A PhD-level scientist, Sankar Chatterjee possesses the passion for traveling worldwide to immerse himself in new cultures and customs to discover the forgotten history of the society while attempting to find the common thread that connects the humanity as a whole for its continuity. His most recent essays appeared in The Missing Slate and Travelmag - The Independent Spirit.
Photos courtesy: Rupankar Chatterjee
Cultural Heritage Meets Gross National Happiness in Bhutan
During a recent extended trip through several north-east Asian countries, cradled into the Himalayan Mountains, I along with my nephew and niece, had a chance to visit and explore the beautiful country of Bhutan for a few days. Though a small country of a less than a million of people, Bhutan, with its magnificent natural beauty, is as well rich in its cultural heritage. An early bastion of Buddhism, the arts here evolved around the religion and thus have a unique perspective as well as character. Accordingly, besides exploring and hiking in its various scenic mountain ranges, we thought of exploring the country’s cultural past. We learned that the best place for such exploration will be the historical dzongs, especially found in Bhutan (also in some parts of Tibet). Over the centuries, a dzong with its distinctive style of fortress-like architecture, has been serving as the combined religious, administrative and social center of the local region. Thus, the interior of a dzong contains temples for praying, monastery for housing the monks as well as the offices for local government administration. Inside courtyard also serves as a religious festival place for people to gather.
As a part of our combined travel plan, first we visited the country of Nepal for several days, going there from India. Then, we flew out of Kathmandu in Nepal on one gorgeous sunny morning towards Paro, our first destination in Bhutan.
From our own research on the country’s past, it appeared that the dzong in the district of Punakha might be the ideal place to begin exploring the country’s cultural heritage. It has been described as the second oldest and second largest, but the most majestic of all. Thus, after meeting our local guide at the airport, we headed towards Punakha on Bhutan’s only highway. Though the distance from the airport to Punakha was only 100 miles, due to the winding nature of the road, it took us more than four hours to arrive at our destination in the late afternoon. From a distance, we got our first glimpse of the majestic dzong, situated at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (male) and Mo Chhu (female) rivers, invoking the union of a male and a female for the creation of a life form on earth. We checked into a previously arranged hotel for the night.
Early next morning, we began our visit to the place. The dzong belongs to the Drupka lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism in Bhutan. Originally built near the middle of the seventeenth century, the place, over the centuries underwent several modifications as well as maintenance to weather the forces of nature. While walking alongside the building, we noticed carved painted wooden art on the outer wall of the dzong.
After entering the complex, we passed by a gilded religious wheel of Buddhism at a corner, surrounded by decorative walls.
While standing on the inside courtyard, a gathering chamber supported by decorative pillars holding colorful panels came to our view.
At the same time, a magnificently painted cross-section of the interior of the building started to dazzle in the morning sun.
A closer look at one of the paintings on the wall revealed an intricately painted human life-cycle according to Buddhism.
Intricate nature of the painting with its color-coordination was also revealed in some displayed door frames.
After experiencing the historical architecture as well as the paintings inside the Punakha Dzong and enjoying the natural beauty of the two outside nearby rivers, we made our return journey to Paro. On the way, we stopped at the dzong in Paro that we passed by the day before. Entering its courtyard, we were dazzled by the decorative entrance to its temple.
While inside, an exquisite painting of a religious figure from Buddhism drew our attention.
In addition, the painting of a mythical figure, hitherto unseen in the previous dzong, came to our attention.
While wandering in the public places, we could not help but appreciate the smiling friendly faces of the citizens as well as their gorgeously colorful unique dresses. It has been said that the country’s textiles represent complex, but rich repository of a unique art form. They are being recognized for their intricate dyeing and weaving techniques, thus producing abundance of color and variation of patterns offering exquisite sophistication. Thus, a decade ago, the government established the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan. The major purpose of the place is to showcase to the world the historic progression of the art in textile field as well as the evolution of the nature of the dresses worn by the citizens depending on their social status. In a section of the museum, there were demonstration of various processes, the way these textiles were produced. Unfortunately, any kind of photography within the building was strictly forbidden.
While appreciating the heritage of the country, we wondered about the continuity of this cultural tradition in present-day Bhutan. It turns out that the government of Bhutan already thought about it and proactively established a center called the Folk Heritage Museum in Thimphu. Besides being a museum, a section of the building also serves as the vocational training center for the emerging sculptors, painters and textile artists who will practice the respective vocation while preserving the country’s rich cultural heritage. So, we paid a visit there too.
First, we visited the section with rooms that showcased student-made multiple paintings and sculptures in various stages of completion in current training session.
In another section, needle works of the current students, at different stages of completion, came to our view.
From the display rooms, we headed towards the section inside the complex where young men and women were seen to be engaged in learning their crafts. We observed a young male sculptor was in the process of putting final touches on a statue that he had been working on for last several weeks.
In rooms, in another section of the complex, we observed the young female weavers were getting lessons in the various facets of producing colorful textiles.
Thus, even in these days of globalization and technological wonders, this small but beautiful country of Bhutan, with its motto of “Gross National Happiness (GNH),” found a way to maintain and propagate its rich cultural heritage, both for economic reason and preservation of its glorious traditions of producing fine arts and textiles. And what a lesson it was to learn from this trip!