Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and nestles in the valley of the Wangchu at 2,600 metres above sea level. Its population is about 100,000 but growing as more of the 700,000 population of the country move to the city. Rural-urban migration is a real issue here still. New buildings are going up, but these are mainly hotels or government offices. Built of concrete labour has to be brought in from India as there is a lack of local skills in concrete engineering. These Indian workers are housed on site in shantiesif corrugated iron. They do not have to receive the national minimum wage of £800 a month!
Today has been a cultural day in Thimphu, learning about Buddhism, traditional arts and crafts, the traditional Bhutanese house, traditional sport and, of course, the royal family. I am now fairly confident that we’re I to bump into any of kings since 1907 I would be able to bend a knee instantly! Mind you 3 have passed away, so I might not recognise their current reincarnation!
The day dawned bright and clear so we headed to a large stupa or chorten in the town. This was not particularly old, but was beautiful. As we entered the courtyard we saw the prayer wheels and a number of elderly ladies who pass their days praying on their rosaries at the base of the wheels. After a quick spin, we entered the Stupa and climbed up the stunningly coloured interior. Susan explained the significance of various gods. Once outside he pointed out the gods of east, south, west and north and their symbolism. The god of the south holds a sword as evil comes from his hands.
A short walk took us to the National Stamp Museum. Bhutan has some very beautiful stamps, bu5 in all honesty it did not hold us for long (sorry John!)
A short drive and we were at ‘Simply Bhutan’ which is a small heritage museum. We entered a recreation of a reception room and our young guide gave us some rice spirit which was very pleasant and about 40% proof! A good start to the day! She showed us the method used to make mud walls where the clay is pounded until it becomes rock hard. In the garden phalluses grew like mushrooms and above our heads a flying phallus swung in the breeze. She took us around a typical Bhutanese kitchen and showed us where the chillies were dried. We were offered butter tea with toasted rice, both of which were surprisingly pleasant. While we drank 8 young people performed traditional dances.
Outside was a man with cerebral palsy who has learnt how to carve using only his feet. We watched fascinated as he wielded a hammer and chisel held between his toes. We gladly bought one of the dhama wheels he had carved.
We were invited to try our hand at traditional archery using bamboo poles and arrows. Christine went first and hit the target every time. I followed on and …..well let us say I did not trouble the scorer!
We walked from there to the National Institute for Zorig Cusum, where young people, from 16 onwards, learn traditional arts and crafts. It was very impressive. The students worked in near silence and with fierce concentration as they outlined a design, carved wood, embroidered or painted. Clearly the state is determined not to lose its heritage as each student gets their training free as well as board and lodging. How unlike our own students!
The National library is quite something. As you enter the building your eye is drawn to the altar at the end of the room where Buddha presides and the usual 7 bowls of water are placed. The books are all religious texts and you quickly realise that to be a god Buddhist, you need to do some serious reading. The basic Buddhist teachings run to over a 100 large volumes! The library also boasts the world’s largest book at a staggering 5 feet square.
Lunch today was a very good vegetarian selection including momos, a kind of dumpling parcel with vegetables in it, and some vegetable balls in a gingerish sauce.
At the national Textile Institute we learned about traditional weaving and costumes. This was a very impressive modern building with two large galleries. The textiles were stunning as were the costumes. Weaving is done mainly on backstrap looms, in which the weaver sits and provides the tension by leaning back into the strap.
We were then given a ‘shopping opportunity’ by walking down past the row of government provided arts and craft stalls in the centre of the Main Street. Again there was some lovely work at very low prices, but how exactly we would get home a sculpture of a demon with antler horns I do not know. Luckily Christine settled on a couple of scarves.
Archery is the national sport and so we were taken to the local archery ground to watch a competition. It was fascinating. The teams shoot over a long distance at a very small wooden target. The odd time someone hits the thing there is jubilation and a dance by his team mates. Every time he misses they all tell him where he has gone wrong. Each archer has two arrows and ther are about ten a side.
I had spotted a large Buddha on a hil some distance away and asked Sunam about it. Immediately Mr Namgay asked if we would like to drive to see it. Well, of course we would! We climbed steadily along very windy roads and then walked up to the 51 metre high bronze figure. It is still being completed. Inside there are thousands of small buddhas and still many more to be placed on the shelves inside. A covered platform outside is where, at a certain time in the lunar year, the chief abbot will sit and read Buddha’s teachings to the massed pilgrims in the enormous square in front of the statue. We climbed back down vertiginous and clearly unfinished steps, Christine gripping my arm!
We returned to our hotel for a brief rest before being taken to the local dzong. This houses not only a monastery but also the state offices, including the king’s office. His ‘palace’ is just across the river and is no more than a large bungalow. Couldn’t help thinking our royal family could take a leaf! The parliament building lies near by, an altogether grander building. There are two chambers, both elected. The upper chamber has 45 members, one for each province and the lower chamber has 20, one for each region. It all seems rather cosy.
Back to the dzong. The courtyard was beautiful with a magnificent central tower and beautifully painted woodwork. We were only allowed in the monastic zone. As the sun set, red lights came out all around the building. Christine said it looked magnificent. I said it was just a dzong at twilight!
Time for bed I think. We have to be on the road at 9.00.