Crossing the line

Mita Ghose | Updated on April 14, 2018 Published on April 14, 2018

Bhutan, I see you: A view of the neighbouring country from Manas National Park, Assam

Looks can deceive: Rather harmless in appearance, pork ema datshi— a stew of meat with chilli and cheese — may be too hot for the Indian palate   -  Partha Pratim Sharma

On the wall: Drukpa Kunley’s philosophy, “Happiness lies below the navel,” still stirs the national imagination sufficiently for the Bhutanese to paint a giant phallus — a symbol of fertility — on the outer walls of their homes   -  Getty Images

After days of gross unhappiness caused by a change in regulations for entry permits, setting foot in east Bhutan comes with moments of fun and discovery

Are those gunshots? Running footsteps, men yelling in an unintelligible language, more gunfire… Is Bhutan at war? Or is this Bomena, the socially sanctioned practice of “night-hunting” prevalent in the country’s rural east where the “hunter”, a local stud keen on a village girl, breaks into her home under cover of darkness and makes love to her without her consent?

Shocking? Not if you remember Bhutan’s revered icon, a 15-century anti-establishment monk, fondly nicknamed “the Divine Madman”, whose claim to fame lies in his legendary sexual prowess. Drukpa Kunley’s philosophy, “Happiness lies below the navel,” still stirs the national imagination sufficiently for the Bhutanese to paint a giant phallus — a symbol of fertility — on the outer walls of their homes. Yet, however macho the culture, would a people so civilised in their everyday life — even a rough patch of road ends with a sign bearing an apology — perform a traditional mating ritual at gunpoint?

Truth dawns as the shrill trumpeting of elephants rends the air: I’m not in Bhutan at all, but at a camp in Assam’s Manas Wildlife Sanctuary and the staff are busy foiling an attempted raid on the adjoining tea garden by a herd of wild elephants.

In Assam? When I should have been exploring quaint, unknown places in Bhutan’s eastern region? I think of the exotic names with longing — Khaling, Radhi, Rangjung, Tashigang, Trashiyangtse… The road less travelled has rudely thrown us off course. Should I cut my losses and head home? Perhaps, the others in our group — a middle-aged doctor couple, two enthusiastic young women, Binny and Rinku, and our tour manager — are entertaining similar thoughts? Not the latter, I discover later; he has snored his way through gunfire and pandemonium.

His composure is admirable, given the situation. Due to a change in regulations, permits for Indian citizens wishing to enter Bhutan through the land route from Assam are no longer being issued on arrival at our designated crossover point — the border town of Samdrup Jongkhar. Despite our young Bhutanese guide Kuenzang’s assurance that they’re “working on the problem” with senior government officials in the capital of Thimphu, 24 hours later, we’re still, technically, illegal immigrants.

Gauging our poisonous mood, our tour manager has initiated damage-control measures before Monday brings us news of our fate from Thimphu. Among the not-so-appealing destination options he’s offered for a weekend otherwise suspended in limbo, Manas, a Unesco World Heritage Site, looks like the Promised Land.

Going by the previous night’s trigger-happy drama in the wildlife reserve, the place seems rich in potential. But a couple of hours into the full-day jeep safari lined up to mollify us, some of us aren’t so sure. A bored-to-tears Binny accurately sums up our feelings: “Don’t want to see another elephant, water buffalo or wretched bird! Give us tigers — pleeeeze!”

The cats aren’t obliging. But there’s a consolation prize: lunch across the border in Panbang, where the reserve spills over into Bhutan.

Bhutan? Again? Most of us aren’t even carrying our passports! Not required on a safari, the Manas camp management had assured us.

The sombre-looking, traditionally attired young Bhutanese official at the immigration check point in Panbang is spellbound by our audacity. “Six persons and just two passports!” he exclaims. “Sorry.”

An hour later, the man hasn’t budged. Sighing, Binny slinks off to the immigration booth. In a sultry voice, she murmurs something about being “very, very hungry…”

Within minutes, the official is waving us through. “Don’t take too long,” he warns, feigning severity.

Crossing into Bhutan, I contemplate Binny with wonder. Catching my eye, she smirks. On our way back into Assam later, she waves with abandon at the smitten Bhutanese official. He responds with several deep bows.


Back in Manas, life becomes dead serious. Three days gone and we still haven’t entered Bhutan — legally. But a smiling Kuenzang brings news: as an exception, our permits will be issued from Samdrup Jongkhar. Should I break into the comical victory jig that strapping contestants perform after winning a point at Bhutan’s prestigious archery competitions? I can’t muster the enthusiasm.

