Tag Archives: Bumthang

Wild Strawberries ~ Arts of Happiness

It was very quiet just after the finish of the International Society of Ethnobiology’s 14th Congress. A lot of people left Bumthang for tours and treks, but by a curious twist of fate, I had a day without a plan.

Dog at Burning Lake


Flicking through my Lonely Planet Guide, I came across instructions for getting to a rock painting that was said to show Padmasambhava, better known in Bhutan as Guru Rimpoche. Around 750 (CE) he came to Bhutan and Tibet, battling demons, subduing and containing them, and directing their energy toward Buddhism. The entwined actions of earth, stone, water and mountains as they mingle with local guardians (ney) and, often, with the further engagement of Guru Rimpoche and other founding Buddhist figures, make for a rich, sensuous, varied, and expressive sacred geography.

Prayer wheels, Kyichu Lhakhang,one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Bhutan
Prayer wheels, Kyichu Lhakhang,one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Bhutan

To get to the site I would need both a vehicle and my own two feet. I decided to ask my host at the Gongkhar Guest House for some help. Would she, Deki, be able to organise a reliable taxi driver for me so that I could count on him waiting for me while I hiked off in search of the site? Her response was to borrow the book and go into the private rooms to consult with some of the others.

Deki returned to greet me with her beautiful, dignified smile. She and her sister would take me, she said. We would visit the site together, but we would need to leave straight away. Deki’s sister Dechen is the cook, and we would have to be back in time for her to get dinner prepared.

We drove to the place where we would leave the car, and we crossed the river on a suspension bridge. It swayed interestingly, but Deki and Dechen apparently decided it wasn’t lively enough so they jumped around to make it more fun! They, too, had not been to the site. This was going to be something fresh and enticing for all three of us.

Once across the river we had a brief but wonderfully pleasant walk in the valley while listening to the splashy rumbles of the river. It was a delight to be on level ground, for in the land of mountains every path is either an ascent or a descent and one’s visual perspective almost invariably is either a bird’s eye view from a precipitous cliff or a neck-straining gaze up into very high places.

Before long, though, we were following a snaky little path as it took us up a hill. The two local women moved effortlessly, but I did not. So we stopped and rested a couple of times, and we talked. We talked about families, languages, life histories, food, beauty, and cultural differences. I learned that Deki is a woman of many accomplishments. Before she became a businesswoman she was a nurse at the local hospital. She did her nurse training in Switzerland, and is proficient in German as well as English, and of course in the district dialect Bumthangkha, the national language Dzongkha, and Tibetan.

Debbie and Deki
Debbie and Deki

As we walked Deki noticed wild strawberries, and so we ate. We ate and walked in perfectly lovely country, and the blessings of life flowed around us in sunshine, breeze, river splashings, tall trees, and the bright vision of red berries tucked amongst varied shrubs including artemisia, the aromatic herb that is used in Bhutanese hot stone baths.

The rock painting was a great surprise – bright, fresh, lively and detailed! There he was, Guru Rimpoche in the form of Dorje Drolö, riding the flying tigress who brought him to Bhutan to wrestle with demons. The tigress is his ‘consort’ in a metamorphosed form: the great Yeshe Tsogyul, a Buddhist master in her own right and sometimes known as the mother of Tibetan Buddhism.

Rock Painting
Rock Painting, Guru Rimpoche & Yeshe Tsogyul

The stories are full of metamorphoses, transformations, and manifestations. Nothing in the world of material reality is fixed, but in the Buddhism of this region place is a point of holding, while form and time seem incredibly mutable.

Sitting at the base of the painting, straining my neck to look up at it, and trying not to take too much notice of the steep fall below me, my practical imagination took over. In the presence of all this shape-shifting, I began to think what a thrill it would be to turn into a flying tiger and avoid having to hike down along the narrow, twisty little path to the valley floor.

Actually, though, I was totally happy. I didn’t really want to be a flying tigress, or even a bird. I was remembering, almost as if the memories had been stored in my cells, the irreplaceable pleasures of walking in the bush with women. The pleasures of gathering food, eating, chatting, taking life as it is offered, and sharing the moments without demands or requirements.

Detzen and Debbie
Dechen and Debbie

Walking in such abundance brought a new dimension to the fact that ‘Green Tara’, one of numerous manifestations of the female Buddha, is very popular in Bhutan. I had seen her statue in many of the temples, and had learned to recognise her signature features: a vine twining around one arm, flowers surrounding her, and the other arm held out open-handed in a gesture of giving. The statues were beautifully serene, and yet in their perfection they seemed remote.

Green Tara, OlivIreland (CC)
Green Tara, OlivIreland (CC)

Here on the hillside, amongst wild strawberries and women who belong in this place, Green Tara came into liveliness.

My cherished memories include the painting, the twisty path, the valley floor, the sharp sweetness of wild berries, artemisia’s captivating smell, and most of all the glow of life’s beauty when women walk, chat, gather, eat, and share the limitless pleasures of sun, water, wild food, and the sacred.

Much later I learned that western experts at econometrics have been helping Bhutan to develop methods to quantify their gross national happiness more effectively.

Somehow, I suspect that the deeply satisfying pleasures of walking amidst wild strawberries will never figure in their models. I hope that is the case. I want to go on walking in the bush with women, gathering, eating, sharing and laughing, and I hope never to have to justify or account for it, or tick a box to show that I’ve done it.

Happiness doesn’t need robust statistics. It may be, though, that for happiness to flow through us, we human beings need to be aware of manifestations and metamorphoses of the sacred – goddesses and gods, teachers and demons, rivers and mountains, ancestors and histories. We need them because life has its own power and story; it comes to meet us place by place as we walk in the world alive to ourselves – alive as creatures attentive to, and participating in, the generosity that surround us.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript: Later, Deki and Dechen took me to meet Dechen’s mother (Deki’s father’s second wife). The family spoke Tibetan at home because their origins were on that side of the border. Dechen and her mother are both great cooks. They gave me the best momo ever, plump and mellow with a crimson-red chilli sauce for dipping.

Jakar is the main town in the area known as Bumthang. The Gongkhar Guest House is a short walk from town and is a perfect place to stay: friendly, family-owned, excellent food, clean, comfortable and attractive. If you want to take a meal in town, Deki’s Restaurant and Bar has fabulous momos.

Resources: The information I have shared here comes from conference presentations, local guides, the Lonely Planet Guide, various websites, and my own general knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism.

Ursula Le Guin offers a wonderful account of the pleasures for women of walking/working together, in her essay ‘The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction’, published in  Dancing at the Edge of the World.

I have written an essay on these pleasures drawing on my long-term research with Australian Aboriginal people (access here).



Peaceable Dogs in the Kingdom of Happiness

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.

Pele La (pass)
Pele La (pass)

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.

DSC02636AA (2)

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.

patrolling the periphery
patrolling the periphery

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