After the wonderful surprise visit to the colorful Dromchoe Festival and Buddha Point during our first day in Thimphu, our guide once again thrilled us with another unexpected treat before the day was over – an archery competition! Archery is Bhutan’s national sport and passion. We were really wishing to see a match as we read that it is a great way to witness the fun-loving nature of the Bhutanese.
It was indeed entertaining and impressive to watch. We couldn’t help but be amazed by the precision in which the players hit the target. A player has to shoot the arrow from an immense distance – 140 meters/460 feet away from this tiny target! Not an easy feat!
And here comes the entertaining part. Each time a player hits the target, his teammates perform a victory dance and a song of praise for him. And since the target was hit regularly, dancing and singing came often. Hence, the more the hits the longer the match. (We learned it could sometimes last all day long.)
The National Memorial Chorten
We started our Day 2 in Thimphu with a visit to the National Memorial Chorten, consecrated in 1974 as a memorial for the third King of Bhutan. It reminded me of the chortens in Tibet. Chorten literally means “seat of faith” and Buddhists often refer them as the “mind of the Buddha.”
A chorten normally contains sacred relics but this one does not. However, it houses elaborate religious paintings and complex tantric statues depicting Buddhist philosophy.
We observed many elderly locals circumambulating the chorten while spinning their prayer wheels. We learned that it was part of their daily ritual. Our guide encouraged us to join them and to do three rounds. We did and it was touching to see and feel the spiritual devotion of those who were walking around the chorten with us.
A man spinning a series of giant prayer wheels in the compound of the Memorial Chorten. The prayer wheels contain scrolls inscribed with mantras. Tibetan Buddhists believe that spinning a prayer wheel is just as effective as reciting the mantra orally.
Bhutan seems to be associated with monks, but they have nuns, too! We visited the largest nunnery in Bhutan, although it didn’t really look that big if you compare it to monasteries that house the monks. We saw nuns going about their daily chores. We also saw them inside a modest temple where they were chanting prayers with deep devotion.
National Institure of Zurig Chuzum (“The Painting School”)
Bhutanese treasure their traditional arts and deem it important to preserve them as part of their cultural and religious heritage, thus, this art school was established. Although commonly known as “The Painting School,” the institute also provides training for other traditional Bhutanese arts such as clay sculpting, embroidery, woodcarving, mask making, and Thangka painting. We visited the school and witnessed the students at work.
Bhutanese arts are deeply rooted to their Buddhist tradition and their arts typically depict religious images and symbols.
A woodcarving class
Other Trades and Crafts
Traditional handmade papers are still produced and widely used in Bhutan. We visited Junghi Paper Factory where we witnessed the process of producing handmade papers using Daphne plants. The handmade papers are used for religious manuscripts, envelopes, lampshades, packaging, shopping bags and are also exported to Japan.
Institute of Traditional Medicine
Bhutan offers free health care to its citizens. Although the government has established modern hospitals and clinics, traditional medicines is still very much sought by the locals.
In fact, the government also established the Institute of Traditional Medicine in cooperation with the World Health Organization not only to provide traditional treatment but also to develop and promote Bhutanese herbal medicine. We visited the museum in the institute where we learned about the richness of Bhutan’s medicinal herbs.
The National Library
The library was established in 1967 to preserve ancient Bhutanese and Tibetan texts as well as historical books and manuscripts.
Right: The library also housed a copy of the largest book in the world. It is a picture book titled “Bhutan.” It weighs 150 lbs and measures 5×7 feet. You can have a copy for a donation of US$15,000! It was published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with seed funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The proceeds go into a scholarship fund to send Bhutanese students to college abroad. To learn more, click here.
Our first two days in Bhutan gave us a great introduction to the richness of the country’s cultural and religious tradition and preservation. We looked forward to witness and experience more of the Bhutanese way of life as we headed to the countryside.