Bhutan, the kingdom of the clouds
Karma’s work involves offering visitors cultural insights and guiding them around a baffling assortment of dzongs, the monumental fortified monasteries to be discovered at every turn in Bhutan. Close to Thimpu and accessed by a steep climb on foot – equally breathtaking for its panoramic views over valleys dense with the blooms of rhododendrons and the fight for oxygen in the thin mountain air – is the Tango Goemba. Here, a privileged glimpse can be had of the gilded statues of Buddha within its inner sanctum, and boy monks learn English grammar, Buddhist philosophy and soccer skills. Also near the capital is the Pangri Zampa, a monastic temple used as a school of astrology, where a ceremony is under way to bless the country for the year ahead. Pungent clouds of incense fill the air as groups of monks chant, blow slender trumpets and perform whirling acrobatic dances while dressed as mythical heroes. Local people spin prayer wheels and present offerings of imported snacks to the monks, building a vast mound of crisps, biscuits and popcorn.
The tour hurtles on over sinuous mountain roads to the imposing Paro Dzong, a combined magistrate’s court and place of worship, then to the ruined Drukgyel Dzong, where defensive passageways burrow off into the hillsides, and onwards to Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the oldest structures in Bhutan, claimed to have been built in 659 AD to pin down the left foot of an ogress who had inflicted chaos across the region.
Eastwards over the high Dochu La pass, sitting at the convergence of two rivers fed by meltwater from glaciers, is the beautiful Punakha Dzong, ‘the palace of great happiness’ where wild bees make their nests in the rafters and kings have their coronations. A short way further on is the Chimi Lhakhang, the temple of the Divine Madman and a focal point for his most ardent followers. Women who’ve been struggling to conceive often spend the night here, having heard of the miraculous results the saint can deliver through a blessing known as a ‘wang’. Visitors are greeted by a boy monk offering cups of holy water, accompanied by a ceremonial tap on the head with a bow and arrow and a 12-inch mahogany phallus. Photography, though tempting, is discouraged.
The magic thunderbolt of wisdom is much in evidence on the thick-set walls of farmhouses in the surrounding rice fields. Karma says: ‘We have a saying, “Protect your house with a phallus, protect your phallus with a condom!”. This is modern Bhutan.’ For him, contemporary life means wearing the national costume of a gho – a cloak worn over knee-length socks – during the day and a tracksuit in the evening. It means a life shared on Facebook, choosing Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Three Little Birds as the hold music on his smartphone, and recalling Stephen Hawking’s teachings about space and time with the same reverence as the Buddhist philosophy his country has so long been enveloped in.
Most of Karma’s clients are eager to visit the Taktshang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest. This monastery was built at the place where Guru Rinpoche – another of the country’s favourite religious figures – is said to have arrived on the back of a consort he’d transformed into a flying tigress. Legend tells that he went on to subdue a local demon before spending three months here meditating in a cave.