Sikhim and Bhutan/Chapter 18

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Severe weather. Shau. A frozen torrent. Dug-gye-jong. A visit to Paro Ta-tshang Monastery. Sang-tog-peri. Paro-jong burnt down. Arrival at Poonakha. The Tongsa’s band.

My second mission to Bhutan was undertaken at the invitation of Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk to be present as his guest and as representative of the British Government at his installation as Hereditary Maharaja of Bhutan.

I left Gangtak on November 25, 1907, accompanied by Major Rennick, of the Intelligence Branch, and Mr. Wilton, C.M.G., of His Majesty’s Consular Service. Mr. Campbell, my Assistant Political Officer, I had sent on ahead to Chumbi to make arrangements for coolies and transport, and Captain Hyslop, who was accompanying me at the special request of Sir Ugyen, had not yet arrived, and was to follow, making forced marches in order to catch us up.

I travelled over the usual route viâ Karponang and Chongu, and arrived without any misadventure the third day in Chumbi, where I halted. Several days were occupied in arranging for the escort, which consisted of twenty-five men of the 62nd Punjabis, under a native officer, a hospital assistant, and the usual following of dooly-bearers, &c.

Unfortunately I contracted a chill, and was obliged to remain in bed for a few days, so I sent Campbell on with the escort and heavy baggage to Phari, and Hyslop having by this time arrived, we left Chumbi on December 2. Rennick and I went straight to Gautsa, while Wilton and Hyslop camped at Lingmathang in hopes of getting a shau of which my shikari had brought us news. It was a very cold day when we started, with the thermometer at zero and the high wind that always blows up the valley, and this shortly turned into a veritable hurricane, so the two in tents had a bad night of it. The wind was so strong they could hardly keep the tent standing; they were nearly frozen; and, worst of all, after having undergone all these discomforts, they could see no sign of the shau, although my orderly, Purboo, said he caught a glimpse of one close to the camp. The shau which the shikari reported having seen was apparently a magnificent specimen, with splendid horns, and was known to many natives by a small white patch on its forehead. I should very much have liked to stay and stalk him, but I had no time for such pleasures, and had to forego a chance I shall not have again.

Wilton returned to India from Lingmathang, as he was obliged to meet some Chinamen in Calcutta, and Hyslop came on by himself to rejoin us in the bungalow at Gautsa, where we were waiting for him. He found the road very bad and difficult, as the wind had covered it with the trunks of fallen trees.

We in the bungalow had not fared much better than the men in tents. We were a good deal higher, and the cold—26° below zero—was so intense that the river, usually a roaring torrent, was frozen absolutely solid during the night, and there was not a sound of water to be heard. It was very curious to listen to it gradually becoming less and less until it finally became silent. All our provisions in the bungalow, milk, tea, meat even, were frozen solid, and no fire would thaw them; no water was to be had, only chunks of ice; and it was almost impossible to keep warm. The wind was still blowing a hurricane, and the mule-drivers refused to start, saying that no animal could stand against the force of the wind and the bitter cold, so we were perforce obliged to remain where we were and listen to the wind roaring through the trees.

Such a huricane was unknown so low in the valley, and the mule-men said they had never witnessed anything like it. Fortunately the storm was unaccompanied by snow, for the sky was clear and the sun shining all the time; otherwise I think it would really have been unbearable. To add to our misfortunes, Rennick had gout, and the cold did him no good.

The next morning the wind had dropped, and we marched across the plain, meeting the Katzog Kazi on the way, to Phari, where the Jongpen received us, in perfect weather, in brilliant sunshine, which in sheltered places was almost hot.

At Phari, Bailey, my assistant from Gyantse, was waiting to see me, and Morgan, of the 62nd, who had taken on the escort, was also there, and, with Campbell, we made a large gathering in the Dak bungalow. We left Phari on December 5, our party finally consisting of myself, Rennick, Hyslop, Campbell, Rai Lobzang Chöden Sahib, my confidential clerk, twenty-five sepoys of the 62nd, with three pipers and two drummers under a native officer, and 264 loads of baggage, in addition to a string of our own ponies and mules, personal servants and dooly-bearers. It sounds a large quantity of baggage, but what with presents and rations for the escort, it soon mounted up.

