Step into the ethereal realm of Bhutan: a place where time stands still amid breathtaking vistas and ancient traditions. Cosmo Brockway, who travelled to the Kingdom for Cabana Magazine Issue 21, shares insights into the divine beauty the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and the trip of a lifetime. 



Bhutan, captured in Cabana Magazine Issue 21 @ Mark Luscombe-Whyte 


It was the most extraordinary descent from the sky I have ever witnessed. As the plane, its tail dancing with a yellow dragon, began to nose into the fold of the Himalayan peaks towards the ‘hidden kingdom’ of Bhutan, time stood still. The wreath of clouds parted and everyone fell silent while a quiet Buddhist song floated through the aisles. Looking down to the towers of the dzong (fort monastery) and cypress trees, the veil of earth’s last Shangri La opened to another world.

Arriving in Thimpu, the quaint capital city guarded by the gilded Dordenma Buddha, was to be struck by the quiet courtesy and tranquillity after the throb of Delhi. Such is the sense of order here, there are no traffic lights, and direction is given by white-gloved policeman who wave their arms in a balletic manner like courting swans.

Exploring the contemporary Textile Museum was to delve into the culture of weaving that pervades here, called thagzo. Gazing at richly-colored kiras and ghos (local dress for women and men), many from the 17th century, I learnt that the women are the chief traditional weavers of the household while the men usually stitch and tailor. The appliqué and embroidering fabrics, as well as the sublime brocades hanging as canopies in temples, are for ritual use in ceremonies.


Bhutan, captured in Cabana Magazine Issue 21 @ Mark Luscombe-Whyte


Hunting for my own pieces to collect, I found myself in an eccentric antiques shop opposite Le Meridien Hotel, listening to the life story of the 85-year old owner who recalled a time when Bhutan was almost entirely closed off. "We would walk into Tibet to do shopping, two and half days.." she smiled before showing me a vivid array of tumbling fabrics, each more covetable than the last, in indigos, magentas and deep saffron. From raw silk (known as bura) to cotton and nettles and even yak hair, it was a journey through the craftsmanship of generations.

"We have a concept called 'hingtham', which means 'from the heart'. It describes how the weavers weave their hearts and souls into the creation of these complex pieces". Again that brilliant smile, as she ends: "For us, these are filled with the DNA of memory, of womanhood and family, and our own culture which we cherish to pass on."

As the next morning dawned bright blue, we began the long drive to the hinterland of Bumthang, the spiritual eye of the kingdom. In the hands of our guide, Dorji Bidha, we ascended to stand speechless at the panorama of the Dochula Pass looking across to the majestic peak of Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed mountain in the world with the haze of Tibet beyond. Dorji reverently murmurs that scaling it is forbidden "to not disturb the deities that live there". 

Behind us, 108 bone-white and gold stupas, built by the Queen Mother Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk to honor the war dead, are an eerily beautiful call for world peace as espoused by the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, practiced by most Bhutanese. Venturing through villages lined with gaily-painted wooden and stone houses, substantial in size with slanted roofs of pine shingles, we marvelled at the landscape, which transformed from spartan to tropical as we became enveloped in the Phunaka valley.

Stopping at a glacial green river, we discovered the mighty Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, built in 1638 in "the shape of a sleeping elephant" on a high ridge. The striking edifice looks across to a UNESCO-protected hanging village, built at the same time by Indian craftsmen who arrived in this valley and married the local women. Their descendants are, according to Dorji, "known for their beautiful almond-shaped eyes."

The visual seduction continued to unfold sitting al fresco next to a vast waterfall under a canopy of banana plants and savouring plates of fresh goen hogay (cucumber salad), pumpkin soup and datshi (cheese) dishes. Here is tranquillity, found in abundance that people from the harried West can spend their lives seeking, washing over you like waves and cleansing mind and body.

As the sun began to dip, we entered the spine-tingling Bumthang Valley. The tangible sense of earthy spirituality, raw and unfettered by outside influences, is electric and as I settled into bed with a wood stove burning near my head, smoke spiralling up to the cathedral-like pine vault of the ceiling, images of day swam through my senses bringing peace and wonder in equal measure.

Following a rustic breakfast of Bhutanese scrambled eggs and local honey, we set off into the crevices of the valley to experience a local festival serendipitously happening that very day. In the grounds of a local manse with its own pagoda-roofed temple, we sat cross-legged surrounded by flocks of families, dressed in traditional costume and chattering while sharing nuts, to watch a whirling dervish-like assembly of dancers spin in homage to the local deity.

With the scenes still in our imagination, we visited the stately manor house, Ogyen Choling. The ancestral home of writer Kunzang Chiden, a direct descendant of Dorji Lingpa (1346-1405), an esteemed master of the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism, is a thriving community still and a beacon of traditional culture. Quietly elegant and dignified, Ashi (an honorific translating to Lady) Kunzang produced a bundle of keys and led us up steep wooden steps to the family shrine. Rebuilt after the earthquake of 1897, the temple, or tsug Lhakhang, has rare paintings of the mythical kingdom of Shambhala in its entrance room, inhabited by Tantric meditational deities.


Bhutan, captured in Cabana Magazine Issue 21 @ Mark Luscombe-Whyte 


To the left of the shrine stands a glorious statue of Dorji Phagmo, another female deity, sculpted from the silver jewellery belonging to Ashi Yeshi, a past chatelaine. In the 1970s, a command came, she recounts to us, from the then monarch, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, for all the noble families to record their religious and physical lineages for posterity—a task undertaken by our hostess’s uncle with great dedication.

As we sit on the stone steps of the geranium-covered courtyard, our eyes following both the exquisite frescoes on the facades and the local people quietly circling the temple, touching each prayer wheel placed in niches, the gap between past and present seems to dissolve. Here, life is lived unchanged, mindfully, and reverently.

What lessons could we learn from these unique people of the Druk Yal (Land of the Thunder Dragon) to transform our world into a place of harmony and balance?


Bhutan, captured in Cabana Magazine Issue 21 @ Mark Luscombe-Whyte

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