Gasa Dzong from the trail to Laya, 2004

Gasa Dzong from the trail to Laya, 2004

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Our headlights pierce the heavy rain and we see smoke seeping through the woven walls of a tin roofed bamboo hut. Wangchu and I have arrived at the Kencho Hotel where the motor-road ends and the horse trail to Gasa begins.

A young Sharchop woman greets us at the door. Inside two men sit at a rough table glaring at each other over their beer bottles. As we make to join them, I tell Wangchu to buy a round for the men and ask them about their disagreement. The old man smiles and the men begin to recount their discussion, starting the disagreement all over again.

Wangchu explains that a wrathful spirit lives up ahead in a sacred grove near Damji. The villagers were afraid to cut the smallest branch or even gather a leaf. Then one day, surveyors came and a worker from India drove a bulldozer through the sacred grove. Nothing happened to him and he went back to India.

“This is Aap Dorji.” Wangchu introduces me to the old man. “He claims that the Indian bulldozer driver didn’t live in Damji so the demon couldn’t harm him.”

Old Aap argues that some of his cattle are getting sick and one of his cows gave birth to a calf with very unusual color. A farm house above the road just ahead is sliding down the mountain with its fields; a boulder rolled onto a house in Damji, flooding has uprooted trees and spilled gravel, mud, and rock into the irrigation ditches and paddies.

“Old Aap exaggerates,” swears Sonam, the young clean-shaven man in a fashionable gho. “These problems are not the work of spirits or the result of the road construction. They are simply natural occurrences—quite minor, really.”

“If it were not the spirits why did the King come on his jeep to look at the road and all the damages then continue on foot to the Gasa Dzong and the temple of Gomo?” Old Aap questions Sonam and then adds, “The King meditated in the temple, asked for guidance from the protective deity. He rolled the dice and then ordered that the road stop before reaching Gasa.”

“I don’t think it’s true,” says Sonam. The road was delayed because of budget constraints not spirits.”

“I want the road; we need the road!” exclaims Old Aap. “We just want it built without angering the gods!”

“These spirits can only harm local people,” says Sonam. “They are like local people and have to be submissive when there is an order from the government!”

“Our King doesn’t hold with that nonsense!” cries Old Aap. “Why would His Majesty and the Crown Prince perform all the traditional ceremonies and offering rituals if they could simply give a command and have the spirits obey? Anyone who believes what you are saying doesn’t believe in anything!”

From BHUTAN: Hidden Lands of Happiness, by John Wehrheim (Serindia 2011)