Prayer flags are the dominant image of Bhutan. Across every river, bridge, mountain road, open space. Fresh colourful strings representing all five elements — air, wind, water, fire, wood — for luck, for prayers, faded and tattered strings as the wind and rain dissolve them. Spiritual laundry.
People hang the prayers where there are strong winds, an image of the wind horse in the centre representing the power of the wind to carry the prayers fast and wide. They consult astrology for the best place, and hang tall flags in front of every home representing your own element, or a local protector. And most hauntingly, tall clutches of 108 long white prayers on bamboo poles to honour someone who has passed away.
Consciousness of death is at the centre of Bhutanese Buddhism, recognition that you can be healthy one day and gone the next. Old people walk slowly around prayer wheels, clockwise around temples, praying with sets of beads as they walk down the street. If you forget for a moment, white ghosts of honour of people who’ve passed away are clustered on edges and plains, and stupas — large structures to honour the dead — are dotted everywhere. Smallish ones and large ornate clusters.
And tucked away into slots and crannies all over Bhutan are thousands of mini stupas, called tsatsas. These are made of clay and the cremated ash of the dead person. Not immediately visible, but once you start seeing them, you see them everywhere.
When a loved one dies, you consult the astrology for the person to find out the right time to cremate them. It might be a day or a week away. Until then, their body rests outside their home, guarded day and night. Chador told us there is a possibility that the body would be stolen for the thigh bones, which are used to make ritual horns for temples — which we saw in the Punakha dzong. The astrology also tells you where to put the prayer flags — high up, on a river, at a river confluence — and where to place the tsatsas.
The tiny stupas are so sweet looking one of the guys in my group said he wanted to swipe one to take it home. We told him he would be stealing a dead person, and I think he refrained — although he did sneak a forbidden photo in the temple with the big wooden phallus. If his plane crashes, we’ll know why.
Cremation is the most common form of burial, but babies’ bodies are thrown into the river, and some elderly Bhutanese follow the Tibetan tradition of sky burial, meaning the bodies are left high on a mountain pass for the vultures and other creatures to devour.
I did not know that when we wandered around the flag-tangled Cheleli pass on our way to Haa Valley.
Bhutan is the gentlest place I’ve ever been, and I could roll my way on a bike through its valleys for weeks. There is a softness of mist and energy, even when cars are jostling for space on a narrow road. It’s a country where stories of gods and spirits are very much alive, and it is taken for granted that some spiritual leaders are reincarnation of historically great people.
One of the most well-known features of Bhutan is its concept of gross national happiness. One of the people in my group said that she hadn’t noticed a particular happiness about the country. I agree that it doesn’t feel like joy — but it does feel like calm, contentment, kindness. I haven’t heard a single Bhutanese voice raised in anger since I got here, and people are incredibly kind. This is the only time in all of my travels where a guide has put himself out to satisfy my whims — Chador let me keep my bike an extra day, knowing that he would have to ride it 65 km back to Thimphu himself. My only way of making sense of it is that it’s kind of a living embodiment of the Buddhist concept of non-attachment — living now without fearing the future, accepting the full landscape of life and lives in a way I’ve not felt in any other country.