What do Bach and Behzad have in common?

A few nights ago, an American friend here, who upon learning my brother and I were trained in Western classical music, asked me why was this genre of music so popular in Iran?

This made me think what, for example, Johannes Sebastian Bach and Kalam ud Din Behzad (the legendary 15th century miniaturist) have in common.


After reading My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, I came to appreciate the philosophy of miniature painting in a completely new light. In Islam is it traditionally not permitted to paint the likeness of people, thus the (primarily Muslim) art of miniature always focused on depicting “the form” of humans. This neo-platonic idea of capturing perfect form, for example of the horse, has a mystical aspect in that the artist’s ego has to disappear before the perfect form can flow from his hand. This idea was reflected in the belief that the best miniaturists are blind: ones who practiced drawing so much that their sight (i.e., individuality) is sacrificed on the path of art.

Of course, the magic of the art of artists of this tradition (and that of Sufi poetry in which strict rules apply to the weight and rhythm of the poems), is that their creativity within the clear bounds of their art form reaches such heights that defy human possibility. It seems creativity is best stimulated by the rules and limitations that surround it.

Likewise, there are many rules in Classical music and each accent, tonality and rhythmic action have to be precisely thought out. And, yet, once a piece is known inside out, slowly the artist transcends the rules and finds a new dimension to express his or her creativity through. Masters of performance, while playing Chopin and Schubert’s delicate piano pieces, know how to avoid prints on the snow by flying like birds above them! And masters of composition, swim through harmony and transition rules like dolphins!

Both Bach (and Beethoven and many other Western artists) and Behzad (and Rumi and many other Eastern artists) reflect this true artistry and mastery that can be very inspiring in many aspects of our lives.


Them, dogs!!!

They woke me up again at 3:30 am. They are cute and docile during the day and form vicious loud packs at night. I’ve been warned about walking at night without a stick, in case you get bitten! So many nights I stay home and sleep early (sometimes as early as 7:30pm!!!) and wake up to their sound around 3-4 am!

I have ear plugs but am challenging myself to get used to the sounds. Someone told me, “Bhutan did not have a dog problem, until a foreigner, staying here for the first time said, ‘I think you have a dog problem!’, and that’s how it started!” True, I will get used to them and actually I am starting to like it when they wake me up and give me many free hours before having to get up: I read poems by the Wild Saint of the East, Lama Drukpa Kuenlay, and curl up in my bed waiting for the sun to break over misty mountains so I can go for my morning walk to Buddha Point. After all the “‘divine madman’ demonstrates that it is not necessary to sleep eight hours a day to feel good, or to eat three meals a day to maintain the body in a fit condition, …”


This morning I listened to Pink Floyd’s Dogs!

An unusual animal

This Sunday, I met one a very unusual creature: Bhutan’s national animal, the Takin. There is a Takin reserve on the outskirts of Thimphu. A few years ago, this area housed a mini-zoo, but it was decided that keeping animals captive for entertainment was not in accord with Bhutan’s philosophy and the zoo was closed and the animal freed into the wild. The Takins, however, were so tame that they kept wandering around the streets of Thimphu looking for food, so they had to be put back behind fences. (In general, animals in Bhutan are very tame which is probably due to people following Buddha’s teaching of not killing.)


There is a very interesting story related to the origins of Takin. Once Bhutan’s famous saint, Lama Drukpa Kuenlay (that I’ve mentioned in a previous post) was asked by his followers to perform a miracle. He asked them to first bring him a bull and goat to eat. After he ate both and left only the bones, he put the head of the goat on the bones of the bull, he then commanded the new animal to come to life and run to the meadow to feed! A bizarre fact, giving credence to the miracle story, is that, the Takin actually can not be easily categorized, as it is not related to any other animal and so  it is placed in it’s put in its own category, budorcas taxicolor.


There are also beautiful deer at the reserve. The reserve is clean and quiet and there are many visitors. As I was leaving, a group of Indian dignitaries arrived in black Mercedes Benzes and accompanied by armed body guards (which is very rare in Bhutan).


After visiting the reserve, I went up to the telecommunication tower (2685 m) that provides nice views of the city. There were many many flapping prayer flags everywhere. The belief is that these prayer flags have to be on high points as the wind will blow their prayers to the sky. As I was walking, I met a couple who had brought some prayer flags to install there. I did not ask them what they were praying for, but it was beautiful to see them among hundreds of dancing colourful prayer flags, looking for a suitable spot to raise theirs.


