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Five generations of Bhutanese women

Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness

Clouds over Pazhi Lhakhang, 2001, © John Wehrheim
Text and Images, John Weirheim

By special permission to Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions

Bhutan Himalaya is proud to feature these iconic images of our native landscape, taken by our friend the award-winning photographer, artist and documentary filmmaker, John Wehrheim, accompanied by excerpted text from his highly-atmospheric book Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness.

 John captures the personal stories and the stirring landscapes of his Hawaiian home and the Bhutan Himalaya where he has traveled extensively, two Edenic, some would say endangered, places that have left an imprint on his heart and his spectacular art. In an age of throwaway images, his portraits linger in the mind long after you’ve seen them, elevating the essential dignity of his subjects. John has worked for the Sierra Club Bulletin, National Geographic and Time-Life Books. More recently his work has been published by Smithsonian, Honolulu Magazine, Huffington Post, London Daily Mail, Slate, Buzz Feed, Trip, The Sun, and First To Know, and featured in the 50th Anniversary Issue of The Surfer’s Journal.

Mother and children, Lubcha, Laya, 1994 © John Wehrheim

Mother & Children, Laya

A caterpillar with a thin mushroom growing between its eyes, the strange and rare yartsa goenbub, has become the main source of cash for most Laya people. Traditional oriental herbalists believe yartsa goenbub (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) prolongs life, acting as a powerful aphrodisiac and general panacea. With China’s new prosperity, the demand and price for yartsa goenbub have skyrocketed. The Chinese use farm implements and tractors to turn the soil and harvest yartsa goenbub; Bhutanese use their hands, as well as the sharp eyes and tiny fingers of their children, and do it without destroying their pastures.

Profile of woman in snow, Laya Bhutan
Sonam Drugyel lets loose his arrow, Tashi Thongmen Dzong, Bhutan
Children at a school in Laya, Bhutan © John Wehrheim
Sonam Drugyel lets loose his arrow, Tashi Thongmen Dzong, 2004, © John Wehrheim

Divine Archer 

Sonam Drugyel wears his traditional gho with contemporary boots while competing in an age-old archery contest with a high-tech compound bow. Playing in a field next to a 17th Century Dzong, Sonam symbolizes Bhutan's blend of the ancient with the present. When the 15th-century Master of Truth, Lord of Beings, Drukpa Kinley was staying at Lady Semzangmo’s house in the Tibetan province of Yamdrok, he had a dream. Early the next morning, he strung his bow and loosed a wailing arrow into the southern sky. “Fly southwards to benefit all beings and the Tradition,” he intoned, “and land at the house of a blessed, heaven-favored girl.”

Laya School, 2005, © John Wehrheim

Highland Education

The end of theocracy and the establishment of monarchy in 1907 began a gradual shift from monastic to secular education. The Royal family and nobility started the trend by sending their sons and daughters to private missionary schools in Kalimpong and Darjeeling. Then the Royal Government followed during the reign of the 3rd King, providing scholarships for particularly talented students to train as teachers, administrators, engineers, forest officers, and doctors. Bhutan provides eleven years of free schooling: one year of pre-primary school, six years of primary, two years of junior high and two years of high school. Many Bhutanese study abroad in English speaking countries. The vast majority of these Bhutanese students return to their homeland.

Planting rice in Lobesa, 2005 © John Wehrheim

Planting Rice

In 2013, Bhutan announced it would be the world's first country to go one-hundred percent organic and started a qualification program supported by Organics International. Because the traditional cultural practices of Bhutan’s isolated communities have remained unchanged for centuries, the country is a treasure house of biodiversity with over six-hundred unique cultivars, landraces and wild species of rice. These lead the country’s crop production with estimated ninety-thousand metric tons in 2017. While Bhutan is close to achieving its goal of food self-sufficiency, rice yield falls about forty-percent short of rice consumption, with the balance imported from India—though local varieties are much preferred and command a premium in the market.

