From Paro To Thimphu, The Iron Bridge And A visit To An Art School, Bhutan
We spent a few more days exploring more of the sites in Paro, before we moved on through the mountains to the capital city of Thimphu.
We visited the ruins of “Drukgyal Dzong” which was built in 1647 by the great Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal’s father and the unifier of medieval Bhutan.
This magnificent hilltop Dzong, was destroyed by a fire that started from a single candle.
Armies of invaders could not penetrate this magnificent Dzong, but a tiny flame of a single candle took it all down…
We walked up to the ruins and admired the size and scale of the place, as well as the spectacular views that we could see from there.
It was a clear day, and on one side stretched the rice paddies of the Paro valley, and on the other side we got an unforgettable view of Mt. Jhomolhari (7,314 meters or 24,000 feet).
The peak of Jhomolhari is permanently covered in snow.
The drive from Paro to Thimphu is short, so we stopped to see the iron bridge temple which was built on a hill.
The iron bridge builder Thangton Gyelpo was a Tibetan spiritual master who brought the knowledge of how to work with iron to Bhutan.
He built some beautiful temples and one nunnery as well as a few iron bridges which still stand today.
I stood before one of them, connecting the two sides of the Paro river.
The construction was beautiful.
He built two towers on both sides of the river, and between them he stretched four rows or large linked iron chains; each link was about the size of a watermelon.
To make the bridge walkable for people, he stretched a metal net on the sides and bottom.
The net was fit for humans to walk on, but the holes were too wide for animals’ hoofs.
To transport animals to the other side, they built a wooden swinging bridge.
It was scary to cross a netting swinging bridge over a gushing river.
I decided to overcome my fears and took my time crossing the bridge.
I knew that nothing was going to happen to me, and that the fear I was feeling was only mental and nothing real…
On both sides of the bridge people stretched rows upon rows of prayers flags, and they gently swayed in the wind, reminding me of how gentle and harmless the nature of reality beyond the human imagination truly is….
The temple that the iron builder built was old and beautiful.
It was also closed to visitors that day, because the king of Bhutan was on his way to visit the temple that very same day.
They had prepared the temple with red carpets and food, to welcome the king, so they apologized for not letting us in to see the art on the walls.
On the way back, I convinced Jules to walk with me on the iron bridge.
To cross over, he had walked on the wood bridge.
We held hands and walked over the swinging bridge hand in hand.
When we felt fear, we repeated mantras and affirmations of the Truth out loud.
I felt like this was a walk over a symbolic bridge that I did that day holding Jules’ hand and reminding him of the joy of overcoming our fears.
In Jewish mysticism there is a saying that the whole world and all of our earthly existence, is nothing more than a narrow bridge leading to the infinite, and that the most important thing it the world, is not to fear at all.
To Live! and to do it with courage!
In Buddhism, there is the belief that Enlightened Beings must delay ascension or Nirvana, in order to teach others and to help all other sentient beings to reach Enlightenment
Farther down the road I saw the meeting of the two rivers, Paro and Thimphu.
Three stupas were erected at the point where the rivers meet, each built in another style.
In Thimphu, I have asked to visit an art school and to observe how they paint and sculpt using the traditional artistic techniques.
The art school grounds were clean and beautiful.
Students learn art for seven years to master one art form.
The arts that were being taught were woodcarving, clay sculpting, mask making, Thangka painting and embroidery.
Learning to paint in traditional Bhutanese style, is a painstakingly task.
There are exact rules and precise measurements to painting the Buddha and each other deity.
Free form is not practiced at all.
The students learn to draw an exact grid and to lay on it the form of the deity in an exact way.
A hand cannot be too fat or too long, it has to be an exact replica of the classical drawings.
In the first year, the students learn how to draw the face of the Buddha.
There are exact proportions for the eyes, nose and mouth, even the folds of the chin and neck are measured.
Then students learn to draw his body, and then to create an exact drawing of the Buddha fully clothed.
They will not touch paint and color until the second year, in which they will learn to paint all the beautiful symbols that are painted on houses and columns.
When they do get to work with paints on a canvas, it is not the ready made paint squeezed out of tubes, they must mix the powdered mineral paints themselves, one color at a time.
The students were eager to explain to me how they work, show me their drawing notebooks and the thin paintbrushes that they make themselves.
They said that the best thin brushes must be made from the hair of a cat.
The soft hair is plucked from the back of the cat, right behind the head.
Being Buddhists, they do not kill the cat, just pluck some hair…
Then they select the best and longest hairs, leaving aside the soft cotton-like fur.
They bind a few cat hairs together with glue and thread, and mount it on top of a wooden or bamboo stick.
I have to admit that I coveted those thin and beautiful brushes, which glided on the paper with grace…. I wish I could buy one from them, but I was afraid to offer money as an exchange…
At another painting class, I saw a group of students mixing the mineral paints and getting ready to paint.
They sat on the floor and pounded the paints with wooden sticks.
I asked what do they dilute the powder with, and a Japanese woman named Yoko, explained that they mix it with glue.
