“We Indians, with the help of drilling machinery, may claim to have surveyed, designed and constructed the first trafficable road in Bhutan but nobody can deny or take away the fact that it was the Bhutanese themselves who physically built the road with their bare hands.” 

Awestruck by the dedication of the Bhutanese, Hardy Pradhan (1938-) recorded in his journal, “Every stone removed, each pick put in the soil to loosen it or each spade that lifted the soil, these physical operations in building the road were performed by none other than the Bhutanese themselves.” 

Born and bred in Punjab, after graduating with a diploma in engineering, Hardy was deployed as a section officer and lived in Bhutan for 19 months, from June 1960 to January 1962, helping build our first national highway. Started in October 1960, the 174 km Phuentsholing-Thimphu national highway was carved out from the hills in the record time of 19 months (October 1960-May 1962). 

The first highway was built not only with the sweat and tears, but also with the blood of the Bhutanese and Indian labourers. With limited use of modern equipment and no earthmoving machines, the highway can be considered an engineering marvel and our country’s first exercise in nation building.

India’s Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi opening Zhung Lam – I (Phuntsholing- Thimphu Highway)

As a young impressionable Sikh, Hardy recorded his experiences working on constructing the national highway. He said that in June 1960 he was posted to Samdrup Jongkhar in eastern Bhutan to join the second division of the Bhutan Road Project. However, the very next day he was sent to Dewangiri where his section was made responsible for conducting the detailed survey and designing the six to seven miles of road. Four months later, in October 1960, the second division was shifted in haste to Phuentsholing, to build the road to the capital of Bhutan. 

The Bhutan Road Project was created following Pandit Nehru’s 1958 visit to Bhutan and the Third King’s return visit to Delhi in 1960. Mr. O.P. Mathur was appointed as the organisation’s Chief Engineer. Relocated from the Nathula Pass, his chief responsibility was to take care of the technical aspects of the road work which included surveying and construction. The project employed 20 Bhutanese Liaison Officers. Towards the end of 1962, the project was dissolved, making way for the Bhutan Engineering Service.

As an employee of the Bhutan Road Project, one of Hardy’s first jobs was to set up labour camps for the  construction of the famous seven- hairpin bend series at Sorchen on the Phuentsholing-Thimphu highway. 

Hardy said that it took about four months to construct the seven-hairpin bends in series. At the time, it was the biggest bottleneck in construction. Recollecting his time in Sorchen, he said that the winter months were the best time for construction. 

Between January and May 1961, Hardy was responsible for construction of roads in the Chasilakha area before finally establishing the Takthi Chu camp where he remained till January 1962. 

According to Hardy, every Bhutanese man, woman, and child was expected to work on the road project for a period of 33 days. He remembers that all the people who worked on the road were happy to do their duty and worked hard and diligently. “They were proud to be participating in the building of a modern nation and worked hard simply because their King had asked them to do so.” He said that it was difficult for him to explain this concept of affection and loyalty towards a monarch to Westerners.

Happy Women

Hardy said that the Bhutanese women workers were generally happy and merry and they turned the chore of stone breaking into a great social event. The women would sit in rows parallel to the road, their toddlers playing nearby and they would enjoy what seemed to be a session of gossip. They even teased him and the whole group would burst into fits of laughter after one of them passed some smart remark. 

This habit was more prevalent among the ladies from Haa, who always seemed to be laughing. Although Hardy did not understand the remarks, he knew from the laughter that the teasing was directed at him, but he always welcomed this liveliness in the otherwise quiet, remote jungle.

Hardy said that during his days working on the construction of the road in the forests in Bhutan he loved to talk to the Bhutanese traders who gave him updates on the progress of the project teams working on different sections of the road. He remembered the Bhutanese traders’ humorous descriptions of the men in charge of the various teams, and he often wondered how these traders would describe him, concluding that with his turban it would have been easy. 

Speaking in broken Hindi, the same traders would tell Hardy and the other men working on the road to hurry up and finish. The Bhutanese traders seemed to be in a hurry to buy trucks to bring their merchandise to Paro and Thimphu for sale. Hardy would often joke with the Bhutanese traders, saying that they would not be able to afford the trucks, to which the retort would be, “I will sell one mule and buy one truck.”

His Late Majesty was a frequent visitor to the construction site. He would ride to the site and look after the welfare, monitor the progress, and motivate the workers. During one such visit, His Late Majesty asked one of his supervisors, Jagar Darshi, whether he maintained the muster roll. Jagar Darshi promptly reported, “I have not met muster roll.”

The road project was an ambitious one but the Bhutanese were enthusiastic and determined to complete the road in record time. Despite the difficulties and lack of modern equipment, the roads were being built simultaneously from Phuentsholing and Thimphu without any earth-moving machines. Therefore, it is not an overstatement to say that the construction of the Phuentsholing to Thimphu highway was an engineering marvel. 

