Ever Since I Heard of Bhutan….

Dragons, Dzongs and Divine Mad Men!

Ever since I heard of Bhutan, I have wanted to visit. It was 2009 and I was studying for my Masters of Intenational Health when I came across a paper mentioning Bhutan’s development measure of Gross National Happiness. I was intrigued. Then over the years I became more fascinated by Bhutanese ideas, culture and development. Bhutan was declared the first country to be 100% organic in 2012, declared to maintain 60% forestation across the nation and a rich Buddhist tradition spanning thousands of years.


It was by chance that I was fortunate to be able to visit in December this year. I had already planned a substantial overseas adventure with a cycling trek from China into Myanmar and beaching in Thailand, I was all set. A work colleague and friend from another town happened to be visiting when I was just firming up my plans and mentioned that she would be in Thailand at a similar time to the end of my trip and really wanted to organise a tour in Bhutan, but had no-one to go with…..Wow!

What was I going to do? My leave was already approved and I didn’t have enough holidays banked up to take any extra time, not to mention the additional cost on top of my already pricey trip! It seemed like too good an opportunity to forget about though. An ATMA SEVA tour with a slant on traditional medicines in Bhutan, na-hu, no way was I going to miss this! Untitled

Thankfully I have a very understanding boss who was more than happy to extend out my leave for another 9 days at half pay so Stef and I could gallivant amongst the clouds, drinking tea and smelling lemongrass and ginger all the way.

We met in Bangkok the evening before our flight into Paro. Both of us were exhausted from our respective travels to that point. I’d been on busses and ferries for the previous 10 hours and Stef had just arrived from a boozy family wedding weekend in Phuket (beats the ferry anyway)! Words cannot describe the anticipation. I was psyched! I had already been to Myanmar earlier in the trip, another bucket list dream that ended on a slightly sour note.  So I was determined that this would top it. And it did!

Stef and I were blown away by how accommodating the ATMA SEVA team (Sonam, UntitledGyembo and Sangay) were. I certainly wasn’t used to travelling in this style, with this much genuine interest in what I desired to do each day. I feel like anything I have to say, or any photos I share will not do justice to the fabulous job each of these 3 did in sharing the Bhutanese culture with us.

We were met at the airport terminal by the whole team and whisked over the mountains and through the valleys to the capital Thimpu. There was never a moment of silence from the second we arrived. So many questions, so much information and people so willing to share their culture and personal thoughts and feelings! After having travelled in China and Burma earlier in the month it was refreshing to not have to ‘read between the lines’.


A visit to the National Institute of Traditional Medicine was a special treat as our guide Sonam was an old friend of a professor of botany there so we were able to Untitledexplore every aspect, even the pharmaceutical unit. Stef and I were like children in a candy store in the library. I could’ve spent the entire day reading, touching, smelling the books!

Stef was a bit worried about how the altitude would affect us. I had been as well as I hadn’t coped well initially in China. The excitement of being in the mountains was too much though. I wanted to throw myself into every experience, even if it meant freezing my nose off at the Dochu-la pass overlookingUntitled1 the Himalayas, puffing my way up to the Tigers Nest or immersing myself into the steaming hot stone bath. I was captivated!I was more concerned that I wouldn’t fit into my wardrobe anymore. Bhutanese food is amazeballs! Rich and cheesy, buttery and chilly-ee… In the words of my dear friend George, every morsel was like ‘Jesus rubbing your belly’. Ahem…. Perhaps I should rephrase that the say Buddha rubbing your belly. Except perhaps for the dried yak cheese…. Not big on that one!

It’s so hard to discern a highlight for this aspect of my trip. Every day was unique Untitledand held its own delights and challenges (physical and personal).Stef dubbed Bhutan ‘the land of surprises’.  Each day held an auspicious moment that told us that we were exactly where we were meant to be every moment. From brief glimpses at the King and Queen, sightings of other Royalty, to blessings from young reincarnates of enlightened monks years gone by. I was mesmerised by the mountains, the architecture and nature. The culture, peace and serenity with which people conducted themselves….. I think I was drunk on “Gross National Happiness’!






