September 21, 2008 4:09:19 pm
India and Bhutan are probably the only two countries in the world separated by a sewage drain. At Phuentsholing, Bhutan’s second largest town and biggest border hub, a tall gate carved with traditional Buddhist motifs stands guard to the Himalayan state, which in the circles of honey-eyed Western tourists has earned itself the epithet: ‘The Last Shangri-La’. If you run your eyes further along the boundary though, that rectangular channel of filth and refuse is all that it takes to demarcate these two vastly different civilizations.
Towards the south is the Jaigaon (that is to the left of the drain if you are facing west), a trading town in the Indian state of West Bengal and an embodiment of all that is over the top about our post-liberalization lives—cantankerous streets, entangled wires, aluminum fronts and messy commerce. On the right, stands the Bhutanese cousin Phuentsholing (alternatively spelt as Phuntsholing and pronounced in either case as Phoon-sh-ling) still largely retaining its carefully preserved character.
As in the rest of the country, buildings have to conform to a strict architectural code and all citizens working in or visiting any of the government offices have strict injunctions to stick to the respective national dresses (a thick robe called gho for men and an ankle-length dress called kira for women). Probably, it is to escape all that disciplining that the residents of Phuentsholing flock to the bazaars of Jaikok (as a Bhutanese friend of mine labelled Jaigaon, in an allusion to the consumerist charms of the Thai capital) to indulge in all that animated haggling and cheap bargains.
The Toorsa river, which goes on to nurture the plains of Dooars in Bengal, passes through Phuentsholing. One evening as the monsoon clouds part to betray the first signs of sunset, I walk up a few flights of stairs towards the Kharbandi Goempa (monastery). From a vantage point located on the way, I can see the river’s grey stream widening to fuse with the horizon. Flanking its course are the concrete anthills of Jaigaon and low lush expanse of plains on one bank and endless uninhabited mountains on the other—probably a fitting duality to represent the two South Asian nations.
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The Kharbandi goempa was established by the then Royal Grandmother, Ashi Phuntsho Choedron, in 1967. The monastery has erected tall prayer flags in the grounds adjacent to it which flutter graciously at the slightest behest of the north-bound wind and, as the locals believe, in the process send out prayers for the welfare of all sentient beings. The view of the Bengal lowlands is even clearer from here and as the twilight settles in over the unending green, the monks at the goempa undergo another cycle of their measured lives by clanking bells in honour of the deities.
Religion is inseparable from culture in Bhutan and for that matter, even politics (the Drukpa Lineage of the Mahayana version of Buddhism is the state religion). At Zangtho Pelri Lhakhang, built right at the centre of the town in honour of Guru Rinpoche (the 7th century saint who ‘civilized’ these highlands riding on a tigress’ back from Tibet) senior citizens in traditional garbs amass good karma by spinning the hand-held mani lakhors and circumambulating the temple. The prevalent thought is that life is merely a journey to prepare oneself for death and the next cycle or reincarnation and in such a scenario, old age is probably your last chance to avoid being reborn as a mangy dog or insignificant centipede.
However, at the bustling shops brimming with imported goods, at the bus-stand livened by the frenetic catcalling of the Indian porters, at the bars serving cheap booze, at the impatient queues of construction workers waiting for their permits in front of the Immigrations office — there is a restless energy floating in the air as if some contagious wafts of breeze have flowed in from Jaigaon. The streets of Phuentsholing effortlessly wallow in this mix of the Indian and the Bhutanese, in asceticism and consumerism, in aesthetic harmony and a disordered charm.
Phuentsholing is roughly 150km from Siliguri and around four hours from New Jalpaiguri, the nearest railhead. From Siliguri, Bhutan Transport Corporation operates a regular bus-service to Phuentsholing (around Rs 70). Alternatively, one can travel directly in a bus operated by Bhutan Post from Kolkata to Phuentsholing (around Rs 300).
The nearest airport is Bagdogra which is around four to five hours drive from the Entry gate. Indian nationals can enter Bhutan without a visa and they do not need any permit to visit Phuentsholing right up to the Kharbandi Check-post, around 5km from the town.
Stay: Hotel Druk near the Immigrations office is the most high-end option in the city. A Deluxe Double costs Nu 3,200. Call 9757252426 for reservations. Hotel Deki, not far from Zangtho Pelri Lhakhang is the cheapest no-frills accommodation. Rooms come as cheap as Nu 100 per night.
Food: Hotel Rangzen, opposite the Immigrations Office is a great place to sample Ema Datsi (a Bhutanese specialty consisting of cheese and chillies boiled together) with some rice and dahl (Nu55). Yeshi Dolma Restaurant and Bar, near Central Hotel, does a mean Shakam Pa (strips of dried beef cooked with local vegetables) which comes cheap at Nu 45. If you have a palate for adventure then do try juma sausages (Nu 5 per piece) containing the pungent thingye, or Sichuan Pepper at G.D. Restaurant and Bar near the bus-station.
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