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62. Face the Music in Bhutan during 400-500CE

NOV. 10, 2022


Mysterious and mountainous, this episode visits the country of Bhutan in order to face the music in the period 400 to 500CE. Discover the sounds of nature, from grunting yaks to squawking ravens, and the sounds of man-made music from centuries ago.

In this episode, Pete took Ryan to the Kingdom of Bhutan, also known as Druk Yul or “Land of the Thunder Dragon.”
Located in the Eastern Himalayas between Tibet to the North and India to the South, Bhutan is a mountainous country, but it’s not all high snowy peaks,
In the south a lot of it is densely forested with lush sub-tropical forest lowlands, then there are temperate midlands, where most of the people live and alpine highlands.
Buddhism is the state religion and has played a huge part in shaping its history.
The national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, but the nation is home to about two dozen languages perhaps reflecting it’s history of development in isolated communities separated by the mountainous landscape.
Bhutan is home to the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. Gangkhar Puensum, meaning "White Peak of the Three Spiritual Brothers" has never been climbed for a number of reasons. Firstly, the area was not well mapped for a long time and the first team to attempt the summit found they couldn’t even find the mountain at all.
It’s also a challenging peak. There were four expeditions that resulted in failed summit attempts in 1985 and 1986, but also there have not been many attempts allowed. Bhutan opened up for for mountaineering in 1983 but then reversed it’s position in 2003, when mountaineering was banned.
In fact, not being crazy keen on visitors is a trademark of Bhutan. With the exception of passport holders from India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives, all tourists must travel on a pre-planned, prepaid, guided package tour. And each tourist must take a minimum daily package – meaning a minimum amount of money you have to spend when you are there – of around $200 – $300 a day.
It’s physically difficult to get to as well. Bhutan has one international airport at Paro an hour's drive from the capital city Thimphu, which is served by just 2 Bhutanese airlines, Drukair and Bhutan Airlines.
Paro is in fact one of the most difficult airports to land in the world. With no radar to guide planes into the airport. The pilot needs to fly totally manually. They also need to visually check their speed and altitude against landmarks as they fly in, so landing is only permitted during the day. And it’s a short runway into the bargain.
Because of all this , but there are somewhere in the region of 10 - 20 pilots in the world qualified to land at Paro airport.
And on the subject of restricting outside influences, until 1999, Bhutan officially had no TV or internet either. In 1989, the Bhutan government ordered the destruction of all television antennas and satellite receiving dishes as part of an effort to protect Bhutan's national culture.
They rescinded the ruling in June 1999, when the return of TV was kicked off with a broadcast of a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the king's coronation.
In fact, preservation of culture is all part of Bhutan’s government effort to maintain a high Gross National Happiness Gross National Happiness. This was the creation of the 4th King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk and is a measure that values collective happiness over economic performance. Gross National Happiness is based on 4 pillars.
• sustainable and equitable socio-economic development;
• environmental conservation;
• preservation and promotion of culture; and
• good governance.
Every five years, survey-takers conduct questionnaires of some 8,000 randomly selected households. They ask about 300 questions in a process that takes about three hours.
Questions like
• "How frequently do you pray?",
• “how much time and money you devote to your community”
• “how many hours you sleep and hours you work,
• How often to you quarrel with your family?
• Do you trust your neighbors?
The results – intended to focus governance on the well being of the people, result in policies such as providing free education and free health care, sometimes free electricity and various other efforts to maintain the happiness of the people.
Does it work though? Bhutan is a poor country, but it’s not about poverty. However, in 2017 when the United Nations released a World Happiness Report ranking countries by happiness last year, Norway came top and Bhutan came 97th.
History of Bhutan
In his book “The History of Bhutan” Karma Phuntsho says you can to this day find stone adzes either passed down the generations or found in fields which they consider celestial weapons used in battles between gods and demi gods. These namcha tare – or sky iron axes - are kept in a treasured place but in reality they may in fact be prehistoric tools.
One was examined by the British Museum who identified it as a late stone age artefact dating between 2000, and 1500 BCE.
