It was prophesied that Prince Siddhartha would see the harshness of life and renounce the worldly. Wishing him to be king, his father swathed him in luxury to shield him from the realities outside the palace. Inevitably, though, the prince saw the four signs of human suffering; and he followed his preordained path. He became the Buddha. Amankora, in Buddhist Bhutan, ensconces you in luxury too — but it is a meditative luxury that opens you up to the beauty outside. Aman is peace in Sanskrit; kora means a circular pilgrimage, in Dzongkha, the national language. In Amankora’s five lodges in the five valleys of Bhutan, you are watched over by forests and mountains, lulled by the quiet rush of sloping streams; steeped in the Buddhist ways, rural customs and culinary traditions of this Himalayan kingdom
I am in Bhutan on my own week-long kora. I sensed that I was in for something special while still en route. The approach and landing in Paro are the most dramatic that I have experienced. After flying past Everest and Kangchenjunga, two of the three highest peaks in the world, the Druk Air flight performs tricky manoeuvres to squeeze into a narrow corridor between 18,000-foot-high mountains. It then touches down deftly on the short runway of the Paro airport, 7,000 feet above sea level. This landing is considered to be one of the most challenging landings in the world, and only a handful of pilots are qualified for it. I am greeted at the airport by Samten and Nima, the guide and driver will accompany me on this trip, ensuring a seamless kora. We drive to Amankora Thimphu. Designed by award-winning architect Kerry Hill, it is inspired by dzongs, the majestic fortresses of Bhutan. As I traverse its courtyards and corridors, I walk through a wormhole between the present and the past
Amankora arranges a meeting with Mynak Tulku, recognised as the 12th reincarnation of the powerful Mynak Rinpoche. It is edifying to have one’s questions about Buddhism answered by this wise, humble, twinkly-eyed monk. Aptly, we meet in the library of the lodge: The lama is the former director of Bhutan’s National Library. He is a scholar of Buddhist philosophy and history, a teacher of the Tibetan language and an author. From his humility, you would hardly know that you are in the presence of one so exalted. But that, precisely, is the essence of spirituality. Mynak Tulku explains Bhutan’s Mahayana Buddhism as the path on which one strives not just for one’s own enlightenment, but that of all sentient beings
The nearly 200-feet tall Buddha Dordenma statue towers over me. This golden statue of Shakyamuni Buddha was built atop a hill near Thimphu to commemorate the centennial of the Bhutanese monarchy. Completed just a few years ago, it fulfils two prophecies: The relatively recent one of 20th century yogi Sonam Zangpo, who said that a gigantic statue would be built here to bring blessings, peace, and happiness to the world, and an older one by the 8th century guru Padmasambhava, father of Bhutanese Buddhism. I light a butter lamp at Thimphu Chorten, the stupa built to honour the third Druk Gyalpo. In Dzongkha, Bhutan is called Druk Yul — the Land of the Thunder Dragon. The people are called Drukpa or Dragon People, and Druk Gyalpo, meaning Dragon King, is their ruler. I light the lamp to honour all three. But the significance of the light is larger — it is lit to dispel the darkness of ignorance in the entire world.
We drive to Punakha over the 10,000-foot-high Dochula Pass. Folk artistes from the previous evening’s show at the Thimphu lodge still dance in my mind. One of these, the drum dance of Drametse, was declared by UNESCO in 2005 as a masterpiece of intangible heritage. It is a clear day. From Dochula, I see the Himalayan range stretched out before me. I contemplate the legend of the Drametse dance — a learned Buddhist master of the 16th century entered the celestial palace of Guru Rinpoche, another name of Padmasambhava. There, he observed this heavenly performance and introduced it on earth. I imagine the snowy peaks in the distance to be that palace, and the dance taking place. This vision makes it easy for me to accept the Bhutanese belief that the mere sight of this dance is enough to dispel evil. We stop at the Chimi Lhakhang in the Punakha valley. In the village next to the monastery, I see phalluses everywhere — large ones painted brightly in graphic detail on walls, always at the point of orgasm. Sculpted ones are for sale on the roadside, some anatomically accurate, others with human heads replacing the glans penis. I even find a phallic airplane complete with wings and tail. The villagers, young and old, male and female, seemed at ease with these depictions. What is going on?
