Monday, June 26, 2017

A memorable visit to Bhutan- the land of dragons Part-III

Tashi- the friendly guide
Tashi Wangdi (Blessed with happiness) was the affable tourist guide who was with us from the time he received us at the Paro airport to the time he saw us off at the airport six days later. At 34, he represents the typical youth of Bhutan with big aspirations. During the course of the five days he was with us I tried to probe him about his life and he was more than willing to oblige. Here is his story:

Tashi was born in Punakha, old capital of Bhutan, where his father was a small time businessman. After doing his schooling in Bhutan, he moved to Darjeeling to get a BBA degree. At Darjeeling not only did he learn to speak fluent English but also a smattering of Nepalese. While in school he was so naughty & mischievous that his father had written him off as a `no good fellow` and would not give him any pocket money. As an enterprising young fellow Tashi decided to try his hand at being a part time Tourist Guide, which not only helped him earn his pocket money but also made him learn more about his country. He thoroughly enjoyed his part time job because he loved meeting & talking to people. This helped when his father passed away when he was in college and he not only had to look after his own college education but also help his mother supplement her income from a small shop she was running and  support his younger brother to complete his studies. 

After his graduation, when he returned home his mother insisted that he take up a government job because it would ensure security and continuity. With her contacts she helped him get a job in a government department. Within two weeks into the job he realized that he was not cut out for a desk job with fixed hours. Much to his mother`s disappointment he quit the job and after undergoing an intensive training course as a Tourist Guide he became a full time Guide. His deep knowledge of his country and his ability to answer any questions posed by tourists and his excellent command of English helped him become a popular guide within no time ensuring a decent income from his new career.When I asked him if he read a lot, he laughed and said, `the only books I read are the comics. But I am a keen listener & observer` 

While continuing as a guide, he started a night club in Thimphu, the capital city in partnership with a friend. He gave up the business when he found he could not devote enough time to it.

While young men in Bhutan marry when they are around 30, he was married to his sweet heart from school days when he was only 24 and the couple today have three boys ranging from 11 months to 8 years. Like all the boys in Bhutan, after marriage, he moved to his wife`s home on the outskirts of Thimphu. It is an independent cottage with a small garden with a couple of bedrooms which he shares with his father in law, mother in law and his brother in law`s family. His father in law is a successful cinematographer. No wonder his wife also got trained in a film institute in Delhi and is a successful documentary producer. The family lives a comfortable life with the joint income of all the family members. 

His brother is currently working in Australia with whom his mother lives. Though he also had opportunities to go abroad and earn in dollars, he decided to stay put in Bhutan because he loves his country and would love to make it big in his own country. One of his dreams is to start his own travel agency which will have some specialization like offering a variety of water sports.

Commenting on democracy in Bhutan and how it has helped people, he gave his trade mark smile and said,` Under the King we paid less taxes. We now pay more taxes. In the name of development the government is collecting more money from people but we are not complaining. Incidentally our government does not like open protests of any kind`

Bhutan is boasting of a high Gross National Happiness. When I asked him if it means that everyone is happy in Bhutan, his answer was illuminating, `Happiness is a state of mind which varies from person to person. However the overall happiness can be judged only by Good Governance, clean environment, good health etc. I do believe that overall people in Bhutan are happy people, whatever economic strata they belong to`
Tashi himself came across as a happy fellow doing a job he is passionate about, earning a good income, with a loving family, living in a decent place and generally contended with his life. As a parting shot he told me; ` Someday I would like to get into politics and serve my country`.

At the airport when we were bidding him good bye  I thanked him for all the time he spent with me answering all my questions without losing his patience. I told him that I hoped to see him as a Minister in his government in the future.  He gave me a big hug and thanked me for the blessings.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Difficult Choice- a collection of short stories

I am happy to inform you that my book of short stories titled `A Difficult Choice` is now available on Amazon. With the publication of this book- my sixth in eight years - I have covered five genres of books: An autobiography; An industry based book on my experiences as a Rural Marketing Specialist; A collection of my essays on a variety of topics; An institutional history of 41 Clubs of India ( an association of ex-tablers) and now a book of short stories.The only genre remaining in my target list is a `Novel`. Hope God gives me enough time in this world to fulfill my dream of writing a Novel. At
75 it might look like an over ambitious dream but I am going to give it a good try.

Priced at Rs.199/-only, the book has a Forword by the legendary Novelist and Playwright and a Sahithya Academy Award winner Shri Indira Parthasarathy.  The proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards the activities of Prabha Rajan Talent Foundation

You can order your copies at :

Look forward to your support and feedback on my book .

