For people residing in #NortheastIndia, #Bhutan, one of India’s immediate neighboring countries, has always been near yet so far. One of the smallest countries in the world, Bhutan is often termed as a paradise of its own. Nestled on the foothills of the Himalayan range, Bhutan’s natural beauty has wowed over tourists from across the entire world. But it’s not just natural beauty or scenery that Bhutan is famous for. This tiny kingdom also holds the distinction of being the last monarchy in the world, and also for bringing to the world the concept of #Gross National Happiness – a unique concept in which the development of a country is based not on its economic parameters but rather on the overall happiness quotient of the people residing there.
As a child growing up in Guwahati and the lower part of Assam, we were often enamored by the sight of Bhutanese traders (or Bhutias as they are called in local parlance) who used to come across the border alongside Tamulpur in Rangia district to trade and make barter deals. However, the highly volatile law-and-order situation in that area (present day Bodoland Territorial Council), along the Assam-Bhutan border, always prevented people from exploring the rich natural beauty of this beautiful country which is just a stone’s throw away.
My first visit to Bhutan happened rather unexpectedly. In 2010-11, I had taken a break from my work in the media to work on a couple of research projects in the interiors of the Northeast. One fine day in October, 2011, the founder of The Sentinel group of newspapers, Mr Shankar Rajkhewa, called me to his office and asked me if I would be interested to go for a short trip to Bhutan. I didn’t ask for much details and immediately nodded my assent. It was only later that I realized I would be embarking on a momentous and most enriching experiences of my life i.e. cover the wedding of His Highness King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk with Ashi Jetsun Pema.
Covering a royal wedding in the last monarchy of the Himalayas was a memorable experience in its own. But what made it all the more special was the fact that it marked the advent of a young and dynamic ruler who was all set to give a new change to the overall developmental index of Bhutan. So in October of 2011, me and my colleague Rajib Bhattarjee from The Sentinel boarded a train to Alipur Duar from we entered Bhutan via Phuntshilling. The entire world media has descended at the Royal Kingdom and I was simply left spellbound to witness the elaborate wedding rituals in the historic Punakha fortress and the roadside celebrations in the capital city of Thimpu. We were lucky to have with us the company of Sonam Chokie and Damchen Zangmo of the Government of Bhutan who acquainted us with the simplicity of the people and their laidback and highly courteous attitude to life.
A couple of years later on, I came into close acquaintance with a group of dynamic leaders in the Chowki area of Bodoland. Thanks to a school friend of mine, Amarjit Lahkar, an agriculturist who was working for a tiger conservation project in the area, I came across a few former insurgent leaders who had given up arms to work for the conservation of the rich wildlife and ecological diversity along the Eastern Manas range. The #ChowkiEco-TourismSociety, which was formed by Satan Ramchiary (a former elected representative) and others, has now become a vibrant picnic spot and a model village of sorts.
Chowki soon became a regular destination for us and we would bathe in the rich natural beauty of the place, alongside the Kolsi River, taking delight in the sights and sounds of the raw and verdant natural beauty, and also the rich treasure trove as far as wildlife was concerned. We would often cross the river in Satan’s jeep and cross the officially demarcated Indo-Bhutan border to Sangdrup Jongkhar and gorge on Bhutia delicacies like #EmaDatshi (Bhutan’s national dish which is a delicious chilli cheese stew) and of course, the amiable hospitality of the people.
Over the last couple of years, with the law-and-order situation in Bodoland improving to a great extent and thanks to better road connectivity, many people from Northeast India, especially Guwahati, would often visit Bhutan’s nearest district Sangdrup Jongkhar. The low excise duties on liquor and fuel proved to be an added stimulus to make Sangdrup Jongkhar feasible for a day-long outing. A bottle of #K5, a fine blend of premium scotch distilled and produced in Bhutan itself, had already become a hit amongst north-easterners by this time!
A couple of days back, a friend, Monmi Das, who is a foodie-turned-food entrepreneur, asked me if I would be interested in joining her for a trip to Sangdrup Jongkhar to witness the #Tshetsu or Mask festival of Bhutan. With Monmi being a celebrated chef who loves to explore and experiment with various cuisines, I immediately took up the offer (more for the opportunity to indulge in some traditional Bhutanese delicacies, rather than anything else) and early in the morning the next day, we set out for the much loved traveller’s haunt. However, the last trip introduced me to another new aspect of Bhutan which I had really learnt to appreciate till now.
The Tshetsu festival is an annual festival organized by all the district departments of Bhutan. The festival, which is a highly sacred and solemn affair, is observed with much fanfare and in the typical relaxed, disciple and amiable nature of the Bhutanese people. Although I was not initially allowed to enter the hallowed sanctum of the monastery as I was dressed in a not-so-formal attire, our friend Jigmee Dee managed to take us to watch the festival from afar.
During the #Tshetsufestival, mask dances to commemorate the deeds of the great saint Guru Rinpoche are performed. The dances invoke the deities of the tantric teachings – who through their powers and blessings remove misfortunes by suppressing all evil spirits. While the locals attend the colorful festival to gain merit, visitors travel from far and near to witness the spectacular display of color, age-old traditions, and tantric Buddhist rituals. The festival traditionally commences with Buddhist monks performing the Shingje Yab Yum – the dance of the lord of death (Shingje) and his consort. This is followed by Durdag – the dance of the lords of the cremation grounds, after which, the dance of the black hats, Shanag, and the dance of the drums from Drametse (Drametse Ngacham) are performed.
As we returned from the festival, we stopped at Jigmee’s restaurant in the town which he runs along with his mother and his wife. The town itself has not changed much since my first visit although the footfalls from Guwahati have markedly increased over the last few years, a fact which Jigmee vouched for. With the Indian government opening up its doors to its immediate neighbours in the East, the small town of #SangrupJongkhar also seems to be readying up to accommodate the increasing footfalls. A beautiful garden depicting Bhutanese traditions and cultures had already been opened in the city within a span of a few months since I last visited the town. A young entrepreneur himself, Jigmee too is getting prepared to welcome tourists, Indians especially, as Indian tourists don’t require a visa to enter Bhutan.
The Assam Government too seems to have woken up to the immense tourism potentials of the area and very recently, Assam’s Tourism Minister Chandan Brahma had also unveiled the launch of #DwijingFestival, a festival celebrated near Hagrama Bridge, on the banks of the River Aai, as a calendar event of the State tourism department.
While the onus of developing people-to-people connectivity amongst the people of both countries lies on the government, my own tryst with Bhutan has been an enriching one so far. And I sincerely believe that this love story has many more pages left which are yet to be opened.