Guide Samten enlightens me. We are at the fertility monastery where childless couples come to pray. Inside are many photographs of parents with babies — pictures left there by the couples whose wishes were fulfilled. Curiously, the blessing they receive at the monastery is called a wang. The phalluses are auspicious symbols of fertility — used as a talisman not just here, but all over Bhutan. When I return to the vehicle, I realise that the bauble that hangs from the rear-view mirror is a miniature wang. To get to Amankora Punakha, one has to walk across the Mo Chhu River on a prayerflag-festooned suspension bridge. On the other side, I am driven a short distance in a buggy to the lodge. Its manager, an affable South African, shows me around the main building, which was a farmhouse built by a former Chief Abbott of Bhutan.
The Khamsum Yulley Namgyal chorten was built in 2004 by the Queen Mother. It offers elaborate Buddhist iconography inside and vistas of the valley from its rooftop. We had driven to the chorten, but I chose to walk back through fields and villages and along the riverbank. Amankora has invited me to a private barbecue by the river. It is beneath a canopy of pine, far above the gushing water. The ground is a carpet of pine needles. A small table is set for lunch. The aroma of the barbecue ignites my hunger. As the river whispers aloud its stories, I dig into an array of succulent grilled meats and vegetables, marinating them with sips of wine, a ruby liquid adding another note to the intensity of the poinsettia. I meditate on an exquisite sunset at the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup. Afterward, I sit in the lotus pose to hear the chants of the nuns. The synchronous sonorous chanting of row upon row of shorn nuns is punctuated by playful gestures and smiles — as they pass each other the traditional musical instruments that accompany their collective voice.
From the living room of the Amankora Paro, I see the luminous Jomolhari. Some call it the bride of Kangchenjunga. It is Bhutan’s third highest peak, 24,000 feet tall. The sight moves me. As does the farewell tune the resident musician plays on his lute. It is the last leg of my kora. At one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, the Kyichu Lhakhang, where Padmasambhava is said to have hidden his spiritual teachings, I watch an old woman make her way past a row of prayer wheels. As she turns each wheel, the many prayers within are activated. There is a village next to the temple. Here, traditional houses are still made with earth and stone, wattle and daub. No matter how simple and austere many of these are, the windows and rooves stand out because of their elaborate woodwork. They are a pattern of repeated shapes, a flourish of natural wood finishes, and painted colours.
The lower floors of these two-storey structures were traditionally used for livestock. Nowadays, they serve as storerooms. The families live above it. Amankora has arranged a lunch for me at one such house. It belongs to Yeshey. I climb steep wooden steps to her cosy kitchen. The old clay stove makes me nostalgic: When I was a child, my meals were cooked on a stove like that. The farmhouse meal is preceded by a steaming cup of suja — buttersalt tea. It is made by boiling tea leaves, then blending the tea liquor with cow butter and Himalayan salt. While yak butter is the traditional ingredient, suja is commonly made with cow butter these days. It is an ideal beverage in cold weather. I am sold on it from the first sip and note the recipe to recreate back home. The meal begins with a gingery pumpkin soup. Then there is the national dish of Bhutan, Ema Datshi. Ema means chilli. The dish is a mix of red and green chillies simmered in datshi, a type of cottage cheese made from goat, cow or yak milk. Bhutanese cuisine is possibly the only one in which chillies are regarded as a vegetable. Bhutanese chillies are flavourful but scalding, and despite being tempered by the cheese, a challenge for my tongue. On the positive side, they warm the body from the inside. This benefit explains their ubiquity in the meals of frigid Bhutan. I mix red rice with the Ema Datshi to bring down its heat. The other grain accompaniment to the meal is puta — buckwheat noodles — fried in mustard oil and seasoned with salt and Sichuan pepper One of the meat dishes is pork belly and radish in light gravy. The thin slices of pork — more fat than meat — and the slices of sweet radish look so similar that at times one has to taste them to tell them apart. The other meat dish is of little cubes of beef in a subtle stew that shimmers with translucent rice noodles.
