The Innocence of Bhutan - Ellyn Norris Photography

Innocent… the one word that simply defines the quaint little Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Innocent by the erect penises painted on the walls of the houses and stores and with their marijuana eating pigs. Due to Bhutan’s remote mountainous location, limited exposure to the outside world, the homogeneous population and their devotion to Buddhism, Bhutan may be one of few destinations left where you can experience this sweet innocence. Each time I visit and experience a new destination I brainstorm one word that describes that sums it up. For Japan my word is asymmetry, Cambodia’s word is forgiving and Nepal word is intoxicating. What brought me to Bhutan? I viewed a winning PDN image on the web of the Tiger’s Nest temple in Paro. I was immediately intrigued enough to invested enough to plan a visit. Fortunately, I have a sister who also enjoys more exotic travel and is patient with me during the many photo shoots that prioritize my journeys. From the moment I spotted the Bhutanese landscape via a Druk Air flight the word innocent became my chosen word for this mountain destination. One of the challenges and endearing qualities of visiting Bhutan is the lack of Western influence. In Bhutan you are bringing yourself to a place where there are few common comforts that you would expect to find in most countries today. Western (meaning varied) food, easy internet access, shopping malls and hotels topped with amenities are a non existent or a rarity. Tobacco is prohibited in Bhutan as it is a non-smoking country and if you have any cigarettes on you security will take them before you “plane in”. The Bhutanese culture has evolved in isolation and through their devotion to Tantric Buddhist principles including acceptance of Truth, Impermanence and Suffering. When I visited, there was only one runway and one airline flying into Bhutan. There is only one international road connecting Bhutan to Northern India. The other travel possibility in would be on foot through the mountains via Tibet. One of the funniest truth-filled interactions I remember of our visit was when my sister asked our guide Pema if we were his favorite clients and the reply was an immediate and direct “no”. Pema then pulled out a business card of the favorite client and proceeded to tell us about him and how much he enjoyed touring him around. Now that’s truth in your face! One of my most humbling experiences as a fit outdoorsy person was my hike to the Tiger’s Nest temple. Although the altitude adjustment and lack of civilized “switchbacks” was tough likely the most weakening part was being passed by many Bhutanese people 20 + years my senior. Pema comforted me by saying the people there learn to crawl then to climb. After many days of watching the children hike home from school up to their mountain homes I can believe him! I cannot imagine how the temple was executed initially in the 1600s and then the devote suffering that went into restoring it again after a fire in 1951. Sacrifice is accepted as part of their devotion to living life at it’s fullest. They seem to have a balance between pleasure and pain. While visiting the temple of Fertility in Punahka I had to abandon any of my left over Catholic upbringing and Western exposure to pornography in order to alleviate my awkwardness. Where do your eyes land while standing before the Temple of Fertility’s head monk, who has a large wooden penis in hand while speaking to us about the power of the thunderbolt (another Bhutanese word for penis)? I was able to get over the shock of the common penis iconography quite fast as they were also painted on shops and bars. In Bhutanese history there was a divine madman who was said to ward off evil spirits with his thunderbolt so the penis images are there to symbolize good luck and fortune. Unlike many Western people, the Bhutanese people enjoyed being photographed by me – young and old. They were curious to see the playback image after and were flattered to have me take an image of them back home. They are likely unaware of any ill intent a photographer could have or do with their image. Compared to my Catholic up bring, I find Buddhists to be unrestrained in many ways including sex and relationships. It is common for many rural people to not officially marry. Instead they live and have children with who they fall in love with and if that relationship no longer works they are open to split up and form new relationships. Impermanence is understood and embraced. While walking with our guides along crop patties in the farming area of Punahka, I noticed a healthy crop of marijuana growing in one of the fields and asked if the Bhutanese people smoked marijuana. Pema said that some people do use marijuana but for medicinal purposes but the crops are grown mostly to feed the pigs to make them have bigger appetites making them fatter. We have a lot to learn from the innocent qualities of Bhutan. Happy cows may come from California but I am certain happy pigs come from Bhutan.