And audience with Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother of Bhutan

Wong How Man
Paro, Bhutan

Royal Grand Mother, her sister Tashi and nephew Dasho Benji, with How Man at Her Royal Palace. “That is a very auspicious sign,” said Lama Neten with a sliver of smile, finally. It seemed at last we had broken the ice as he looked very serious and solemn when I first met him the night before, at a home down the hill.


Though only 49 years of age, his demeanor was like that of an old teacher. After all, he is the abbot of a monastery with 120 monks, most of them boys. And they reside in this monumental castle of Gasa Dzong, the seat of one of the twenty Dzongkhags (Districts) of Bhutan and the northernmost, largest and highest of all the Districts. Below him, but above him in elevation, he controls another twenty smaller sub-monasteries, most sitting at dizzying height of the plateau bordering Tibet.

Neten Lama of Gasa Dzong. The architecture of Gasa Dzong, one of the oldest of the Dzongs dates from the mid 17th Century, with an impressive edifice rising above the surrounding forest at a spur, with a majestic snow range as backdrop. It looks out to yet another range of snow peaks, one of which rose like a monument of ice sculpture. I chose to come to Gasa based on a study of the satellite images just a few days ago when I was in Bangkok. The images showed that the area has an abundance of glaciers on the southern slope of the Himalayas, with high pastures among which I could expect to find yak herders roaming. I changed my entire itinerary of travels overnight, and landed in Bhutan heading straight to Gasa.

Monks of Gasa Dzong. As I arrived at the monastery, I recounted to Lama Neten that I ran into three stag deer on my approach to the monastery, running off to two sides of the road as if making way for me. I even captured in pictures one of the deer, a huge stag with a set of large anthers, looking at me from behind the trees. Lama Neten seemed surprised by my account, and mentioned that they usually only see the deer at night, almost never during day time.

Through Yeshi, our guide/interpreter who is an avid birdwatcher, the Lama related my encounter to a Buddhist story of the Tibetan saint Milarepa. While in meditative retreat, Milarepa was approached by a frightened stag deer being chased by a hunter and his dog. He managed to pacify both the dog and the hunter with compassion, and the deer was saved. This episode became an often-told story within Tibetan Buddhism.

Monks and guests of the Restoration Center. Perhaps Lama Neten really believed in the omen of my visit. We had a great and warm chat thereafter, despite that soon he had to rush off to receive the Governor of Gasa District, making one of his rare visits to the monastery. But before we parted ways, I agreed to help the monastery with a new building that just started construction. Its purpose is to house a new school for the monks and lay children of the area, learning English at an early age.

The government has provided the building costs, but nothing for the interior furnishing or equipment. Lama Neten had been most busy, traveling throughout his District in order to raise the money needed to complete the project. I promised to find him a Buddhist patron among my friends, as well as providing matching fund from CERS if necessary. In scale, the project is not too ambitious and quite modest, and it would pave the way with good will for many exciting projects I wanted to start in the surrounding area.

Princess Kesang showing a thangka gift of the 13th Dalai Lama. A road was just completed to the Dzong two years ago. Prior to that, it might have taken several days of trekking or on horseback to reach here. These days, the famous hot spring down by the river is visited everyday by Bhutanese from far and wide. Many cross the entire country, riding in cars on rough roads for two days to reach this famous medicinal spring enclave.

Five bath houses sit next to the river, including a walled and gated one for the Royal family. I took a dip with all the locals, together with many of the elderly ladies baring their tops. It seemed most natural, in a country where nature still reigns. Matching all the hype about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, everyone seemed particularly contented, especially while soaking in the hot spring.

Young monks of Gasa Dzong. Indeed my experience here had been most calm and relaxed. Our driver Shacha was extremely polite, driving slowly and carefully, even when we were on paved roads. Whenever he noticed us raising the camera, he would stop the car. At one point when a calf was frightened and parted with the herd, Shacha stopped his car, got out, and tried to usher the calf back to the mother.

We had one picnic lunch together by a clear mountain stream rushing by, with the white rhododendron in full bloom. Both Yeshi and Shacha ate quietly with us, showing utmost respect and modesty which made us a bit uncomfortable. They barely touched the dishes we shared, and ate two plates of plain red rice each, with simple spicy curried sauce over it.

Picnic along the road. While my focus in Bhutan is fixated on the high plateau, its flora, fauna and yak herders, it has to wait until we can build up enough local contacts to execute such projects. My personal interest relates to the yak herders’ culture, which in recent years has been much affected by the meteoric rise in prices of Cordyceps, a high altitude caterpillar fungus believed to have medicinal value for Chinese and Asians alike. Even the traditional means of dairy production has been sidelined, with it much of the age-old nomadic values, both in economic, cultural and spiritual terms.

This trip can be considered a reconnaissance for future trips to come, establishing some connections so that we can initiate multiple projects in the near future, covering a diverse range of disciplines. One such project may manifest itself sooner than I expected.