In addition, geologists have found changes in the pollen found in lake sediment in Northwestern Bhutan that suggest the vegetation around 2500BCE changed from natural to human-centric, so we can be confident that in the period 400 to 500CE there were indeed people living in the area.
In fact, it’s believed between 100 and 600 CE there was actually country or state called Lhomon, meaning southern darkness or Monyul, meaning dark land. It was called the land of darkness because these areas at that time had not been touched by the enlightenment of Buddhism.
But all that was to change.
In Tibet there was a king called Songtsen Gampo who ruled from 627–49. We know he ordered the construction of two Buddhist temples in Bhutan. One was at Bumthang in central Bhutan and one in the Paro Valley in the West.
This event simultaneously introduced Buddhism to Bhutan and acts as something of a marker for the start of Bhutanese history as we know it today.
Gampo was king of Tibet though, not Bhutan so why the temples.
The boring version is a projection of influence. The fun one is that mystics had revealed that the country of Tibet was lying over the body of a gigantic demoness. Hills were her breasts and a lake was the blood of her heart.
To deal with this, Songtsen Gampo built a series of 13 temples at key locations on the body of the demon to pin her down. As a result of her left knee and one left foot being in what is now Bhutan, temples were constsructed in these locations.
Padmasambhava and the rise of Buddhism
The next major visitor to Bhutan was Padmasambhava also known as Guru Rinpoche. He was an Indian Buddhist, considered by many to be the second Buddha.
He travelled around India for a while but was invited to Bhutan when a king of the area fell gravely ill.
Padmasambhava came to Bhutan and identified that a spirit called Shalgin Karpo was behind the kings illness and hiding in a cave. Padmasambhava lured him out of the cave and he came out in the form of a lion. In response, Padmasambhava took the form of a Garuda – a mythical bird - and swept up the spirit.
He then converted the king to Buddhism and, rejecting the kings request to keep him around, continued on his travels.
This was just one of the many marvels that Padmasambhava performed in Bhutan, and as he spread around the area dispensing wisdom and miracles, so Buddhism took root in Bhutan, as did a plethora of temples and sacred spaces maintained to this day
Drukpa Kunley – the divine madman
Another notable Buddhist holy man to visit Bhutan was Drukpa Kunley, who visited the area int eh latter half of the 15th century.
Known as a ‘divine madman’ Drukpa Kunley roamed the country carrying a bow and arrows and wielding a phallus. Specifically his own phallus. With which he subjugated demons and which he named The Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom.
According to The History of Bhutan, he is “remembered for his jovial and lewd lifestyle and for travelling from place to place, enjoying local liquor, singing licentious songs and seducing adult women of every age group.” Which is a heck of a way to go about being a holy man.
In fact, even today you can find penis drawings on walls around Bhutan in celebration of the Divine Madman with the demon-slaying phallus.
Ngawang Namgyal – Bhutan takes shape
Ngawang Namgyal aka the Bearded Lama arrived in Bhutan in 1616 again from Tibet, where he was fleeing the dominance of a different sect of Buddhism headed by the Dalai Lama.
When he arrived in Bhutan he built a Dzong which is kind of castle and monastery combined, the home of both administration and religion, illustrating an intertwining of religious and secular power that characterises much of Bhutan’s history.
By tradition, dzongs are constructed with no architectural plans, using a high lama who establishes each dimension by means of spiritual inspiration.
From this first Dzong, Ngawang Namgyal gradually extended his influence, uniting the various families, building a network of Djong monastery/forts until he was ruler of the first recognisable thing we could call the nation of Bhutan.
He taking the title Zhabdrung, meaning “At Whose Feet One Submits”, and ruled a land known as Drukyul.
Bhutan’s northern neighbour Tibet, was not keen on this development, launching a series of attacks on this new country, none of which were successful.
Unfortunately, in 1651 Ngawang Namgyal died. This was a worrying time as Tibet was still looming large. So his supporters simply pretended he hadn’t. It was claimed that he went into a spiritual retreat and would not be seen. They took meals to his room and monks had ceremonies with him which he conducted from behind closed doors.
