The entrance of the valley is guarded by the Simtokha Dzong (dzong means fort), an impressive fortress-monastery built in 1627 by Ngawang Namgyal. It is Bhutan's very first center of social and religious education. Today, it houses a university where the national language, Dzonkha, is taught and is a subject of serious research. Overlooking Thimpu town is the Phajoding Monastery. At Dechencholing, a short distance from town, is the Royal Palace, presiding over a picturesque landscape studded with willows and glimmering pools. Other places of interest in Thimpu are the National Memorial Chorten with its golden cupola, the National Library, the Handicrafts Emporium, the Institute of Zorig Chusum (thirteen traditional arts and crafts) and the weekly market on Saturday. 

Sixty-five kilometers from Thimpu lies Paro, a fertile valley, chequered by cultivated fields and criss-crossed by rivers. Over it towers the rugged Himalayan ranges. From Thimpu, we backtrack till the Friendship Bridge, built across the confluence of the Thimpu and Paro Rivers (we had earlier crossed the point while traveling from Phuntosholing to Thimpu). There is a checkpost here and wayside stalls selling noodles and soup. Paro also contains Bhutan's only pocket-sized airport. 

Located in the upper Paro Valley, 16 km from the main square of Paro town, is popular Taktsang Monastery. The last few kilometers of the road leading to it have to be covered in foot, across an uphill switchback trail. Here Guru Rinpoche is said to be have manifested himself as Guru Dorji Drolley to subdue evil spirits. Hence the name by which the place is known- Tiger's Nest. Perched at the edge of a 3000-foot-high rockface, the place is an explorers delight.

In the shade of Mt Chomolhari is the Paro Dzong, first built as a monastery in the 10th century by Guru Rinpoche, later fortified by Ngawang Namgyal in 1646 as an imposing five-storeyed edifice that managed to resist many attack from Tibet. Known as the Rimpung Dzong or the "heap of jewels" because of its rich collection of treasures, the fort was devastated by a terrible fire in 1907. 

Only the thangka depicting Guru Rinpoche could be salvaged and is now displayed annually for a couple of hours during the five-day spring festival held between March and April, replenishing it with sacred masks and costumes.

Above the Dzong is the National Museum of Bhutan, housed in ancient watchtower where the exhibits include three dimensional stamps and "talking stamps" (stamps that can be played in gramophone).

Given its size, Bhutan certainly has a great deal to offer. Though spring and autumn are its most pleasant seasons, there is no such thing as an off-season here. Trekking is best done in autumn, though. For a country which measures its progress in terms of "gross national happiness," prides itself in its cultural heritage and yet passes intact into the 21st century, it seems that time has stopped in Bhutan and for the LAND OF THE THUNDER DRAGON preserves the secret of remaining evergreen.