“Ha Chhu” our friendly guide, Mr. Pelden said, ges­tur­ing. But, un­like what most of my friends as­sumed, it wasn’t a sneeze, due to his cold, 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 and the un­known val­ley it flows through was charm­ingly called “Haa”, the small­est district in Bhutan.

Mr. Karma, our driver, while ne­go­ti­at­ing our Toy­ota Hi­ace through steep bends, kept us en­ter­tained with tales of his jour­neys around his coun­try, and we en­thu­si­as­ti­cally en­joyed the me­an­der­ing hilly road, lined with tall pine and cyprus trees, that led to the an­ces­tral home­town of the Queen Grand­mother of Bhutan.

An hour passed with­out us even blink­ing an eye­lid as the landscape kept chang­ing into newer tones like a slideshow. The air turned fresher, crispier, colder, and the emer­ald moun­tains grew big­ger and denser, dot­ted in­fre­quently with clus­ters of colour­ful wooden houses. Af­ter a con­sid­er­able stretch of road and green­ery, we would spot a quaint vil­lage, only to drive past it to an­other con­glom­er­a­tion of teal pyra­mids. Even­tu­ally, af­ter cross­ing a pic­turesque In­dian mil­i­tary camp, and

sev­eral fer­tile ar­eas cov­ered with wheat, potato, bar­ley and mil­let crops, we ar­rived at our se­cluded re­sort, be­ing greeted by the dis­tant barks of Bhutia sheep­dogs. Two pink cheeked girls in Kira dress, their national cos­tume, ap­peared gig­gling, and wel­comed us to our charm­ing wooden cot­tages, that had slop­ing roofs and brightly painted walls.

Stash­ing our bags, we stepped out of our rooms, and for a cou­ple of sec­onds we stood spell­bound, gawk­ing. Used to liv­ing in dry and emo­tion­less man-made sur­round­ings, we had al­most for­got­ten, what it is to be like amidst na­ture’s bounty. The serene, un­spoilt val­ley, at a height of more than 8500 feet, and pop­u­lated with a mere 200 house­holds, took us in its lap like a long lost child and the re­fresh­ing breeze ca­ressed our tired souls.

Some of the farm­houses and home­s­tays are lo­cated in the beau­ti­ful tra­di­tional vil­lage of Dum­choe in the heart of the Haa Val­ley, at the base of three sa­cred hills known as ‘Miri Pun­sum’, said to em­body the three great Bod­hisattvas: Man­jushri, the man­i­fes­ta­tion of the Bud­dha’s Wis­dom; Aval­okites­vara, man­i­fes­ta­tion of the Bhudda’s Com­pas­sion; and Va­jra­pani, man­i­fes­ta­tion of the Bud­dha’s Power. The res­i­dents here have their an­ces­tral roots in the Haa val­ley and are known as Haaps amongst the Bhutanese. Stay­ing at these

farm­houses will pro­vide one with a truly au­then­tic Bhutanese ex­pe­ri­ence.

As night ap­proached, re­defin­ing si­lence as we knew it, a melo­di­ous chant­ing of mantras re­ver­ber­ated from the monastery perched atop one of the moun­tains that guarded the val­ley. Bud­dha’s mantras lulled us into a re­lax­ing sleep as we snug­gled in­side our quilts af­ter a hearty chat with our tour group, de­void of any tech­no­log­i­cal distractions like TV or mo­bile phones and in­ter­net.

A beau­ti­ful dawn woke us up next morn­ing, peek­ing through the slats of the green, wooden win­dow doors. We were ex­cited to find that clouds had de­scended to our bed­side to be­friend us. Play­ful as usual, they floated across the ravines, some­times hid­ing be­hind a peak or two and some­times cre­at­ing whim­si­cal im­ages in the blue sky board.