I continued walking and at the entrance to the telecommunication tower (which is restricted and also should not be photographed), I met a father with two sons who were going for a hike to Wangditse Goemba. I asked him the directions and continued walking in the same direction.

Walking through a cool pine forest and a ridge, I got to the Goemba where on top of a hill, a young group of monks were playing soccer (a scene right out of The Cup!) and an old man was dozing off.


Nearby, two old men were chanting “Om mani padme” and turning big prayer wheels. I sat in this meditative and beautiful spot for a little while and then headed down the hill.


There was a small group of walkers in front of me, carrying a little baby wrapped in a blanket down the hill. After a little while, I lost sight of them and started making up poems and songs in my head as I was coming down the mountain.

I remembered when I was young and we used to go hiking every weekend with my father and brother in Tehran. I really enjoyed those walks. We had a small spot far from the crowds that we had dubbed “our peak”. We would walk there and have oranges and tangerines and then walk down to our house where we would have roasted chicken and potatoes (made by mom) or kebabs (made by dad). I remembered the smell of the earth when it rained, the feeling of small pebbles in my shoes and the taste of those dishes.

As I was thinking these, I heard strange but playful sounds behind me. I stopped a looked back. Three small kids were running down the hill in slippers with their hands stretched out, making airplane sounds (and spitting!). They ran past me and I remembered, I used to do the same when I was a kid.

Going further down, I reached the Dechen Phodrang monastery. Again, some monks were playing soccer.


After a brief pause, I walked back to the city along a road that went through terrace farms and from which I could see the gigantic Thimphu Dzong.


As I was walking, a tourist bus with windows full of hands holding cameras and iPads pointed at the Dzong passed me.

Walking into Thimphu, I saw a group of men playing the giant dart game (which is very similar to Bhutanese archery with teams dancing after the throws and singing teasing songs to each other). I was very thirsty after the walk and decided to go to a small local bar for a beer. A young friendly girl was tending to the bar. We chatted a little about life in Bhutan and suddenly there was a rain storm outside and all the men who had been playing, came in the bar wet and laughing.

There was a lot of animated talk about the scores and coloured scarves (signifying the scores) were distributed according to how people had performed. I sat there very content and chatter with a couple of the players and decided it was time to try the local arra, which is a rice wine not unlike the Japanese sake. I hear traditionally it is drank heated and also with a raw egg in it! I decided to try it without the egg and I liked its taste, although it would probably be better heated. After the rain had slowed down and after a second arra, kindly offered on the house, I headed out and strolled towards my apartment, thinking of the takin’s creation story.


I bought my first two Bhutanese books yesterday. Last week, my friend Sonam showed me a nice bookstore called “The Junction”. After finishing the sombre and absurd (but very good if you are interested in the subject) “The Emperor” by Ryszard Kapuściński, on the life and times of Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, it was time for a mood change!

The first book I picked up is a light hearted and immensely enjoyable collection of Bhutanese folk stories (transcribed from the oral tradition) called Folktales of Bhutan by Kunzang Choden. The second book is about a fascinating and unconventional 16th century mystic,  Drukpa Kunley, called The Divine Madman translated by Keith Dowman.

The shocking methods Drukpa Kunley used to enlighten and engage people were unconventional (to say the least). His sexual exploits are legendary and he is the inspiration behind the explicit (and traditional) phallus paintings on the walls of Bhutanese houses. Stay tuned for stories about this character!


The last couple of weeks, I have been obsessed with Bjork’s recent album, especially “Virus” and “Cosmogony” and AMOK by Atoms for Peace.

A Historical Picnic

Today was election day in Bhutan and everything was closed. My Bhutanese friends organized a day hike to two amazing monasteries: Cheri and Tango.


For the lunch picnic, I executed my one Bhutanese recipe (mentioned in a previous post):


and packed it in my backpack with some oranges and bread.

After a short car ride (about 30 mins), passed Bhutan’s only golf club and the construction sight of the new high court, we got to the head of the Thimphu valley and parked beside a beautiful bridge over a flowing river.


We had some hot delicious milk tea here and I managed to dip my toes in the water. In a nearby chortren I spotted some mini-chortern’s that I had seen before. My friends explained that sometimes when people have a wish, they have to built several of these and place them in a sacred place for their wish to be fulfilled. I find this externalization of inner wishes and beliefs present in many objects from the prayer wheel to prayer flags fascinating.