In addition, these roads brought the Bhutanese together and united them in a common endeavour to fulfil the aspirations of their King in a manner that had not been seen since 1907 when the Bhutanese people joined together to celebrate the establishment of the monarchy.

Hardy said that every day for two years, thousands of Bhutanese used pickaxes, chisels and other simple hand tools to clear mud and stones from the road sites. At night, explosives were used to blow up the next section of road, and the resulting rocks were cleared away by the workers during the day. Work on the road continued throughout much of the year, but it stopped during the summers, when the monsoon rains would trigger landslides that would often wash away sections of the road. 

Most of the technical staff who worked on the roads came on deputation from India for a period of two years. The Indian staff were provided ‘difficulty allowances’ as they had to live in makeshift camps along the road construction route. Most of the Indian engineers were given three tents—one used as living quarters and the other two as kitchen and quarters for their servants. According to Hardy, their camps were set up close to the Bhutanese labour camps wherever possible.

Indian engineers from the Bhutan Road Project were involved in all aspects of the work since development of the initial concept: the reconnaissance survey followed by the detailed survey, the final designs of the road and associated structures such as bridges, to the actual construction. The gradients throughout the road project were based on standards used by the British for road making in mountainous regions such as Simla and Darjeeling, with gradients based on the formula to rise or fall 256 feet in a mile (a gradient or slope of 1 in 20). If necessary, the engineers could also use the steeper gradient of 1 in 10 but not for more than 100 feet at a stretch.

During the construction period, when the first long stretches of road were completed between bridge construction and similar bottlenecks, Hardy and his team delivered jeeps to make the work and transport easier. 

The jeeps were carried in pieces and assembled on site by mechanics. mule caravans ferried fuel for the air compressors and petrol for the jeeps. The fuel was stored in drums at the camp sites and in other convenient locations where the Bhutanese were thrilled to learn of its combustibility, and they used it to light fires. The establishment of this jeep relay system halved the time of travel between Thimphu and Phuentsholing. It also facilitated the project immensely in way of communication, forwarding the materials to the inner parts of the project more quickly than otherwise.


Hardy acquired the nickname ‘Madman.’ This was because he invented a system of tying a rope around the waists of the workers and lowering them down cliffs, where they would use a shortened crowbar to gouge holes and load it with explosives, then climb up to safety before the explosion.

At the time, most of the drilling for blasting was done with pneumatic drilling gear. 

The large Swiss-made Atlas Corps air compressors with up to 4-6 air outlets were capable of drilling up to 8-10 feet into the rocks. These were the only machines used on the road construction.

Hardy said that in more difficult terrain handheld, portable petrol-driven drilling machines were used. Since the mule tracks were narrow, the large air compressors had to be dismantled in Phuentsholing and ferried by mules to the various sites to be re-assembled by the mechanics from Atlas Corps who came from Calcutta in India. 

At the time, most Bhutanese had never seen such machines. Hardy said that the Bhutanese would gather around them while the Anglo-Indian mechanics assembled them. The Indian engineers were happy to host these mechanics in their camps as they provided updates on Indian politics and general news. The mechanics were a dedicated lot and stayed until they were sure that everything worked smoothly, which was not easily achieved.

During the reconnaissance survey stage, five different routes between Paro and Phuentsholing were proposed and the present alignment was found to be the most feasible. The Bhutanese left the alignment of the road completely to the Indian engineers. 

Hardy remembers his superiors asking his Bhutanese counterpart if they had any preference for the road alignment. The Indian engineers thought that the Bhutanese officers may have wanted the road to go through a particular area or locality and were surprised with the answer: “Make the road as you feel fit and we will develop Bhutan accordingly.” In 2004, when Hardy travelled on the highway from Thimphu to Phuentsholing he drove through Gedu town, which he considered to be the legacy of this Bhutanese school of thought.

Initially the hills were cut to form a 12 -foot width although the design for overall formation was twenty-four feet. The rationale was that as the fragile hills were disturbed and the steep cuttings were washed away by the monsoon rains, just clearing the landslides would achieve the designed width of 24 feet. 

Following the same landslide theory, the roadway’s retaining walls were first constructed in dry masonry so that when permanent structures were built, the dry masonry work would act as filling behind the permanent retaining walls. The first monsoon proved this theory correct, as people could not even walk on the newly cut road due to heavy landslides.

The road was made trafficable by two-inch stone aggregate spread four to six inches thick to provide grip for tires. To produce this aggregate, boulders from the landslides were broken down to stones about eighteen inches in diameter and then the men pushed them to the side of the freshly cut road. It was then the job of the women to break those stones into smaller sized aggregate.  The women would wrap hessian bags around their hands for protection and use six-inch diameter steel rings with wooden handles to keep the stones in place, and use small hammers to break them while singing merrily.

