In advance of my recent journey through Bhutan, in all the imagining of exploring the spirituality, culture, landscape, and connecting to the people, one of the great attractions I strongly felt in preparing for this journey was the stunning imagery I had studied of Bhutanese architecture.
I’ve been on a longer journey all over the world, always seeking to learn more about the spirit of buildings, and how they represent the vision, dreams, and imagination of the cultures that create and use them.
I was not disappointed. I was captivated, mesmerized, my eyes tried to soak in the perfect proportions, the graceful angled walls, the gently sloping, dramatically extended eaves floating overhead, the earthen and stone and solid massing and textures, the deep scents of wood, earth and smoke, the beams of light streaming through gracefully carved windows, the perfectly orchestrated rhythm and layering of fenestration, framed in stunningly intricate trimmings and woodcarvings, and the rich and effusively colored layers of decorative patterns and endlessly detailed artwork and paintings on walls, columns, eaves, doorways, friezes, the rich heavy timbered, polished and leaf-dyed floors – where I spent much time prostrating to the deities and relics held within.
There were many indescribably deep experiences, in this country full of richness – this land focused on holding on to its prized conception of gross national happiness.
Cliff-hung meditation huts, monasteries, nunneries, pristine rock filled riverbeds, endless tree-covered ridges, full with an amazing array of trees, plants, animals, insects, roadside water-wheels and mills, fluttering prayer flags casting hopes in the wind, terraced hillsides green with diverse crops, simple farm houses seemingly growing out of the earth.
So many wonderful connections with honest, open, warm and welcoming people – professionals, villagers, farmers, nuns, monks, lamas, schoolchildren.
The family who invited us to join their annual breakfast ritual at Taktshang, as we were the first visitors of that auspicious day, the Lama Kunzang Dorjee and his story about the animals who appeared to him in need of rescue.
The tireless, caring, articulate ministrations of our guide Tsewang Nidup, and the final coincidental flight delay which allowed us to receive a blessing from H.H. Je Khenpo.
Still, to me, the architecture captures the spirit of Bhutan with the most powerful and permanent impact.
It has stood over generations, holds the treasures and contains the rituals of the people and their spirituality, represents the highest expression of culture in arts and crafts, embodies the energy of the collective culture, through time.
As I walked in awe of the highest level Dzong structures and the most well-cared for temples, I was also captivated by the simplest of structures woven from bamboo, to the earthen ruins or slowly dissolving farm houses which become part of the landscape.
I remember the boiling pots over the kitchen firebox, the soft warmth of polished wood-timber floors, sliding window shutters opening to pastoral views of farmland and green hillsides. Bhutanese architecture embodies the spirit of the people – that is a unique and valuable asset to treasure and celebrate.
In my work around the world and in developing countries I’ve seen the other future – of drive to modernization unmanaged, the extinguishing of the heart and spirit of the people and their relationship to their land, their environment, their collective culture. The modernization of Bhutan will require more time and care in designing and building new structures, or renovate existing ones, in creating infrastructure – time and energy invested to insure the future of Bhutan is truly happy, and remains truly Bhutan.