Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mipham In Bhutan: Part II

It’s been a wonderful two weeks stay in Paro, but now it’s time to visit the capital city ofThimphu. Angay Deki is as usual a bit worried about Mipham’s overall well being and in particular his appetite. She would also like him to learn as much Dzongkha as possible. The trip from Paro toThimphu is one of the shorter and pleasant ones amongst the kingdom’s long and winding roads. The journey is pleasant and the little yellow Indian car is a tough little stable ride. Mipham used to throw up when he was younger but he’s now gotten used to sleeping soon as the car hits about 5 kmph.

Thimphu is the face of modernBhutan. It lies at an elevation of 2,300m in a valley with the Wang Chhu (river) flowing downtown at the base of the valley. Thimpu is home to the revered Bhutanese Royal family, the Royal Government, the Judiciary and several foreign missions and development projects. Every time the family has been visiting there have been substantial recognizable changes happening. New roads are being built and old footpaths and parking lots around town are being renovated constantly. There seems to be some sort of renovation or construction happening in almost all areas of the city. The number of automobiles has significantly risen, as has the population (presently at about 50 thousand). Quite a lot considering it used to be some 20 thousand a couple of years ago. The main square has expanded as has many of the neighborhoods, becoming shopping complexes housing restaurants, fast foods, electronic goods, snooker and billiard rooms, internet cafes and household goods. It’s quite a bustling market and a laid back city all at the same time. The mountains keep the valley shrouded in some surrounded calm.

This is a small Takin reserve located at the top of the valley. The Takin is the national animal of Bhutan, a curious looking animal said to have been conjured by Lama Drukpa Kinley, better known as the ‘Divine Madman’, a much loved saint and hero, whose unorthodox teachings touched peoples hearts and to whom the Phallus paintings on Bhutanese houses can be attributed and traced. This is quite a popular spot to get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown Thimphu amidst pine forests and for a birds eye view of the valley below.

Today Mipham is attending the school his two cousins Tobden and Tj go to. It’s called Little Dragon, an elementary school where they learn basic subjects like History, Geography, Math, Dzongkha and English. All schools in Bhutan require the wearing of national dress, the ‘Gho’, a robe like dress tied at the waist, as it with all other official and government institutions. Mipham is more than mystified not just by the dress but the sheer sight of so many children running around amok. The singing of the national assembly before the school officially begins frightens him a bit, but he seeks solace by looking at Acho (big brother) Tobden and Acho Tj.

Built in 1627, this Dzong is the oldest in Thimphu and the gateway to Thimphu valley. The Dzong houses the Rigney School for Dzongkha and Monastic Studies. The Dzong has beautiful frescos and slate carvings. My brother Tshiteem lives just above the Dzong in a small cottage overlooking the capital 10 minutes drive away. Mipham loves coming here and loves hanging out with Acho Tj. They indulge themselves in video games and superheroes costumes and outfits.

The Indigenous Hospital is located in Thimphu. Today Memay Sherab has come from Paro to visit the hospital and seek some treatment for his ailing asthma affliction. He has tried many western medications and has found some solace and comfort in the traditional method of treatment; taking the prescribed herbs with discipline and prayer. He has made marked improvements and believes it is the spiritual practice that makes and gives the herbs their potency and thus the mental and physical strength to purify and heal and recover.

The Thimphu weekly market is held on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It is a gathering where Thimphu residents mingle with villagers in an interesting blend of the urban and the rural. The market is set up outside in rows under tents and tarps. People come from outlying rural villages to this market to sell vegetables and fruits and other items including dried fish, chili peppers, spices, tea (in bricks), butter (wrapped in leaves), hats, jewelry, and masks. One can also find all kinds of items that local people use at home, including ritual and religious objects, and wonderfully woven textiles. Today my sister Tashi is out on her weekly market sojourn, she will buy whatever vegetables out depending on the season and shop enough for a weeks cooking. She normally does the household shopping every week on a Saturday. We have brought Mipham along to see what he makes of it. It’s a definite favorite, what with all the candies out on display! He finds the place exciting, and he has already discovered that sweets and candies hang out of every shop, bar or restaurant in Bhutan, and is always on the lookout for them.

