Buddhist monks in Thimpu laugh at a dancer bearing a row of phalluses. Boys as young as six may become a monk and life can be very harsh in remoter monasteries, where food and clothing are poor and there is little or no heating in winter.
Bhutan – Long Read

Living in harmony with the sacred crane

Photo by Timothy Allen

Bhutan – Long Read Living in harmony with the sacred crane

Hello Bhutan, where the Black-Necked Crane Festival is a modern twist on tradition in the still-remote Himalayan kingdom. This ecotourism dance show generates income to help struggling farmers live in harmony with the sacred birds whose habitat they share.

Julia Horton
Julia Horton

Posing with a ready grin in a gold-colored knee-length robe, dark glasses, red gloves and trainers, the young boy knows he looks cute. He looks cheery too, but before I can ask what the secret of his happiness is, he dashes off down the dusty street and vanishes into the throng, leaving me with a photograph capturing a split second in his life.

I amble on past newly-erected market stalls selling modern clothes and music, where villagers in national dress mingle with young monks in long wine-red robes, chatting and laughing together in the thin, cold mountain air. It strikes me that most people seem to be in a good mood.

While life is indisputably hard in the isolated Phobjikha Valley in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, they have reason to be happy this morning because it is arguably the most celebrated day of the year here. The stalls are a sideshow to the Black-Necked Crane Festival, an event which brings growing numbers of visitors to this remote village to watch the spectacle.

As farmers don vibrant yellow ceremonial costumes to perform Bhutan’s famous barefoot masked dances, twirling effortlessly under the dazzling winter sun, it looks like any other age- old Buddhist ritual. However, today’s event was only established in 1998, and is specifically aimed at promoting ecotourism to protect the community and the endangered cranes with whom people here share their land.

Now, more than a decade later the festival is being held up by the Bhutanese Government as a leading example of its world-famous Gross National Happiness policy – the Buddhist nation’s enlightened version of Gross Domestic Product, the global, financially driven measure by which most other countries plan and gauge success.

The distinctive dancing behavior of the black-necked crane

Are people here really as happy as they seem? And if so, what’s the cause? Unsurprisingly the combination of good food, good company and top entertainment is a universal crowd- pleaser with locals and visitors alike clearly enjoying themselves. A ripple of laughter passes through the spectators as a dozen youngsters dressed in black and white scurry silently into the sunlit courtyard of the ornate 16th-century Buddhist monastery, Gangtey Gonpa.

The group are gleefully flapping their ‘wings’ and bobbing their ‘beaked’ heads, in a carefully choreographed comic performance designed to mimic the distinctive dancing behavior of the black-necked crane. Like Bhutan’s renowned Atsara clowns who delight people by wielding wooden phalluses and delivering serious philosophies on life with wit and jest, the schoolchildren’s comedy capers are also aimed at teaching locals how they can help protect the birds.

The idea of the festival is to give poor farming families an alternative income to encourage them not to cut costs by turning to modern pesticides which could destroy the habitat of the rare black-necked cranes which winter here. Money alone may not buy happiness but it is still clearly an important factor, and while the $3 which villagers earn for performing doesn’t sound like much, in a nation where almost one in four people live below the poverty line, any extra cash is welcome.

Some have also started offering homestays to tourists to help support themselves. Climbing the backstairs of a large house near the gompa, I am warmly greeted by Dawazam, a mother of seven who farms in the valley and is a lead organizer of the festival. Before long she is serving up a traditional fiery Bhutanese meal. Chillies here are treated as a main vegetable, not just a seasoning, and in the national dish they are served in cheese sauce.

Everyone watches my attempts with good-natured amusement

As we sit cross-legged on the wooden kitchen floor I am happy each time I manage the challenging custom of mixing a little ball of the hot mixture with some rice and scooping it into my mouth with my hand, and happier still when my head doesn’t explode as everyone watches my attempts with good-natured amusement.

As soon as we are finished, Dawazam begins to peel a mountain of homegrown vegetables to feed tourists at the festival, in between fielding a series of calls to her cell phone. When I ask if she is happy she replies without hesitation: “I’m the happiest person. I live in a holy place and I’ve even danced with the king!”.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is a popular 30something dubbed the “Prince Charming of the Himalayas” who – until he got married recently – was among the most eligible royals in the world. A large color photograph of him on the wall opposite us is a much-loved official portrait which is prominently displayed in many homes throughout Bhutan. It was his father, the former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who dreamed up the kingdom’s internationally renowned philosophical approach to governance when he ruled in the 1970s.

