The Thongdrel is over 400 years old, four stories in height and about 25m wide as it is hoisted up on the front of the monastery building. It depicts Guru Rinpoche (the second reincarnation of Buddha) and his bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. It is unrolled by monks in the top floor of the monastery who winch the Thongdrel up as a team of around fifty people at base of the building slowly unroll it with every heave. A single drum beat is played very slowly. The moment it reaches the top the hundreds of people who have gathered to witness this event prostrate before it. Its 3am in the morning and the Land of the Thunder Dragon lives up to its name as the thunder rumbles overhead and the rain descends. It’s an auspicious sign, cleansing the sins of the people present. Many of these people have travelled for days, some by foot, from all over the country and from all over the world to witness this. I can only look on with respect. They then form an orderly queue and wait, some for hours, to touch the Thongdrel and receive a blessing. This spectacle has played out like this for over 400 years.
I leave at 7am to return to the traditional farmhouse in which I’m staying for the night/morning. The Thongdrel was taken down within a couple of hours, for fear the ancient tapestry might be damaged by the rays of the morning sun.
At 9.30am I can sleep in no longer, I can hear soothing tones of a horn coming from within the building. The smell of incense fills my room. I get dressed and make my way into a reception room which is next to my bedroom and I’m greeted by the farmhouse owner. Off the reception room is the altar room, it seems every house has one but this is essentially two rooms and quite large. Four monks are chanting rhythmically to the sounds of two horns and a drum. Three of the monks are wearing the normal maroon attire while the fourth, on a raised platform is wearing orange and yellow, signifying his importance. He appears to be in his late twenties or early thirties. This is a very special occasion the owner tells me, the high Lama, who arrived with his team earlier in the morning is believe to be the partial reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche (Buddha) himself and his ceremony in the house will last for about six hours. Offerings of food, water and incense are all laid out to the gods and I am taught how to correctly prostate myself before the altar and to the high Lama. He does not speak but smiles at my efforts.
It’s a country that is still extremely spiritual. I am surprised by the number of youth joining the religious order; some look as young as ten years of age. Many have come from some of the poorest families and it appears to be common that one member of a family will join an order. It will be interesting to see how many will in the next ten years. The youth at the moment are looking towards countries like South Korea and Japan for inspiration, skinny jeans are in, groups of guys wear over styled hair and spirituality and Buddhism is taking a back seat.
Strangely, I can’t help but feel I’ve seen this before. Ireland and Bhutan bare stark similarities, I feel a certain sadness in the inevitable. As the Celtic Tiger raged, Ireland faced the same important decisions that Bhutan faces today. Ireland gripped capitalism or maybe capitalism gripped Ireland, took her (Ireland) for a cheap ride and kicked her out the next morning. I think she is now doing the walk of shame, and slinking back to sobering reality.
In the case of Bhutan, it is flirting with the big C (capitalism). In recent years, imports from India have soared and with the Bhutan Ngultrum pegged to the Indian Rupee it has made the currency artificially high. Cheap money and loans within the banking system have driven consumerism in the country and its dependence on India for everything from cars and milk, to cheap labour and rice – many items that Bhutan could easily produce itself . And so, within the last few weeks Bhutan has made the difficult decision to limit access to the Indian Rupee. It seems that it is possible to learn from the experiences of others, and the Government is now trying to plug the holes and wean itself off the reliance on India. Fortunate perhaps, but at the same time, this foresight is having huge repercussions. Imports of basics from India are now on the rise, my tins of baked beans have gone up by 20% (mum, send me beans please!) along with many other more essential items, the cheap Indian labour is also under strain. Many Indians workers are not migrating to Bhutan for work as their employers can no longer pay them in Rupee’s.
While the roar of my own home’s Celtic Tiger’s has caught a cold and now whimpers, I admire the steps in which the Land of the Thunder Dragon embraces its past as it grapples with the tough decisions that will shape its future. Thankfully when they talk about tiger’s roar, they are very much of the real variety, one they are very careful to nurture.