September 16, 2019

Our Bhutanese Seder

A Dzong in Punika, Bhutan (the ancient capital).
A Dzong is an O shaped building with a lovely
large interior courtyard, in which civic offices
(at one end) and a Bhuddist temple and
academy (at the other end) are located.

Protected on all sides (except in the South) by the mighty Himalayas, and bounded by India, Nepal and Tibet, Bhutan is a small country about 200 miles long and 100 miles wide.  Its fewer than 700,000 people are mostly Buddhist, and have lived in peace for the past 800 years.  Bhutan is an isolated country which only very recently opened its doors to the West.  Yet, its people are welcoming and about 70% speak English.  The vast majority of the country is rual.  Thimpu, the capital and largest city has fewer than 100,000 inhabitants.  Western Bhutan, where much of the country’s Buddhist history has occurred is the locus not only of Thimpu, but also Runakha (the historic religious capital) and Paro, where the country;s only commercial airport is located.  Landing in a modern commercial aircraft on the 11,000 foot runway which cuts quite a swath along the floor of the beautiful Paro Valley, surrounded by imposing mountain terrain (including Mt. Everest in the near distance), is an awe inspiring experience.

A Bhuddist monk and his students at
a temple high in the mountains overlooking
the Para Valley.

A trip to Bhutan under normal circumstances takes much preparation.  The country allows only a few foreign visitors each year.  In the first 3 months of 2008, only about 2500 had been admitted.  Getting there is through Bangkok or Calcutta or Katmandu from which the fleet of two Airbus 319 aircraft operated by Druk Royal Bhutan Airlines operate.  Those who do come must be in good physical condition to hike the steep mountain trails to remote Buddhist sites, including monasteries, temples and chowdens (monuments).

It was in this unique place, in the lovely Zhwa Ling Hotel, situated above the Paro Valley, that, in April, 2008, my wife Jackie and I, along with our friends, Dr. Jay Stein, Carol Stein, Dr. Jim Tamkin and Fern Tamkin (all of the Los Angeles area) experienced our Passover Seder, one of our most memorable celebrations in our collective experiences.  As it turned out, our hosts may well have come to the same conclusion.  Our Seder was some 13,000 miles from our homes and familiesand as a result was quite unusual—not simply the Seder itself, but in the convoluted preparation for it and the unquestioning willingness of our Bhutanese hosts to help us make it special.

Young Bhuddist monks outside the Temple
in the Punika Dzong.

In advance of our departure from Los Angeles, Jackie, Carol and Fern had consulted on recipes for charoses and bitter herbs, and packed Pesach wine, matzah, macaroons, holiday candles, and, of course, Haggadot.  Our trip provider (Georgraphic Expeditions), its Bhutanese affiliate, our guides Tondi and Tashi, and the hotel staff joined us in taking care of many of the details, including having a member of the staff working under our watchful eyes in shopping for apples, cinnamon, parsley and other ingredients for the Seder plate.

Upon our arrival at the Hotel late in the day of the Seder, Karma, the lovely desk manager of the Hotel approached us and asked me to join her in the separate meditation center (a separate building on the Hotel property located on a promitory overlooking the valley below and the surrounding snow capped mountains) where the Hotel staff had proudly made arrangements for our ceremony and dinner.  I gave Karma a quick lesson about the Pesach exodus story, and explained that our ceremony and dinner were actually wrapped together as a single experience.  I found myself fascinated by the juxtaposition of the separate lives this young Bhddhist woman and I as a Jew had lived, brought together in this unique place .  Karma asked if she, too, could participate int he Seder, and I pormptly invited her, along with our guides, Tondi and Tashi, to be our honored guests.

Fern Tamkin, Dr. Jim Tamkin, Jackie Blatt,
Ron Leibow, Carol Stein, Dr. Jay Stein.

Meanwhile, Jackie, Fern and Carol had made their way to the Zhwa Ling kitchen where, with the help of Yogi, the Hotel’s Swedish born chef (whose staff seemed mesmerized by the events unfolding before them), chopped the apples for the most delicious charoses, boiled the eggs, prepared the parsely, salt and water, and assembled the Seder plate. All the elements were there, with one exception: we had no lamb shank bone!!  The chef quickly prepared a shank bone from a Yak!! and roasted it as if that were a common request!!  Suddenly, almost magicalley all the pieces were in place.  The sun now setting, and all of us in our “travel best” joined the group in the kitchen and joined the staff as its members ported all the elements for the Seder table from the kitchen to our recast meditation room.  And, the candles we imported from Los Angeles took on a special meaning, as they became the only light source as dusk morphed into night.

Opening our Haggadot from home, we lit the candles, said the blessings, recited the four questions, read the Pesach story, drank the cups of wine, made the Hillel snadwich, and later, welcomed Elijah—under the respectful and watchful eyes of our hosts.

The Seder Table in the mediation Center at the hotel
overlooking the Para Valley

When it was time to begin the festive meal, served by the staff, we were delightly with the chicken soup (albeit with mushrooms instead of matzah balls) and roasted chicken with vegetables for our main course.  The next day, Carol, impressed by the soup and roasted chicken, asked the Chef for the recipes.  The Chef stuttered for a moment, then confessed that he’d have to write out something, because he had literally coreated the soup on the spot to acccommodate our request.  In fact, he even had told his staff that he was so pleased with his creations that a number of the items he created for us would make their way onto the regular menu he offered hotel guests.

The Seder Plate for Our Bhutanese Seder.

Indeed, our Seder in Bhutan, was one to be remembered.  And it and the care we received from our hosts gave exceptional meaning to the special Bhutanese policy that had been announced by the King as few years ago:  the policy of “Gross National Happiness”!!