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A memorable visit to Bhutan- the land of dragons ( Part-2)

More about Bhutan
Bhutan is a tiny and remote kingdom nestling in the Himalayas between its powerful neighbours, India and China. The Bhutanese name for Bhutan, Druk Yul, means "Land of the Thunder Dragon". The Wangchuck hereditary monarchy has wielded power since 1907. Bhuddhism is the major religion of the country which also has a small percentage of Hindus and Christians but no Muslims!

Bhutan is known mainly for its monasteries, fortresses (or dzongs) and dramatic landscapes that range from subtropical plains to steep mountains and valleys. In the High Himalayas, peaks such as 7,326m Jomolhari are popular trekking destinations. Paro Taktsang monastery (also known as Tiger’s Nest), currently the most popular tourist spot.
For years, the country cut itself off, fearing that outside influences would undermine its monarchy and culture. The third monarch changed all that in 1970. Radio broadcasting began only in 1973 and the television and internet arrived only in 1999.
The term "Gross National Happiness" was famously coined by the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Sing Wangchuck, in the early 1970s. The four GNH pillars  are: economic self reliance, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and promotion and good governance. GNH is distinguishable by collective happiness as the goal of governance.
The current ruler of Bhutan is the 38 year old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck who succeeded in December 2006 as the fifth monarch of the dynasty, was responsible for introducing democracy in Bhutan in 2008.
The official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha but most people are fluent in English. Most of the youngsters speaking fluent Hindi- result of watching Hindi movies and serials on television. Social and educational opportunities are not affected by rank or birth. Bhutanese women enjoy equal rights in every respect.
With help from Indian Engineers Bhutan had constructed big dams on its perennial rivers which generate Hydro power. Today export of power to India is a major source of income for Bhutan followed by Tourism.  Maintaining clean environment is an obsession with the government.
Education is free till secondary school level. Government supports bright students with scholarships with the strict proviso that they have to come back and serve the country.
Medical facilities are free for the people of Bhutan. There is a big government run hospital in Thimphu. District level hospitals serve the people from small towns and villages. Tourists from India are offered free medical facilities, if required.
Most of the marriages are love marriages. There is no dowry system. After the marriage the bridegroom is expected to move into his In law`s house to live with his wife`s family. Joint family system is still in vogue.
Rice is a staple food for the Bhutanese. It can be white, sticky or brown. They have rice as a part of breakfast, lunch and dinner with the side dishes depending upon the time of the meal. Local noodles and Momos are also popular dishes. By and large the Bhutanese are non vegetarians.  Being Buddhists they don't kill animals.  All meat including fish is imported from India. But they eat very pungent food.
Bhutan is also well known for its Rice Wine which is called ARA and a Butter Tea called SUJA made of Tea, hot water, butter and salt instead of sugar. There is no prohibition in Bhutan.
While Archery is the national sport , youngsters also indulge in their love for cricket, foot ball and volley ball..
Thimphu the new capital houses all important business establishments. The city is dotted with multi-storied apartments. The traffic is moderate. The cars we saw were either SUVs or small cars. There were very few Sedans seen on the streets of   Thimphu. You hardly see any policemen or security personnel. No visible signs of poverty anywhere. There are few night clubs operating over the weekends where the youngsters come and unwind. Crime rate in Bhutan is very low- so far!
.To keep the traditional culture alive the Bhutanese wear their traditional clothing that has been worn for centuries. Bhutanese men wear a GHO a long robe tied around the waist by a small belt called Khera. A woman`s knee length dress is called KIRA. Throughout our stay in Bhutan I did not find any Bhutanese wearing modern clothes. The youngsters swear by their culture and tradition and they were generally happy and a contented lot. However thanks to growing popularity of social media and consequent growing aspirations some of them did say that they were looking for a better future and hoped that the government will help them in the process.
Though Bhutan currently is a sparsely populated country where we are able to breathe pure air and move around without any stress or tensions, will commercial considerations resulting out of growing tourism keep the country pristine in the future is a question.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A memorable visit to Bhutan- the land of dragons ( Part-1)