The day was beautiful, and we very soon reached the Temo-la (16,500 feet), about three miles from Phari, and the boundary between Tibet and Bhutan. The view from the summit of the pass looking into Bhutan was a very fine one. Our road took us over a fairly easy gradient for a few miles, and then in a sheltered little valley I was met by the Dug-gye Jongpen and a party of men with messages from Sir Ugyen Wang-chuk welcoming my party to Bhutan. The Jongpen had brought his band of drums, gongs, and cymbals with him, and they played whilst we were partaking of the refreshments he had provided for us. For a short distance further on the road was not so bad, but we then entered a very rocky gorge, down which the path led in a series of short zigzags, and was practically a rough stair, with enormous steps from rock to rock. It was exceedingly bad going both for ourselves and the mules, and was quite unrideable.

Rennick, who could hardly put foot to the ground, was carried on the back of a Bhutanese orderly, with two or three men to help, and as he weighs over fifteen stone he was no light load. However, with occasional knocks against projecting rocks, which did not improve his temper, he was safely deposited at the bottom, where mules sent by the Jongpen and the Paro Penlop were waiting for us, as the road into camp was said to be quite good.

On our way through the gorge we stopped for lunch, but none of us enjoyed it much, as the meat was frozen so hard that it was quite uneatable, and the thermos flask had gone wrong and our long-looked-forward-to hot soup was very cold. Whilst lunching, too, we dropped the top of one of the sparklet bottles amongst some stones, and it took us a long time to find it, but as we had only two bottles with us we could not afford to lose it. At the lower end the trees became very fine, and we passed some enormous specimens of larch and different sorts of pine, as well as rhododendron, birch, maple, and holly-oak.

The gaily caparisoned mules and ponies were waiting for us at the bottom, with equally gaily attired attendants. We each mounted one, and were immediately started off at a brisk trot over slippery boulders and round projecting rocks and corners, which threatened to knock our knees to pieces, but as the reins on the animals were only for ornament, and not for use, we had to submit to the syces' guidance and allow ourselves to be dragged over a horrible road. The ride was not an agreeable one; it was a marvel how the animals kept their feet, and I should often have liked to get off and walk; but my dignity was at stake, and for shame’s sake I had to stick to my mount; but I was glad when the camp appeared round a corner and I could dismount and stretch my limbs. Just before entering camp our band was augmented by more musicians carrying “gyeling,” or silver trumpets, on which they performed in the most approved style, turning towards you as they blew with a great sweep and flourish towards the sky.

We reached our camping-ground about 3 P.M., a lovely open spot in the midst of larch and spruce, with magnificent views both up and down the valley, and found our heavy baggage waiting for us. Sorting out the tents was rather a difficult task, as the coolies had thrown everything in a heap, but we soon got things into fair order, and had a roaring fire made in the middle of the camp, round which we all sat and made ourselves comfortable, although a good deal of our baggage did not arrive till midnight. We had come about fifteen or twenty miles, and the march had been a long and trying one for the coolies. We had now to change our Phari coolies for Bhutanese transport, and this, in addition to the very large amount of baggage, necessitated an early start; but my Moonshi Lobzang, who was splendid at this sort of arrangement, soon got things straight, and before we had breakfast the bulk of the piles of baggage had disappeared and was on its way to our next halting-place.

As this was our first morning in Bhutan, the escort proper thought they would play us out of camp, and, according to custom, the Bhutanese did the same, and the combined noise was awful. Hyslop was very critical about the 62nd pipers, which I suppose was natural, but as I am not a Highlander I could not see very much difference between their performance and the real thing.