Photography Corner – Tshechu: Festival of Mask Dances

Once there lived a boy, who had enormous faith in the gods because he spent most of his time praying. Another part of his daily routine was to sit beside his father, a painter. The boy watched his father jabbing the paint brush into his mouth every now and then, while painting different forms of art that resembles the mask dances that we see at different Tshechu (a festival of mask dances). However, the boy died a premature death in few years. There is a Bhutanese vernacular, “tshe ma zou lay metshe zo”, which means unfortunate death without completing his destined life. His spirit wandered in Bardo (according to Buddhism, the spirit of the deceased goes through a process lasting forty-nine days called ‘Bardo’ whereupon  the departed spirit either enters nirvana or returns to Earth for rebirth) where he witnessed all the characters in the mask dances. The only difference was that they were real ones. They displayed their dreadfulness in their demeanor; yet, the boy didn’t feel a moment of being afraid. Instead he watched them with great enthusiasm with their familiarity coaxing him. This is because while he was alive he saw his father draw their faces countless times. “They are just characters that my father used to draw with his spittle brush”, thought the boy.  It is said that this very incident led the wandering soul of the boy to find his way to the path of heaven.

This story highlights the importance of having the festival of tshechu in every part of the country. Tshechu are held in dzongs and monasteries annually. This is one of the most colorful festivals in the country where people from all walks of life don’t want to miss it. It is often seen as an opportunity for the people to gear themselves up with their best dresses, usually the bright, colorful and expensive ones. Apart from that the event also propels the people to have a great time to get together, socialize with one another.

Wangduephodrang Tshechu attracted thousands of people in its three days (12th-14th September) period. The unfortunate fire in 24th June burned the entire Wangduephodrang dzong to ashes, since then the annual tshechu has been held in the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) ground which is located a few kilometers away from the town. However, the open ground provided more space for the people to watch the mask dances than the courtyard in the dzong did. One of the most important and interesting features of the mask dances here is the Raksha langgu chham. It was first introduced in the 16th century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The myth has it that while constructing a cantilever bridge across the tshangchhu river during the day time, the people tried laying foundation for the bridge while the mermaid destroyed them at night. Thus, Raksha Langgu chham was introduced in order to distract her. It has been said that the mermaid disguised as an ordinary citizen went to witness the dance. She was mesmerized by the chham that she totally forgot about the on-going construction of the bridge. Meanwhile, people hurried their work and erected the bridge in her absence.

It is not just what people see these days that attracts them to come and watch the mask dances but the background stories and myths that each of them carries like Raksha Langgu chham, giving a very meaningful purpose of their existence. Similarly, every masked dance is introduced with a consequential message. Most of them deal with what happens after death to wandering souls. While some mimic the dances which are found in the paradise, one of such chhams is, Pa chham. Pema lingpa, a very renowned treasure discoverer in the 15th century was said to have visited Zangtopelri (paradise) in his dream. He saw a dance performed by yogis there. He then introduced the same dance here what is known today as Pa chham.

Enjoy the photos and for more details about ATMA SEVA’s travel options in Bhutan, please click here.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern



Bhutanese Food

Bhutanese culture today stands up to be one of the most unique cultures in the world. Talking of its distinctiveness, especially the well-bred Bhutanese food culture has always been an auxiliary force.

5Almost all Bhutanese meals consist of boiled (or steamed) rice along with one or more curries. Rice can be either white polished rice called Ja Chum, which usually is imported from India, or locally grown red rice called Eue Chum. Three meals a day is typical and it is not uncommon for these three meals to all consist of rice and curry. Suja (butter tea) is also an integral part of the meals. Locally prepared alcohols like Ara and Singchang, distilled from rice, maize, wheat or barley depending on which crop is grown in that place, is generally served during /after dinner.

Aema Datshi, chilli pepper and cheese

Aema Datshi, chilli pepper and cheese

However, these local alcohols are redundant in villages while for the people dwelling in urban place the imported ones are more soothing. In Bumthang however, the staple food of rice is often substituted by buckwheat pancakes (Khuli/ Kepthang) and noodles (Puta) although consumption of rice is subsequently increasing because of its easy access. Buckwheat foods almost sound quaint having them often but people do heed them for their delicious taste.

