by Nicholas P. Snoek
Some sixty miles to the east of Nepal is the young kingdom of Bhutan, a mountainous country somewhat larger than Switzerland, consisting essentially of a portion of the southern slopes of the Great Himalayan Range.
The northern border is the crest of that range, Mt. Everest being approximately one hundred and thirty miles west; and the southern border lies along the edge of the flood plain of the Brahmaputra. The delta of the Ganges, and Calcutta, are some three hundred miles due south.
Not much is known about the early history of Bhutan. There are scrolls and manuscripts in various monastery archives in the mountains, but these have not been systematically studied. It seems that local lords, neptongs, long fought for supremacy. Archery is still the national sport.
Yaks graze on the dry and cool alpine meadows in the summer months. At the opposite extreme, no cultivation or any pasturing is possible in the dense semitropical rain forest of some lower southern slopes, exposed to the wet monsoons. Some fifty feet of rain may fall there in three months.
Within the short distance of some ninety miles, elevation rises from 600 feet to 24,000 feet. This situation has restricted the development of transport, and kept Bhutan long isolated from the mainstream of world affairs. It is a country outside of time, beyond the normal march of progress.
More than half of the approximately one million people of Bhutan, mainly in the northern portion, are of Tibetan origin, speaking and writing Dzongkha, a Tibetan dialect, and following a lamaistic Buddhism. The other large group, primarily Nepalese, practice Hinduism.
Bhutan is unique among the member nations of the UN, in having declared the Yeti its official animal, issuing a series of postage stamps decorated by that creature to illustrate the fact. One of them shows a woman being carried off by a Yeti.
It is speculated the Yeti, or Yeh-Teh, and its variants, the Meh-Teh or Mi-Go, and the Almas, all varieties of the notorious Abominable Snowman, although mostly known by tracks in the Himalayan snows, normally inhabit rain forests, as do its North American cousins, the Sasquatch and Bigfoot. Further exploration may shed more light on this question.
The community of Paro, elevation 7700 feet, sits on the banks of a tributary of the Wong Chhu, and is situated midway between the northern border with Tibet and the southern border with India, both being approximately forty miles distant.
The capital, Thimphu, lies to the east of Paro, again about forty miles away. Each of these population centers are in the western part of Bhutan, close to the border with the older and even smaller Sikkim, another Himalayan kingdom that was closely tied to India at the time of this narrative, the 1940's.
The year is 1940
In 1940 there are no roads in Bhutan. The population of this small country is around seven hundred thousand. The capital is Punakha for most of the year, ceding the privilege to higher and cooler Thimphu forty miles west, in the summer.
What look like towns and cities on a map are really population centers of a unique type. Each one is essentially a huge fort or dzong, housing several thousand people. What we call Paro is actually the Paro Dzong, with three thousand occupants, and a surrounding valley sprinkled with the freehold homes of another thousand peasant farmers, the tre-ba.
Although the dzongs have come to be home to an increasing number of civil servants, they are still basically religious or monastic centers, where hundreds and hundreds of monks live and take their training. The monks are Buddhist, lamas are monks who are considered incarnations.
Women do not sleep in any dzong.
There are also separate monasteries as such, scattered about the whole country in the most unlikely places. A rocky windswept cliff face, or a lush green valley, are equally likely to boast a colossal or a modest gompa, or monastery.
Bhutan is an absolute monarchy. At this time it has no postal service and no monetary system. The Indian rupee is used by a very few privileged persons who have limited contact with the outside world. For anyone from the outside to travel or trade in Bhutan he must be invited by the King or Queen, and trading would be in kind, as is the whole economy. Taxes and any other form of obligation are all paid in kind.
Everyone from the King on down wears the same basic costume, a ko for the men, and a kira for the women. Each is a robe, fastened in the middle with a belt, and for the kira, secured at the shoulder by one or two clasps. Unlike Tibetans, the vast majority of northern Bhutanese men and women wear their hair quite short. Exceptions are the nomadic herders, whose summer residence is the only center resembling a village, and the people of Laya, a community close to Tibet.
This same majority falls into three groups. The tre-ba -- (a short glossary for unfamiliar terms is appended) are the home and land-owning peasants who pay tribute to the King by way of the nearest dzong.
The tra-ba, who own homes but not land, farm for the monasteries, and pay most of their crop to the landlord monastery.
The third non-monastic group to live throughout the land are civil servants all of whom are primarily elected, though some are appointed by the King on the basis of merit to higher posts. To this privilege are attached no significant material benefits; the trading stock in the whole country is social status. And one's status is decided, first by one's peers, and then by the King.
It is early spring, the year is 1940. A young woman suns herself in a small clearing on the mountainside.