Two trips to different regions of Bhutan and I’m back with a somewhat bigger picture of this country. Of course, spending a total of fewer than 20 days in a country is definitely not enough to understand an entire community. So far, these are some of the lessons I took away from the Bhutanese people that I met, whose culture I managed to observe in a limited time.
Lessons on living, love, and death, as learned from the Bhutanese
Love with an open heart.
The 4th King of Bhutan has 4 wives, and not just that, the 4 wives are actual sisters. The current King – the 5th – has one wife and promised to only have one. No matter if their King love one or more, the Bhutanese people love and respect their Kings all the same.
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There is no law restricting a Bhutanese man from marrying more than one woman, as long as he got the consent of his first wife. By custom (though not by law), a Bhutanese woman can also have more than one husband, in fact, they might even be brothers.
I casually asked this 30+yo Bhutanese man whose name shall not be disclosed. We had been discussing Bhutanese dating while waiting for the others: one to one, one to many, or many to many.
Me: “So it’s ok for a man to love more than one woman?”
Him: “Ok ok! No problem!“, he answered cheerfully.
Although polygamy isn’t as widely practised in Bhutan now, and is in fact, dying out, polyandry (a woman marrying more than one) still exists for the smaller nomadic communities in Bhutan, such as those living at the highlands of Merak or Laya. There are practical reasons behind, for these Highlanders. Being almost cut off from the world, marrying brothers from one family would help the woman manage property and resources more efficiently. One husband could go run errands in the city, while another husband can help to rear the yak back in the village. Very practical.
For a Bhutanese, divorce carries no social stigma.
In Bhutan, couples get married by choice, not by parental pressure.
Weddings do not have to be lavish ceremonies. If a couple no longer gets along, the partnership is considered not very meaningful and hence, divorce is an option. The advantage is, divorce in Bhutan carries no social stigma, no matter for the man or woman. One of the tour drivers I met, had married (and divorced) seven times! I need to learn from him on how to meet so many marriage candidates in one lifetime, lol.
Don’t let your mind be limited by the so-called reality.
Because I saw Buddha on the road.
“Panda, have you ever seen ‘things’ on the road?”
Over dinner, I asked our Druk Asia driver (nicknamed Panda, real name is Nidup Dorji) who was driving us through Eastern Bhutan. Panda nodded, replying a “Yeah yeah” to me. I then told him that [I thought ] I saw Buddha, twice, on the road earlier, on the rather terrifying drive back from Lhuentse to Mongar. At that time, night was falling fast and the weather wasn’t too great, which means rain and fogginess along these mountain roads that have no lights.
Indeed, I had caught a glimpse of a giant Buddha head, as if projected onto the trees lining the road. A few blinks and it’s gone. Later, I sat up straight in attention, when I saw a standing, hands-in-prayer Buddha illuminated on the cliff face ahead. It was so vivid that I thought it must be a deliberate light projection. But we’re in Eastern Bhutan, where electricity might even be scarce. As our van neared that spot, I realized that it was the indentations of the cliff and shadows that created the Buddha silhouette. Hmm.
Panda merely listened to my story and nodded in acknowledgment. To my surprise, he did not dismiss my visions as tricks of the mind. Dema, our Bhutanese tour manager, did not flinch too when she heard my story the next morning. “Perhaps it was a sign telling you that you’ll be safe on the journey.” – my exact thought too when I saw the visions.
Just because you didn’t see it for yourself, it doesn’t mean something doesn’t exist.
Tiger’s Nest was where Guru Rinpoche meditated, after getting there with the help of his consort, who had transformed into a flying tigress. Bhutanese people also worship a particular saint fondly referred to the Divine Madman, who used his *ehem*, phallus, like a lightning bolt, to subdue demons that are terrorizing villages. People in Bhutan will tell you these stories as fact, not fiction or folklore.
I love this aspect about the Bhutanese, because I myself believe in the existence of things that our naked eyes and minds – shaped by science – don’t always see.
You’re not gonna be here for a long time.
Make peace with the life you have now.
It was a random afternoon in May. It was a random decision to stop the car along this random stretch of road. The weather was perfect – sun lighting up everything beautifully while a gentle breeze cools you down. Someone’s puppy ran out of the local’s hut excitedly to greet us. We watched as villagers plow the field, farmers plant saplings, everyone hard at work over the rice terraces. They didn’t mind us visiting. They definitely didn’t mind us watching.
“They don’t get any salary“, Ugyen Tshewang, our tour guide in Bhutan, announced. These are independent workers, doing work in exchange for food. Today, they’re working at this rice-field. Another day, they could be at another land-owner’s rice-field. My mind was filled with questions about these workers. They don’t need money? How about their family? Kids and expenses?
