One hundred years ago, in 1914, National Geographic published its first article about the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan: a compelling account of explorations and surveys by John Claude White, a British Raj administrator and an accomplished amateur photographer. Profusely illustrated with glass-plate images that added perspective and texture to his writing, White’s report lifted the veil on a mysterious land hidden in the world’s highest mountains.
As British Indian government officer “in political charge” of Bhutan, White had numerous opportunities to visit the country, where he was “given many facilities never before extended to any European.” He was entertained warmly by the first king of the country, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck. The two men developed a friendship and the king invited White to his coronation and spent much time showing the visitor around his palaces, introducing him to the country’s arts and rituals, offering traditional food and ale (sipped from a bamboo mug called a choonga), sharing books and rare manuscripts from the royal library about the history of Bhutan.
When White was not with his noble host, he visited Bhutan’s temples, monasteries, forts, factories and farms. An engineer by profession, he was particularly interested in bridges, buildings and roads, and he marveled at the ingenuity of the irrigation systems. He observed forests, wildlife, geology, and geography. He traversed Bhutan with the assistance of guides and bearers, sometimes using elephants and yaks to get himself and his heavy photographic equipment around. The details were reported in National Geographic, published in full below.
At the end of his report, White wrote: “I hope I may have interested my readers by my account of this hitherto-unknown country, one so little known that as recently as 1890 a high Indian official wrote most undeservedly, as my explorations proved: ‘No one wishes to explore that tangle of jungle-clad and fever-stricken hills, infested with leeches and the pipsa-fly, and offering no compensating advantages to the most enterprising pioneer. Adventure looks beyond Bhutan. Science passes it by as a region not sufficiently characteristic to merit special exploration.’”
In setting the record straight, White created a time capsule as fascinating for readers of 2014 as it must have been for those of a century ago. With open mind, curiosity, and willingness to observe and understand the people of Bhutan, he was the exemplar of National Geographic’s mission to explore and illuminate the diversity of cultures and places. White’s enduring teaching is that Bhutan is a unique place of adventure and research, abundantly characteristic to merit special exploration.
CASTLES IN THE AIR
Experiences and Journeys in Unknown Bhutan
By John Claude White, C.I.E
Late Political Officer in Charge of Sikkim, Bhutan, and Such Parts of Tibet as Fell Within the Sphere of British Influence.
Author of “Sikkim and Bhutan”
With Photographs by the Author
It has been my good fortune to have had exceptional facilities for exploring the hitherto very little known, but most interesting, native state of Bhutan, which lies in the heart of the Himalaya Mountains, on their southern slopes, about 250 miles northeast of Calcutta.
Though naturally an unruly and turbulent country, there had been no raids into British territory for many years, owing to the good government and strength of character of the present ruler, now Maharaja Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk. By correspondence I had kept up the friendly intercourse begun by my predecessor and friend, the late Mr. A. W. Paul, and on meeting Sir Ugyen for the first time in the Chumbi Valley, at time of the Lhasa Expedition, our acquaintance ripened into firm friendship on both sides.
He extended to me a most pressing invitation to visit his country, and when I was able to do so, a little later on, he gave me every possible assistance, and consequently during the several journeys I made there I was enabled to see everything of interest and to gather information otherwise impossible to procure. Sir Ugyen, his council, the Deb Raja, and all the lamas (monks) combined to make my visits both most interesting and enjoyable and treated me royally throughout. *
* The first of my journeys into Bhutan was toward the end of 1905, when I made my way down the Am-mo-chu Valley from Chumbi to the plains of India. In the following spring I was sent by the government of India to present the insignia of a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire to the Tongsa Penlop, and to do this I traveled from my headquarters, the residency at Gangtok, in Sikkim, crossing the Natu-la Pass to Chumbi via Hah, Paro, Tashi-cho-jong to Poonakha, and on to Tongsa and Byagha, and on my return journey from Tashi-cho-jong northward up the valley of the Tchin-chu into Tibet.
On another occasion I marched along the boundary between British India and Bhutan and from Dorunga across the Dangna-chu to Kanga and up the Kuru River. In the same year I also traveled from Dewangiri through Chungkar, Tashi-gong, Tashiyangtsi, across the Dong-la to Lhuntsi; Pangkha, Singhi-jong, and across the Bad-la into Tibet.
In 1907 a formal intimation was conveyed to the government of India that Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk, K. C. I. E., the Tongsa Penlop, was about to be installed as gyalpo (king), or Maharaja of Bhutan, and this was accompanied by a pressing invitation that I should personally be present, and to my great gratification I was deputed head of a mission representing the government of India at the ceremony. The mission traveled through Phari, in the Chumbi Valley, across the Temo-la to Paro, and by my old route to Poonakha, and then leaving my escort and companions I returned by a new and unknown route via Bite Jong and Dungna-Jong to Jaigoan, in the plains of India.
It is impossible to find words to express adequately the wonderful beauty and variety of scenery I met with during my journeys, the grandeur of the magnificent snow peaks, and the picturesqueness and charm of the many wonderful jongs, or forts, and other buildings I came across; but I hope my photographs may give my readers some idea of what I saw.
A Splendid Race
The Bhutanese are fine, tall, well-developed men, with an open, honest cast of face, and the women are comely, clean, and well dressed and excellent housekeepers and managers. Their religion is Buddhism and their language a dialect of Tibetan. The population of Bhutan is about 400,000.
My experience of the people is that they are universally polite, civil, and clean, and during the whole time I spent in the country I only saw one drunken man. I had every opportunity of judging, as I entered numerous houses and temples in all parts of the country, and invariably found them clean and tidy. In many of the houses the floors were washed and polished, and the refreshments they hospitably pressed on me were served in spotlessly clean dishes.
The clothes of the higher officials were always immaculate, their brocades and silks fresh and unstained in any way, and even the coolies were a great contrast to the usual Tibetan or Darjeeling coolie.
The amount of labor expended on their irrigation channels shows that they are an industrious and ingenious people. Their houses are all large and substantially built.
In the courtyards we found retainers busily occupied in various trades, while the women of the household spin and weave and make clothes for the men-folk in addition to their ordinary duties. A great part of the country is under cultivation, and they raise sufficient crops to support the whole population, including the lamas, who are a great burden to the State.
The men were cheery and jovial, always ready, at the end of a day’s march, when we had settled into camp, for a game at quoits, shooting at a target with arrows, jumping, etc. They are fond of their beer, but there is no great harm in that, and small wonder they are thirsty after toiling up the hills with their loads. I have drunk many a choonga (bamboo mug) full of the mild ale myself and been none the worse for it.
What Bhutan Is Like
Bhutan lies between 26° 30′ and 28° 30′ north latitude and 88° 45′ and 92° 15′ east longitude, and is bounded by British India on the south, the native state of Tawang, subject to Tibet, on the east, Tibet on the north, and Sikkim and the British district of Darjeeling on the west.
The mountain system may be most easily described as a series of parallel ranges running approximately in a southerly direction from the main ridge of the Himalayan range, where the peaks attain altitudes up to 24,000 and 25,000 feet. The principal rivers are the Am-mochu, Wang-chu, Mo-chu, and Kuru, or Lobrak-chu.