Fortresses, Monasteries & Captivating Scenaries

One of my dreams came true last month when I visited Bhutan that boasts of a high Gross National Happiness.  We were a group of 11 school mates.Though I had initiated the idea I almost did not make it because  my  air ticket from Calcutta to Paro in Bhutan was not confirmed by the travel agent, though others in the group had confirmed tickets. When I had almost given up hope he  managed to get me  a Business Class ticket,  just the evening before the departure date and I was off  on my dream trip with my group
On day one of our arrival at the beautiful Paro International airport we were met by our guide `Tashi`-a knowledgeable, friendly and articulate young man. The first impression of Bhutan is the peace and tranquility that you experience when you come out of the Paro airport and weather only adds to the ethereal experience. Unlike my experiences of visiting Himalayas on pilgrimages to Badrinath or Mukthinath, when I felt a fear of the unknown dogging me all through, the visit to Bhutan was a very pleasant and relaxing experience.
The guide` told us that we would be visiting a few interesting places before reaching Thimphu, the capital city. Our first halt was at the National Museum located in the watch tower (Ta Dzong) of Paro Dzong. On display were many artifacts used by the Bhutanese over the years.
After the Museum we were taken to Paro Rinpung Dzong a fortress built by the founding father of Bhutan, S N Namgyel, in 1646. The fortress houses the administrative seat of the district Paro and the district Monk body with about 200 monks. The central tower of the fortress is one of the most beautiful in Bhutan known for its excellent wood work.
The winding road to Thimpu following the famous Paro River offers some breath-taking scenery. We also stopped at Tamchhog Lhakang, a private temple for Buddha owned by the residents of the famous Tibetan bridge builder Thongten Gyalop.
At Thimphu our first visit was to see  the impressive Trashichoe Dzong. This massive Fortress located close to the Bhutanese Parliament and the Palace of the King (closed to public) houses part of the government ministries, office of the King and the Throne Room. A part of the fortress also houses the State monastic body, the office and the living quarters of the Chief Abbot. Since it was late evening, the beautifully illuminated exterior of the fortress was like a scene from a dream world.
On the second day, post breakfast, we visited Kuenselphordang to see the 169 ft high sitting Golden  Buddha statue weighing  40 tons.  It was made in China and imported in several parts which were assembled together at the site. This imposing statue built a decade ago has become the new tourist attraction in Thimphu.
Next was an Institute offering training in Bhutanese arts and crafts. With the slogan `Get skilled. Be somebody`, the Institute teaches tailoring, painting, carpentry, silver smithy and sculpturing.
This was followed by a visit to the local Zoo to see the national animal of Bhutan -Takin. A local legend talks about how the Bhutanese national animal was created from the remains of a lunch eaten by the Divine Madman. He combined the skeletons of a cow and goat and brought them back to life with a loud belch; the animal came to be known as Takin. This Divine Madman called LAM DRUKPA KINLEY was a Buddhist saint who lived in 15th Century Bhutan. He claimed to have powers to drive away evil spirits and also bless childless couples with children. He is worshipped even today as a `Divine Madman`. His symbol is a `Phallus`. Like the `Lingam` is the symbol of Lord Shiva. There were large size `Phalluses` on display at the `Simply Bhutan` pavilion we visited next. Simply Bhutan` is an  attempt  to transplant a typical village home at the pavilion portraying ancient Bhutanese architecture and displaying age old life styles of the Bhutanese people.
It is in this venue that we also saw in action 35 years old Pema Tshering, a cerebral Palsy person without hands, creating beautiful paintings using his feet. Scores of his paintings were on sale in the shop where he was creating his master pieces! It seems he has also won medals in Archery competitions for disabled; a very inspiring story. The second day ended with a visit to the Memorial Chorten, a tall stupa built in memory of the third King of Bhutan, located in the heart of the city.
On third day morning we were off to Punakha, the old capital city, driving through Dochu La, a 3140 meters high street pass.  This location is also the venue of a collection of 108 miniature chortens (stupas) built in 2005.  These  stupas were  built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in thwarting an incursion by Bodos who were trying to occupy some of Bhutan's territories. Later we visited ChimiLhakang, a temple founded by the `Divine Madman` and built in 1499.
Another place on the way to Punakha was Punakha Dzong (Fortress) that lies between the two rivers known as Pochu & Mochu or ` Male River & Female River`. Built by the founding father of Bhutan, Punakha today is the winter residence of the central monk body and holds the famous relic known as `RajungKhasarpani`, where there is informative display of paintings depicting the life story of Sakayamuni Buddha.
Next morning we were on our way to visit KHAMSUM YULLEYNAMGYAL CHORTEN (Stupa).To reach this four storey temple we had to cross a suspension bridge and walk through rice fields before we started climbing a moderately inclined trail surrounded by Pine trees. This temple stands majestically on a strategic ridge over the Punakha valley. In building this temple, considered a splendid example of Bhutanese architectural and artistic traditions the Bhutanese craftsmen consulted holy scriptures rather than engineering manuals! Built by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, the temple is dedicated to the well being of the Kingdom and its people. We proceeded to Paro, a three hour drive, very close to the Paro Airport.
On the  fifth day in Bhutan, we were originally scheduled to visit `The Tiger`s Nest`-referring to the gravity defying cluster of buildings housing the historical Takshang Monastery, perched on a rocky ledge with a sheer drop of nearly 800ft. Built in 1692, around the Taktshang Samdup cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months in the 8th century and introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. In view of our group`s ( all septuagenerians) reluctance to take the risk involved in the steep climb to reach the venue, the Guide took us to a point on the road from where we could have long distance view of the` Tigers Nest` seen as three white dots on top of the mountain. We used the free time available to go to `Chelela` the highest point on Dantak Road located at an altitude of over 12,000 ft.. We returned to Paro city centre and visited the oldest Buddhist temple located in the heart of the city.
Though Bhutan is famous for its pungent food, because of the prior arrangements made by the guide, we were offered specially cooked meals  with less chilly in all the restaurants we visited.The icing on the cake for our group was the availability of a cup of curd with every meal. What more does a Tambrahm group need  -  getting `Thayir Sadam` with every meal, in Bhutan!
The official tour ended with all of us shopping for curios in memory of our visit to `Beautiful Bhutan`
Some useful tips for the tourists:
Indians don`t need Visas but have to carry a valid Passport which is checked at the Airport by Immigration & Customs officials in Bhutan.
Indian Rupees are accepted in Bhutan at par value. You can carry only up to Rs. 25,000 in cash.  This rule is not strictly enforced. All credit cards are accepted. Limited number of ATMs is also found.
Not allowed to take photos inside any of the Buddhist temples.
Druk Airways & Bhutan Airlines are the only two airlines operating in and out of Paro International Airport.
March-June and September-December are the best time to visit Bhutan. Good to carry an umbrella as sudden rains are common even during peak seasons!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Eternal Optimist

