A little backgrounder; Bhutan is a country of 700,000 people nestled among mountains and it borders northern India (among others). The government has both a king/monarchy, and elected representatives as well as a monastic component. Within the beautifully adorned regional dzongs there is a section for the the government officials, monastics, a temple and a square (for events etc). Dzong architecture (from Tibetan རྫོང་, Wylie rDzong, sometimes written, Jong) is a distinctive type of fortress architecture found in the present and former Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas: Bhutan and Tibet. The architecture is massive in style with towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monks' accommodation. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dzong_architecture Punakha Dzong is pictured below.
GNH - Gross National Happiness was first formulated in 1974, by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck and is even reflected within the constitutionof Bhutan. "The Royal Government of Bhutan in 2005 made the decision to develop GNH indicators in order to move the concept of GNH from the point of academic discourse to a measurable one. The indicators aim to check whether programmes and policies are consistent with the values of GNH. The government intends to create conditions for situations to be better-assessed and for policy-makers to be better-informed in taking appropriate measures for actual implementation of GNH policy & programmes." source: http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/ I think this is an extremely important pursuit and measurement that I hope other countries will adopt. I just read in the New York Times about the United Nations' Happiness Project which "the United Nations will implement Resolution 65/309, adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in July 2011, placing “happiness” on the global agenda." There is a lot we can do individually and collectively to cultivate happiness. Check out one of my favorite articles on cultivating happiness The How's of Happiness.
During the trip it was a little difficult to find vegan food as butter and cheese are used extensively, however vegetarian options were fairly easy. The cafe about half way up the trek to the Tiger's Nest Monastery was actually all vegetarian. I also learned that as part of the country's Buddhist foundation animals are apparently not allowed to be slaughtered within Bhutan, and instead meat is imported. (It should be noted that many other individual Buddhists and Buddhist communities are entirely vegetarian or vegan. For example Thich Nhat Hanh is vegan. We will be attending a retreat at his center in France in June, 2012.) J and I are long time vegetarians, and have been vegan for the last couple of years. For us this also aligns with one of the five main Buddhist precepts; to abstain from harming living beings. I have been pondering this more as I read the local papers citing bird flu outbreak in Nepal, swine flu in India, and anthrax among cows in Bhutan. Combining these issues with ecoli, salmonella, antibiotic resistant MRSA, cardiovascular disease, environmental concerns etc, perhaps by following the precept of not harming living creatures, I am also not harming myself.
During our one week trip we focussed on exploring dzongs, temples, walks, the botanical garden, visiting an arts school, a museum of traditional rural life, viewing the scenery and finally a trek up to the Taktsang Monastery (also known as Tiger's Nest). The temple complex was first built in 1692 and was renovated after a fire in 1998. The trek was certainly a highlight of the trip and I thought I would not make it. Several people only made it part way, or took one of the horses as far up as the animals can go, or opted to not attempt it all. The monastery sits on top of a mountain 3100 meters in the sky. Once you reach about 3000 meters you have to descend a steep stone stair case and then go up another one on the other side to reach the monastery, which is almost impossibly perched cliffside.
I learned a few interesting tidbits about Bhutan on the trip. Several buildings, mainly in rural areas, display phallus paintings or carvings on the exterior. Phallus paintings in Bhutan are esoteric symbols, which have their origins in the Chimi Lhakhang monastery near Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan. The village monastery was built in honour of Lama Drukpa Kunley who lived in the 15-16th century and who was popularly known as the "Mad Saint" or “Divine Madman” for his unorthodox ways of teaching, which amounted to being bizarre and shocking. These explicit paintings, though embarrassing to many urbanites now (this folk culture is now informally discouraged in urban centres), can be seen painted on the walls of houses and buildings throughout Bhutan, particularly in villages, and are credited as Kunley's creations. Traditionally symbols of an erect penis in Bhutan have been intended to drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip. source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phallus_paintings_in_Bhutan To read more about this phenomenon and see some photos of the art see this article: Wanderlust: Penis worship in Bhutan.
I also noticed the raised thresholds and lower doors in many buildings, or as I like to call them the tripping head smashers. After visiting an interesting museum, which was complete with a re-creation of a traditional rural house, I learned of the true purpose of this design. Apparently it is to keep the inhabitants safe from zombies, who would not be smart enough to both raise their feet and lower their heads in order to invade the house. So far I remain smarter than a zombie.
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