In climate it varies enormously from the ice and snow of the higher altitudes to the damp, overpowering heat in the deep valleys, and in vegetation from the magnificent grazing grounds in the higher regions, covered with alpine flowers, surrounded by snow peaks, high pine forests, rhododendrons, magnolias, chestnuts, and oaks, to luxuriant tropical palms, ferns, and bamboos.
On my second journey I came across quantities of Cypripedium fairianum growing in masses on the magnesium limestone hills. This is the orchid of which one specimen reached England about 1860 in a consignment sent from Sikkim by Sir Joseph Hooker, but had since become extinct, and for which $5,000 was offered by orchid-growers. I had been on the lookout for it for several years, and now, when I did find it, I was just too late, as it had been discovered during the survey of the Am-mo-chu Valley a few months before.
There are magnificent forests of Pinus excelsa, Abies brunoniana, and silver fir, many of the trees exceeding in size anything I have ever seen. If these forests, with the water power at hand on all sides, were properly worked, they ought to supply all the tea districts in India with boxes, and would then soon bring in some of the much-needed revenue to Bhutan; but European capital and supervision are absolutely necessary or otherwise the forests will be destroyed.
In eastern Bhutan the hills are densely clothed with forests, but with practically no population, as it is too fever-stricken to allow of any one living there. They are, however, the haunt of almost every kind of wild animal—elephant, rhino, tiger, leopard, bison, mythun, sambur, cheetah, hog-deer, barking deer, etc. The river beds are full of runs leading to the various salt-licks which occur in the hills.
On one of my visits in this section a magnificent tusker went up the valley ahead of me, and Ugyen Kazi, who pitched his camp higher up the valley, was obliged to move his tents, owing to the numbers of wild elephants making it too unpleasant for him to stay.
While I was examining some coal deposits a large tigress, with her cub, walked down the valley, and on my return I found her pugs (footprints), with the little one’s pug. inside .one of her own. It is an ideal place for shooting, but not easy to follow game, owing to the extreme steepness of the sandstone cliffs. The elephant in its wild state can go over or down nearly anything, and the tusker I mentioned I found had gone up a precipice 30 feet high at an angle very little short of perpendicular.
A Torrent Frozen Solid in one Night
My second journey opened with an experience of what bad weather can be at these altitudes, for on leaving Chumbi early in December we came upon an exceptionally severe blizzard. The wind rapidly became a veritable hurricane and the temperature dropped to -26° Fahrenheit. A roaring torrent close to our halting place, which at first kept us awake, gradually became more and more silent as the cold increased, and by morning it was frozen solid.
I had marched on to a small bungalow at a place called Goutsa, where although everything, even the tea and milk, froze solid, I could at least have a fire and some protection from the storm; but two of my party had camped out in the hope of shooting a “shau” (Cervus sinencis), news of which had been brought in. The stag was reported to have a magnificent head, and as I have seen specimens with antlers measuring 64 inches, he was a trophy worth trying for. They, however, saw nothing of him and, greatly to my relief, came in the next day none the worse for their rough experience.
The following morning was brilliant and we went on to Phari, where there is a fine old weather-beaten fort built by the Tibetans, the headquarters of a jongpen, a Tibetan military official. The town is very dirty, the dirtiest I have come across, and the people living in it are also dirty; but it is difficult to keep clean at an elevation of over 15,000 feet, in such a climate, with no fuel except yak’s dung, with its accompaniment of acrid smoke.
We had now reached Bhutan and, crossing the Temo-la (16,500 feet), we entered it in glorious weather. We traveled through wonderful scenery, crossing and recrossing torrents and surrounded by pine forests.
The Castle of Dug-Gye
The first place of interest we came to was Dug-gye Jong, a fort built to protect this route from a possible raid by Tibet. The fort is magnificently situated on a projecting spur in the middle of the valley, with high snow peaks on either side and lovely views looking down the valley. The jongpen (or general) had sent out gaily caparisoned mules to meet us.
I cannot describe Dug-gye better than Captain Turner, who had visited it 120 years before; the scene does not seem to have altered in the least.
“The approach to the only entrance is defended by three round towers, placed between the castle and the foot of the hill and connected together by a double wall, so that a safe communication between them is preserved even in times of the greatest peril. Around each of these towers, near the top, a broad ledge projects, the edges of which are fortified by a mud wall, with loop-holes adapted to the use of the bow and arrow or of muskets. On the north of the castle are two round towers that command the road from Tibet. On the east side the rock is rough and steep, and close under the walls on the west is a large basin of water, the only reservoir I had seen in Bhutan.
“The castle of Dug-gye-jong is a very substantial stone building, with high walls; but so irregular is its figure that it is evident no other design was followed in its construction than to cover all the level space on the top of the hill on which it stands. Having ascended to the gateway at the foot of the walls, we had still to mount about a dozen steps through a narrow passage, after which we landed upon a semicircular platform edged with a strong wall pierced with loop-holes. Turning to the right, we passed through a second gateway and went along a wide lane with stables for horses on each side. The third gateway conducted us to the interior of the fortress, being a large square, the angles of which had three suites of rooms. In the center of the square was a temple dedicated to Mahamoonie and his concomitant idols.”
I found the whole of the premises very clean. The jongpen, who was appointed by, and is a staunch adherent of, the Tongsa Penlop, Sir Ugyen, and had been to Lhasa in the latter’s suite, received us cordially, and entertained us with a Bhutanese lunch of scrambled eggs and sweet rice, colored with saffron, accompanied by murwah (beer) and chang (spirit), also colored with saffron, fresh milk, and a desert of walnuts and dried fruits. His wife, who prepared the meal, was one of the cleanest and best-looking women I have seen in Bhutan; and her little boy, wearing an exact copy, in miniature, of his father’s dress, was a nice little chap.
The Dug-gye armory is said to be the best in the country, and is contained in a fine room, with a large bow window facing south and looking down the valley—in the Tongsa Penlop’s opinion the best balcony in Bhutan.
In the outer courtyard men were making gunpowder. A silversmith and a wood-turner were also at work, and in the inner courtyard were piles of shingles (pieces of flat wood) ready for reroofing the castle, which has to be entirely redone every five years. Altogether there was an air of bustling activity which was pleasant to meet with.
A Monastery Built Over a Precipice
We remained as guests of the jongpen for two days in order to visit the famous Monastery of Paro Ta-tshang, which is situated on the opposite side of the valley, about 3,000 feet up. The road was reported to be very bad, and it certainly was, and I was glad I had not brought my own animals, but had borrowed mules from the jongpen for all our party. The road to the top of the spur was very steep, with frozen, slippery patches, where it was shady and very hot in the sun. It ran in one place in a narrow path across a precipice, with a tremendous drop below, and in another became a series of steep stone steps.
On reaching the top of the ridge we first came in sight of the monastery buildings, grouped on an almost perpendicular hillside in the most picturesque manner. The main temple is erected on what is practically a crack in a perpendicular rock over 2,000 feet in height, and along the crack there are a few more subsidiary buildings.
Each building is two stories high and is painted, like all monasteries, a dull light gray on the lower story, with a broad band of madder red above, and shingle roofs, on the top of which are gilded canopies. It was unquestionably the most picturesque group of buildings I had seen. Every natural feature in the landscape had been taken advantage of, and beautiful old trees clinging to the rocks were in just the right position and, combined with the sheer precipices, made a magnificent picture.
