Bhutan, the kingdom of the clouds
Glorious frescoes adorn most homes and religious buildings throughout Bhutan, with creatures, flowers and intricate, abstract patterns sprawling over broad wooden beams and mud walls. One symbol that frequently looms up on the walls of houses here, with an alarming level of anatomical accuracy, is the ‘flaming thunderbolt of wisdom’ – a sturdy male member believed to protect the occupants of a building from harm.
The owner of the original flaming thunderbolt of wisdom was the Divine Madman himself, Lama Drukpa Kunley. The saint still holds much influence over fast-evolving Bhutan. He is said to have shot an arrow from his homeland of Tibet, determined to deliver his unusual form of wisdom to the lucky girl closest to where it landed. He claimed he would break down all social conventions in order to encourage worshippers to consider the teachings of Buddha with an open mind. Bawdy language, reeling drunkenness and outrageous sexual exploits were among his techniques, inspiring certain traditions that continue right to this day.
In the east of Bhutan, a practice known as ‘night hunting’ is only now being widely called into question. Young men will make a girl’s acquaintance during the day to seek her consent for a one-night stand, then break into her parents’ house to fulfil that promise as night closes in. If they leave soon afterwards then often nothing more will be said, but if they doze off and are caught by the girl’s parents after daybreak, they will be duty-held to marry her. Tales abound of queues of impatient suitors forming outside the houses of popular girls, of overweight boys becoming stuck in window frames, and of mothers being accidently approached in the confusion of darkness.
If machismo, a love of Buddhism and a certain urge to handle a weapon are long-respected traits in Bhutan, it may not seem so bizarre to learn that leathery Hollywood action hero Steven Seagal – star of Under Seige and countless similar movies – is one of the country’s favourite celebrities. In recent years, he made a widely publicised visit to Bhutan and has been proclaimed the reincarnation of a holy 13th-century Buddhist treasure hunter.
Inspired by the example of the Divine Madman, Bhutanese men still enjoy firing arrows over great distances. Just as the takin is the national animal and ema datshi the national foodstuff, so archery is the national sport. At one end of a field in the mist-shrouded countryside near Thimpu, Karma Dhendup is lining up a distant target, 140 metres away. He is a teacher turned tour guide for guests of the capital’s plush Taj Tashi hotel, and like many upwardly mobile Bhutanese men, he has foregone a traditional bamboo bow for the status symbol of a high-tech carbon-fibre compound bow. ‘Some invest half a year’s salary in one of these,’ he says.
Bhutanese archery is a highly sociable, often alcohol-fuelled affair with a hint of amiable danger thrown in. Women assume the dual roles of cheerleaders and hecklers, noisily calling into question any inaccurate archer’s prowess. Today there’s no pause in the shooting as a cow and a couple of farmhands casually amble across the middle of the field.