      In my early days in the advertising business I had a boss who was known as a `No Problem` man. Though he had problems galore in life , he would go around telling any one who came up to him with any issues, “ No Problem – it can be fixed`.  A man with a very positive outlook in life, he would often land himself in messy situations because he was terribly disorganised
I remember an incident. He was hardly a week into his job with my agency as the new Branch Manager. He was getting several invitations for dinners from the media representatives and friends to celebrate his new job. One evening he found himself having accepted five dinner invitations. When confronted with the reality his response was typical of him- `No Problem .. I will have a drink each in four of the five homes and end up for dinner at the fifth friend`s home`. This was in Mumbai where Parties always start late at  night and end in the wee hours of the next morning. This attitude helped him survive the high pressure advertising business with all its uncertainties and  problems!

While he represents a category of  people with positive attitude, this piece is about  genuine optimists. I believe I am one of them. An incident in my life involving my Sindhi Sardar friend `B` in Mumbai several decades ago converted me into an eternal optimist. B had bought  a second hand car without even knowing how to drive. He rode a two wheeler those days. On the day he bought his car, he forced me to drive his car to his home in Khar. Though I had a license I did not have enough experience of driving a car and that too in the night.

Next morning, I was shocked to find B at my home with a sheepish grin. “Rajan, you are going to teach me driving yaar!” I screamed, “Are you mad? In this rain you want me to teach? I could do with some practice myself!” He literally dragged me out of the house. With great reluctance, I decided to take the car in the pouring rain to Carter Road in Bandra which used to be fairly empty in the mornings. After the initial briefings about the clutch & gear, B took to the wheel and soon got on to the fourth gear. The car picked up speed and suddenly, in the pouring rain, it started skidding. As a novice myself, instead of asking him to slow down by changing gears, I shouted for him to apply the brakes, which he promptly did. The car took several spins and stopped after hitting a parapet wall.

Due to the impact, my head hit the wind shield and I passed out! When I came back to my senses, I found my head throbbing with pain with a bleeding gash on my forehead. I was staring at the face of B, who was
telling me “Rajan, everything happens for the good, yaar”. I was livid! Here I was with a bleeding injury while nothing had happened to the Sardar, thanks to the cloth pagdi (turban) that he was wearing.

He explained, “Imagine, if this had happened on Link Road, not only would we be in trouble, we could have knocked off a few other cars and people as well!” What logic! Though I was very upset, B taught me
an important lesson in life. Always look at the positive side of every experience and you will find life interesting!

This article has appeared in Adyar Times issue dt.4-10th June,2017 under my column `Rajan`s Random Reflections`