They did this for fifty-four years.
The British are Coming
In 1772 the British arrived in the area and in the early days were in conflict with Bhutan as they attempted to take control of India. This all culminated in the The Duar War (or Anglo-Bhutan War) in 1864–1865. Although did have some successes, Bhutan ultimately lost this war, signing the Treaty of Sinchula, an event which was the start of a lasting peace with Britain.
The introduction of kings
November 1907 saw the end of the Zahbdrung period which had been characterised by a kind of power sharing between religious and secular leaders. Instead, Bhutan implemented a Monarhcy. Ugyen Wangchuck was elected the first hereditary Druk Gyalpo or Dragon King.
The nation endured some turbulent times through the 20th closing its border with Chinese-dominated Tibet, and embarking on a programme of modernisation. In 1971 they even joined the United Nations.
It was a late starter when it came to democracy though. The first democratic elections in Bhutan began in 2007. On 6 November 2008, the Druk Gyalpo abdicated and his son took the throne to oversee further democratisation.
And so Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck became Druk Gyalpo at 28 and holds the role today, continuing to be active in promoting further democracy. All levels of government have been democratically elected since 2011.
Music of Bhutan
This is a song called Dungai Nanggo Nigma, or The Orphan’s Song. It’s by Kheng Sonam Dorji, who is executive director of the Music of Bhutan Research Centre.
This song from the Album Music from the Mountains of Bhutan, released in 2014 is available on YouTube and Spotify and has the History Happened Everywhere seal of approval.
The stringed instrument you can hear on thee song is the sound of the drangyen. This is a lute-like stringed instrument whose name translates to “hear the melody” (dra means “melody” and ngyen means “listen”).
The instrument has 7 strings, 3 double strings, then one extra string tuned to a higher octave and is played with a plectrum of triangular bone, wood, or horn.
It has a long, fretless neck and the whole thing is about four feet, 1.2 metres long. The body is a resonance chamber made of wood, leather and yak or ox bone.
The head of a drangyen is carved with a Chusin, a sea creature or demon used to ward off evil spirits that might be drawn to the beautiful music. And it’s not just evil who like the instrument, it’s a popular instrument with the Gods, too. Lhamo Yangchenma, the Bhutanese goddess of music, carries a drangyen, as you might expect, but also the Guardian Deity of the East, Sharchog Gyalpo, often uses one to communicate in order to protect people from the destruction that the sound of his godly powerful voice would cause.
However, it’s believed the drangyen originated in Bhutan around the time of Guru Rinphoche, around 700 to 800CE, so we can’t be sure you could have faced this music in 400 to 500
Fortunately, there’s a different instrument as a better candidate. The flute.
Since 1984, six complete bone flutes, as well as the fragments of at least thirty more have been excavated from early Neolithic Jiahu culture tombs, Henan Province, in Central China that date to 6000 BCE. These are considered to be the oldest playable, multi-note musical instruments ever found.
So we can be confident that if you wanted to face the music in Bhutan in 400 to 500CE, you would certainly hear something very like the modern dong lim. This is a very popular bamboo flute, sometimes known as the cow herder’s flute. It’s about 20 inches long with six main finger holes and a mouth hole in a straight line.
Music of nature - the Raven
Man is not the only source of music in the world, there is of course the music of the sounds of nature.
Birds in particular are famous for their song. So in this episode we heard the music of the National Bird of Bhutan.
It was not very musical at all. Because the national bird of Bhutan is the raven, or Jaroq.
The raven is the form often chosen by a major deity that protects Bhutan, Mahakala.
It is said that Ngawang Namgyel, the bearded lama, dreamt of a raven taking flight and heading south towards Bhutan, which he recognised as a manifestation of Mahakala and followed to form the nation.
And to this day the king of Bhutan wears a Raven Crown. Based on the battle helmet worn by the father of the first king, the crown is a silk and satin round hat with images of skulls around the sides and, popping out of the top, a raven’s head, embroidered.
It is awesome. You should go and google it now.

Music of nature – the yak
The Yak is commonly found around the Himalayas but you might be surprised to hear it’s call.
