A few years back, a close of friend of mine was hanging loosely on the precipice of alcoholism. Any moment, he could have fallen in the endless pit of this dangerous addiction. Or perhaps who knows, he must have already been halfway through the fall. But as any alcoholic in denial, he didn’t care much. He would stay up till the wee hours of morning, hopping from one late night bar to another – which Thimphu has got quite a few - squandering away his money, health, and youth.
After a while, his tolerant and accommodating wife couldn’t handle his drunken shenanigans any more – late night drinking, drunk driving, the foul smell of booze, and more importantly, the gradual estrangement and disintegration of their marriage as he fell more in love with booze than her.
My friend is a lucky man. He has a good wife. She didn’t pack her bags and leave him alone with his drinking. She tried everything humanly possible to turn him into a new leaf. And when no amount of pleading, cajoling, and threatening worked, she came up with an idea – an idea that would change him forever, and convert him into a devout teetotaler. One early morning, when he was still in his drunken stupor, she drove him to the north of Thimphu, to the temple of Gyenen Jagpa Melan – the ferocious but wish-fulfilling protective deity who looks after the capital. In the dark, sacred hall festooned with antique guns, swords, and armory, and in presence of the much-feared Guardian of the Valley, he was compelled to take an oath of abstinence, never to touch alcohol again. Since that morning, he has not even sipped a teaspoon of booze.
Such is the power of the deity. It instills such mortal fear that alcoholics turn sober over night. Why go through the rigor of a detox or rehab program when we have the deities to fall back on? Isn’t it so much simpler? Take the oath of abstinence and down it with a palm full of holy water. The oath however comes with a stern statutory warning: ‘Lest you break this vow, you will bleed from your mouth and then perish’.
Fear of the unknown – the worst form being death - has an uncanny way to transform us. All of us so dearly cling to life and the immortal deities surely know this works with the humans, at least Bhutanese. My friend changed but he hasn’t stopped staying late. The only difference now is that he drinks endless cups of coffee and tea and many a bottle of coke, working late in the night. Whether his wife is happy or not about this is altogether a different story.
His is a success story – one that the deity would be certainly proud of. But there are other stories of casualty.
Not long ago, a recovering addict friend of mine told me this story. An alcoholic friend of his gallantly took the oath, only to be dishonored the very next day. The ghost of the deity is said to have haunted him for days on end. In one of his bizarre hallucinations, a dark, well-built man in full regalia of a warrior king, riding a black stallion, chased him, instigating him to take his own life as punishment for dishonoring the vow. After some time, the alcoholic went mad and jumped off Lungtenzampa – the Bridge of Prophecy - into the frothing, turbulent Thimphuchhu. Fortunately, he survived the fall. He never touched alcohol again.
Call it make-believe but such stories abound in Bhutan.
Recently, Bhutan’s national football squad won its first world cup qualifier against Sri Lanka, both at home and away matches, hurling us some 50 notches up in the FIFA football ranking. Mind you, we are no more the worst footballing nation on the planet. All thanks to our young and dynamic football team lovingly called the ‘Dragon Boys’ and of course, partly to our deities, without whom we could not have pulled off that feat.
However, during the away match against Hong Kong in the second round of the qualifier, the Dragon Boys were thrashed 7-0. Now we can only relish the memory of our victory against Sri Lanka. The defeat was bound to happen. The deities couldn’t travel that far to Hong Kong. Visa could have been a major problem for them, so the joke went around - a consolation for the fact the Dragon Boys were no match against the Hong Kong team.
As if that was not enough, China – the big dragon - again humiliated our team to a 6-0 defeat in our own backyard at the Changlimethang Stadium in Thimphu. But this time, every one saw some rare brilliance from our deity at work. The Chinese team was formidable – better built, and technically and professionally much superior than our boys. But their several assaults just couldn’t get through the goal post. And till the halftime, our team had conceded only one goal – just one goal! We could hardly believe we just played that well. For a country that had set the world record by conceding 20 goals to Kuwait, this was obviously a welcome reprieve. At one point of time, every Bhutanese watching the game was overcome with a false sense of hope that we might just even win that game. Wishful thinking!
In the second half of the match, the tables turned. The Chinese scored another five goals. Looked like the deity had run out of steam. The beautiful game is new to him. His powers didn’t just work with the Chinese, who don’t believe in God. Bhutanese don’t even spare the deities for a lighthearted laugh.
Jokes aside, we worship the deities. We seek their protection. We entice them with gifts. We offer butter lamps, alcohol, and money to please them. We seek their blessings for success, wealth, and health. We seek their divine intervention for victory in football or an archery match or for rain during dry months. Name it. The gods are part and parcel of our mundane lives.
That’s why thousands of students throng the temple before their exams. That’s why young parents with their newborn and those with new cars alike pay their respects and receive blessings from the deities. That’s why we throw the dice before their altars and almost blindly submit our fate to the silly numbers. To top it all, we even seek their interventions to sway election results. So much so, the Election Commission of Bhutan had to ban political parties from invoking the wrathful deities during the 2008 election campaign. Can you believe that?
But nothing beats this story. A Bhutanese man studying in Australia once invited the deity to Brisbane, albeit mentally. He visualized receiving the deity from the altar, down the dark stairs of the temple, into his car, all the way till Paro airport, into the aircraft, and then to Bangkok, got him into a transit flight to Australia, and till the casino he frequented. Not surprisingly he made a decent win. What are the odds? Never know, it just works sometimes!
But in his excitement, he forgot the deity in the casino. Only later when he reached Bhutan did he realize that. And all over again, he had to get into the meditative mode and visually transfer him back and gently reach him till his altar. Now, that must have required a mighty level of imagination and undistracted power of visualization.
As a matter of fact, we Bhutanese can’t get over the influence of our upbringing. It is in our blood, our genes, to supplicate to a higher being – when in trouble or fright or danger or when we desperately wish for a miracle. That’s our natural response mechanism! If you are reading this on your flight to Bhutan -which is obvious - the thought of the landing at Paro airport disturbing your calm, look around. Probably you will see a calm Bhutanese man, with his eyes closed – the serenity on his face more disguised than real. He must be invoking the deity. Time to follow suit! Safe landing!