Dawazam’s joy in living in a holy place is a reference to the importance of the village gompa, or monastery, which is one of the most historic in Bhutan. It also relates to the cranes, which Buddhists here regard as sacred. Like every house in Bhutan, Dawazam’s has an altar. Hers is in a large room where she indicates a mattress on the floor for me to sleep on under a thick blanket. The soft glow from a single butter-lamp flickers in the darkness, illuminating brightly colored offerings. If happiness is peace, then this feels like a good place to be – warm, cosy and far from the chaos and confusion of city life.

Many things haven’t changed in centuries

Until recently these candles and battery torches were the only source of light and villagers had to gather wood for heating and cooking from distant forests because they are forbidden to take it from the cranes’ habitat. Life is a bit easier now thanks to the installation of an underground cable to deliver electricity without disturbing the birds.

As darkness falls there is a momentary buzz as the overhead light crackles into life, illuminating the scene. Dawazam smiles again and looks up. The arrival of such modern advances is clearly cause for greater contentment.

Many things haven’t changed in centuries, however, for better or worse. Above our heads bunches of unappealing-looking turnip leaves are hanging to dry from the ceiling to help eek out winter soups in the bone-chilling months ahead. It is a reminder of just how difficult it is living here at an altitude of around 3,000 meters where the temperature plummets far below zero and families still rise at dawn to tend to their crops by hand.

There are plenty of reasons to be unhappy and, when the Bhutanese Government conducted its first national “happiness” survey in 2008, it revealed that farmers were among the most miserable people in the land.

To find out more I travel to the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu, to visit Karma Tshiteem, the man with arguably the best political title anywhere on earth:  the Secretary of Gross National Happiness. The winding route back from the valley is jammed with lorries, buses and 4x4s, often at a standstill because of a lengthy program of repairs to fill in the potholes which riddle the nation’s roads.

The only capital in the world without traffic lights

In any other country drivers would be impatient and angrily hooting their horns, but here people appear calm and good-natured while they stand chatting outside their vehicles. Many of the men chew betel, an addictive combination of areca nut and betel leaf said to have warming properties and which many people here consume regularly every day. As they spit the blood-red juice onto the ground, I suspect that this habit may also impart greater happiness to some, although it is not a healthy pastime.

Thimpu is famous for being the only capital in the world without traffic lights, and I note the elegantly attired police waving white-gloved hands to direct vehicles through the quiet city centre.

Under Bhutanese law, people have to wear traditional clothing in public buildings such as schools and government offices, as well as on formal occasions. As a result most women I see are beautifully turned out in the kira, a beautiful floor-length dress wrapped around the body over a Tibetan-style silk blouse, while the men sport the gho, a knee-length robe. Originally worn with pointy shoes, many now wear trainers like the boy in Phobjikha.

The next morning I sit in the empty restaurant of my hotel waiting for Mr Tshiteem. When an unassuming man dressed in a plain gho with leather shoes walks in and asks my name I guess he must be the GNH Secretary’s assistant. However, it is the man himself.

Although apparently relaxed in his attitude and affable, he seems a little serious until his cell phone suddenly rings and he breaks off to answer it. Apologizing afterward with a grin, he says: “It was my mum. Her well-being is very important for my well-being!”

Trying to make anyone happy is a tall order

I ask why farmers generally seem to be so miserable and what the government is doing to try to make them feel better. “The survey in 2008 had been done close to harvest time and the anger was because of wildlife (like elephants) destroying a lot of the farmers’ crops,” he says. “We always knew this was a problem but we had limited resources to tackle it. When we saw that farmers were not only unhappy but often angry we said we’d better do something.”

Ironically people’s Buddhist faith, which prohibits killing of animals, has helped to create the issues which plague farmers and made it harder to find solutions. With a cull out of the question, the government erected electric fences instead to protect crops.

Trying to make anyone happy is a tall order, he admits, and he is at pains to debunk some of the myths about Gross National Happiness. “Our job is to identify and create conditions for happiness, like preserving culture, but we’re clearly not going to get into the business of telling people what to do to be happy. Happiness is too fleeting and too personal. That responsibility rests squarely with individuals themselves.”