3Bhutanese dishes are known for its simplicity and taste. They are easy in preparing and yet delicious. One of the distinguishing traits of Bhutanese dishes is the ubiquitous chilli. Chillies too have varieties such as fresh green chilli, dried red chilli and chilli powder. Among all the dishes, the hot chilli pepper and cheese, ‘Aema Datshi’, has always taken its toll in defining Bhutan’s sole culture to a new perch. It is often considered to be the national dish of Bhutan. Aema Datshi has propelled many other variations such as kewa datsi (stewed potato, chilli and cheese), and Shamu Datsi (stewed mushroom, chilli and cheese).

Mealtime often means loosening oneself up, a way or a perfect time to socialize with other family member amidst their busy schedule. Family members sit with their knees folded, in an arrangement that resembles more or less a circle. The mother/wife usually sitting in the middle takes the initiative in serving the rest. Maintaining a sturdy sense of dinning etiquette forms an essential part in Bhutanese culture.

Click here to see travel options for Bhutan!

Jigme Namgyel, research intern



Bhutan – Happiness is a Place

It is rare enough to find a book that gives you a glimpse about the real beauty of our lives, but far more common to encounter a place where everything is apparent about being ‘peace-stained’. There is no doubt that Bhutan is one such place on earth, often referred to as the ‘last standing shangri-la’ amidst the great Himalayas.

Bhutan is one of the smallest countries in the world. Sandwiched between two giants, its population has approximately 700,000 people. It has become a place consecrated with rich natural and cultural ecologies, something that has always beguiled the outsiders. Its culture and tradition are so much swayed by the religion of Buddhism, which was first introduced by a great Buddhist saint called Guru Rinpoche in 476 AD.


There is perfect balance between modernity and preservation of culture and tradition. Based upon the Buddhist concept of interdependence between human and nature, the conservation of natural environment and making sure that this process does not turn out to be an ephemeral too takes an important priority. In doing so it has a lot to reciprocate, most importantly it has become an ultimate source of happiness for all.


Bhutan has been rated the happiest country in Asia and the eighth-happiest in the world. It has been often considered the last untouched place on earth. People really do seem happy here, however, many (especially foreigners) do wonder how long will the happiness last as they join the modern world?

The entire process of globalization, as it stretches its shadow across the globe; did have an immense affect upon Bhutan too. Bhutan has embraced this flux, yet, maintained adamant to grasp its culture. Indeed, a new approach has been comprehended, an approach known to the world as ‘Gross National Happiness’, or in Bhutanese vernacular, ‘Gyalyong Ghakey Pelzom’. This philosophy was introduced by the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck with the purpose of guiding the people towards reaching the proximity of happiness. Ever since its preamble, every law or plans passes through the happiness filter first, making everything a likely way to happiness or at least to ebb the poignant among the people.


Nothing appeases the fact but the interminable inherent and benevolent nature of the people. A trace of beam across their faces regardless of the difference in their socioeconomic status forms a vital part in defining the Bhutanese legacy. The entire society is a collective based, with strong sense of sharing and compassion fervor, propelling people to reach out to the needy ones, making sure of the indispensable flux.

The beauty of the places and the landscapes are what amuses the people most. There is an excerpt “It is impossible to find words to express adequately the wonderful beauty and variety of scenery; I met with, during my journeys”, written by one of the English Visitor while sharing his experience about Bhutan.


Happiness is not the absence of unhappiness, but ability realized through them letting us choose and commit to something that has the potential to create a blissful society. With one step in the past, one in the present, the recipe of yesterday and today propels the people in generating a quaint yet a contemporary based tomorrow.

Happiness really is a place…

For more information about ATMA SEVA’s travel options in Bhutan, please click here.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern



Photography Corner : Punakha Dzong

Pungtang Dechen Phodrang (meaning “the palace of great blissness”), most popularly known as Punakha Dzong today, was built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal , the founder of the Palden Drukpa Zhung in 1637. It is the second oldest dzong in Bhutan. This structure was first constructed after the formation of the first official government. Its leader Zhabdrung made it the capital of Buthan. However, the capital was shifted to Thimphu (present capital) during the reign of the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.

This Dzong has played a vital role as a historical benchmark of Bhutan eversince its construction. The Machen Lhakhang, a temple inside the Dzong, enshrines the mummified body of Zhabdrung, who passed away in 1651 while in retreat in this temple. It was in this very Dzong that the first king of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned on 17 December 1907. Ever since, all the monarchs of Bhutan have been crowned in this Dzong.