Castle of Punakha Dzong. Just below the Dzong monastery of Gasa, I had dinner at a home in a small village with only five households. The house of Bago is sixty-five years old, soon to be torn down to make way for a new house the family wants to build. Bago’s own age was listed on his ID card with birthdate as January 1, 1942. He thought he is older, though in those days, no one really recorded their birth date. We wanted to convince the family to preserve this wonderful traditional house, hopefully to be used as a future base of our operation into the high plateau. The worn wood, walls, ladders and all were like whispers from the past, telling tales of a time gone by. It also looks out to a most beautiful scenery, with the Dzong castle rising behind, the snow range and peaks in a distance, and green hills and valleys below.

The family even has in their chapel, one of the most important relics of Bhutan. One shoe, in red and with embroidered shell, was bestowed on ancestors of Bago’s wife, by Ngawang Namgyel, the first Zhabdrung Rinpoche who came to Bhutan in 1616AD when he was exiled from Tibet. He was considered the founder of Bhutan. With luck and blessing, we hope to save this particular house from demolition, and maintain it into the future with some useful and positive role.

Snow mountain of Gasa Dzong. As if the encounter with the stag deer was not enough of a good omen, while driving back to the capital of Thimphu on the same morning, I ran into a beautiful bright green snake of over two meters in length. Just moments later, two Assamese Macaque monkeys crossed the road in front of us. As we descended down to Phojikha, before reaching Punakha Dzong with a most impressive castle, I spotted the rarest of birds, the White-bellied Heron. There may be less than thirty birds remaining in all of Bhutan. It is also one of the most endangered birds in the world with perhaps less than two hundred birds worldwide. Capturing it with my camera, though like a silhouette at a distance, was the epitome and most satisfying moment of the entire trip. By now, I have caught on even culturally, having my head shaking from side to side, as we rode through bumps and hitches over the unpaved road.

Gasa Dzong, now a monastery, with impressive snow range as backdrop. Topping all these, however, was during my final day in Thimphu, I had an audience with Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother. At 85 years of age, she is the only Royal Grandmother in the world. We met six years ago when I first visited Bhutan in 2009, accompanying her on a yearly religious offering journey to some of the most important monasteries, making blessing for the Royal Family and the people of Bhutan.

On this day, however, our meeting was in her beautiful Royal Palace, up on the hill above Thimphu. Joining us at the meeting was her 91-years-old sister Tashi, and her nephew Dasho Benji, an older gentleman who is a most knowledgeable naturalist and has been crucial in establishing many of Bhutan’s environmental and nature protection policies. Benji’s multiple portfolio included serving as the country’s Chief Justice in the 1980s.

Gasa Dzong, now a monastery, with impressive snow range as backdrop. With the Royal Grand Mother and her sister, both Princesses of Sikkim, we had a wonderful discussion, over tea and some delicately home-made snack. The two sisters reminisced their younger days. In Kalimpong, their father entertained many early explorers on their way to Lhasa in Tibet. Besides big names like Alexandra David-Neel, one particular gentleman the aging sisters are most fond of and talked about at length was Dr Joseph Rock, my predecessor at the National Geographic who contributed many stories to the magazine between the 1920s to the 40s. I promised to send to the Royal Grandmother books on Dr Rock that I have in my library.

Select guests of their family included, for six months, the 13th Dalai Lama when he was in exile from Tibet. As a token of appreciation, the family was given a rare Thangka by his Holiness, which today is in the possession of the Royal Grandmother. I was later shown this rare piece of art by Princess Ashi Kesang Choeden Wangchuk, a favorite granddaughter of the Royal Grandmother, notable through bearing exactly the same name as her grandmother. She is also a cousin of the current King. Sometimes known as the Baby Kesang, she is now in charge of the Thangka Restoration Center, staffed by monks of Bhutan, and devotes her entire time and energy to this very important undertaking.

Bago’s old house below Gasa Dzong monastery. With her soft and tender hand holding mine, the Royal Grandmother and I chatted over many subjects endearing to her heart. Educated by Jesuits of the St Joseph Convent at Kalimpong, she later studied in the UK. After marrying the Third King of Bhutan, she has been a wonderful patron to all the monasteries of the country, making sure that they receive adequate funding and support, including restoring many religious sites to their former glory. Her latest project is of monumental proportion, supporting over the years publication of the murals and Thangkas on Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), founder of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.

A Stag Deer. As a parting gift, Her Majesty signed for me, with golden ink, that very important religious volume on Guru Rinpoche, as best wishes to my future endeavor in her beloved country. I asked for Her Majesty’s Royal blessing to our projects, just as a small child would need blessing, until he gets older and take on a life of his own. I noted to her that this important work is not a coffee table book, but an object of spiritual dimension that would take up a place of honor in the private chapel at my home in Hong Kong.

This morning, we had a sprinkle of spring shower, and the high mountains were clothed in a shade of fresh snow. In a few months I hope to return, when the sky is blue, the peaks are white, and the hills green.