A little below the camp we crossed the Pa-chhu by a very picturesque covered cantilever bridge. The march was an extremely pretty one, as it took us the whole way through forests of Pinus excelsa, with here and there some lovely glades, and occasional farmhouses with patches of cultivation. After recrossing the river we soon came in sight of Dug-gye-jong, which I have already said is the most beautifully situated Jong I know, and which looks well from whichever side it is approached. On arriving at the Jong I was received by the Jongpen, who took me to his guest-room, where the walls were hung with bows and arrows, shields, quaint old guns, saddle-cloths, and curious bridles. We were shown to chairs on a high dais by the window, and an excellent omelette with spring onions was served, accompanied by milk and warm chang to drink and some very good walnuts. We stayed in the Jong till our tents were pitched and comfortably settled, when we moved across. The day had been warm, but as soon as the sun went behind the hills we were glad to put on great-coats and to sit round a good fire. We halted at Dug-gye for a couple of days, and sorted out our stores, managing to reduce them by a few loads. Some of the party went out after pheasants, but saw very few, while I enjoyed having a day off and took some good photographs.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Interior of Dug-gye-jong.jpg


Sikhim and Bhutan - Bridge at Shana.jpg


Sikhim and Bhutan - Paro Taktsang monastery.jpg


The second day we made an expedition to the Paro Ta-tshang Monastery, one of the holiest monasteries in Bhutan, situated on the opposite side of the valley, about 3000 feet up. The road was reported to be very bad, and it certainly was, and I was glad I had not brought my own animals, but had borrowed mules from the Jongpen for all our party. The road to the top of the spur was very steep, with frozen slippery patches where it was shady and very hot in the sun. It ran in one place in a narrow path across a precipice, with a tremendous drop below, and in another became a series of steep stone steps. On reaching the top of the ridge we first came in sight of the monastery buildings, grouped on an almost perpendicular hillside in the most picturesque manner. The main temple is erected on what is practically a crack in a perpendicular rock over 2000 feet in height, and along the crack there are a few more subsidiary buildings. Each building is two stories high, and is painted, like all monasteries, a dull light grey on the lower story, with a broad band of madder-red above, and shingle roofs, on the top of which are gilded canopies. It was unquestionably the most picturesque group of buildings I had seen. Every natural feature in the landscape had been taken advantage of, and beautiful old trees clinging to the rocks were in just the right position, and, combined with the sheer precipices, made a magnificent picture.

We appeared to be quite close, but were really separated from the buildings by an almost inaccessible gorge. The only approach was by a narrow path or series of steps, where a foot misplaced would precipitate you to the bottom, quite 1000 feet, across a plank bridge, and then up another series of little steps cut in the rock. The native hospital assistant had accompanied our party so far, but this was too much for him. He said he had been in many bad places, but never such a bad one as this, and he turned back to where the mules were waiting. Natives, as a rule, have good heads and do not mind bad roads, so that speaks for itself.

Across the gorge a rope of little coloured prayer-flags was stretched, which fluttered out prayers for the benefit of those who had put them up, and this added to the picturesqueness of the scene.

On reaching the top of our ladder-like path a monk presented us each with a draught of beautifully ice-cold water in a gourd from a holy spring, and I can imagine it being much appreciated on a hot day.

The most holy shrine, the sanctuary round which all the other buildings have sprung up, was situated in a cave. The cave is not large, and in it was a gilded chorten filled with small images of Buddha in copper-gilt, each seated on a lotus, and many of very good design. The other buildings were for the most part ordinary temples, with frescoed walls and altars, with butter lamps and incense burning, and in the principal one there was a very fine brass Buddha of more than life size, surrounded by his satellites. There were also some unusually good specimens of dorjes (thunderbolts) and purpas (daggers), both of which are used in the temple services. They were supposed to be of holy origin, and to be found amongst the solid rocks near the shrine, but I could see none, although the Bya-gha Jongpen’s son, a nephew of the Tongsa, had taken one away a few weeks previously. My servants were very anxious to secure one of these treasures, and climbed to an almost inaccessible point in the rocks in search of them, but without success.

In the centre of the gorge, perched upon a tiny ledge, there was a hermit’s dwelling, which could only be reached by climbing a perpendicular notched pole about forty feet high. It looked diminutive against the enormous precipice, and very dreary and uninviting, with long icicles hanging from the roof, and we did not attempt to visit it. We, however, climbed to the top of the precipice to visit the monastery of Sang-tog-peri, which was most picturesquely situated on a projecting spur, with a fine old oak overhanging the entrance. It reminded me of some of the Japanese temples in Kioto in the way the natural features of the ground had been utilised to beautify the entrance.

