Bhutan is an otherworldly place, where Buddhist traditions mix with a new-found modernity and great reverence is shown to tigers, Steven Seagal and the flaming thunderbolt of wisdom. Peter Grunert of Lonely Planet Magazine shows you the sights of the Himalayan kingdom.
The takin: Bhutan’s national animal
At the edge of a forest cloaked in clouds, thick with the scent of pine and garlanded with peach blossoms, a sign reads ‘Please do not tease the animals’. Here live the takins of Thimpu. A local legend tells how the Bhutanese national animal was created from the remains of a lunch eaten by Lama Drukpa Kunley, a 15th-century Buddhist saint, known as the Divine Madman. He combined the skeletons of a cow and goat and brought them back to life with a loud belch.
In the 1990s, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, then king of Bhutan, granted the takins freedom from the captivity of a zoo. This gesture represented an early ripple before a wave of modernity was allowed to sweep through his secretive mountain kingdom, a world all of its own between China and the northeastern tip of India. The first tourists were only permitted to come here in 1974 and democracy wasn’t introduced until 2008.
Bhutan’s traditional crafts are taught to fresh generations at Thimpu’s National Institute for Zorig Chusum (The Painting School). In the wood-carving classroom, the heads of a tiger, leopard, boar, owl, snake, deer, dog, ox, rabbit, dragon and a mythical bird called a garuda all snarl down at onlookers. The students are creating masks that will be gaudily painted in the style of those worn by performers at the tsechus – religious festivals – held across the country each spring.
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 Siegeand 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.