A fire in Bhutan
Rebuilding a mediaeval monastery—without nailsBy John Ryle • 27 April 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • Revised • Posted 2016 • 1,474 words
The view from the fortress tower in the Paro Valley in Bhutan, is as good as a landscape gets.
“The valley floor is like a giant zen garden,” I wrote after a visit there in the 198os. “Tiny boulder-strewn plots gleam with wheat and barley; flooded rice fields mirror the mountains and the sky. The fields are threaded silver with irrigation channels that flow from the Paro river as it hurtles from the Himalayas to the plains of Bengal…”
The Paro Valley still looks like that, by all accounts. Last week, though, one of the monuments in this landscape—Takstang, the Tiger’s Nest—suffered a drastic transformation.
A horse’s egg, a piece of the moon
The fortress tower that provides the vantage point for this astounding view of the Paro Valley houses a museum, one of the world’s strangest. The exhibits in the Paro museum include a stuffed snow leopard, a horse’s egg, the miraculous footprint of a lama in rock, and a small piece of the moon, presented by President Nixon. The museum floats between worlds, between science and religion, between local and global. The exhibits there are illuminated by the open flames of butter lamps. In conversation with the deputy director of the museum I came to understand one of the principal factors in the formation of the cultural landscape of the Paro Valley: the role of fire.
The Deputy-Director of the museum is the daughter of a celebrated Tibetan Rimpoche, an incarnate lama. She is known in the world of scholarship for her work as an architectural historian—and among acquaintances, less widely, for her impressive arm-wrestling technique. When I visited her at the museum—it’s an hour’s walk up from the valley floor—she drew my attention to the butter lamps illuminating the statues and thangkas—the sacred paintings on display there.
A butter lamp is a dish of clarified butter—ghee as it is known in the subcontinent—with a floating wick that gives off a flickering light. With their sooty smoke and attendant fire risk butter lamps hardly conform to international standards of conservation. But, as the Rinpoche’s daughter explained, to dispense with them would be to lose the religious ambience that gives meaning to the exhibits. To illustrate the vulnerability of the museum, she directed my gaze north towards the charred ruins of Drukyel Dzong, the fortress monastery that guards the road to Tibet. Earlier this century Drukyel Dzong was destroyed in a blaze caused by butter lamps like these, upturned in an earthquake.