Bhutan, the kingdom of the clouds
A monk walks past the Punakha Dzong, a traditional Buddhist style of fortress architecture. (Jonathan Gregson)
The edge of a forest cloaked in clouds, thick with the scent of pine and garlanded with peach blossoms, a sign reads ‘Please do not tease the animals’. Here live the takins of Thimpu.
A local legend tells how the Bhutanese national animal was created from the remains of a lunch eaten by Lama Drukpa Kunley, a 15th-century Buddhist saint also known as ‘the Divine Madman’. He demonstrated the outlandish power of his magic by taking the skeleton of a cow and the skull of a goat, theatrically combining the two before bringing them back to life with a loud belch.
And so one of nature’s more awkward creatures was born. Today, a herd of takins lives within a refuge at the edge of Thimpu, the sleepy capital of a country the size of Switzerland with a total population of just 700,000. In the 1990s, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, then king of Bhutan, granted the takins freedom from the captivity of a zoo. This gesture represented an early ripple before a wave of modernity was allowed to sweep through his secretive mountain kingdom, a world all of its own between China and the northeastern tip of India. The first tourists were only permitted to come here in 1974, democracy wasn’t introduced until 2008, and there is now a TV channel (just the one), showing a mixture of Hollywood, Bollywood and spectacularly melodramatic local movies.
The takins were poorly equipped to make the most of their release, swaggering through town, lazily searching for food and generally troubling the populace. There seemed little choice but to corral them into Thimpu’s Motithang Takin Preserve, which offered a little more of the space that their wild relatives enjoy at the opposite end of the country, in the remote east.
The job of guarding these hapless beasts now falls to Kuenzang Gyeltshen, who lives with his young family in a hut inside the boundaries of the preserve, weaving shawls and tending his garden of herbs, garlic and chilli peppers. ‘I rise early to feed the takins, around 6am’, he says. Kuenzang does all he can to prevent visitors from offering the national animal a taste of the national dish, ema datshi – a heart-quaking mix of potent chillies and melted cheese that can wreak equal havoc on the digestive systems of takins as those of unacclimatised foreigners. ‘People would be best to stick to giving them the occasional apple,’ he suggests.
A menagerie of even more peculiar animals is to be found in Thimpu’s National Institute for Zorig Chusum, also known as The Painting School. Here the traditional crafts of Bhutan are taught to a fresh generation. In the wood-carving classroom, the heads of a tiger, leopard, boar, owl, snake, deer, dog, ox, rabbit, dragon and a mythical bird called a garuda all snarl down at onlookers. Each has a fearsome set of fangs exposed – even the owl and rabbit. The students are creating masks that will be gaudily painted in the style of those worn by performers at the tsechus – religious festivals – held across the country as the grip of the long Himalayan winter releases each spring.
In the classroom next door, 21-year-old Dechen Dema gulps hard as her tutor, Dawa Tshering, presents the artwork she must attempt to replicate. This is a fiendishly complex sculpture of Avalokites´vara, a Buddhist god of compassion with multiple heads and spindly limbs that today need to be worked from soft clay. Dechen’s shyness belies her great dexterity as she sets about her task. ‘My family are very proud of my progress,’ she says. ‘None of them would know how to make something like this.’ Dechen considers herself fortunate to be a pupil; prior to 1998, tradition prevented girls from being admitted to the school.
The end of the day’s studies are signalled by the echoing clang of a brass bell being struck outside. A portrait of Bhutan’s youthful current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, looks down handsomely and sternly as pupils file past a locker with ‘I feel better when I’m drunk’ scratched in graffiti on its door.