There was a lovely view from this point. Around us on all sides were spurs with other monasteries and nunneries, but they were all more or less difficult of access, and our time would not admit of further delay, so we were obliged to return leaving them unvisited. It was a place that would take days to explore, and would well repay the trouble, especially to an artist in search of the beautiful and unusual.

We returned to Dug-gye by another road, which led down an easy spur, and were glad to rest round our campfire, as it was late and cold.

The next day we continued our journey down the valley to Paro, and were met half-way by Rai Ugyen Kazi Bahadur, the Bhutanese Agent in India, who had been unable to accompany us, and had travelled from Chumbi viâ Hah. He was accompanied by representatives of the Paro Penlop, bringing scarves of welcome and murwa, as well as fresh mules and ponies for all the party. At Paro I was received by the Penlop and his newly married son, quite a lad, but I did not see his bride.

Paro-jong, one of the finest forts in Bhutan, which I have already described, had been burnt to the ground a few weeks previously, and was now a heap of blackened ruins, with only a few walls standing up gaunt and melancholy. Although the ruins were still smouldering, preparations for rebuilding had already commenced, and the débris was being removed and new timber collected, an arduous task in these hills, especially as enormous beams are used in all Bhutanese construction. They also use a quite unnecessary amount, and make their floors far too thick.

The rebuilding of such a fort is a very great tax on the people, and is generally borne by those close at hand, but in this case, by an arrangement of the Tongsa’s, the whole of Bhutan was contributing either in money or labour, thereby saving much hardship to the neighbouring villagers and expediting the work of reconstruction. It was rumoured that the Jong had been purposely set on fire, but I had no opportunity of finding out the truth, though a suspicious circumstance was that the Penlop was believed to have succeeded in saving his own property—no inconsiderable amount—while all Government property was destroyed. The Bhutanese estimated their loss at about 1½ lacs of rupees, or £12,000, and that it would take four years to rebuild the fort. There were flocks of pigeons flying about the ruins, and Hyslop and I did a little shooting.

Our next camp was in a village called Pemithang, crossing on our way the Be-la Pass (10,500 feet), from where we had a magnificent view of Chomolhari to the north. The road was fairly good, except that in a few places it was covered with ice for several hundred yards; but it was easy to have earth thrown on it, and the mules crossed safely. We were now using animals provided by the Tongsa, and very good ones they were, and as even our servants were mounted it did not take long to move from one camp to another.

At Chalimaphe our camp was again pitched round the magnificent old weeping cypress, measuring over fifty feet in circumference at the base. Unfortunately I had another attack of fever, and had to halt for a couple of days. It was bitterly cold at night, unusually so for that elevation, and water standing by my bed was frozen solid.

Hyslop and Campbell utilised the time by visiting Tashi-cho-jong, the summer capital. They found that since my last visit the Thimbu Jongpen had built a magnificent new gompa, on which he appears to have spent a great deal of money. The decorations were good, and the central figure of a seated Buddha was quite twenty feet high, and heavily gilt. Above and around it was a canopy and background of golden leaves, and the figure itself was richly studded with turquoises and precious stones. On either side were attendant female figures, and in double rows more than life-sized images of Bhutanese gods, while the walls were hung with brocades and embroidered banners; and altogether it must have cost the Thimbu a good deal.

Next morning we left Chalimaphe for the last camp before reaching our destination, Poonakha. The mornings here are always exceedingly cold until the sun rises, when one’s wraps become oppressive, but the ride up the valley was beautiful. This time we visited the fort of Simtoka, which has some ancient figures and carvings in stone, but is principally interesting on account of its age. From the pass, the Dokyong-la, we had a magnificent view of the snow ranges for the first time, as on my previous visit the whole range was never visible, but was enveloped in clouds, which only occasionally lifted to allow the different peaks to be seen. It was a fine sight, as the range extended on the right as far as some peaks to the east of Kulu-Kangri and on the left to Chomolhari.

