A recent trip to Bhutan only affirms how amazingly insular one can be. A world of possibilities exist, unfold and play themselves across the world yet we seem to believe that the world order as we know it is the only one which works. This was the a strand of thought as I spent my first night in the Bhutanese town of Phuentsholing. That the country has a functioning monarchy was on my mind as I crossed the gates into the kingdom of Bhutan. The other was a sense of excitement to experience this country of happiness firsthand. This country was to impress me, surprise me and overwhelm me every single day that I spent here. From a chance encounter with a forest services officer while waiting outside the Taktsang monastery to a dinner table conversation with a family of Tibetan refugees to walking down the streets of Paro on a full moon night, I experienced a world unlike any other that I am aware of.
A year back, I chanced upon a picture of this great monastery which is also said to be an important center for those of the Buddhist faith. This was the Taktsang Monastery (or the Tiger’s Nest) towards which I was instinctively drawn, located on a cliff in the Paro valley. I didn’t care to ascertain why. The setting was so dramatic that I felt I must see it and trek up its holy steps. I had seen documentaries where people cried like babies as they entered these sacred buddhist complexes. There was the Harvard anthropologist Wade Davis crying inconsolably in one of the monasteries that he visits and then Pico Iyer writing about experiences in the company of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his book The Open Road. I felt an urge to subject myself to such an experience and see some of these monasteries for real. As a Hindu, the belief system and the religious values that I was accustomed to offered no such mild yet profound experience which is not terrifying and which is not transactional in its nature. Deliverance for the Hindu (as I see it) is always a transaction with the higher powers. There is a vow and there is a bargain and there are ways to negotiate in case you find that vow a bit too difficult to keep. Buddhism isn’t so, as I read it in contrast. Not a very elegant way to look at it but works for me. The decision to head in Taktsang’s direction too, was as unconscious. It seemed as if there was an inner program unfolding in which I held the role of only performing the action. The rest was determined on a plane of which I knew little about.
This monastery is an important center for those of the buddhist faith. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava who is said to have brought Buddism to Bhutan had meditated in this place. “Takstang” means a tiger’s liar and he had flown to this location on the back of a flying tigress. For a moment this and other versions of the legend consumed me as I started from Kolkata on a bus run by the royal government of Bhutan. It took me to Phuentsholing from where Paro is about six hours drive. The entry into this fascinating kingdom was a gradual lesson in politeness and a zen like patience. To my incessantly stereotyping mind, every Bhutanese looked like a zen monk to whom I must talk to with a slight bow borne out of admiration. The men and women almost everywhere wore their traditional dress. The men in gho and the women in that gorgeous kira.
I had heard it from a dozen people that morning, about how fortunate I am to be visiting Taktsang on the day of the vesak . It was a full moon night that day, also known as buddha purnima . This day commemorates the birth, enlightenment and the death of Buddha and is one of the most auspicious day around the world for all the people of this faith. It was good to take the steps towards this monastery with this feeling of having being called to this place on such a day. It was a solemn morning. The pine trees made it even more intense. It got surreal as I trekked those eight kilometers to the monastery. It was much like that moment when Frederick, that character in Herman Hesse’s story Within and Without comes across the words “Nothing is without, nothing is within; for what is without is within” in his friend Erwin’s beautiful hand. He doesn’t know it. Yet he is sure that these words would soon torment him to be not able to know why they hold his attention and why should they matter to him. They appear to be casting a magic spell on him. Just as this place and the surroundings that day were playing on me.
It is interesting how some of these places where you travel end up altering and shaping a person. And perhaps a traveler is a consequence of several such experiences. I loved the place and its people right from the point of entry into this lovely country and until that third day when I was in Paro, I was much at peace and content with each moment. Not much to worry about, nothing to take care of when I get back and thoughts like these. Every moment felt complete. This probably was heightening what I was experiencing on that trek and then further into the temple complex. I found happy, smiling faces all around. There were Bhutanese men and women, youngsters and children who had come in groups to offer their prayers at Taktsang on this day of vesak which was also a national holiday. Yet they appeared so few that the press of crowd that is typically felt in Indian temples or holy places was absent. What was without, I longed for becoming so within. It is one of the few places where I could hit a consonance between the outer and the inner states. Of being!