At the head of the mountain trail up to Cheri monastery, I couldn’t help notice a very prominent painting of a phallus on the wall of a hut. This symbol is associated with the Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529), a saint known as the bearer of crazy wisdom who combined his outrageous actions with miracles, and is believed to ward off evil:


After walking for about half an hour through beautiful pine forest scenery, we got to Cheri Monastery. Tame mountain goats greeted us as we reached the monastery:

ImageCheri Monastery is Bhutan’s first monastery and was built in 1620. It’s fort like structure is simply breathtaking:ImageOnce there, we had a short break, where my friends proceeded to change into the national dress as a sign of respect. Once inside, we climbed unto a serene temple where a monk was playing drums and bells quietly and chanting. The amazing thing about Bhutan is that if this was anywhere else, visitors would have climbed on each other’s back to take pictures and see things, whereas here, we were among a handful of visitors and it really felt like we had stepped back in time.

Surrounded in this sacred temple with detailed psychedelic images, my friends consulted a monk by throwing three big dice and having him read from a sacred text. The main shrine contained a sacred statue and on the two sides were two small elephant tusks. My friend told me that the tusks were only collected from elephants who were already dead.

There was a small room next to the temple that the monk told us contained the body of a Tibetan warrior who had come and was trapped in the room. No body has ever checked to see what is in that room (not even the highest lamas) but many people have had visions of people being taken in there by the spirit of the warrior. Hearing this story inside the room with the small locked door had a chilling effect.

There are many sacred sights in Bhutan and the belief is that if these places are disrespected, they can turn on visitors and harm them. An example is the Burning Lake, a faraway sight where the water looks like it is on fire. There must be no drinking, smoking or throwing of garbage in this area and there’s a story that some visitors did not follow these rules and throw garbage in the lake. The lake proceeded to rise up and swallow them.

Next to the temple, there is a steep stairway that is believed that if climbed without resting can fulfill your wish.


At the top of the stairs, we met a group of monks who took a picture with us: Image

and then climbed more stairs to (I think) their residence:


After a delicious potluck lunch close to the monastery, we climbed down to the car. Next, we decided to visit another monastery called Tango (or Ta Go, meaning “horse head”, named after a stone that resembles a horse’s head).

At the base of the walk, I saw a burning station with chimney that reminded me of our local Harvest Festival’s site:

ImageTango Monastery is also breathtaking and is home to the Tango University of Buddhist Studies:


Here is a sacred water well, where there is pure and tasty water coming from mountain streams. After the walk up, the cool water was a miracle:


After walking around the Monastery, we headed down, taking in the beautiful mountain sights as we did. We ended this amazing day with tea and chocolate. Thanks team 🙂


Bhutan Blessings

I have written little about the best part of my journey: the people I meet here. I am not used to describing my friends publicly and I will continue not doing that out of respect for them so bear with me if most things I write about concern my individual experiences! This is a dilemma for a writer, especially one who writes some personal genres of non-fiction: biography and travelogue.

But today I will make a little exception and thank all the people that I have been lucky to have met here: from amazing and caring Bhutanese colleagues who take time to make sure I have everything I need and take me out, introduce me to their friends and show me the real local life here to open-hearted and kind Canadian and European friends who have invited me to their homes and events. I’m truly humbled by all the kindness I have received here. Thank you my good friends, truly, the best part of travelling is meeting with you all!


Red rice, wild mushrooms and local cheese!

I had a classic expat experience today. After visiting the weekend market, buying the ingredients of my first proper Bhutanese dish (after trying a failed poached egg masala and eating lots of organic asparagus!) and getting soaked in weekend rain, I ended up at the Swiss Bakery, an institution in Thimphu.


A cozy alpine chalet style interior houses a cafe with European style pastries and cafe. Although I already had a weekend brunch of cheese momos and milk tea in the market, I couldn’t resist the coffee and a deliciously deep fried doughnut called The Berliner.


Also, looking at the other food for sale (specially the plastic wrapped hamburgers!) was fun. It was a great experience!

SAM_1338This is a weekend post, so I will talk a little about one of my favourite subjects: Food!

Last night I tried my first take on a Bhutanese style dish: Ema Datshi (or chili and cheese). Aiming for authenticity, I used very red hot chills I had bought from the market which made me cry with joyful tears later on! Also, I added yummy local wild mushrooms and a local cottage cheese that is a cross between cottage cheese and the Persian Kashk.