We appeared to be quite close, but were really separated from the buildings by an almost inaccessible gorge. The only approach was by a narrow path or series of steps, where a foot misplaced would precipitate you to the bottom, 1,000 feet below, then across a plank bridge, and up another series of little steps cut in the rock. The native hospital assistant had accompanied our party so far, but this was too much for him. He said he had been in many bad places, but never such a bad one as this, and he turned back to where the mules were waiting. Natives, as a rule, have good heads and do not mind bad roads, so that speaks for itself.
Across the gorge a rope of little colored prayer-flags was stretched, which fluttered out prayers for the benefit of those who had put them up, and this added to the picturesqueness of the scene.
On reaching the top of our ladder-like path a monk presented us each with a draught of beautifully ice-cold water in a gourd from a holy spring, and I can imagine it being much appreciated on a hot day.
The most holy shrine, the sanctuary round which all the other buildings have sprung up, was situated in a cave. The cave is not large; and in it was a gilded chorten filled with small images of Buddha in copper gilt, each seated on a lotus and many of very good design. The other buildings were for the most part ordinary temples, with frescoed walls and altars, with butter-lamps and incense burning, and in the principal one there was a very fine brass Buddha of more than life size, surrounded by his satellites. There were also some unusually good specimens of dorjes (thunderbolts) and purpas (daggers), both of which are used in the temple services.
They were supposed to be of holy origin and to be found among the solid rocks near the shrine; but I could see none, although the Bya-gha Jongpen’s son, a nephew of the Tongsa, had taken one away a few weeks previously. My servants were very anxious to secure one of these treasures, and climbed to an almost inaccessible point in the rocks in search of them, but without success.
In the center of the gorge, perched upon a tiny ledge, there was a hermit’s dwelling, which could only be reached by climbing a perpendicular notched pole about 40 feet high. It looked diminutive against the enormous precipice (p. 378) and dreary and uninviting, with long icicles hanging from the roof, and we did not attempt to visit it. We, however, climbed to the top of the precipice to visit the monastery of Sang-tog-peri, which was most picturesquely situated on a projecting spur, with a fine old oak overhanging the entrance. It reminded me of some of the Japanese temples in Kioto, in the way the natural features of the ground had been utilized to beautify the entrance.
There was a lovely view from this point. Around us on all sides were spurs, with other monasteries and nunneries, but they were all more or less difficult of access and our time would not admit of further delay; so we were obliged to return, leaving them unvisited. It was a place that would take days to explore and would well repay the trouble, especially to an artist in search of the beautiful and unusual.
Feeding Mules With Eggs
From Dug-gye the route to Paro ran down the valley, with monasteries perched on every prominent hill. On reaching Paro we found our camp, as usual, ready pitched for us.
In the afternoon, while wandering round the camp, which was very well laid out, I watched the curious Bhutanese custom of feeding mules with eggs, which I had never come across elsewhere. All our mules, as well as those belonging to Ugyen Kazi and to the penlops, each had a ration of two or three raw eggs. The eggs were broken into a horn, the mule’s head held up, and the contents of the horn poured down the animal’s throat; and, strange to say, they seemed to like the unnatural food. The Bhutanese always give this to their animals when they have any extra hard work to do, and say it keeps them in excellent condition; and certainly all their mules were in first-rate condition.
Paro is a very large and striking building, protected on the one side by the River Pa-chu, spanned by a substantial bridge on the cantilever principle, covered with a roof to protect the timber. The only entrance is from the hillside above the third story, the lower stories being used entirely as storehouses for grain, etc.
In a Bhutanese Fortress
Crossing the foss, which separates the outer courts from the fort by a heavy drawbridge, we passed through a huge gateway and found ourselves in the eastern courtyard, in the center of which is the smaller of two citadels, equal in height and occupied by petty officials. A series of rooms and verandas overlooking the river is built against the inside of the east and north outer walls, and a covered veranda, one story in height, occupies nearly the whole western front.
The penlop’s rooms are situated in the southeast corner, on the floor above, and we entered through a long, low room filled with retainers seated in four rows, two on each side, facing each other—a scene which made one think of the old baronial halls in bygone English days. To add to this impression, the reception room was large and handsomely decorated, and the walls were hung with arms of all descriptions—shields, spears, matchlocks, guns, bows and arrows of every imaginable kind—all well kept and ready for use.
The penlop, or governor, received us in a large bay-window looking down the valley, but the visit was dull and uninteresting, as he seemed to know little of the history of his country, and what little information we did extract was vague and inaccurate. According to the usual custom, I made him some presents, and shortly after took my leave, receiving permission to inspect the fort and to pay a visit to his private house across the valley.
The fort is said to have been built toward the end of the sixteenth century, and does not seem to have suffered from the earthquake of 1897, which shattered Tashi-cho-jong and Poonakha. On the first floor is the temple, the gompa, or public chapel, of which is a very finely proportioned hall, well lighted, and with galleries running round the main building.
It is a much larger room than the one in the Potala at Lhasa, where the Tibetan Treaty was signed, and all its decorations are good, a hanging lattice-work of pierced brass in front of the altar especially being very fine and quite unusual. At the other end of the west veranda is the private chapel of the Ta-tshangs, or state lamas, and there we were received by their head, the Abbot Lama Kun-yang Namgyel, who went to Lhasa with the Tibet Mission and exercised a good influence among the monks there. He gladly showed us all there was to be seen.
The larger of the two citadels is in the center of the western courtyard, at the northwest angle of the building, and I noticed old catapults for throwing great stones, carefully stored in the rafters of the veranda. In the northeast corner are the rooms for distinguished guests, and there is a guard-house in the parade ground beyond the drawbridge. The fort is protected on the side away from the river by several small outlying blockhouses.
The penlop’s (governor’s) private house, where he passes some part of his time, lies on the other side of the river and is the residence of his wives. No female is allowed to enter the fort, and at night the gates are closed and opened for no one. In this house the jongpen lives amicably with two wives, the younger one being the daughter of the elder woman by a former husband. The elder woman was intelligent and had a great deal to say, but the younger one was shy and very silent.
The Headquarters of the Government
Three marches brought us to Tashicho-jong, the summer quarters of the Bhutan government. En route we camped under an immense “weeping cypress,” 51 feet in girth at 4 feet from the ground, and the latter part of the march before reaching the castle was most interesting, as we passed through country replete with historic interest connected with the different battles which had taken place between rival clans for its possession, fortunately now things of the past.
Tashi-cho-jong is an imposing edifice, in the form of a parallelogram, the sides parallel to the river being twice the length of the other two. It differs from other forts in one particular. Instead of only one gate, it possesses two large gateways on the south, and another to the east, on the river face. It is protected on the west and north by a wide foss filled with water.
Unlike Paro and Poonakha, the bridge across the Thimbu Chu was not connected with the castle, and below the bridge was a wooden contrivance cleverly constructed to catch the timber floated down the river for the use of the castle.
