Book Reviews

Review Published in BOOK REVIEW

Treasures of the Thunder Dragon- A Portrait of Bhutan

Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck;
Penguin Viking; Pps 211; Rs 495

October 2006

Nearly two decades ago, I made my first journey to Bhutan. I was told that I should take the road up from Phuntsoling rather than go by air, because that way I would be entering Bhutan “the right way.” That was sane advice. From the moment that one crosses the Bhutan gate at Phuntsoling, one is in a way entering another world and it is best to do it gradually. As the 184 km road snakes its way across verdant valleys of incredible beauty, vanishing now into the eternal fog around Chukha and emerging under clear blue skies where the Paro Chu meets the Thimphu Chu in a dramatic confluence, Bhutan’s charm begins to wind around the heart, unobtrusively but ineluctably.

Leaving aside the occasional coffee table book or travel guide, not much has been written about Bhutan. For that reason alone, “A Portrait of Bhutan” written by Bhutan’s senior most queen, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, is a valuable contribution. In just two hundred pages, the book seamlessly weaves travel with history, legend with custom, nature with development. Written as part memoir and part travelogue, the book succeeds eminently in providing the reader an insight into various aspects of Bhutanese life and shows how a people of charming traditions and deep religious beliefs have successfully handled the challenges of modernism and development.

Ashi Dorji Wangmo takes us on many journeys. She takes us deep into Bhutan’s past, its animistic Bon traditions and the later advent of Mahayana Buddhism, brought in dramatically by Guru Padmasambhava flying on a tigress to the precarious perch where Takhtsang monastery today stands in Paro valley. She tackles the difficult questions of the formation of a nation under the Zhabdrung and subsequent establishment of the present monarchy. Several delicate issues in Bhutan’s history are explained, including the courageous manner in which the present King healed the wounds that existed between the monarchy and the descendants of the Zhabdrung, including the family of the present queens.

And there are the fascinating physical journeys. There are vivid memories of the journeys that the author along with Ashi Tshering Pem, her closest sibling and Bhutan’s second queen, used to take to go school at St Helen’s in Kurseong. Those were days when the road from Phuntsholing to Thimphu had barely been completed and vehicles were a rarity. The journey from Punakha to Thimphu still had to be conducted on horseback. A Willys jeep- the first vehicle ever seen by many Bhutanese- was treated with awe and often offered trays of boiled eggs and fresh grass as if it were an animal, tired after a strenuous climb. The reader can follow the author along the east-west highway, crossing one incredible valley after another, climbing up through forests of blue pine, clinging to a corkscrew road above deep gorges and onrushing mountain rivers, resting at passes where clouds nestle on the rhododendron bushes and prayer flags send forth blessings from the holy scriptures to all living beings. And one can walk with her along steep mountain paths to towering dzongs and remote ancient temples, mingling with yak herders, picking wild strawberries and wonder at the peace that can come from the tinkling of a bell attached to a prayer wheel constantly rotated by a little brook running down the hillside. Reflections alongside on Bhutan’s architecture, traditional paintings, the annual fairs and dance festivals of every valley, traditional Bhutanese medicine, the curative powers of hot springs, the institution of polyandry in certain parts add a valuable depth and texture to the narrative.

There are also journeys of the mind and the spirit, fascinating for those who believe and mysterious even to the skeptic. A recurrent dream takes the author to what was possibly her previous life, to a house with a courtyard in which orange trees grow where she meets those who could well be her grandchildren from the past. And on a tour with the King in eastern Bhutan there is the amazing discovery of a reincarnation of the Desi, the seventeenth century civil ruler of Bhutan. A surreal conversation between the four year old boy lama and His Majesty leads ultimately to installation of the boy as the recognized reincarnate Desi, in Tango monastery at the narrow head of the Thimphu valley.

Yes all this can happen as part of daily life in Bhutan. Reincarnate lamas can be seen driving SUVs, monks work on ancient scrolls on their laptops in remote monasteries, western educated youth happily go back into village homes to eat air dried yak meat and drink home made ara, hi-tech bows bring new power and speed to ancient archery meets, Nike shoes go well with the traditional gho and kira….. Ashi Dorji Wangmo helps us put much of this into the proper perspective, patiently explaining the traditions, weeding out the contradictions. After all this is a country that measures its growth not in terms of Gross National Product but Gross National Happiness, a concept based on the conviction that materiel wealth alone does not lead to happiness, that development and modernization should not be at the cost of quality of life and traditional values. In practical terms, socio- economic development should be such that prosperity is shared by all regions; the pristine environment is protected zealously, the country’s unique cultural heritage is promoted and preserved and people are encouraged to participate in the process of governance. All these principles are reflected in ground- breaking political steps taken by the King in recent years that will give Bhutan a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy.

The portrait of her country that Ashi Dorji Wangmo paints, unpretentiously and sympathetically, will attract many visitors to Bhutan. And it will make those who have already have been there, like this writer, yearn to go back. For no one who has spent any reasonable time in that unique country, a place quite like no other in the world, can come away untouched. He must remain smitten forever.