Today the family has arranged a trip to the infamous Do Chula Pass. At 3050m and an hour’s drive away from the capital it offers visitors a wonderful welcome respite. The view of the central-eastern Himalayas can be a truly majestic sight if one is lucky and the skies clear to expose that magnificence. Today the clouds hang over and it’ll have to wait till another time. The huge recently built 108 Chhortons (stupas) provides a wonderful spot to circumambulate, relax and breathe in the fresh air. The kids are positively influenced by the atmosphere and play around the Chhortons running and hiding. Kitso and Tj perform the usual prostrations and chant their short mantras aloud. Mipham is just learning and learning a lot by just being around these places and observing what his cousins and others are doing.

The trip is concluded with a visit to the touristic café located at good vantage point. Tea can taste really good at these altitudes and the traditional arts and crafts on display are charged at by Mipham and his cousins, particularly the ones depicting animals.

It was a good day’s excursion to Dochhula. A few days have passed by and Mipham has certainly seen and learned a lot. He already does a bit of ‘Namo Namo’ chants whenever he sees something resembling a Buddhist symbol. I’m happy at these small developments; I feel he’s getting the hang of the place and the culture. There are more trips to come and the monastery of Tango, located about 40 minutes away fromThimphu has been on the cards. The trip finally unfolds today and we set out early. The drive across Thimphu’s suburbs, crossing the river and heading toward theDechhencholing Palace is nice and lovely. From the palace onward the car journeys through rural Thimphu, with paddy fields, apple orchards and farmhouses. The monastery can be seen a few km’s perching on a hill. Once there, the climb up can take up to an hour or more.

The children are all excited and begin enthusiastically to run up the footpaths, till they all run out of gas and have me carrying them all! On the way to the monastery they visit a little retreat hut where a couple of monks are busy making ‘Tormas’ for offerings. These are made of butter and dough and colored. The kids find these hugely enticing and join in with the monks, who are mildly amused and very obliging. A few climbs later everything goes a bit bad when the children get all hungry and there’s nothing to eat! Where did all that Bhutanese picnicking bags go? Nonetheless it’s been a good day, the kids got to meet a very young boy who is also a figure historically and spiritually held in the highest esteem by the Bhutanese people. (His predecessor built this very monastery). The monastery is full of monks who come here for higher Buddhist studies and practices) and the chants are reassuring and peaceful.

It’s been a fantastic trip being in Thimphu and Mipham has settled in so well with all his cousins and the place itself that it is a bit hard when we bid farewell to the capital and head back to Paro, where Angay Deki is anxiously expecting Mipham and all the rest of the family members for a traditional Buddhist ceremony which is going to be performed at the farmhouse. It helps that Mipham is going to have his cousins come along and be there for the ceremony and for the two important trips Angay Deki has all panned out.

The traditional ceremony held at home is usually a Buddhist practice whereby monks come and for a period of up to 2-3 days perform cleansing, reinforcing rituals accompanied by traditional religious instruments and recital of the sacred scriptures, the teachings of the Buddha.

The monks here are all from Trulku Kinga’s monastery, and have been performing all kinds of Buddhist ceremonies for Angay Deki’s family. Thus they have become a part of the family, contributing spiritually to the well being and harmony of the house and its family members wherever they are. The monks are well known to the family and it is always a warm feeling receiving them for occasions such as this.

It is the night before the ceremony actually begins and the kids are all in the altar room mystified by what the monks are doing; mainly making preparations for the next day in the form of Tormas (buttered and colored dough) that come in different shapes and sizes with symbolic meanings attached to them. Experiences like these do help a child comprehend the complexities of Tantric ritualism later in life, but for now, it is just massively mystifying and wonderfully entertaining, I guess.

