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A Place Like No Other

Navtej Sarna

By Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck
Penguin Viking, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 211, Rs. 495.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 10 October 2006

Nearly two decades ago, I made my first journey to Bhutan. I was told that I should take the road up from Phuntsoling rather than go by air, because that way I would be entering Bhutan “the right way.” That was sane advice. From the moment that one crosses the Bhutan gate at Phuntsoling, one is in a way entering another world and it is best to do it gradually. As the 184 km road snakes its way across verdant valleys of incredible beauty, vanishing now into the eternal fog around Chukha and emerging under clear blue skies where the Paro Chu meets the Thimphu Chu in a dramatic confluence, Bhutan’s charm begins to wind around the heart, unobtrusively but ineluctably.   Leaving aside the occasional coffee table book or travel guide, not much has been written about Bhutan. For that reason alone, A Portrait of Bhutan written by Bhutan’s seniormost queen, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, is a valuable contribution. In just two hundred pages, the book seamlessly weaves travel with history, legend with custom, nature with development. Written as part memoir and part travelogue, the book succeeds eminently in providing the reader an insight into various aspects of Bhutanese life and shows how a people of charming traditions and deep religious beliefs have successfully handled the challenges of modernism and development.   Ashi Dorji Wangmo takes us on many journeys. She takes us deep into Bhutan’s past, its animistic Bon traditions and  the later advent of Mahayana Buddhism, brought in dramatically by Guru Padmasambhava flying on a tigress to the precarious perch where Takhtsang monastery today stands in Paro valley. She tackles the difficult questions of the formation of a nation under the Zhabdrung and subsequent establishment of the present monarchy. Several delicate issues in Bhutan’s history are explained, including the courageous manner in which the present King healed the wounds that existed between the monarchy and the descendants of the Zhabdrung, including the family of the present queens.   And there are the fascinating physical journeys. There are vivid memories of the journeys that the author along with Ashi Tshering Pem, her closest sibling and Bhutan’s second queen, used to take to go to school at St Helen’s in Kurseong. Those were days when the road from Phuntsholing to Thimphu had barely been completed and vehicles were a rarity. The journey from Punakha to Thimphu still ...

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