The interior of the castle is divided into two unequal portions by a high wall, the larger section to the south containing the usual square tower, measuring about 85 feet each way, and in this are situated the chapel and private apartments of the Dharma Raja, the spiritual head of the nation.
The original tower was destroyed by the earthquake of 1897 and the present structure was finished about 1902; but it has been badly built and the main walls are already cracked, while the interior showed signs of unequal subsidence. The decorations are, of course, quite modern.
In the southeast angle of the courtyard beyond are the public or living quarters of the Dharma Raja, and on the west front those of the Thimbu Jongpen, where we were hospitably entertained. The northern and smaller portion of the castle is occupied entirely by the Ta-tshang lamas and is not usually open to laymen. The dividing wall is surmounted by a row of white chortens, or shrines, protected from the weather by a double roof.
A Thousand Buddhas
In the center of the inner courtyard is an extremely fine hall of audience or worship, 120 feet square and at least 50 feet high. It is well lighted and finely decorated with fresco paintings, and when the silken ceiling cloths and embroidered curtains and banners are hung it must look extremely well; but the lamas were absent at Poonakha, their summer quarters, and all the decorations were either carefully put away or taken with them.
A succession of chapels was built on the west side. One of these was a splendid example of good Bhutanese art; its door-handles, of pierced iron-work inlaid with gold, were exceptionally beautiful. It was said to contain 1,000 images of Buddha, and the number is very likely correct, as I counted over 600, while the pair of elephant’s tusks supporting the altar, which I have remarked as an essential ornament to the chief altar in every Bhutanese chapel I have visited, were larger than usual.
The Buddhist Ritual
To my readers who wish to study the subject of Buddhist religion in this part of the world, I cannot give better advice than to read Waddell’s “Lamaism,” as I have no intention of entering deeply into it, and will content myself by saying that in both Sikkim and Bhutan the religion is an offshoot of Buddhism, and was introduced into these countries from Tibet by lamas from different monasteries who traveled south and converted the people. Most of the tenets of Buddha have been set aside, and those retained are lost in a mass of ritual; so nothing remains of the original religion but the name.
The form of worship has a curious resemblance in many particulars to that of the Catholic church. On any of their high holy days the intoning of the chief lama conducting the service, the responses chanted by the choir, sometimes voices alone, sometimes to the accompaniment of instruments, where the deep note of the large trumpet strangely resembles the roll of an organ, the ringing of bells, burning of incense, the prostrations before the altar, the telling of beads and burning of candles, the processions of priests in gorgeous vestments, and even the magnificent altars surmounted by images and decorated with gold and silver vessels, with lamps burning before them, even the side chapels with the smaller shrines, where lights burn day and night, add to the feeling that one is present at some high festival in a Catholic place of worship.
I have been present at the services on feast days in the temples in Sikkim, Bhutan, and in Lhasa, and no great stretch of imagination was required to imagine myself in a Catholic cathedral in France or Spain, especially the latter. There is also some resemblance in the dress and vestments of the priests and lamas and even in some of their customs. Many of them go entirely into seclusion, and they also have certain periods of time devoted to prayer corresponding to a retreat, during which they see no one.
The Lamas are Disliked and Feared
As a class the lamas are disliked, but also feared by the people, on account of the belief that the lamas have the power to do them harm.
As a rule, the lamas are ignorant, idle, and useless, living at the expense of the country, which they are surely dragging down.
As the lamas in Bhutan are fed, clothed, and housed at state expense, and as their numbers have steadily increased, they have become a very heavy burden which cannot long be borne and an evil which I hope may soon be curtailed by the method proposed by Sir Ugyen Wangchuk, namely, the gradual reduction by leaving vacancies, occurring through death and other causes, unfilled and the limitation of the number admitted to each monastery.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and I have met several lamas, notably the Phodong lama of Sikkim, and others like him, men who were thoroughly capable, who acted up to their principles and whom I thoroughly respected; but, I am sorry to say, such men were few and far between. The majority generally lead a worldly life and only enter the priesthood as a lucrative profession and one which entails no trouble to themselves.
The march from Tashi-cho-jong to the Fort of Simtoka was a lovely one, crossing and recrossing a sparkling stream, through glades of oak, chestnut, and rhododendron, while the slopes of the hills were covered with pines (Pinus excelsa).
Simtoka-jong is situated on a projecting ridge, with deep gullies separating it from the main hill. It looks old and is not in very good repair.
On the four sides of the central square tower, instead of the usual row of prayer-wheels we found a row of square slabs of dark slate, carved in low relief, with pictures of saints and holy men. It was a wonderful collection of different types, with no monotonous repetition of the same figure, whence derived I cannot imagine, unless indeed of Chinese origin, as the variety reminded me of the 1,000 statues in the temple in Canton, where one figure is pointed out as Marco Polo In Simtoka one face is a very unflattering likeness of the German Emperor, In the chapel itself, beneath a magnificent carved canopy, was one of the finest bronze images of Buddha that I have seen; it was supported on either side by a number of standing figures of more than life size.
Our Picturesque Reception at Poonakha
The entrance to Poonakha, which is the winter capital of Bhutan, was picturesque and interesting in spite of the rain, which came down in torrents.
About four miles out we were met by a deputation from the Tongsa Penlop. He had sent the Ghassa Jongpen, who brought scarfs of welcome and baskets of fruit, oranges, plantains, and persimmons, in addition to sealed wicker-covered bamboos filled with murwa and chang. There were at least five or six gaily caparisoned mules for each of us to ride, sent by the Tongsa, the Poonakha Jongpen, Deb Zimpen, and others; so we had an abundance of choice. The Tongsa had also sent his band, which consisted of six men, two in red, who were the trumpeters, while the remainder, dressed in green, carried drums and gongs. The mass of colors of every hue was most picturesque, and we made a very gay procession as we started off again toward Poonakha.
At the point where the jong first comes in view a salute of guns was fired, more retainers met us, and our procession was joined by the dancers. The band and dancers preceded me down the hill, playing a sort of double tambourine and twisting and twirling to the beat as they descended the path. The procession must have extended for quite half a mile along the hillside.
First came the pipes and drums and escort of the 62d Punjabis, followed by some twenty led mules, most of them with magnificent saddle-cloths, with their syces and other retainers; next the bodyguard of the Tongsa, about twenty men, dressed in beautiful silks and brocades and each with a yellow scarf. The band and dancers followed immediately in front of myself and my party, and we again were followed by my orderlies and servants, who were all mounted and wearing their scarlet uniforms. On account of the narrow path, the procession had to proceed in single file, and as we gradually wended our way across the bridge we must have made a brave show for the country folk, who had flocked out in thousands to watch our arrival.
In camp waiting to receive me were all the principal Bhutanese officials—the Tongsa Penlop himself (now the king), the Thimbu and Poonakha Jongpens, the Zung Donyer and Deb Zimpon. The first three I had met in Tibet; the last two at Buxar.
They greeted me most cordially and condoled with me on the weather, inquired about our journey, and hoped we had had no great difficulties. Then in a short time, the rain having ceased, they took their departure and left us to settle down in our quarters. For myself a large, comfortable Swiss cottage tent had been pitched; two others with embroidered tops, cook-houses and quarters for the followers, together with my own camp equipage, made a very luxurious encampment.