Mt. Jomolhari, Bhutan's second highest peak.
Neylu snow, Laya, 2006 © John Wehrheim

Neylu snow, Laya, 2006

The snowfall thickens as we break trail down to Neylu through knee-deep powder. All around the villagers celebrate the harvest festival of Awlley. During Awlley unmarried girls go boldly from house to house singing and dancing while some married women follow, hiding in blankets, peeking out to judge the families’ hospitality while seeking a match for their sons. If a hidden woman likes what she sees, she will subtly reveal herself and if the women of the household recognize her and consider her sons a good match, they will pull her blankets away and offer her tea and talk of marriage.

Three monks by a stupa or chorten above Thimphu, Bhutan
Jomolhari 1994 © John Wehrheim

Jomolhari, 1994

“Seventy-two percent of Bhutan is under pristine forest cover. Our constitution decrees that a minimum of sixty percent of Bhutan's total land shall remain under forest cover for all time... Our entire country generates 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, but our forests, they sequester more than three times that amount, so we are a net carbon sink for more than four million tons of carbon dioxide each year. Of the 200-odd countries in a world threatened with climate change, it looks like we are the only one that's carbon neutral.” ~ Lyonpo Tshering Tobgay, Prime Minister of Bhutan

Mother and baby in Gasa Hot Springs, Bhutan
Sonam, Tshering and Namgay, Tango, 2002 © John Wehrheim

Three Monks, 2002

I found a community of brothers living in small, scattered cottages and caves, hidden near the tree line. Each hermitage overlooked mountains, forests and sky. Wild animals were abundant and birdsong filled the air. The hermits were the hardest working, healthiest and most intelligent men I had met in Bhutan. They retreated in prayer, yoga and meditation for periods of three years and three phases of the moon. But if another monk needed a hand, they would show up and work from sunrise to sunset, sometimes joking and laughing but mostly focused on the job, doing the work like a silent dance.

Prayer wheels on the trail to Taktshang, 1991 © John Wehrheim

Prayer wheels on the trail to Taktshang, 1991

Painted with the syllables Om Mani Padme Hung, the spinning cylinders repeat the ancient mantra of wisdom and compassion. Though flowing water has powered prayer wheels and flour mills for centuries, electricity and hydropower first came to Bhutan in the 1960’s. Bhutan’s hydros are “run-of-the-river” without storage dams, significant deforestation or major population displacement. Diversions have state-of-the-art fish ladders that diminish disruption to aquatic migration. The Bhutanese believe that earth, trees, sky, and water all contain spirits and are guarded by protective deities. They know on every level, from superstition to science, that if they cut down their trees, pollute the air and foul the water, their prayer wheels will no longer send blessing out into the universe and the primary source of their life and livelihood will dry up.

Prayer wheels spinning near tiger's Nest monastery, Bhutan
Karma Yuden and baby Tenzie, Gasa Hot Springs, 2004 © John Wehrheim

Mother and baby, Gasa Hot Springs, 2004

Bhutanese make frequent pilgrimages to remote and often hidden hot springs. Called tsha chu and found throughout Bhutan, they are places of healing, community, rest and devotion. The chanting and prayer begin at dawn with the purifying sang ritual of burning juniper. In the evenings, around the cooking fires, beer, and ara flow, new friends are made and stories told. The songs and dances go late into the night while young men and women slip off to meet in the dark steaming baths. And day or night the healing sounds of laughter lighten the air.

Granny Lhanzom, Grandmother Gaki Om, Grandmother Tshering Dolkar, Karma Wangmo with little Metho, Thimphu, 2005, © John Wehrheim

Four Generations of Bhutanese Women

Her mother died when Lhanzom was a teenager. At twenty she married a trader. They had a daughter, then a son who died of chicken pox at five. Soon after her son’s death, Lhanzom’s husband fell off a horse and died on a trading journey. Lhanzom decided to go on pilgrimage with her ten-year-old daughter to pray for all her deceased loved ones. She became a trader herself, buying and selling jewelry along the pilgrimage. During this pilgrimage Lhanzom married Ugyen Tenzin, the son of a friend of her deceased mother and a member of her pilgrimage group. [I]n the fourth moon of the Horse Year of 1954, Tshering Dolkar, was born. Lhanzom’s daughter, Tshering Dolkar, the mother of Karma Wangmo, runs a large handicraft and jewelry shop, a business she learned from her mother.

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