We passed our old camp at Lung-me-tsawe, and moved down to a warmer spot at the bottom of the hill, where we camped amongst paddy-fields; but even here a fire was most welcome as soon as the sun went behind the hills. From this a short march brought us to Poonakha, and about four miles out we were met by a deputation from the Tongsa Penlop. He had sent the Ghassa Jongpen, who brought scarves of welcome and baskets of fruit, oranges, plantains, and persimmons, in addition to sealed wicker-covered bamboos filled with murwa and chang. There were at least five or six gaily caparisoned mules for each of us to ride, sent by the Tongsa, the Poonakha Jongpen, Deb Zimpon, and others, so we had an abundance of choice. The Tongsa had also sent his band, which consisted of six men, two in red, who were the trumpeters, while the remainder, dressed in green, carried drums and gongs. The mass of colours of every hue was most picturesque, and we made a very gay procession as we started off again towards Poonakha. At the point where the Jong first comes in view a salute of guns was fired, more retainers met us, and our procession was joined by the dancers. The band and dancers preceded me down the hill playing a sort of double tambourine, and twisting and twirling to the beat as they descended the path. The procession must have extended for quite half a mile along the hillside. First came the pipes and drums and escort of the 62nd Punjabis, followed by some twenty led mules, most of them with magnificent saddle-cloths, with their syces and other retainers; next the bodyguard of the Tongsa, about twenty men, dressed in beautiful silks and brocades, and each with a yellow scarf. The band and dancers followed immediately in front of myself and my party, and we again were followed by my orderlies and servants, who were all mounted and wearing their scarlet uniforms. On account of the narrow path, the procession had to proceed in single file, and as we gradually wended our way across the bridge, through a corner of the Jong to the ground occupied by my camp on my visit in 1905, we must have made a brave show for the country folk, who had flocked out in thousands to watch our arrival.

At the camp entrance the Tongsa Penlop, with his council, was waiting to receive us as we dismounted, and we were conducted up a path covered with red cloth and between lines of flowers and shrubs in pots to the mess-house they had built for us, and which we entered with the council, all others being excluded. I was shown to a seat at the end of the room, with the Tongsa and his council on my left and the other members of the Mission on my right. The members of the council who were present were the Paro Penlop, the Thimbu Jongpen, the Poonakha Jongpen, and the Deb Zimpon, the other two members being prevented by illness from attending. As soon as we were seated the Tongsa, followed by his council, presented each member of the Mission with scarves, and then murwa, tea, and other refreshments were brought in. I talked for some little time to the Tongsa, who then went round to each of the party welcoming them to Bhutan and saying how pleased he was to see them.

We found a very comfortable camp laid out for us, bearing evident traces of the impressions they had brought back from their Calcutta visit, for the paths were edged with pot plants and red cloth was laid down. We each had our own little wooden house, with one room and a bathroom, raised about eighteen inches from the ground, with shingle roofs, and surmounted by small coloured prayer-flags. Inside, the walls were covered with thin white cloth, with a frieze of draped coloured silk. The windows were like small port-holes, of course without glass, but with a shutter to pull across at night. They had no furniture, but the mess-house, which was a big room about twenty feet square, had an excellent table in the centre, and ten wooden arm-chairs which would have done credit to any carpenter and were wonderful productions when you remember that these people have no saws, no planes, no nails, and only the roughest of tools. The walls of the mess-house were covered with wonderful pictures in colour, and a large red and yellow curtain to let down at night. The table also had a white cloth, which was carefully gummed or pasted on. Outside the houses were painted white, and a few steps led to the doors. There were also mat huts for the servants, and an excellent kitchen. The enclosure was quite a hundred yards square, surrounded by a fence, and with branches of pine-trees planted every few yards, while the stables were some little distance off; so we could hardly have been more comfortable.

The next day we spent in settling down and preparing for the ceremony on the following day. I took Hyslop with me and made an inspection of the hall in the Jong where the ceremony was to be held. It was very suitable, as it was a large room on the ground floor, with a gallery running all round, and capable of holding many hundreds of spectators, and by removing part of the roof they could let in both light and air. At the main entrance to the Jong quite a little bazaar was in progress, cloth-merchants selling Bhutanese cloths and cheap down-country cottons and sweetmeats, and pan-sellers doing a roaring trade, as the Bhutanese are always chewing pan.

Sikhim and Bhutan - Group at Poonakha, 1908.jpg