Mood fouled by time-consuming, permit-related paperwork at the immigration office and the prospect of a truncated sightseeing programme, we finally set out for Tashigang, a picturesque Bhutanese town overlooking the waters of the Dangme Chu. The journey seems interminable. The road climbs. The temperature plunges. With every hairpin bend, my world sinks deeper into nausea. Nothing registers, except a spectacular sunset from the oddest vantage point in Narphung — the site of a public toilet. I end the 12-hour day in pitch darkness, throwing up by the roadside while an anxious Kuenzang hovers nearby to ensure that I don’t go wobbling over the precipice into the next world. Welcome to Bhutan.

Welcome, indeed. For driven to make amends for the lost days, our guide has set a punishing schedule. Our minibus whizzes past undulating hills, little towns, yet another dzong (a temple-fortress) and some colourfully dressed Brokpa women from the highlands in strange headgear with bobbing, antennae-like extensions that give them the look of extraterrestrials. Our lunch stops, sightseeing halts and loo breaks seem lightning-swift, despite a local detaining the pretty, fair-complexioned Rinku to chat her up. Greedy to earn double merit in the holy month of February, round and round we spin, overtaking chanting kira-clad local women as we complete three breathless circumambulations of Trashiyangtse’s pride — the dazzling white Chorten Kora, an 18th-century Nepalese-style stupa built by Lama Ngawang Lodro while out on a demon-bashing mission.

A tour of the Gomphu Kora, an eighth-century pagoda-style temple set amidst terraced rice fields between Chazam and Yangtse to mark the site of the cave where Indian Buddhist sage Guru Rinpoche apparently meditated to drive out an evil spirit, is followed by bridge-gazing. I’ll never forget the ancient wooden cantilevered footbridge arching over the frothy waters of the Kholong Chu where, desperate to use the surrounding wilderness as a bush toilet, I encounter contemporary Bhutanese demons urgently in need of exorcism: nettles that pack a mean, mean pinch. A similarly mischievous entity is the grinning child monk who zips past with ape-like agility as we inch our way up the steep wooden staircase of the eight-centuries-old Trashiyangtse Dzong, clinging for dear life to the sides.

I’m completely “dzong”-ed out when Kuenzang offers relief: a visit to the Trashiyangtse Institute for Zorig Chusum, now the College of Rigney, where 13 different arts and crafts are taught. Its grounds offer us our first — and only — glimpse of a snow-capped Bhutanese peak. There’s also a tiny retail outlet where, unbelievably for a local handloom and handicrafts store, the price tags don’t chill your blood. They will, however, at the residence-cum-showroom of a woman in Radhi village, who serves as an agent for local weavers and offers the most exquisite creations, among them a lovely Aztec-patterned Yatha yak wool jacket that Rinku scoops up like a conqueror on a looting spree. The high collective value of the goods on sale justifies the ferocity of the shaggy dog tethered outside. Unfazed by its relentless yapping, the bored doctor lady in our group steals a quick snooze on the showroom’s sofa; she and her husband are in search of other thrills.


At Bumdeling village, a part of the wildlife sanctuary of the same name bordering Arunachal Pradesh, the doctors-cum-bird lovers are rewarded by the rarest of sights: a quartet of black-necked cranes from Tibet playing truant from their migratory path. As the moon rises in the late-afternoon sky, we clamber down a precarious slope to a spot near the harvested rice field, where the birds are obsessively pecking away at worms. While the Kholong Chu gurgles by, a disgruntled Binny mutters, “They’re just bloody birds!” The amateur ornithologists zoom in with their cameras. The cranes are unfazed. But clouds of billowing smoke from the fire blazing in the adjoining fields — a common agricultural practice to improve the soil — soon send them soaring off in perfect black-and-white formation. Standing silhouetted against the screen of smoke, a pair of sloshed young local farmhands call out to Binny and Rinku: “Hello there, ladies! Won’t you join us? We can tell you all about our beautiful country…”

Later, while enjoying tea at the home of Kuenzang’s cousin Choki in Bumdeling village, it isn’t the cranes that linger in my mind, but the old-world courtesy with which those inebriated Bhutanese Romeos had made their come-hither pitch to the girls. I ponder over the local night-hunting tradition, the phallus symbol so proudly displayed on houses, the Divine Madman’s testosterone-charged, below-the-belt wisdom and even the rock-bottom price (₹40 a kilo!) of indigenously grown ginger, an aphrodisiac many cultures swear by. Does Bhutan’s famous Gross National Happiness, a unique index for measuring the country’s well-being, have something to do with it all? No one’s telling. Only Choki’s pet cat, a sleek grey creature called Pem Pem, purrs knowingly.

Mita Ghose is a Kolkata-based freelance writer and editor

Published on April 14, 2018

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