Hyp­no­tized, two of us de­cided to ac­com­pany the misty cot­ton balls and ran af­ter them down the hill. Two very cute kids with puffy eyes, a lanky boy and a petite girl, joined us on their way to school. As we reached the main road, all worked up and breath­ing heav­ily, the two kids jumped ef­fort­lessly to­ward a big­ger group of school kids wait­ing for their bus. A look at those cute kids in mini Gho and Kira, with their joy­ous faces and in­no­cent lit­tle eyes, was enough for me to un­der­stand the mean­ing of Gross National Hap­pi­ness, Bhutan’s mantra for national well-be­ing. I felt a pang for our city kids whose in­no­cence gets hi­jacked by huge ex­pec­ta­tions and lives en­cased in con­crete.

This was my first visit to Haa, but my sec­ond to Bhutan. I had been here nearly a decade ago, and as I had stepped off my flight to Paro val­ley this time, I won­dered if the spec­tac­u­lar beauty, sim­plic­ity, and the grad­ual pace had been com­pro­mised due to a surge in tourism re­cently. But I was amazed to find that Bhutan had per­fectly main­tained its Hap­pi­ness in­dex.

Af­ter cud­dling the kids thor­oughly we

bid them good­bye and turned to the Haa Chu river that lured us with its beauty, flow­ing be­side the In­dian Army base camp. Con­tem­plat­ing for a few sec­onds whether we should cross through the closed wooden gate of the Army camp, as it might be a pro­hib­ited area, we gave in to our cu­rios­ity. A beau­ti­ful golf course lay in front of us, by the side of a thin gur­gling river stream. We met two smart army of­fi­cers from In­dia, play­ing golf, and they in­vited us to visit and tour the en­tire camp with our friends. Gladly we ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion and de­light­edly hiked to our re­sort to share the news. But­ter tea, corn and rice crispies, toast, but­ter, corn­flakes, milk, wa­ter­melon and ba­nanas awaited us, along with the rest of our friends, at the spa­cious din­ing hall.

Af­ter a sump­tu­ous but healthy break­fast, Mr. Pelden drove us down to Kasto vil­lage, where a milky shrine stood at the foot of the three holy moun­tains. Built in 7th cen­tury, the white tem­ple called “Lhakhang Karpo” had a wide flight of stairs, giv­ing way to a big court­yard. A part of the shrine was un­der con­struc­tion

to en­large it into a big­ger monastery, with new monk cells and govern­ment of­fices. 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 robes were all made up of nat­u­ral ma­te­rial and also were dyed with nat­u­ral col­ors. Bow­ing our head to the deities at the al­tar we silently took our place in a cor­ner to soak our­selves in the spir­i­tual calm. The se­nior stu­dents, apart from chant­ing mantras from a thin rec­tan­gu­lar loose book, held drums in their right hand and beat it with a stick on cer­tain chants. At the end, the se­nior monk gave us holy wa­ter from a bronze cup to sip.

From be­hind the Lhakhang Karpo, ran a nar­row hilly path up to a black shrine called Lhakhang Nagpo. A deep grey painted tem­ple, sup­posed to be iden­ti­cal to the Jowo tem­ple in Lhasa, wel­comed us amidst tranquil woods and sounds of chirp­ing birds. But the most amaz­ing part was that though the White chapel had got dam­aged by an earth­quake in the past, this black shrine, guarded by a holy oak tree at the en­trance, had stood un­de­feated.

Though there are nu­mer­ous leg­ends about the twin black and white shrines, the most pop­u­lar one is that a white pi­geon and a black pi­geon, em­a­na­tions of Songt­sän Gampo, flew to this place from Ti­bet and landed near the two tem­ples.

Then we were off to Wangchulo Dzong, a grand dzong com­mis­sioned by Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, the Grand­fa­ther of the Royal Grand­mother Ashi Kezang Cho­den Wangchuck. The Dzong struc­ture re­sem­bles the Wangdi­chol­ing palace in Bumthang that was the seat of the 1st and 2nd Kings. It is the en­trance of the head­quar­ters of IMTRAT - In­dian Mil­i­tary Train­ing team, re­spon­si­ble for train­ing The Royal Bhutan Army or RBA. The camp was main­tained fab­u­lously and so was a sprawl­ing 18-hole golf course with sandy greens. Just op­po­site is a replica of In­dia’s

“Ashok Stambh”, our of­fi­cial em­blem, de­pict­ing the close re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two coun­tries. An­other place worth vis­it­ing en­route to Haa is Dogar Dobji Dzong, the first model Dzong in Bhutan, built in 1531 AD by Ngawang Ch­h­ogyal, on a cliff fac­ing the eastern wing to the nar­row ravine of Pachhu-wangchhu River. Later, the Dzong and all it’s sur­round­ings were de­stroyed in a great earth­quake with the ex­cep­tion of the cen­tral tower.