The ceremony begins and the chants and the musical notes from the traditional instruments ring out loud and calm throughout the day. Meals are served in-between and family members called when required at specific times to be there when a certain ritual is being performed.

The last day is the climax and the rituals take on an urgency of its own. There is a deep feeling of relaxation around the house and even with all the hectic activities involved, everyone seems calm and collected. The main Torma (an animal in this case) is finally taken out of the altar and kept at a place where ravens may come and feed. Ravens are considered auspicious and the immediate presence of one after the offering is placed is indeed very auspicious.

Taktsang is a monastery in the valley of Paro. It happens to be one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in the Buddhist Himalayan world. The monastery itself is perched on a granite cliff that drops about 2,000 feet to the valley down below. The name is derived from a popular legend that Guru Rinpoche flew across the mountains to this spot on the back of a tiger, reaching a cave in which he meditated for three months, converting the people of Paro valley as well as heralding the arrival of Buddhism during this period. It is one of the holiest Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Bhutan and is popularly known to the outside world as the ‘Tiger’s Nest’.

The path to the monastery steadily and gradually winds upwards through forests of oak, blue pine and rhododendron, with small water streams murmuring continuously along the way until it arrives at a small Chhorten surrounded by prayer flags flapping in the wind.

For the family’s trip, ponies have been arranged to carry the children. The kids are all excited and raring to go; they all want to play cowboys. There is a palpable sense of adventure and excitement in their faces. Tied up in traditional men’s scarves, they are tightly bound to the ponies and guided by the owner of the ponies. A man who has led many up this path to the holy site, some to come and wonder at the sheer sight of the monastery and others to fulfill a dream of seeing and being blessed by Guru Rinpoche’s Zangtopelri (paradise). The lure of the cave is nonetheless magical, and no matter how many times it is visited, it somehow always feels like the first time.

The national indigenous hospital treats patients in the traditional way. Most of the medicines prescribed are natural herbs that grow in the country. Doctors are trained in the traditional method which is closely knitted with the country’s religion. Patients undergo medication along with meditation at home. My father visits the hospital for his treatment of asthma. He has been on traditional medication for sometime now and takes them with a lot of religious discipline. He has though come here today to get himself checked both with the traditional hospital and the modern hospital at the JDW NationalReferral Hospital.

My parents have been planning a trip to a distant monastery called Jhela for sometime now. The whole family has been looking forward to it. It is a good 5-6 hrs walk, with all the kids on ponies.

The trip to Jhela was as good as we expected it to be. Though the rains came down and had us all soaking wet, it was well worth the effort. The monastery of Jhela is an auspicious one, and making these trips to far flung places always feel extra special.

Tonight is our last night in Bhutan. My mother gives me some words of advice and concern mostly regarding mipham and our way of life back in Holland. She’s worried about the travelling, the flying and the finances involved. She speaks about her happiness at having had mipham come and visit so many times. She hopes we can do this once a year at least. Even with the communication gap with mipham, she’s still happy to see his face, know that he’s done many pilgrimages and been to many monasteries. She’d like me to keep him and show him the Buddhist and Bhutanese way of life back in Holland, and let him derive the best out of two very different cultures.

Tonight is our last night and we are in the altar room where my mother sits to talk about our visit. What has all of these time spent together means for her, and how she feels about mipham and our life back in Amsterdam. She is happy we made this trip. She is happy with the time spent together. But most of all she is happy mipham managed to make so many pilgrimages. She advices me, cautions me about the need to keep mipham as rooted in our way of life as possible. She understands he lives in a world that is completely different to her own, but recognizes the reality of it, and stresses again the fact that he should try and take the best of both cultures. She does not mind the fact that mipham and she still cannot communicate, but would love him to learn the language as well. For the moment, she is just happy we are able to make these trips once or twice a year, and hopes we can keep that up in the future.

Be well, take care, do not forget our culture, our traditions, and our dharma and live as peacefully and as sensibly as you can, she says with all the love and wisdom, as a mother and as a grandmother.

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