An Impregnable Fortress
I also had a great compliment paid me, as the Deb Raja’s band played in front of us all through the outer courtyard across the river and right into the camp, an honor not even paid the Tongsa Penlop himself beyond the bridge.
Poonakha, lying between the rivers, is easily supplied with water; but other forts built on a ridge have some difficulty, and are in many cases, as at Dug-gye, obliged to build sunk passages zigzagging down to the valley and protected by towers at each turning to insure a supply of water in the event of a siege. Where a fort.is built on the side of a hill, as at Paro and at Tongsa, protecting towers are always built above it.
The plan nearly always followed in the forts is that of a rough parallelogram divided into courts. The main entrance in Poonakha is approached by a steep flight of wooden steps about 20 feet in height, which in time of emergency can be easily removed, leading to the gateway, a massive wooden structure, easily closed and invariably shut at night.
Through the gateway the first court is reached. The main citadel is situated in this, at the south end, a square building, about 40 feet at the base and 80 feet high, and flanking the court on all sides are the two-storied buildings used as residences by the lay officials. Beyond the citadel there is another court, also surrounded by double-storied dwellings, and in the building dividing this court from the next is the larger Durbar Hall, which stretches across the whole width. Next comes another and smaller court, within which, to the south, stands the second and smaller citadel, inclosed by more buildings.
Beyond comes another court, given up entirely to the Ta-tshang lamas, numbering about 3,000, the large temple standing in the center. The lamas’ cells occupy two sides of the court, the third side overlooking the junction of the rivers.
Underneath these courts are a few store-rooms for the housing of grain, but the greater part is filled in with earth and rock.
All the buildings are roofed with shingles made of split wood, and in this the great danger, that of fire, lies, as the shingles are easily set alight; but otherwise, in the days of bows and arrows, such forts were practically impregnable, and this one could, if necessary, house 6,000 souls or even more.
A Quaint Ceremony
I spent many days here preparing for the Durbar, which proved of such interest that I give a full account of it. Unfortunately, on the morning of the Durbar it rained heavily, but cleared up before the ceremony began. This took place in the Palace of Poonakha, in the large hall.
When everything was in readiness in the palace, a small procession from camp was formed. Major Rennick and myself, in full-dress uniform, preceded by our escort, commanded by Subadar Jehandud Khan, a native officer of the 40th Pathans, proceeded to the fort, where we were ushered with great ceremony into the Durbar Hall. This is a fine, handsome room, with a wide balcony overlooking the Po-chu, and a double row of pillars forming two aisles. The center or nave, a wide span open to the lofty roof, was hung with a canopy of beautifully embroidered Chinese silk.
Between the pillars were suspended “chenzi” and “gyantsen” hangings of brilliantly colored silks, and behind the tongsa’s seat hung a fine specimen of needle-work picture, a form of embroidery in which the Bhutanese excel and which compares favorably with anything I have seen in other parts of the world, even in Japan or China. At the upper or north end of the room was the high altar and images always to be met with in Bhutanese chapels, and in front of this was a raised dais, on which sat the Deb Raja, a rich yellow silk stole over his red monastic dress, with the Abbot of the Poonakha Ta-tshang lamas, in ordinary canonicals, on his left.
To the right of the dais was a row of four scarlet-covered chairs for myself, Major Rennick, Mr. Paul, and the subadar, and in front of each chair was a small table with fruit and refreshments. Close behind me stood my servants with presents.
On the opposite side of the nave, facing me, was a low dais with a magnificent cushion of the richest salmon-colored brocade, on which Sir Ugyen Wangchuk sat, dressed in a handsome robe of dark-blue Chinese silk, embroidered in gold with the Chinese character “Fu,” the emblematic sign of good luck. Below him were ranged the chairs of the officials, present in order of their rank.
In the aisles were double and treble rows of the chief Ta-tshang lamas seated on white carpets, while four flagellants, carrying brass-bound batons of office and formidable double-thonged whips of rhinoceros hide, walked up and down among the rows to maintain order. At the lower end, by which we had entered, were collected the subordinate officials of the court, standing, with my own escort formed up in front of them, facing the Deb. It was altogether a brilliant and imposing scene.
Knighting the Present King
After my party and the high officials of state, who had risen on my approach, had taken their seats, there was a short pause for order and silence to be restored. I then rose and directed Rai Lobzang Choden, my interpreter, to read a short address in Tibetan, and on its conclusion I stepped forward, with Major Rennick carrying the insignia and warrant on a dark-blue cushion fringed with silver, in front of the Deb Raja as the Tongsa Penlop (Sir Ugyen) advanced from his side to meet me.
I placed the ribbon of the order round his neck, pinned on the star, and handed the warrant to Sir Ugyen, who suitably expressed his most grateful thanks for the honor the King-Emperor had conferred on him. I then handed him presents and, placing a white silk scarf in his hands, offered my hearty congratulations and good wishes.
The presentation of gifts by the remainder of my party brought our part of the ceremony to a close. Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk then turned and made his obeisance to the Deb Raja, who, as Chole Tulku, is the head of the Bhutanese Church, awaiting the reincarnation of the Dharma Raja, and received his blessing. In like manner Sir Ugyen also received the blessing of the abbot.
Now began an almost interminable procession of lamas, officials, and retainers, each bringing a scarf and presents, till Sir Ugyen was almost smothered in scarfs, while the whole nave from end to end gradually became filled up with heaps of tea, bags of rice and Indian corn, rolls of fabrics—silk, woolen, and cotton—of all colors and values, with little bags of gold dust and rupees appearing on the top.
As each present was placed on the floor the name of the donor was announced. I had no means of verifying, but I should think there were at least 200 donors. It was amusing to watch the emulation among them and the flourishes some of them gave as they dumped the presents with a bang on the floor and whipped out the scarfs to their full length. The presentation of white silk scarfs on the meeting of officials with superiors, equals, or subordinates is a universal custom in Bhutan.
When these congratulations came to an end, tea and refreshments were offered to all the company of guests, including the lamas in the aisles, who at each course intoned a sort of grace. Finally beetel and pan were distributed. (Beetel-nut is the fruit of a palm and pan is an astringent leaf, which, eaten with a small quantity of lime, is much prized by the Bhutanese.)
An Interesting Beer Ceremony
At the commencement of the feast a large cauldron of marwa, or beer of the country, was placed at the lower end of the nave and a curious ceremony was gone through. The Zung Donyer, with a long, bowl-shaped ladle, mixed the liquid three times; then, holding up the bowl full of beer in one hand, raised the other in prayer.
This ceremony he repeated three times and then advanced with the ladle full to the Deb Raja, who blessed it; he then turned to the Tongsa, upon whose hands a small portion was poured; and, finally, the Donyer returned and poured the remainder into the cauldron, which was removed doubtless for the refreshment of the crowd of onlookers, who were not of sufficient importance to share the tea and refreshments dispensed in the Durbar Hall.
Next, with great ceremony, a wooden spear, with a piece of red cloth and a white silk scarf fastened to the base of the head, was carried to the Deb and blessed; it was then waved over the Tongsa, who reverently touched the end of the shaft. The spear was then sent to the Tongsa’s apartments.
