Bhutan is a Buddhist country where religion is taken seriously, one sees monasteries, temples, chortens, and prayer flags, across the country. The most ubiquitous of these are the chortens. Stone or earthen square structures, with proportions about twice as tall as wide, a sloped stone roof, the shape much like a cupola, as small as a dog house or large as a house. The structure is solid, with a relic or valuable object secreted somewhere in the base. Always white, with a rust red band running horizontally near the top. There are variations, subtle or extreme, in the design, but the overall look is such that new visitors are soon able to recognize a chorten notwithstanding the varying styles.
Biggest of all is the National Memorial Chorten in Bhutan’s small capital, Thimphu. Not a strict adherent to the traditional style, it’s 3 stories tall and not solid, the base houses a temple that can be entered and is home to altars and statues of the Buddha and other deities. This chorten is about 15 years old, centuries younger than most. It lacks the beauty and grace of many, and has a slightly gaudy look to it. My aesthetic critique aside, it is very heavily visited by Bhutanese. Elderly people spend much of the day there, circumnambulating in the proscribed clockwise direction, swinging prayer beads and holding prayer wheels they keep spinning with a motion of the wrist, each spin sending more prayers aloft. Others pay shorter visits to give thanks or pray for assistance or guidance. Talkative students tell us their visit is due to upcoming exams. Tourists visit as it’s a significant site, and while one may not fathom Buddhism, its impact on locals is touching and profound, and I am always compelled to offer my own silent prayers.
This visit I’m carrying photographs taken by Marianne, who accompanied me to Bhutan some months ago. At the chorten her group met a number of elderly women. We approached these women, who looked like transplants from the 17th century and asked for permission to photograph them. Elderly people typically dress in the traditional manner, women in ankle length skirts stitched from locally woven multicolored cloth. A tunic like top is fastened to the kira, with silver dollar size ornate brass or copper buttons and pins, which hold it in place. The resulting look is colorful yet restrained. These women were born long before the introduction of English as medium of education, so our requests were non-verbal, yet easily understood and granted. They enjoyed seeing the images of themselves, and indicated they wanted to be photographed with us. Dorji translated when our sign language failed, and we learned they come every day to pray. Devout as they may be, it was pretty clear there’s a good social component to their day. Marianne wanted to get them copies of the pictures, so Dorji suggested she give them to me to distribute upon my return.
I arrive with a handful of her photos. There are thousands of people at the chorten. Dorji hands the pictures to our driver Pema, and in Dzongkha tells him to locate these women. From Pema’s response, it’s pretty obvious he’s said something like, “you’ve got to be kidding.” We sightsee for 10 minutes, and find Pema still searching for the needle(s) in the proverbial haystack. The women are not where they sat 4 months ago, and I’m ready to conclude that we gave it our best and let it go. Moments later Dorji spies one of the women. We look from picture to person and all of us agree that it is she. He hands me the photo, and I approach her. For a split second she seems to register puzzlement. Then she sees her picture and a grin erupts over her face, followed by a torrent of words. I show her the other pictures, and within seconds we have a crowd of elderly people around us. The others in the pictures are present, and all of them are smiling, gesticulating and shouting (or what passes for shouting in Bhutan, where voices are never raised). While there’s a language barrier, we cannot miss their excitement. Dorji is fielding questions from the crowd, he says they are all asking for their photo, “where’s my picture, so many tourists take my picture, I want my picture.” He’s left explaining that one person took these photos and we have only these to distribute. As many do not hear he needs to repeat this numerous times. While disappointment might be expected, they all seem thrilled with the photos we have and the recipients pass them around for everyone else to see, and again language not needed to observe how much excitement and happiness the crowd shares.
While we might have made their day (very few Bhutanese seem to have actual photos of themselves), they’ve made a good part of our day, and it could only have been better had Marianne directly observed the delight her gesture provoked.