There we were, five women, a rush­ing river, lunchtime and yummy packed food! Per­fect ingredients for a pic­nic. Across a wob­bling bridge, a few steps down to the meadow and just be­side the bub­bling river, we set­tled down to our open-air lun­cheon. The sun danc­ing through the pine leaves, damp scent of the river, grass prick­ing our clothes, the wide blue misty sky, re­minded us of care­less, school tif­fin hours. We ate to our hearts con­tent and roamed the grassy car­pet dot­ted with tall trees, re­turn­ing at night­fall.

Phurva, the re­sort man­ager, picked up a red hot stone boul­der the size of a foot­ball, with a huge tong from the fire pit. Drop­ping it care­fully in­side an oak bath­tub filled with fresh wa­ter from Haa Chhu that was placed in­side a wooden cabin, he went back to col­lect some more. Five of us, ex­cited at the new ex­pe­ri­ence, watched him per­form this te­dious job, shiv­er­ing in the cold but with a smile on his face, as if he was go­ing to cre­ate a magic spa for us. The wa­ter siz­zled and started steam­ing by the time five such river stones had been placed in the wa­ter

strewn with flower petals and Artemisia leaves. Once the wa­ter was hot enough, we sank into it one at a time, soak­ing in the warm pun­gent smelling wa­ter that had an amaz­ing ther­a­peu­tic ef­fect on our tired feet. Not ex­actly unique to Haa, the hot stone bath is a well -es­tab­lished bath rit­ual in Bhutan. And af­ter hik­ing up and down the moun­tains and sur­round­ing val­ley, this is a must do for aching bod­ies of tourists ac­cus­tomed to city com­forts.

The day ended with a sump­tu­ous meal of “Ema Dasti”, a Bhutanese repast made up of Yak cheese and green chill­ies, red rice, spinach and potato curry, with a glass of “Ara”, a tra­di­tional wine made out of rice. The Ara, though a bit strong, worked its way fine down our chilly bod­ies and turned the game of cards we played be­fore re­tir­ing to our cozy beds into a jolly one.

Haa Val­ley is a very small, chilly and amaz­ingly beau­ti­ful town. Though the whole town is just a street long it has amaz­ing sights, both cre­ated by man and na­ture. The most no­table cer­e­mony that is per­formed in the Haa Val­ley is the an­nual cer­e­mony to honor Ap Chundu, the guardian de­ity of the val­ley. Haa is re­garded as a par­adise for na­ture lovers be­cause of the beau­ti­ful scenery it pos­sesses. Next morn­ing, Yaks, blue pop­pies, prim­u­las, Daphne, bright red rhodo­den­drons, mini wa­ter­falls, tall pine and Cyprus trees, all ac­com­pa­nied us to the high­est mo­torable road in Bhutan, the Chele la pass. As we neared the pass, we could see we were get­ting above the tree line. It was a clear sunny day and we got a spec­tac­u­lar view of Mt. Ju­mol­hari, Jichu Drake and a bird’s eye view of Haa and Paro Val­ley. Nu­mer­ous colour­ful prayer flags flut­tered in the strong wind and we had to lit­er­ary fight to stand up against the tem­pes­tu­ous breeze. Nes­tled in a craggy patch on the moun­tain­side be­low Chele la pass and perched pre­car­i­ously along the rock face is the Kila Goemba Nun­nery, home to many nuns who have re­nounced a worldly life and cho­sen the path to en­light­en­ment. The Tem­ple is about an hour’s walk through a mag­nif­i­cent wood.