The final act in the ceremonial was a short prayer, led by the Deb and intoned by the lamas, and with this the proceedings ended and we returned to camp.
It was a most interesting ceremony and conducted throughout with the greatest order and reverence and it passed off without a hitch of any kind. It says a good deal for the change in the conduct of affairs in Bhutan and their anxiety to show respect to the British government that they should have made the presentation of the decoration to the penlop the first occasion of so public and elaborate a ceremony, as I understand that hitherto it has been the custom of the recipient of an honor merely to go to the Deb and head lamas to receive their blessing, while congratulations and presents were received at his private dwelling.
The Spiritual Capital of the Nation
While at Poonakha I paid a visit to the Ta-lo Monastery, which was only reached after three hours’ hard climbing. This monastic colony is a charming collection of small, well-built, two-storied houses, with carved and painted verandas scattered all over the hillside, each in its little garden of flowers and trees, with here and there a chapel or decorated chorten, or shrine, to break the monotony.
The great temple, with its somber background of cypress and pine, dominates the scene, but higher up the beautifully decorated retreat of the late Dharma; Raja formed a fitting crown to the whole group of buildings. In the great temple were many chapels, all scrupulously clean and well ventilated, glass window-panes being in great evidence.
The principal objects of interest were two large silver chortens containing the ashes of two of the Shabdung Rimpoches. They were highly chased and jeweled, the stones being mostly turquoise. The ceremonial instruments used by the late Dharma Raja were preserved here and were fine examples of the best Bhutanese metal work.
The carving on the pillars and canopies was excellent, but so much overladen by open-work metal scrolls it was difficult to follow in detail. An elephant’s tusk before one of the altars measured 8′ feet, and there was a magnificent collection of embroidered and applique banners; in fact, the whole building was full of treasures.
I was received with open arms and every expression of friendliness by the lama, a brother of the late Shabdung Rimpoche, who invited me to look at everything I wanted and broke open seals on boxes and doors in order to allow me to examine his treasures. I fancy this is the first time any European had been allowed to do such a thing, and the treasures were worth seeing, especially the old embroidered banners. Even the late Shabdung’s dwelling was opened and I was allowed to enter his private rooms, the greatest honor they could confer on me.
All we required was provided and everything done for our comfort, and the lama was quite hurt that we were unable to stay longer and accept more of his hospitality.
The ladies who had entertained me at Ta-lo later came to Poonakha and paid me a visit. After listening to the gramophone, with which they were much pleased, they went away, taking with them some silks for themselves and toys for their children. With them came the head of Ta-lo, the Tango Lama, a man about 40, and his younger brother, Ninser Talku, about 11 years old. In the evening the lama came back to dine with us, accompanied by the Thimbu Jongpen, but I do not know that on this occasion the dinner itself was an actual success, as the lama was not allowed to eat fowl or mutton, our principal stand-bys, and the Thimbu excused his want of appetite by saying he had already dined.
Simple and Kindly People
I have always found the Bhutanese, as well as the Sikkim people, very appreciative of English food, and as they are Buddhists, with no question of caste, they consider it an honor to be asked to meals, and are most anxious to return any hospitality they receive, in marked contrast to the natives of India, who are defiled and outcasted by such intercourse with strangers. It is a great factor in helping forward friendly relations, and although, out of politeness, they never refuse to taste wine, nearly all the officials are extremely abstemious.
At Poonakha the others jocularly remarked that the Zung Donyer, being so much older, was a seasoned vessel and must drink for the rest of them, and often passed the half-emptied glasses on to him to finish; but at the same time they kept a strict watch to see that the strange spirits whose strength they were unaware of should not overcome him.
After dinner I showed the Tango Lama a stereoscope, with views of Europe, and he so enjoyed it that I gave it to him when he called to take leave. He asked me if I had brought with me any toy animals, mentioning in particular an elephant, as he wanted them to place before a new shrine they were making at Tango. By a great piece of luck I had a toy elephant that waved its trunk and grunted; also a donkey that gravely wagged its head, and a goat that on pressure emitted some weird sounds. He was greatly delighted with them and bore them off in triumph, but whether to assist his worship or amuse his children I do not know.
Next day, on leaving, he asked if I had a model of a cow, but that, unfortunately, was not forthcoming. It was an excellent idea, bringing models of animals and simple mechanical toys among the presents, and they are most popular as gifts, a jumping rabbit being in great demand. It shows the simple nature of the people, that they should be interested so easily.
While at Poonakha I procured a specimen of the takin (Budorcus taxicolor whitei), a very rare animal, and I succeeded in bringing a live specimen to England, which is now in the Zoological Gardens, London.
A Visit to a Bhutan Home
With the conclusion of the Durbar my official duties came to an end, but the Tongsa (now Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk) begged me to accompany him to his official residence, the castle at Tongsa, and thence to his private residence and castle at Byagha; so my party became the private guests of Sir Ugyen. We were entertained by the most charming and thoughtful of hosts, everything that could conduce to our comfort being done—camps pitched, roads mended, even houses built for us to live in; in fact, no host could have done more and few so much.
After four days’ marching, passing en route Angduphodong Jong, we reached Tongsa. On nearing the fort a bevy of singing girls met us below the almost perpendicular approach and sang us into the fort. I was obliged to ride up steep zigzag steps, although I would have much preferred to walk; but it would not have been considered etiquette for me to arrive on foot.
Sir Ugyen met us in camp with the information that the castle lamas were all ready and eager to finish the dances that on our previous visit had been stopped by rain; so, after a hasty lunch, I went on to the castle. The dance went off very well, with the dancers in gorgeous dresses of every imaginable color, to the accompaniment of weird tom-toms and huge trumpets, flutes, and cymbals, which produce a strange and unusual, but rather fascinating, music of their own. But the most interesting objects to me were the masks, which, instead of being carved out of wood, as in Sikkim, were molded from a papier-mache of cloth and clay, and very well molded they were—the heads of the various animals quite recognizable and many with great character.
The fort is composed of a wonderful collection of buildings. Within its numerous courtyards, temples, and dwellings it contains a population of perhaps 3,000 lamas and laymen and could hold 6,000.
A distinctive feature which is most striking in Bhutanese architecture is that all the walls have a distinct camber, and that the windows are of peculiar form, with the sides sloping inwards. From whence did this form of architecture come? What is its origin? Did it come into this remote and inaccessible region in the Himalayas through the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians from Egypt? Or was the center from which the art spread founded by a race which had its habitat somewhere in Asia? An interesting question, which can only be touched on here, but one which would be worth some systematic study.
Blessing the Rice Fields
Early one morning the sound of a sweet-toned gong warned us that the spring ceremony of blessing the rice fields was about to begin.
A long and picturesque procession of men and women, led by the Donyer, came winding down the hillside until the first rice field, into which water had been running all the day before, was reached. The field below was still dry, and turning in there they all sat down and had some refreshment. Suddenly the men sprang. up, throwing off their outer garments; this was the signal for the women to rush to the inundated field and to commence throwing clods of earth aid splashes of muddy water on the men below as they tried to climb up.
Then followed a wild and mad, though always good-natured, struggle between the men and the women in the water, the men doing their utmost to take possession of the watery field, the women equally determined to keep them out.