Of course, there are momos, a staple of the Himalayan region. To me, momos mean steamed pork dumplings. But in Bhutan, vegetable momos are common too. These are stuffed with spinach, turnip greens and other vegetables. The taste reminds me, surprisingly, of seaweed preparations I have had in Japan. There is a red chilli paste — ezay — another mainstay of Bhutanese meals. You have it with the momos, or any other dish, just in case you do not find them spicy enough already. I try a miniscule portion and get a fleeting taste of its deliciousness. I eat the meal in traditional Bhutanese wooden bowls of walnut wood. Yeshey serves the gravy dishes in the smaller bowls and the rice and noodles in the bigger bowl. This is the equivalent of the katoris and thaali of an Indian meal. Shagzo, or wood turning, is one of the thirteen Bhutanese arts passed down through generations. Along with weaving, stonework and paper-making, wood turning has an important place in Bhutanese culture. Wood turners or shagzopa produce beautiful yet utilitarian everyday objects such as the bowls — or dapa — I am eating from. They use a variety of local wood like walnut — tashing in Dzongkha — and rhododendron.
After multiple helpings of everything, I surrender. Yeshey brings out a bottle of ara, Bhutanese rice wine. I have two glasses of it as Samten says that having more than one is a sign of friendship. At the bottom of the bottle I spy what looks like the worm in a bottle of mezcal. Our hostess tells us it is cordyceps. Long used in Tibetan medicine for its beneficial properties, the high-altitude cordyceps mushroom is called yatsa gunbu, meaning ‘winter worm, summer grass’. The worm-like appearance of the mushroom reveals its truth. A truth which is, as they say, stranger than fiction. I learn that the spore of the cordyceps fungus lives underground. It gets inside the body of the caterpillar of the ghost moth in summer as a part of its food. Through the autumn and winter, it grows inside the body of the caterpillar while slowly eating its insides. Come spring, the fungus pushes its almost-dead host towards the surface of the soil and then sends out a stalk through its head. It is one such stalk — also known as caterpillar fungus — that is lolling at the bottom of the bottle of ara, imparting a delicate earthiness and who-knows-what magical properties to our post-lunch aperitif. Warmed by the bukhari, the chillies and the ara, I stretch out on a rug on the floor of Yeshey’s kitchen. I drift off briefly and dream of a giant ghost moth that takes me on a magical ride to meet the dazzling Jomolhari.
I dissolve in the hot stone bath of the Amankora spa. Stones collected from a river are heated and then placed in an outdoor wooden tub. The water becomes so hot it takes time for the body to adjust. Bit by bit, I immerse myself up to my shoulders, the water, like a garment, against the cold evening air. Mildly fragrant sprigs of Artemisia, known locally as khempa, float in the bath. Artemesia is a natural analgesic. The stones are believed to have healing powers. I had risen before dawn and trekked to Tiger’s Nest, the holiest of holy Buddhist sites in Bhutan. In the eighth century, Padmasambhava meditated in a cave up in the steep mountain rock-face almost 3,000 feet above the lushly forested Paro valley. Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, is also the kingdom’s tutelary deity.
As legend has it, Padmasambhava arrived at the cave on a flying tigress, giving the place its name. As a mere mortal, I had to hike up to the cave. It took me two hours up dirt trails of varying steepness. You need to be reasonably fit to make this trek. It is my last evening in Bhutan. The hot stone bath has melted away pain and exhaustion. I attend a farewell dinner hosted by the manager, a gracious Bhutanese gentleman. He has arranged a gho, a traditional outfit, for me. A staff member helps me don it. Bonfires, blankets and hot water bottles keep us warm as we chat about topics as diverse as the majesty of Paro’s Dzong, the Indian red that found its way into the lodge’s wine list, and Bhutan’s unique measure of Gross National Happiness.
Amankora hospitality is like that of a family of solicitous friends. Did you request honey and lime to be left in your room for morning tea at Thimphu? That instruction gets passed on to Paro. Does your hiking boots need emergency repair? It will get done. Oh, and the gifts. Every day, there are presents left in your room. Prayer flags, prayer wheels, books of Bhutan. With each gift, a note printed on handmade paper, explaining its significance. The paper is made from the inner bark of the Daphne plant that grows wild in the region. Because of its longevity, the paper has been used for eons to preserve religious texts. I observed the thousand-year-old process at a local workshop. The Bhutanese Guide to Happiness is one of the gifts I receive. In it, is this gem: The temple may be ancient, but the meaning is always modern. It sums up the Bhutanese approach to living its ancient Buddhist way of life, reinterpreted for the modern world. Amankora too strives to follow the middle path between opulence and simplicity, sociability and seclusion, modern comforts and an ancient way of life. It is a place where the most spiritual of princes as well as the most princely spiritualists would be at peace.