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  • Nita Bajoria

Haa Chhu – A hidden valley

“Haa Chhu,” our guide Palden, in black Nike trainers and a slate gray Bhutanese gho, said.

But, unlike what most of my friends assumed, it wasn’t a sneeze, but the name of the river flowing through the intersecting hills of the valley we were driving through.

“In Dzongkha, the official Bhutanese language, Chhu means water or river,” Palden tried to enhance our knowledge about the smallest district in Bhutan. “This is the ancestral hometown of our Queen Grandmother of Bhutan,” he added as we enjoyed the roads lined with pine and Cyprus trees.

An hour passed without us even blinking, as the landscape around us kept changing, like a slideshow displaying newer tones every few moments. The air turned fresher, crisper, colder, and the emerald mountains dotted with wooden houses grew more prominent and denser. After crossing the Indian military camp, and miles of fertile areas, we arrived at our secluded resort, greeted by the distant barks of Bhutia sheepdogs.

A cluster of cottages, with sloping roofs and walls bordered with paintings of dragons and flowers were our abode for the coming two nights. Keeping our bags inside our rooms, we stepped out as soon as possible. For a couple of seconds, we gawked at the hills that had encircled us. The valley, at the height of more than 8500 feet, and populated with a mere 200 households, embraced us like a long-lost friend. A thin brown line of a path wandering up a mountain-side, and a village of a handful of houses perched on a distant valley beside a paddy field and a rock outcrop felt intimate and perfect. Nothing beyond necessary. Nothing looming on you and demanding your attention.

“Want a relaxing bath?” asked Phurva, the resort manager as we settled in our rooms, exhausted by the lengthy travel.

We nodded, and he picked up a red-hot stone, the size of a football, with a huge tong from the fire pit. Dropping it inside an oak bathtub that was placed inside a wooden cabin he went back to collect more. The bathtub was filled with fresh water from Haa Chhu. The water strewn with flower petals and Artemisia leaves, sizzled and started steaming by the time five such river stones had been placed inside the tub. One by one we sank our feet into it, soaking in the warm, pungent-smelling water that had a therapeutic effect on our tired feet.

The hot stone bath is a traditional bath ritual in Bhutan.

Chef Elina Gurung served us a sumptuous meal of Ema Dasi, Hoentey, red rice, spinach and potato curry with a glass of “Ara”, a traditional wine made out of rice, in the dining room. As spice-induced tears streamed down our face, we admitted that the food was hot, but simply delicious.

Stringing the guitar, Elina played a dzongkha song called “Choe tsha ray thong”. She later explained that it meant “love is the overflowing feeling of needing someone” and that she had learnt guitar from her brother.

“My father loved cooking. My dream was to be a musician, but fate brought me here. However, life goes on, and I am happy to give my guests some memorable nights,” she said, smiling.

“Why do you all still wear your traditional dress while the world has moved to modern dressing?” I asked.

“Wearing Gho and Kira is our identity of being Bhutanese. We like to preserve our culture,” she replied.

As night approached, chanting of mantras reverberated from the monastery perched atop one of the mountains that guarded the valley. Buddha’s mantras lulled us into sleep as we snuggled inside our quilts.

Sunrays peeking through the wooden window slats woke us the next morning. Clouds had descended to befriend us. They floated above the ravines, sometimes hiding behind a peak or two, and sometimes creating whimsical images in the clear sky board.

We treaded downhill to the village of Dumchoe at the base of the three sacred hills known as ‘Miri Punsum’. It is said to embody the three great Bodhisattvas: Manjushri, the manifestation of the Buddha’s Wisdom; Avalokitesvara, a sign of the Buddha’s Compassion; and Vajrapani, expression of the Buddha’s Power. The residents here have their ancestral roots in the Haa Valley and are known as Haaps amongst the Bhutanese. We passed a few mud and wooden houses two or three-storey tall, amidst fern trees, shrubs of magnolias, rhododendrons and the rare white poppies flowering here and there. The windows had frames with detailed carvings. At the bus stop, we met two kids Chimi and Tenzey in mini Gho and Kira, waiting for their school bus.

After a healthy breakfast of red rice porridge, toast, fruits and butter tea, Palden drove us down to Kasto village, where a milky shrine stood at the foot of the three holy mountains. Built in the 7th century, the white temple called “Lhakhang Karpo” had a broad flight of stairs, giving way to a big courtyard. As we entered the dimly-lit chapel, adjusting our sight, we found it lined with young monks chanting prayers in their red robes. I later found out that the gowns were all made up of natural material like cotton or silk and also were dyed with natural colours. This was done by boiling the clothes in vegetables like tubers, bark, flowers, leaves and spices such as turmeric or saffron, which gave the cloth a yellow-orange color.

Bowing our head to the deities at the altar, we took our place in a corner. The senior students, apart from chanting mantras from a thin rectangular loose book of scripts called Choe Pote, held drums in their right hand and beat it with a stick on specific chants. In the end, the senior monk gave us sacred water from a bronze cup to sip.

From behind the Lhakhang Karpo, ran a narrow, jugged path up to a black shrine called Lhakhang Nagpo. A deep grey coloured temple, supposedly identical to the Jowo temple in Lhasa, welcomed us amidst woods and birdsong of the Eurasian Jay, the Blue Whistling Thrush, sunbird and the likes. The white chapel had got damaged by an earthquake in the past, but this black shrine, guarded by an oak tree at the entrance, stood undefeated.

Passing a herd of yak we crossed a wobbling bridge, went down a few steps to the meadow and just beside the bubbling river, we settled to our open-air luncheon. With no signs to read, no billboards or neon messages to interrupt the view, we enjoyed the hills and the fields and the farmhouses and the sky.

Post a light lunch we drove to Chele La pass, the highest motorable road in Bhutan, with Palden. It was windy and difficult to stand out amidst the fluttering flag. But we did and shouted “Iha-gey lu!”, which means “May the gods be victorious!”

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