The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 25, 2003

Enter the Dragon country
Arun Gaur

Mediaeval magic: A doll pierced on the Paro sideway
Mediaeval magic: A doll pierced on the Paro sideway

THE airport at Paro seemed an enigma. When we landed there, it appeared to be a little school building, like irregular boxes stashed together, where nothing seemed to be happening as per our expectations. Possibly, we were cornered. They asked for various documents, that we had not thought necessary to carry. Wasn’t going to Bhutan like going to one of our own states? Ultimately, when everything was resolved, though not very amicably, we found the only bus that could carry us to Thimphu was already inching forward without us.

We left behind the Paro boxes and the runway strip as deserted as ever. Thimphu was a little different from Paro. We learned how to cope with the quaint tenor of life at the capital. We did not know which way to follow. There were no localities or sectors or house numbers to guide us. Perhaps here, everyone, except us, (the aliens) knew about everyone else.


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Countryside retreats: A Wordsworthian landscape
Countryside retreats: 
A Wordsworthian landscape

As the days progressed, we breathed air laden with unwithering whiffs of big pink roses. Flowers dangled over the wooden edges carrying innumerable dragons spewing fires through their cloven tongues.

It was not permissible to enter certain places without a neck-tie and I had never cared how to tie the knot of this particular piece of dress.

The Indian Punjabi community, as always, was an assuring factor. It presented a melange where all the hierarchical notions became meaningless — the office-goers, the teachers, the account-keepers, and those with the top administrative responsibilities all got herded together. Every house-hold used to throw a get-together party on a week-end by turns. Small groups would proceed from their own hide-outs towards the destined house usually in the evening in a light drizzle, with their pink umbrellas aloft in the air. Sometimes during the feast, the power would remain suspended, and it would turn out to be a candle-light dinner, perforce. Sometimes the Punjabi folk music was played.

The Thimphu river dancing down the valley
The Thimphu river dancing down the valley

Rain could come any time. It was always in the air. So while climbing up the hill-tracks we always kept umbrellas and rain-coats tucked under our arms. Many little rivulets had to be crossed on the way to the top of the hill. As we gained height, the clouds thickened. Becoming still eventually. There was a floating stillness. Clouds always floated between us, the red palace and the town-houses. They interfered everywhere. With the clouds floated the roses — big, rich, everywhere.

The morning as well as the evening walks were always good; we meandered through the assemblages of Buddhist flag-poles dug into the earth. On a corner bend, sitting on a parapet with a water-course passing underneath, a guitarist played his blue tune of the dawn. A woman from the royal household passed in a luxury car. Her dark mane was thrown back on to the shoulders, and the regality grew heavy on every speck, in every crevice of her features. It is an awful burden to bear in this tiny hill state, where money and poverty grow in close proximity. A few miles of the morning walk in casual wears took us to the royal door-steps. All prepared to meet the king in one’s pyjama-kurta. Near the palace the soldiers marched, in step with the regal musical band.

Painting of an aerial being in a Thimphu Monastery
Painting of an aerial being in a Thimphu Monastery

It was walking everywhere. Sunday walks to the weekly mart on the bank of the river drew one into the gore of the beheaded animals and into the slush of an instant shower. But there were much more pleasant mid-day walks that took us to the arched bridge and the quick swirls of water under it. In the gold-studded monastery, the monk sat, keeping his finger over his lips — be silent. Amid the innumerable anthropomorphic figures we spiralled up the steps in the well of the monastery. A man moved in our footsteps — a little dizzy, reeking with the smell of a head-strong drink.

Sometimes, we moved towards the giant football-ground beyond the market. Before the dragon-insignia so very boldly inscribed, I had thought of finding in vain a bit of throng, a bit of archery. Today, it was an important historic day for the tiny kingdom, Ivaguely recollected. But nothing there, no band, no archery. One could always hop from here into the quiet market place — quaint carnival dress-pieces, curious Chinese trinkets, wooden mandalas, metal Buddhist deities, and the wooden masks. Normally, our walks ended in the evening at the famous bakery shop run by a Swiss, where we could never decide about our choice.

The kids gathered on the road-side and then, in a sudden burst, they rushed forward. Their young teacher kept a sharp eye over them. Jumping, giggling, they crossed the road in a whiff of wild rush. Their teacher ran after them with head adorned with the green crown of leaves mixed with Grecian myrtles.

The national sign of Dragon-mandala
The national sign of Dragon-mandala

Back to Paro we came one day following the turbulent river from Thimphu. There was a long row of houses on both sides of the road that ran along the bank for some distance. These houses functioned as shops, hotels, and residences — all combined. Our hotel was cheap, a difficult place to stay in without any attached bath-room. As a dinner, the girls, who ran the hotel gave us watery rice and looking into our faces for some celestial sign proclaimed: "One day you will be at the Tiger’s Den." Next day, on getting better acquainted with the place, we could dig out a nook where a fine potato-dish was fried.

The river was very clean, and always seemed to be rushing breathlessly towards the hills, and its water gleamed in the setting sun, while the backdrop was provided by the floating translucent tufts of clouds across the dark hills. Down the river there were cool long walks, the road with an occasional vehicle meandered through the countryside, where the farmers with their sturdy maithun ploughed in the thick wet paddy-ground. A few miles ahead on this road there was an ancient turned castle where many brave battles were fought. Now it is crumbling into a pile of giant wooden-beams.

In the evening, when we moved up beyond the monastery towards the museum, we found the red shadows of lamas flitting in the green avenues and found a doll carefully placed on a stone pierced with many arrows. In the museum we seemed to be wandering in the subterranean tunnels, till eventually we managed to come out of the overpowering dark.

Coming back presented another enigma. Whether the flight would really materialise or not, it all depended upon the cloud formations. Repeatedly, we were taken to a hotel and treated with generous bouts of tea in a long hall with a stuffed tiger in the corner. Before the flight actually took place, the school kids with the satchels glued to their back kept on flattening their noses against the big window-glasses of the airport-boxes to peer at us. Maybe we appeared queer little things to them.