Haa Val­ley is sit­u­ated in the north-west of Bhutan bor­der­ing Ti­bet. It was closed to tourism un­til 2001. An an­cient trekking route will take you through some of the most scenic views of Ha and Paro val­leys over the alpine Kalila pass, as well as to Paro, Thim­phu and Wang­duepho­drang for cul­tural pil­grim­ages to me­dieval dzongs, tem­ples and monas­ter­ies. Dur­ing the trip, we par­tic­i­pated in the no­madic

life of the Haaps and watched them farm their crops, ex­plored the Alpine val­ley’s vivid lakes and moun­tains, en­joyed its fa­mous sum­mer fes­ti­val and many cul­tural tra­di­tions, and savoured the delicacies of the Haaps, es­pe­cially the Haapi Hoen­toe, a dumpling. Trekking re­vealed the leg­ends of Nob Tson­ap­a­tra (high­land lakes) and the yak herders’ liveli­hood. We rode Yaks and horses, com­peted in the tra­di­tional game of khuru, archery and sok­sum and tried hit­ting the bull’s eye. No one seemed to be in a hurry and ev­ery­thing seemed to move in slow mo­tion. We were con­stantly over­come by the kind­ness shown by peo­ple, whether be it the gro­cer lady who gra­ciously of­fered us peaches for free or the cab­bie who gave us a free ride; com­pas­sion is part of their ethos. Al­most all the places were very clean and rivers were sparkling, even in­side towns. Some houses had the paint­ing of a phal­lus on the ex­te­rior to sym­bol­ize fer­til­ity. The weather was per­fect with just the right amount of sun. Ev­ery morn­ing I got up, I would be in an­tic­i­pa­tion of what I would ex­pe­ri­ence that day. Would it be the fab­u­lous cul­ture, a spicy new food, a hid­den water­fall or those beau­ti­ful chort­ens with prayer flags flut­ter­ing? Bhutan had a sur­prise in store at ev­ery cor­ner. On our last day at Haa, the hid­den won­der­land, we felt a pang of sad­ness de­scend­ing. I won­dered if I could ap­ply for a teach­ing job at the Gongzim Ugyen Dorji Higher Sec­ondary School? The pu­rity and the seren­ity of the val­ley had such a calm­ing ef­fect on us. Apart from ex­quis­ite hand­crafted souvenirs, we also took with us the price­less gifts of sim­plic­ity, in­no­cence, con­tent­ment and sunny smiles, and gen­eros­ity of the Haap peo­ple. We said good­bye to the land of the Thunder-dragon with loads of love and a heavy heart. ‘Tashi- delek’ (Thank you), Bhutan, we will miss you.

Chele La pass

Photo credit: Nita Bajoria

Laz­ing Yaks on way to Chele La pass

A tourist tak­ing self­ies among prayer flags in Chele La pass

Horse graz­ing in Haa val­ley

Road to Haa

Dogar Dobji Dzong

Colour­ful Wangchulo Dzong

The White Tem­ple

The Black Tem­ple

Photo credit: Nita Bajoria

Young monks in Haa Chil­dren go­ing to school in Haa

Sum­mer fes­ti­val in Haa Val­ley

Chort­ens in Haa Val­ley

Camp­ing in Haa val­ley

Photo credit: Nita Bajoria

Haa res­i­dents turn­ing their prayer wheels

Chimi Lhakhang Tem­ple of Fer­til­ity

The drums that ac­com­pany holy chants

Pic­ture of King Jigme Wangchuk kept in the tem­ple for wor­ship

En­joy­ing the view in Haa

Bhutanese cou­ple

An­cient res­i­dent of Haa

Mother and child

The three sa­cred hills

Our re­sort

Din­ner be­ing cooked

Haa val­ley home­s­tay in Dum­choe

Photo credit: Nita Bajoria

Haa val­ley’s spe­cial delicacies

Meat dumplings or Hen­toe

Haa val­ley

Haa river

Misty morn­ing at Haa

Steam­ing hot stones be­ing pre­pared for our bath tub

Phurva, our re­sort man­ager

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