The yak was originally designated Bos grunniens, "grunting ox" by Linnaeus in 1766, because it doesn’t moo like a cow, sounding more pig-like.
Yaks can grow to be up to 7 feet tall and weigh up to 1,500 pounds (650 kilos). They are found all over the Himalayas, partly because they are so useful, being used for transport, fuel, food and agriculture.
To imagine how life with a yak might have looked 400 to 500CE we can look at the way of life of the Brokpa people, yak herders who have lived in the remote far eastern corner of Bhutan since 1300s.
In winter they reside in their villages of Merak and Sakteng, which are very remote – a two or three day trek from the capital.
Then during the summer the Brokpa live a semi-nomadic life, moving around finding fresh pasture for their yak.
May and June is the season for harvesting the yak hair. Only the castrates and females will be sheared, and the breeding bull is allowed to keep its coat, so that it will be attractive to the lady yak.
Music of Nature – the Takin
This is the sound of the National animal of Bhutan is the takin. These come in four types, the Mishmi takin, the golden takin, the Tibetan takin and the Bhutan takin.
This remarkable animal is also known as the goat antelope, or the gnu goat and they can stand stand 97 to 140 cm (just under five feet) at the shoulder. They are mountain creatures, living over over 3,700m up in small herds of 10 to 50 in winter and herds of up to a hundred in the summer.
There is a theory that the legend of the 'golden fleece' from the story of Jason and the Argonauts might have come from someone seeing the lustrous coat of the golden takin. But in Bhutan, the legend is much more interesting.
One day the people of Bhutan requested that Drukpa Kunley, the divine madman, perform a miracle before them. He agreed, on the condition that they gave him lunch of a whole cow and a whole goat.
They brought him the dinner, and he devoured the meat, leaving out the bones.
He then took out the head of the goat and fixed it to the skeleton of the cow, created a brand-new, live animal – the takin, or as it’s known to the Bhutanese, the dong gyem tsey.
When man meets nature
A sound that may have been heard in Bhutan in 400 to 500 CE is the sound of an arrow being released and hitting a wooden target.
Because not only is archery is a massive sport in Bhutan today, and the national sport, but it’s a technology that dates back thousands of years. The oldest evidence of archery are arrowheads that have been found in Sibudu Cave, South Africa from over 60,000 years ago and the oldest bows found in one piece are the Holmegaard bows from Denmark, dated to 9,000 BCE.
Nearer Bhutan, in the location of China’s terracotta army a crossbow has been found, dated about 2,200 years ago, making this technology that definitely would have been around and in use in our period.
From the 15th century Drukpa Kunley is generally depicted holding a bow and arrow and a story is told that before he ever visited Bhutan, Drukpa Kunley launched an arrow from Tibet, with a prayer that his descendants would flourish wherever it landed. It flew over the Himalayas and hit a house in Bhutan. so he followed it there and seduced the owner’s wife.
The rest is history.
But to this day, archery is practiced with great enthusiasm in Bhutan. Up until 2008, every single athletes Bhutan sent to the Olympics was an archer, although they’ve never won a medal.
However, this might be because social Bhutanese archery is quite different to the Olympics.
Firstly, in Olympic archery, the target is 60 metres away. In Bhutan, they fire at targets from 140 metres away, more than twice the distance.
Also, in the Olympics it generally takes place in a hushed arena. In archery in Bhutan, it’s considered normal to drink alcohol, not just the audience, but the archers too.
A president of the Bhutan Archery Federation said, “without alcohol, traditional archery would be incomplete, because it’s also a game with singing, dancing, and merrymaking. But we have rules during competitions.”
Archery competitions still often use traditional bows made out of two pieces of bamboo, although modern bows are used more and more. Arrows also made out of bamboo, with flights of feathers that used to be taken from monal pheasants, which looks a lot like a peacock but due to conservation reasons, are now more likely to be Sellotape.
Whatever the technology, you have to admire the archers who somehow, even after a few drinks, can hit a target slightly larger than a skateboard from 140 metres away.
And with those guys shooting around you, you’ll probably need a drink too.

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