The Donyer, the leader of the men, suffered severely, though the courtesies of war were strictly observed, and if one of the assailants fell his opponents helped him up and gave him a breathing space to recover before a further onslaught was made. But gradually the women drove the men slowly down the whole length of the field until the last stand was made by a very stout and powerful official, who, clinging to an overhanging rock, with his back to his foes, used his feet to scoup up such quantities of mud and water that no one was able to come near him.
However, all the other men having been driven off, he and the Donyer were allowed at last to crawl up on the path and the combat for the year was over. This was looked on as a very propitious ending, as the victory of the women portends, during the coming season, fertility of the soil and increase among the flocks and herds; so they dispersed to their various homes rejoicing.
Prayer Wheels Driven by Water
Below the eastern wall of Tonsa in the ravine is the building containing the prayer-wheels, worked by water, from which the palace took its original name of Chu-knor-rab-tsi. In it are two sets of wheels, each axle containing three manis, or cylinders, containing prayers, one above the other, the smallest at the top. They had evidently not been used for some time, so the next day, having nothing better to do, we assisted in putting them in order by clearing out the waterways, which had been blocked with stones and rubbish, and hope it may be placed to our credit as a work of merit.
In Bhutan we often saw these waterdriven prayer-wheels, most of them in a state of picturesque decay and only a few still in working order. For the benefit of my readers who are unacquainted with this practice, the following is a short description: A prayer-wheel consists of a hollow cylinder filled with written or printed prayers and fixed to a perpendicular shaft of wood, to the lower end of which horizontal flappers are attached, against which water is directed from a chute; the end is shod with iron and revolves in an iron socket driven by the force of the stream. With each revolution the prayers are believed to be prayed for the benefit of the builder of that particular wheel and count so much to his credit.
They are very easily kept in order; but probably because only construction and not preservation is a work of merit in the Buddhist religion, no one seems to take the trouble to clear out the watercourses or to mend a broken flapper, and consequently most of them were at a standstill.
It is a delightfully easy method of praying, and some enormous wheels have been erected. One at Lamteng, in the Lachen Valley in Sikkim, contains no less than four tons of printed paper, and measures about 9 feet in height by 42 feet in diameter; but these very large ones are seldom worked by water-power, and generally have a crank on the lever end of the shaft, which any one anxious to pray has only to turn, while a bell sounding automatically at each revolution records the number of prayers repeated.
The King’s Private Home
We stayed here a few days and then went on to Byagha. This visit to Byagha, which lasted 12 days, was really the most enjoyable part of the expedition, for we were received as honored guests by Sir Ugyen in his private capacity; and interesting and imposing as the ceremonies had been at Poonakha, these few days at Byagha gave us a much deeper insight into the life and customs of the Bhutanese, as our intercourse with our host was quite free and untrammeled.
An easy descent brought us to an opening in the pine forest, from whence we looked down on the broad vale of Byagha, through which a river flowed tranquilly. On the right bank was a large house and chapel, surrounded by trees just bursting into leaf, the home of Sir Ugyen’s sister, and close by the site of the old house in which he was born. On a bluff on the central ridge, some 500oo feet up, was the castle, entirely rebuilt, though on a smaller scale, after the total destruction of the old one in 1897; while, to crown all, where the ridge widened out into broad glades, edged with pine forests, was the equally new summer house of our host. He had terraced and turfed the slope above the castle.
Nothing could have been more picturesque than our camping-ground at Byagha. The view everywhere, both up and down the valley, was lovely. Dr. Griffith 70 years previously had written: “The country was very beautiful, particularly in the higher elevations. And at this season, to add to the beauty, primulas, in flower in myriads, clothed whole glades in delicate violet, while above rhododendrons flamed in gorgeous scarlet.” He adds: “We saw scarcely any villages, and but very little cultivation.”
In direct contradiction to this, I noticed that whole hillsides were being cultivated up to at least 11,000 feet, and I was so struck by the difference that I made inquiries, and found that as recently as 30 years ago, when Sir Ugyen left the valley, a boy of 12, there was nothing but jungle either here or on the slopes opposite. The land had only been brought into cultivation since the internecine quarrels had ceased some 18 years ago. So much for stability of government; but even now poverty reigns, and the valley is only prosperous in comparison with more unlucky ones.
As soon as we had settled down, Sir Ugyen’s sister, his two daughters, and a daughter of the Thimbu Jongpen came to add their welcome. The younger ones were rather pretty, unaffected and merry girls, while the sister, although a grandmother, was full of good nature and showed traces of good looks. They all wore their quaint and distinctive dress, which consists of a long piece of Bhutanese cloth, woven in colored stripes, draped round the figure, and fastened on the shoulders and confined at the waist by a band of brighter Bhutanese cloth. They also wore necklaces of large, rough beads of coral, turquoise, and amber, and occasionally gold filigree beads and many bangles of gold and silver. Their hair was left unornamented and either cut short or worn in two long plaits. The elder daughter brought her little son, to whom I gave a bottle of sweets, which pleased him just as much as it would a little Western boy, and his mother told me later that he ever after loved me for my gift.
Very soon after our arrival Sir Ugyen took me all over his house. On the east front, occupying the whole width of the building, was a long, well-ventilated factory, where many girls were busy weaving silk and cotton fabrics, chiefly the former. The silk was in the main tussar, obtained from Assam and the northern hills. It was altogether a very charming and home-like dwelling, and evidently managed by an excellent and capable housewife in his eldest daughter, who lives with him and superintends his household.
On one occasion we breakfasted with him, and were offered several small dishes cooked in Chinese fashion in small cups, with the accompaniment of boiled rice, while in the center of the table was a large dish of various kinds of meat. After breakfast I had to go and witness an archery contest. The distance between the butts was at least 150 yards, and the shooting was much better than what we saw at Poonakha and what Dr. Griffiths writes of. There were two teams, captained respectively by Ugyen Kazi and the Tongsa Donyer, and the former won.
Sir Ugyen’s Personality
Sir Ugyen took a good deal of trouble to find some books for me, from which I have gathered a fuller account of early Bhutanese history than we have had hitherto.
His own story is a somewhat pathetic one. As a young man he married an exceedingly lovely girl, to whom he was devotedly attached, but after the birth of their second daughter she died very suddenly from some unknown cause. The shock was a terrible one to Sir Ugyen. He became seriously ill, and on his recovery withdrew from all gaiety and found solace in reading and studying the history and legends of his country. As some of his followers described him, he was more than a lama. Sir Ugyen is the only Bhutanese I have come across who takes a real and intelligent interest in general subjects, both foreign and domestic, and he neither drinks nor indulges in other vices. He made a large collection of books, but unfortunately many of them were destroyed when the Dechen-phodang, near Tashi-cho-jong, was burnt down; while the earthquake of 1897, which destroyed all the principal buildings in Bhutan, ruined other archives.
The Life of the Women
We were also entertained by the Tongsa’s sister and spent several days in an encampment near her house. We here saw what capable housewives the Bhutan ladies are. Everything was done very systematically. In the morning the provisions for the day were given out—no easy task, with some hundreds of retainers to feed—and the store-rooms relocked, orders issued, and tasks appointed in spinning, weaving, etc., to be carried out by the large household of women, and it was interesting to see the deference in which these dames are held.