This was all good and fun but got even better when added on top of Bhutanese red rice which is a sticky rice, rich in nutrients and with a nutty flavour (that I like a lot). I think this rice would be exceptionally good for puddings and such.

So anyway, here’s a link to a recipe for Ema Datshi: http://www.food.com/recipe/ema-datshi-bhutan-477883


Timeless Kathmandu

Kathmandu is a city of contradictions. While many many tourists walk the streets of the upscale Thamel area, which reminds me of Toronto’s Kensington Market with much better shopping but minus the diversity, you have to walk 10 minutes in the right direction and suddenly you are in the middle of a timeless courtyard that has been lived in for hundreds of years and is still used to this day. Or see the bizarre Toothache Shrine with many needles:


Or find an ancient temple on which cloth are displayed for sale:


Or walk by a porter hurling a heavy load on his back as if cars were never invented:


A big part of the allure of places like these is the enigmatic feeling of suddenly being transported to another time. The sounds, smells and general vibes of Kathmandu’s old city have a magically timeless quality to them.

Of course, there are Coca Cola ads everywhere, everyone has a cell phone and it’s hard to avoid cars and motorcycles but you can turn into a narrow path lined with leaning walls and exposed electricity wires, dodge a few motorcyclists and ragged children and suddenly you are face-to-face with a 1000 year old shrine, “unprotected” and still used on a daily basis for prayers. In Nepal (and many parts of Asia), history is alive and well and not a concept in a museum.

The magical thing about these places is not that there is a lot of culture and history here; it is the fact that these traditions are still alive and have been continuously alive for centuries. I really enjoy this experience but am also aware of a deep contradiction that it entails.

There are many things to admire about different traditions and many values that should be cherish and preserved. But there are also many aspects that should not and travelling here provides an excellent chance to see the reality and be humbled by the complexity of culture.

The traveller if he or she scratches the surface of the picturesque can easily find the grotesque: child labour, thwarted lower casts, suppressed women. It’s easy to generalize and and pass a verdict on old traditions as either misunderstood treasure troves of wisdom or blind systems of oppression. But the real challenge is to stay calm, observe and decide what to take in your backpack and what to leave behind hoping it would transform soon!


Sensual Asia

The first thing I noticed was the smell. Getting off the plane in Delhi to transfer for Kathmandu, I immediately knew I had arrived in Asia when I could sense the faintest smell of spice in the air. And from that point on it became stronger and stronger. The smell of curry and incense at every corner of Kathmandu. Things are general intense in Nepal and many parts of India: the smells, the colours, the noise, the lack of personal space: every sense is engaged in some way, pleasant or unpleasant! Asia is sensual in many ways. I can see how people can feel intensely homesick after leaving here!


“Why does the rooster lament at dawn?”


Most of this afternoon was spent in silence in my apartment. The weather turned windy and cold and I decided to postpone my plans to go up a lookout with a giant Buddha statue to another time. I don’t have Internet and electricity was gone most of the afternoon, so I had a good chance to sit and listen to the breeze going through the trees and children playing outside.

I had missed my own company! If we could have more time to sit quietly and look at the leaves dance in the wind; not even to reflect but just rest our mind! The monk I met today told me that in order to meditate properly you have to go far, where there is nothing else and quiet your mind. I feel the more comfortable we are with ourselves and with silence we become more comfortable with others.

In Canada, I had wished to have some time to myself. I envisioned a retreat in a forest somewhere during the summer but I didn’t expect to find this silence here, halfway across the world. I know it won’t last, I am here on a mission. I want to engage and I want to learn. But, also, I want to be silent so that the universe may speak to me and through me.

When electricity came back, I listened to a traditional Persian song called “Dawn” on my computer. This is how the lyrics go: “do you know why the rooster lament at dawn? To remind you another day has passed and you are still lost!”


When I woke up, I lay down for a very long time in my bed and listened to the dogs barking outside. Then I went for the walk I had wanted to do the previous evening. The morning was fresh and beautiful with unbelievable mountain views covered in mist. Within five minutes of where I live is a path that goes up through a pine forest for 2.5 kilometres to reach a giant Buddha statue. Many people were jogging or walking up the path and my day started with about 20 friendly nods and good mornings. This is dangerously addictive; more addictive than Tim Horton’s coffee and depressing morning news reports!