And he doesn’t expect to help everyone, adding with a wry smile: “Some will still choose to be miserable, but that’s their decision.” He has given talks to audiences around the world explaining the serious business of Bhutan’s policy.

A guide (as well as a driver) are obligatory for every visitor to Bhutan and  I can’t help thinking that mine, based on personality alone, might make a better ambassador for happiness. Jigme laughs away regardless of whether he is talking about the intricacies of Buddhism or escaping being attacked by a bear while out stealing apples as a boy.

Is there lots of alcohol and beautiful women here?

As we walk up a dirt path to the fantastically named Temple of the Divine Madman, he describes the standard approach of this popular Buddhist saint, whose name relates to his preference for conducting his teachings through womanizing, drinking and generally “acting crazy”.

Warming to his subject, Jigme says: “So the Divine Madman appears in town and asks ‘Hey, what are you doing? Is there lots of alcohol and beautiful women here?’”

It is definitely enlightening as we admire the brilliant golds, blues and reds of the 15th- century building. When I ask whether he thinks Gross National Happiness works, he gives a rare serious answer, saying: “I think most people are OK, but Gross National Happiness depends on Gross Individual Happiness.”

The most famous monastery in Bhutan is Tiger’s Nest, perched precariously on a high sheer cliff outside the city of Paro. Monks murmur endless mantras beside altars while the bells of the prayer wheels ring out continuously as a stream of tourists and believers turn them as they enter and leave.

Suddenly the atmosphere is shattered by abject wailing coming from within one of the temples. Walking cautiously towards the noise we find a Chinese tourist, apparently overcome with temporary hysteria. Her guide looks uncomfortable, though not long afterwards we see her again and she appears fine.

Monks on mobiles are an increasingly common sight

Monks on mobiles are an increasingly common sight since the technology was allowed here in 2004, their brassy ringtones jarring with the chiming of the prayer wheel bells. They may seem an odd intrusion into the peace of the monastery but, without them the young boys who spend years here would struggle to stay in touch with their friends and families, who are often miles away. Jigme grins mischievously again as he tells me who he thinks they are ringing. “They are calling to the god and saying ‘Hi, I’m busy at the moment, so please book me a deluxe suite.’”

At another religious site, Wangdue Dzong, we find a group of slightly bored-looking teenage monks sitting cross-legged on the floor and being lectured by a stern-looking master. Jigme whispers: “He is telling them ‘If you don’t study until blood comes out of your eyes you will never achieve enlightenment’.”

Spying me taking notes, the master breaks off and asks, through Jigme, if I have any questions. There is no mention of blood coming out of anyone’s eyes in Jigme’s translation now though the teacher still appears strict and serious. When he inquires about my own faith, I feel uncomfortable and find myself claiming to be agnostic because I suddenly fear that admitting to being an atheist might upset him.

Just as we turn to leave, he suddenly switches to English and, addressing me directly with a wide smile, calls out: “Every day happy!” It’s an enticing invitation.

Bhutan’s second religion is archery, the national sport, with riotous competitions held throughout the land. Less well known but also incredibly popular is karaoke, though Jigme warns me that it is “different” here.

Several immaculately turned-out girls pester every man

We order beer and sit at a wooden table in a dark bar in Paro. The standard list of songs is in Bhutanese, but I need not have worried about being dragged up. Several immaculately turned-out girls pester Jigme and every other man in the place to pick a song, and then pay them to perform it. They are professionals, employed by the club to urge people to spend their cash on someone else’s talented performance, instead of either humiliating themselves or showing off.

There is a token boy too, for the numerous song and dance routines requiring couples to bat their eyelids at each other while making declarations of love. At least I’m guessing that’s what they’re about. Combined with strong alcohol, it seems to make people fairly happy, and definitely leaves me feeling far better than I do after proving once more that I’m really not a great singer.

Back at Phobjikha I go back to thinking about the pursuit of happiness and how, like love, the best kind often appears when you’re least expecting it. I came here to witness the festival and to stay in Dawazam’s home, and both experiences made me happy.

Walking through the trees away from the celebrations breathing in the scent of pine and listening to the haunting cries of the cranes as darkness falls, I realize that, for me, this unexpected moment of solitude in a beautiful place is one of the happiest.

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