We were taken to see the Guru Lhakung Monastery and to lunch at a country house; were shown all the industries of weaving in cotton, wool, and silk; the process of casting of metals, chiefly bells and images; the making of swords and gold- and silversmith’s work. Many pieces turned out by the latter were of exquisite design and finish. It was all most interesting and instructive.
The Men are Excellent Artisans
The Bhutanese excel in casting bells, and I have seen some excellent specimens with very fine tones. The composition used for the best bells contains a good deal of silver, but they never make them of any great size, the largest I have seen being probably 24 inches in diameter and of about an equal height.
In iron-work they are also good artificers, and many of their sword-blades are of excellent manufacture and finish, and are still made from the charcoal iron. The polish they put on them is wonderful, and the blades almost look as though they had been silvered.
Their swords are very handsome weapons, with finely finished blades, elaborately wrought, silver-handled, inlaid with turquoise and coral, and silver scabbards with gold-washed patterns, attached to handsome leather belts with brightly colored silk cords and tassels. Their daggers are also very fine, many of them with triangular blades and fluted sides, with sheaths of exquisite open silver and gold work set with turquoise.
Every house of any importance has large workrooms attached in which weaving is carried on, and the stuffs produced, consisting of silks for the chiefs’ dress, woolen and cotton goods, are excellent; and a good deal of embroidery is also done.
The monasteries possess an art which, so far as I know, is peculiar to Bhutan. They make most beautiful needlework pictures of the saints on hanging banners. Innumerable pieces of colored silks and brocades are applied in a most artistic manner with elaborate stitches of all kinds. Many of them are veritable works of art.
Another industry in which the Bhutanese excel is basket-work and fine matting, made from split cane. The baskets are beautifully woven of very finely split cane and some of the lengths are colored to form a pattern. They are made in two circular pieces, rounded top and bottom, and the two pieces fit so closely and well that they can be used to carry water. They are from 6 to 15 inches in diameter, and the Bhutanese use them principally to carry cooked rice and food. They also make much larger and stronger baskets, very much in the shape of a mule-pannier, and these are used in a similar way for pack animals.
The mats are also very finely woven of the same material, with a certain amount of the split cane dyed to form patterns. They are delightfully fine and soft, so flexible they can be rolled up into quite a small space and very durable, and can be got in, almost any size up to about 16 feet square, and even larger if they are required.
Possibly the excellence of the work produced in Bhutan owes much to the feudal system which still prevails there. Each penlop and jongpen has his own workmen among his retainers, men who are not paid by the piece and are not obliged either to work up to time or to work if the spirit is not in them, and consequently they put their souls into what they do, with the result that some pieces of splendid individuality and excellent finish are still made. No two pieces are ever quite alike, and each workman leaves his impress on his work.
The suspension bridges in Bhutan are very interesting and merit description. They consist of four or five chains of wrought iron made of welded links, each 15 to 18 inches in length. The three lower chains are tightened up to one level, and on them a bamboo or plank roadway is placed. The remaining chains, hanging higher up and further apart, act as side supports, and between them and the roadway there is generally a latticework of bamboo, or sometimes grass, in order that animals crossing may not put their legs over the side. The roadway is never more than three or four feet wide.
Many of the chains on these bridges are extremely old—many hundreds of years—and appear to be of Chinese workmanship. The links are in excellent order and very little pitted with rust. The other and newer chain bridges have been made in Bhutan.
I should have liked to stay longer in Bhutan, but I could spare no more time and was obliged to turn my face homeward and take leave of my most charming and entertaining hosts, which I did with great reluctance.
On the homeward journey we went north from Tashi-cho-jong, traveling up the magnificent gorges of the Tchin-chu, passing the monasteries of Perugrisampti-guatsa and Tango to the higher grazing grounds.
The gorge of the Tchin-chu is bordered by stupendous cliffs of most weird shapes, among which El Capitano, of the Yosemite Valley, would be dwarfed by the lowest of these monsters. These cliffs appeared to be formed by horizontal strata of sedimentary rocks, consisting of layers of limestone, sandstone, slate or shale of a dark-blue color and quartzites. The towering rocks were cleft in numberless places from top to bottom, leaving narrow slits or fissures, which I was told were often more than a mile long. One which I photographed extends for more than two miles before it opens out in a beautiful basin, and forms one of the Thimbu’s best grazing stations.
Presently we came to Gangyul (13,600 feet), a little village in a narrow, flat valley close under the eastern glaciers of Cho-mo-Lha-ri. While our camp was being got ready, I rode two or three miles up the valley in the hope of seeing a remarkable cave which we were given to understand was in the locality. We soon discovered, however, that our guide was much more anxious to show us a large flat rock of slate situated between two branches of the Tsango-chu, at the head of which was a wooden axle forming a rack.
Devoured by Lammergeiers
It was carefully explained to us that this was a holy spot on which human corpses, the head and shoulders tied to the axle to keep the body in place, were exposed, to be eaten by lammergeiers and other ravenous birds and beasts of prey. In perfectly solemn and earnest good faith we were told that the birds were fastidious and would not touch low-caste bodies, and that only three families in the valley were entitled to be thus disposed of.
The Thimbu excused himself from accompanying me, as the memories connected with this spot were very painful to him, his daughter only a few years before having been laid on the slab.
One of our guides lay down on the slab, while another lit a smoky fire, devices which, they said, would be sure to attract the lammergeiers from their eyries; but the deception failed and no birds appeared. In another respect the little valley was very remarkable, as the glaciers seemed to completely close in the head, and I saw two avalanches and heard several more, caused by the increasing power of the sun’s rays on the snow.
The main glacier was most beautiful, looking like a curious broad staircase of snowy whiteness, leading from where we stood heavenward. There were several fine waterfalls gushing out from holes in the cliffs high above us and disappearing before they reached the path, the rivulets of water oozing out again from the banks of the main stream, showing that the water had resumed a subterranean course. A curious feature about the falls was that as the power of the sun increased so did the waterfalls visibly increase in size. Our camp that night was a cheery one and we relieved the time by learning, to the great amusement of the bystanders, to play Bhutanese backgammon, our implements being two wooden dice, a collection of little wooden sticks of varying length, and a handful of beans.
A short march brought us to the Phewla, or Ling-shi-La, over which pass we crossed into Tibet.
By this time the different kinds of transport I had used during my tours had included, I should think, about every known sort. I had made use of coolies, elephants, mules, ponies, donkeys, yaks, oxen, carts, pony-traps, rail, and steamer, and the only available animal I had not employed was the Tibetan pack-sheep.
I hope I may have interested my readers by my account of this hitherto-unknown country, one so little known that as recently as 1890 a high Indian official wrote most undeservedly, as my explorations proved: “No one wishes to explore that tangle of jungle-clad and fever-stricken hills, infested with leeches and the pipsa-fly, and offering no compensating advantages to the most enterprising pioneer. Adventure looks beyond Bhutan. Science passes it by as a region not sufficiently characteristic to merit special exploration.”
And with this quotation I must close for the present, though later I hope to give the readers of the National Geographic Magazine some of my impressions of Tibet itself, in which country I have also done a certain amount of traveling.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.