Today it serves as the District administrative centre of Punakha as well as a winter residence for the monk body. Like every other Dzongs in Bhutan, Punakha Dzong exhibits Tshechu annually. It is a special religious and historical festival consisting in a variety of mask dances.

written by: Jigme Namgyel



Photography Corner – Chorten Memorial

The Chorten Memorial, located in the middle of the capital Thimphu, was built to honor the Third King, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who is known as ‘the father of modern Bhutan’. It was the Druk Gyalpo’s dream to build a monument to world peace and prosperity, but due to his unfortunate death in 1972 he could not fulfill his dream of erecting the Chorten. However in 1974, at the initiative of the Royal family, the Memorial took its present shape, built in the King’s memory and also as a monument to peace.

On the outside of the Chorten three statues stand upon the entrance, representing the protective Bodhisattvas – Avalokiteshvara (the symbol of compassion), Manjushri (the symbol of knowledge) and Vajrapani (the symbol of power). They reflect the deep insight into the Buddhist philosophy. Four statues of lions sit smugly upon a pillar, facing outward in four different directions. The huge golden spire is the prominent part of the monument, making it visible from almost everywhere in the capital.

Ever since its inauguration a thousand of devotees have visited the Chorten on a daily basis, especially the older ones, for they find the monument a safe haven. They circumambulate around it in a clockwise direction, reciting prayers and turning the large prayer wheels painted with Buddhist mantras (Mani Dungku). The number of devotees visiting the Chorten in times of holy occasions is even greater.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern



Bhutan – Archery : A tradition embellished in time

Archery is the most popular sport played in Bhutan. Indeed, it is the country’s national sport. It is considered a cult evolved in time and this game has changed as it was embellished by modernity and globalization.

Nothing is more incongruous than team members yelling across the archery field, trying to help their team mates by literally standing near the target while arrows are shot at it from the other extremity of the field, but in Bhutan it is a common practice. The conducts involved in an archery game or tournament are truly unique. There is always excitement in witnessing an archery game. People either participate as archers or watch cheerfully while others play, in a lively atmosphere.


People dwelling in the villages perceive archery as their favorite pastime, and in times of festivals such as Losar, and particularly during ‘Chodas’ (a particular event whereby a village directly challenges another one), the events are even more colourful and exciting. Adult men in villages set off for the competition early in the morning, hanging their bow and arrow cases upon their shoulder. The archery field can stretch as long as 130m from one end to the other. Relatively small and beautifully painted wooden targets (Ba) are placed at each end of the field.


The other members of the family also play a vital role in the event. The children bring tea and Suja (butter tea), and locally prepared alcohol (Ara and Singchang) as refreshment for the archers while archer’s wives prepare their best dishes and drinks. Apart from these, the archer’s wives cheer their husbands by singing symbolic songs. They also tease the opponent teams with disturbing gesticulation and often singing songs with words of affront.

As the competition draws to an end, usually in the late evenings, all the archers gather with their wives and the audience to dance. They dance in a circle. One leads in singing while others follow him/her, changing the pace of the dance with the tone of their singing.

IMG_1189Before having competitions, teams often seek advice from an astrologer (Tsip) in order to draw luck in their favor or to hinder the opponent’s capabilities. The archers even spend a night outside their home, for example in barns, the night before the competition. The astrologer, through his astrological finding, instructs the archers to enter the archery field in-order according to their individual horoscopes. Such beliefs are very prevalent among the people regardless of the influx of modernity. In addition to this, archery in Bhutan is a concept linked to friendship and cooperation. This is evident from the pack lunches that the people bring along with them and the gestures that they share while on the field. Archery is a mean of socialization in Bhutan, with diverse people brought together to enjoy the same game.

IMG_1195This sport has been embellished by the modern technology. Although all other trends have remained the same, the bows used in the competitions have changed. The use of bows made of bamboo and arrows from reeds has been slowly waning. Today archers in Bhutan prefer to use compound bows. These imported compounds bows are either American or European. Many modern trends such as individual and corporate sponsorship, cash and material prices have become a vital part of any archery competition or tournament.

IMG_1185The archery field right next to the Changlingmithang stadium in Thimphu serves as one of the country’s most famous archery fields. And the most prominent archery tournament is the Yangphel tournament.

Jigme Namgyel, research intern