In Bhutan, basic public healthcare is free, be it traditional or modern medicine (source). Primary education is also free too (source).
It must feel like back-breaking work, but none of the farmers seem to be in a foul mood. In fact, the farmers laughed cheerfully at Ugyen’s attempts to plant the saplings, his speed a maximum of 20% of theirs. Later on, someone brought out an alcoholic cheese dessert for these farmers, as their afternoon break.
I guess this is what it truly means by being too blessed to be stressed, and to not sweat the small stuff.
You don’t need to be a city person to know how to behave like a civilized person.
Eastern Bhutan is considered a very remote region of Bhutan, with very few international tourists ever getting there due to its distance from Paro, the country’s international airport. Being this cut off from the world, it’s easy to make an assumption: the people in remote villages would definitely be backward in action and thinking, yes? No!
Us foreign visitors took a bumpy 4-hour ride to get a glimpse of Merak, a far-flung settlement where the Highlanders of the Brokpa ethnic tribe lives. I was fascinated by how gracious everyone behaved. No one speaks loudly or behaves rudely. Everywhere in Eastern Bhutan, we were warmly welcomed and hosted by the locals. This lady who was making long rolls of sheep fur in the morning sun, communicated with us gently, in English.
You’ll also notice that the environment in Bhutan is often very clean.
To the Bhutan people, cleanliness is next to godliness, so everyone plays their part in keeping their surroundings clean.
Honestly, I cannot help but be impressed!
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Being a good human is as simple as not doing harm to others.
Kids in school were taught to not do harm to others. If well-implemented, this reduces the number of mean kids and future terrible adults in a society significantly. They believe in judgment at the end of their lives, but are not necessarily, purposely intimidated by the scary effects of karma. To put it simply, it’s:
Do good, get good.
In Bhutan, it’s illegal to kill or hunt. The meat that people eat in Bhutan, is thus mostly imported from India. Bhutanese guides love to mention that, the fishes in Bhutan’s rivers will flow to India, where they’ll be caught and killed by the fishermen, and then sold back to Bhutan. The Bhutanese graciously accept this arrangement, even when the fishes… originated in Bhutan, lol.
Taking responsibility towards Earth is not a prerequisite of first-world countries.
Pointing to the canvas totes hanging overhead at stalls at the market, in Samdrup Jongkhar – Bhutan’s oldest district as far as days of driving required from the capital, Ugyen shared with me that Bhutan had imposed a no-plastic-bag policy across the country. Stall-owners and in fact, all shop-owners will use canvas totes or cloth bags when consumers buy stuff.
Can you imagine? We see so many awareness campaigns and social media posts about climate change, the damage done to our environment from single-use plastic items, etc. Yet these all feel like lip service with no real action done. Bhutan, simply went ahead to implement a nation-wide policy.
Talk about being a leader of change!
Learn to be comfortable in silence.
Quietness will cleanse your soul.
In Eastern Bhutan, the surroundings are often very quiet. Other than the sounds of nature, a gushing river in the distance, the twinkling laughter of kids playing together, or someone turning giant prayer wheels over the mountains, there’s very, very little noise in the air. I soaked in all the silence that I could, peace settling over my soul.
Only when you can accept stillness, will all your heart’s yearnings be spoken and heard.
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Your body is a shell.
Don’t get too attached to it.
I’ve heard a few different versions with regards to death rituals in Bhutan. In Punakha, we passed by a cremation compound while heading to the famous, longest suspension bridge in Bhutan. It was such that, for corpses, before being cremated, their limbs will be broken into smaller pieces, bound together, before being cremated.
Sky burials are possible too (but discouraged these days), where dead bodies will be left at the top of mountains, meant to be food for vultures, as a final deed of compassion. Another ritual is for kids below 8 years old, as cremation is not allowed for them. The kid’s body will be immersed in the river, weighed down with stones so they won’t be carried downstream.
Death is not the be-all and end-all.
Death shouldn’t be all that scary.
.. Because what happens is, you’ll just be reincarnated again.
The bulk of the Bhutanese people’s religion is predominantly Buddhist. Buddhists believe in life cycles: when you die, you’ll simply be reborn in another life.
Beauty is all around you.
You just need to open your eyes.
Ok, this might be a little unfair because Bhutan is filled with majestic sights at many spots. The untouched regions such as Eastern Bhutan is even more stunning. Bhutan’s law states a minimum of 60% forest cover. Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world, absorbing more carbon dioxide than produced.
Doing a road-trip to Eastern Bhutan (which I’ll write about very soon!) is a treat for your visual senses, i.e., if you can stay awake.
Bhutan, I’m very sure I’ll visit you again and again, as long as my legs can carry me. There is so much wisdom about your country that I could learn from.