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Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Who Else Am I not? Part Four-'Living in Shangrila'

My first day in Yangchenphug High (then Central) School in Thimphu, Bhutan,  was declared a national holiday. A Bhutanese national had committed suicide by jumping from the bridge in the city into the Thimphu river below.

This was the capital of Bhutan, and the entire nation mourned the death of the suicide victim, so rare was the occurrence.

The people seemed very happy with whatever they had, and the Gross National Happiness factor, that made headlines the world over recently , was very much in evidence all around us at the time.

The world as we had known it so far,  was left behind, as we began our relationship with the only place that could come close to the legendary 'Shangrila'.....

The sound of the deep Bhutanese 'dungchen' (long trumpet) and the Tang Du (drum) intruded our conversation one Sunday morning.


It was now two months that we had been living in a house on a hilltop in Simtokha, that overlooked the scenic Thimphu valley and river, seven kilometers before Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan.

Our house faced a lawn edged by a wired fence, from where the hill fell unnaturally sharply, interrupted by a broad road. It had been cut to make way for the national highway, which, at the time, was the fastest road link from the capital city to Phuntsholing in the plains.

Below the road, the hill continued as before, gently sloping down to meet the river.



At the time, the river banks boasted of apple orchards with apples that were so maroon in colour that they appeared almost black. During the apple season, sometimes at night, we could hear mountain bears grunting with pleasure as they feasted on the fruit.

That morning, my brother and I ran out to see what was happening, but our vision was hidden because of a curve in the road. 

A procession seemed to be headed our way. The wind carried the sounds of Buddhist chanting, guttural, slowly getting louder and louder. 

We hung patiently onto the fence, sure that something interesting was just about to unfold, and what luck that it was to happen so close to home!

Suddenly I shouted, "There they are!", as the first bit of red and orange of the monk's robes flapping in the wind appeared round the corner.

Slowly, as if it were a stage show, a line of monks appeared, followed by another, then another. After them, clad in a striped regal 'Kho' followed  a very handsome young man (who, we learnt later, was the king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk).

I don't remember whether he wore a crown or other 'kingly' items. Viewed even from that distance, he clearly stood out. He, in turn, was followed by a group of around fifty or more men, (at that distance, I couldn't make out if there were any women in that group), all wearing the national dress, the 'kho".

The image of that 'royal' spectacle, with the smoke from the incense burners in the monks' hands  rising up and lingering in the air, their orange and maroon robes and scarves fluttering nervously in the breeze, is still vivid in my mind.

They all made their way down slowly to the banks of the Thimphu river, and carried out a couple of hours prayers, punctuated by periodical blowing of the 'dungchen', chanting, and beating of the 'tang du'.

The next day, when we went to school, we learnt the reason for the elaborate ritual.

There had been no rain that year, and the king, a representative accepted by the largely agricultural population as appointed by the Almighty, had gone to the banks of the sacred Thimphu river to pray to the Rain God.

Bizarrely, it did rain the very next day!

School for me meant putting on the 'kira' (the Bhutanese national dress for women) five days a week.

For the first timer, it is no less frustrating than wearing a saree, and coaxing that one elegant fold in front was the result of forty five minutes of hard labour. Despite all our efforts, the Bhutanese girls looked like they were born in them, and we 'foreigners' like uncomfortable lesser beings.

I often wore my normal clothes underneath, so that when I reached home, I could just rip off the whole garment, and run off to play.



It was strange to be called a 'foreign' national in school.

My school followed the I.C.S.E. pattern, and while the second language in the ninth and tenth grade was Hindi for us Indians, it was 'Dzongkha' for our Bhutanese classmates.

Since they were larger in number, their Dzongkha teacher took class in the classroom itself, while our Hindi lessons were conducted in the Physics Lab.

The first time that I had a period in Hindi, I wondered why my Indians classmates ran out as soon as the bell rang. I took my time collecting my books, and was about to leave, when the Dzongkha teacher walked in.

He looked at me like Cyrus Broacha looks at a new 'bakra' on MTV.

Using sign language, he asked me to stand in front of the class, and wish everybody in the local manner (bowing down with hands outstretched, and saying loudly, "Quuzzu-zam-bola"), modelling it for me. He wouldn't let me leave until I had demonstrated it. The next time round, I was more than prepared to flee as soon as the bell rang for our Hindi lesson!

I tried not to miss a single day of school. The 'naughtiness' we indulged in was at times innocent (once on our return from a class picnic, the boys stole apples from an orchard, and were nearly hacked with a 'khukri' by a zealous Nepali guard!) and at times ingenuous (we tried to use a periscope to see what specimens were laid out for us in our Class 10 Biology practical!)

A self contained world, unmindful of what chaos existed outside its frontiers....truly Shangrila!