The plane swooped into Paro like a bird on a thermal. We followed the valleys, banking and turning, coming lower and lower. Between mountains and cliffs, alongside high-altitude fields and forests, past temples and prayer flags. A road came into view along the valley floor, beetling with trucks and cars, and then there was the fortress. At the last minute the runway appeared, and we were landing. We waited for the royalty on our flight to descend, and then it was our turn to put our feet on the ground, breathe the thin air, and take in the fact that we were now in Bhutan.
A banner in front of the airport welcomed us. We were participants in the Fourteenth Congress of the International Society for Ethnobiology, and we were welcomed again and again. At strategic sites along the roads we travelled, more banners announced our presence and our welcome.
During the coming weeks I will have more to share from my precious trip, but I decided to start with a short report on two of my favourite topics: dogs and happiness.
Bhutan is famous throughout the world for its commitment to ‘Gross National Happiness’.
The term makes a pointed reference to GNP or ‘gross national product’, defined as ‘the market value of all the products and services produced in one year by labor and property supplied by the citizens of a country’. Bhutan’s emphasis on happiness aims to hold economic growth within a philosophy of relational values that include spheres of the inter-human and the nonhuman.
According to one account I read, happiness in this context starts with basic freedoms – from fear, indignities and want. Beyond the basics, happiness becomes more nuanced. It includes love of life and consideration of others, and is a way of living rather than a state of being. We had the privilege of listening to the great monk Khenpa Phutsok Tashi who wanted us to understand the connections between wisdom and nature. In his words, ecological diversity and resilience are part of happiness because of the interweaving of human minds and the natural world.
Contentment surely contributes to happiness, and the dogs of Bhutan excel in the arts of peaceable living.
For the first few days in Paro we stayed at the Tashi Namgay Resort hotel. The dogs there, both residents and visitors, had their favourite places – grassy havens in the sun, and corners where they could curl up and be protected by walls.
Down in the town of Paro, the dogs were perfecting their relaxation techniques. They stretched themselves out on sidewalks and at the edges of the street. Very few were tied or chained, although some clearly had their special places in homes and businesses. Apparently they were being fed, for these were not sad and sickly creatures, but rather for the most part were handsome, well fed, and protected.
Up at the Dzong (temple /fortress/district administrative centre) the dogs patrolled the exterior and, from time to time, wandered into the premises.
Paro may have been a special case of contentment. In Bumthang, far to the east in the centre of the country, our volunteer guide Kinga told us that we should be a bit wary of the dogs. Some of them were not happy, he told us, and in fact were actually angry. This was owing to a policy of castrating the males in an effort to keep the population in check. In spite of the policy, reproduction was still happening, and it was delightful to see puppies in numerous neighbourhoods.
Sacred sites in Bhutan include many, many natural areas. The Bhutanese concept of ‘sacred natural site’ speaks directly to the conjunction of nature and culture in places of significance that are ‘natural’ in origin. ‘Burning Lake’ is one such site. It includes a gorge with an area where the river widens out in the manner of a small lake. The main story of its significance is that Terton Pema Lingpa, a 15th century incarnation of Padmasambhava, had a vision of the sacred treasures that Guru Rimpoche had hidden within the lake centuries earlier. To prove his claims, Pema Lingpa held a butter lamp in his hand as he jumped into the lake. He re-emerged carrying treasure, and with the butter lamp still burning.
The dogs were very much at home here. A travelling sage named Guru Baza was living somewhere in the vicinity of this site, and he told us that in the stone of the area there is the footprint of a black dog. The black dog who was in residence at the time was happily sporting a neckerchief made of a prayer flag.
From a perspective formed in dog-human relations, happiness in Bhutan is an interspecies project. Nevertheless, not all creatures are thriving. Bhutan is home to about fifteen endangered species, including charismatic creatures such as takin, Himalayan black bear, clouded leopard, musk deer, tiger, and red panda. One endangered species is the Indian wild dog, also known as dhole (Cuon alpinus). Its life in Bhutan may be as tenuous as elsewhere in its precarious range. According to the IUCN website, ‘In Bhutan, there have been recent press reports that dholes have recovered from a government-initiated mass poisoning campaign in the 1970s’.
A recent study explains that the poisoning was an attempt to protect livestock from dhole predation. With the dhole population drastically reduced, the wild pig population soared, and damage to crops rose accordingly. Now that dhole populations are recovering, pig populations are reduced, and thus crop damage is reduced. Current conservation initiatives emphasise co-existence rather than killing, and it seems hopeful that that the days of poisoning are well and truly finished.
To return to the more familiar dogs of streets, homes, temples and farms, I should note that most of my photos are of dogs at rest: conference dogs, hotel dogs, road works dogs, restaurant dogs, sacred mountain dogs, and dogs that hung out with ravens on the grounds of temples where they were regularly fed. This is a bit unfair. Out in the countryside the dogs were vigilant, and we saw many working dogs. And in general, whatever humans were doing, dogs were there too.
I should also note that along with a life free from persecution, dogs in Bhutan experience another great boon. In this country, as elsewhere in the region, cannabis grows wild.
Happiness has many dimensions. It circulates amongst selves, sites and species, and there are rough edges, as the dhole experience shows. At the same time, happiness in the Bhutanese mode has the capacity to expand the goodness of life through the gifts of shared sentience and consideration.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
A wonderful novel about a dog’s life in Bhutan is: Dawa, The Story of a Stray Dog in Bhutan, by Kunzang Choden, published by Riyang Books.
Information on how happiness is currently being conceptualised comes from Bhutan: The Mosaic of the Dragon, published by the Bhutan Media Services.
GNP quote is from Wikipedia
IUCN information on Dhole: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/5953/0
Recent dhole study: ‘Seasonal diet of dholes (Cuon alpinus) in northwestern Bhutan’, Mammalian Biology – Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde, Volume 76, Issue 4, Pages 518-520; Phuntsho Thinley, Jan F. Kamler, Sonam W. Wang, Kinzang Lham, Ute Stenkewitz, David W. Macdonald