One of the most interesting facets of our travels through Bhutan was experiencing a culture so deeply rooted in its religion. Buddhism is the official religion of Bhutan, and it encompasses every aspect of life. From the country’s history (the historical narrative begins with the entrance of Buddhism), to the landscape (religious icons and temples show up in every inhabited part of the country), to every day habits (all meat is imported because they do not believe in killing), Buddhism has been the bedrock of the country for centuries.
As we crisscrossed through the western and central portions of the country, we visited numerous temples and monasteries, learning about the beliefs, symbolism and customs that maintain a prominent role in society. One of the most beautiful of these symbols are the prayer flags seen on nearly every hilltop, either strewn through the trees like colorful bunting or staffed and placed in clusters. The variety that looks like bunting are called Wind Horse flags, as it is believed that the Wind Horse will travel swiftly through the wind to carry your prayers to the gods. The flag colors represent the five elements: earth, wind, water, fire and spirit. The staffed variety honor the Bhutanese ancestors.
Speaking of prayers, also prevalent throughout the country, and especially around the outside of temples, are prayer wheels. Before entering a temple it is customary to walk around the temple (always clockwise) at least 3 times for prayer and meditation. Prayer wheels are embedded in the outside walls of the temple, and people spin them as they walk and pray. Prayer wheels come in all sizes, from those that merely take a flick of the wrist to turn, to those that are massive and heavy and require that you physically walk around it to spin (massive prayer wheels can be seen in the top photo of the collage below).
Other popular sites include stupas, which come in all sizes and uses, like the large version in the above collage (middle right photo) used for meditation, or the small clay stupas below (bottom left) which contain the ashes of the dead (the Bhutanese do not bury their dead). Of course, Buddha makes a prominent appearance as well, as evidenced by the giant Buddha that oversees the valley of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. Currently under construction, this Buddha will be one of the largest sitting Buddhas in the world once it is complete.