I asked where can I buy those mineral paints, because I wanted to take some with me and to work with them at home.
Yoko explained to me that they can be bought at a hardware shop in town, and we chatted about her art studies in Bhutan.
Secretly I harbor a wish to come and to learn how to paint those amazing figures of wrathful deities myself…..
But I am not sure that I can come and study art in Bhutan…
There are a few reasons for my hesitation….
For one, I am not fond of too much structure.
It is one thing to hear that you have to spend a whole year drawing exactly the face of the Buddha, and it is a totally different thing to actually DO it…
I think it would drive me mad, and not only because of the boredom of repetition.
Philosophically, I disagree with the concept that the Buddha, who was never photographed, since he lived before photography was invented, had the shape and features that are portrayed in Tibetan and Bhutanese art.
On the other hand, I fully understand why the exact measurements are important.
Those paintings are not done for decoration, they tell visual stories, and if the Buddha or the god of compassion cannot be recognized, the meaning of the story on the walls is totally lost…
I also love to study by myself and on my own terms and schedule, and to continue my travels and to live my life with much more freedom
So….Maybe all I need is to get as much knowledge and as many art instruction books as I can get, and then later at home, in the comfort of my spacious studio, to teach myself how to do it through repeated practice.
I took Yoko’s email and contact information, just in case, to ask her more questions at a later time.
In traditional Bhutanese art, individual artistic expression is not a priority.
Although I could differentiate between artists based on their skills and the way they render the details of the faces or hands, a creative imagination of the artist is not valued.
Our driver Gyampo, told us that he was a trained artist.
He was a traditional Thangka painter and he studied traditional Bhutanese paintings for SEVEN years.
He only drives tourist around to supplement his income.
Gyampo said that an artist who gets hired to paint the temple walls, get paid 700-1200 Rupees per day. ($14- $24)
The cost of living in Bhutan is low, (for Bhutanese people) and many live with their families in the family homes, all their lives.
At the art school shop, they sold the work of the students for very reasonable prices.
Some of the sculptures, paintings and masks were amateurish, but others were so wonderful that I wished that I could take some home… But alas, ahead of us are weeks of trekking and traveling with weight limits and beside, those clay sculptures seemed so fragile…
When we left the art school, we walked into town through a long row of craft booths selling traditional Bhutanese crafts.
My intentions were to go to a hardware store to buy those earth mineral paint powders.
We found some colors at a hardware shop, but they lacked the vermilion which I love and hope to find later on in the trip.
Our hotel room in Thimphu, is a shit hole.
Still, we did not complain, because it was not a planned stay, but a last minute change because we did not continue the Dragon Druk trek, and we were reassured that tomorrow, we will move to a nice hotel in Thimphu, which was part of the original plan.
Instead of spending time in our dingy hotel room, we spent the evening in the Karma Cafe in Thimphu.
The Karma cafe has comfortable sofas and free WiFi.
On the stairs leading up to Karma cafe, there were signs with slogans for coffee lovers.
They said things like: “Give me my coffee and nobody gets hurt.”
Or: “Have you had your coffee today?”
But when we were up there and asked for a cappuccino, we were told that the only man who knows how to make the coffee was not there, and that we could get only soft drinks or tea.
Still, it was a haven of comfort compare to our hotel, and it was clean and pleasant.
A John Denver song was playing on the CD, softly filling the air of the dark room with his words…. “Colorado Rocky Mountain High”……
For a bizarre reason, I found myself holding back my tears……as I remembered the beautiful Colorado Rocky Mountains which I call home…
Jules always checks news from both New Zealand and the Rocky Mountains, and he told me that there was a smattering of snow accumulating on the mountains, and that the ski resorts are planning to open in mid November.
It always happens to me during months-long trips in Asia….
Everything is so foreign and so different, and every once in awhile the thought of our beautiful homes in New Zealand or in the high mountains of Colorado, makes me feel homesick…
Bhutan is awesome, but I do like to be comfortable and to stay in clean and pleasant surroundings.
I do not feel at home in hotel rooms with leaky faucets and dirty walls and carpets.
Luckily the next day we checked into our original hotel, and it was everything we hoped for.
It was a suite hotel (called Bhutan Suites) and we got a sunny living room with a huge bedroom that was clean, airy and wonderful.
The restaurant in the hotel is an all veg restaurant, and the food was truly wonderful.
We tasted veg and cheese momos which were tender and delicious, and a variety of healthy and yummy food.
Tourists eat at their hotels in Bhutan, as it is included in the price.
Usually it is the same food that you would anyway be able to get in the restaurants around town.
That night the only other tour group in our hotel, was a group from Vietnam.
Some of them were Vietnamese Buddhist monks in saffron robes.
At times, I feel bad about being so attached to comfort, cleanliness and luxury.
I feel that I should be able to shift my mind away from environment and to feel the happiness, light and love that I feel inside…..
Most of the time, I am successful at being content and happy regardless of my surroundings.
And I do have to admit that I rarely feel depressed because of my surroundings, but on the other hand, I DO feel expanded and happy in beautifully cared for, nicely designed and luxurious places… Go figure…