A Date with You 

One of frequent visitors to the site was the then Prime Minister, Jigme Dorji. When he learnt that the Indian men missed music the most, he gifted a Sony short wave transistor radio. This changed Hardy’s life. At the time, the strongest reception was from Radio Australia which was broadcast from Penang in Malaysia. Hardy got hooked on the program, “A Date with You.” 

In early 1962, Hardy resigned from the Bhutan Road Project and headed straight to Australia, where he enrolled in an engineering college. However, he continued to exchange letters with R.N. Dikshit, a Nepali gentleman from Kalimpong, who worked as a sub-division officer in the Bhutan Road Project. Dikshit was Hardy’s immediate boss and had much experience as he had worked all his life building roads in the mountains.

The progress of the road was slowed down considerably when a bridge in Chukha could not be built. A contingent of the Indian army from Shillong, whose expertise was bridge building, was ultimately deployed to construct it. 

Ap Wangdi was one of the Bhutanese liaison officers employed with the Bhutan Road Project. He said his responsibility was to work with the Indian soldiers to ensure that they were well looked after and had sufficient workers. The bridge was successfully built and named Mathur after the Chief Engineer. The Indian soldiers were rather displeased with the name as they thought it should be named after the army, but took pride in the fact that they helped solve the biggest obstacle on the Bhutan Road Project.

God of Small Things

Nicknamed, ‘god of all small things’, Mathur was more feared. Stories of how his engineers would stand up even while transmitting radio messages to him were common. 

In a letter to Hardy dated 7 March 1962, R.N. Dikshit makes a reference to the bridge connecting Paro to Honka. The letter said, “A 200 feet span Bailey bridge now connects Honka from our side—the [Indian] military completed the bridge last month in a course of fifteen days and astounded the whole of Bhutan engineers. It was like magic. The bridge was opened by the King and named ‘Thargyal Mathur Zam’. It is a beautiful bridge.” 

 In a letter dated 2 May 1962, Dikshit wrote to Hardy from Honka, saying, “You will be interested to hear about works in our section. Almost all the road is widened and metaled. I had a very good letter of appreciation from Mr. Mathur, very recently. The monsoons have set in and this has deprived us of our regular dose of In the same letter Dikshit describes the upcoming opening of the road in mid-May 1962 and the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, who was expected to attend the official ceremony to mark the opening of road: “The opening of the Paro-Phuntsholing Road will come up sometime in the middle of this month. Pandit Nehru is expected to inaugurate — we have started feeling a thrill in our spines because of possible landslides due to the rains.” Dikshit continues his letter, “Anyway, God is here to help us”, reflecting the magnitude of the damage caused by the monsoons and the attitudes of the people working on the roads.

The Chief Engineer of the Bhutan Road Project, Mathur also confirms in his letter to Hardy in faraway Australia that the road to Thimphu was opened in late May, along with the road to Paro.  

Mathur writes in a letter dated 27 May 1962 from the Indian district Jalpaiguri to Hardy in Australia, of his satisfaction with reaching Paro from Phuentsholing. “It is so exciting to reach Paro from Phuntsholing in eight hours when we used to take seven to eight days.”

However, a letter from another former colleague, Darshan Singh to Hardy dated 15 March 1962 suggested that the road was actually completed much earlier. In this letter he said, “The road is complete up to Paro.” Darshan was Hardy’s colleague from New Delhi and was known as a very capable engineer and a well-respected individual throughout the project. He worked on the Chapcha rocks and the last section of the road into Paro. By March 1962, Darshan was entrusted with the task of constructing residences in Paro.

By 11 November 1962, Dikshit was based in Thimphu where he was employed as Executive Engineer in the newly formed Bhutan Engineering Service, which had the task of continuing to improve the Phuentsholing-Thimphu highway.

Formal opening 

Although the first national highway was completed in mid-May 1962, the formal opening was held only in 1968. On 3 May, during Indira Gandhi’s visit to Bhutan, she cut the ribbon and formally declared the 174 km long Phuentsholing-Thimphu Shung [national] highway open. 

Welcoming the Indian Prime Minister, His Late Majesty said, “The Phuentsholing-Thimphu National Highway was built on the sweat and tears of my people. We had no surplus labour force and so we had to conscript men and women from all parts of the country to work on this project. Many of my countrymen lost their lives in this venture. On your part you were generous with financial and technical assistance. It was the combined effort that saw the completion of this project in record time. The benefits from this road have been innumerable. It has ushered in a new era of progress and prosperity in my country.”

His Late Majesty said, “No longer do my people walk for seven days from Thimphu to Phuentsholing and seven days back just to buy salt from the Indian border towns. No longer do my people think only of the affairs in their village, for the roads have opened a window to the outside world and made them feel one with the rest of humanity.” Finally, His Late Majesty paid a tribute to Mr. O.P. Mathur, who as Chief Engineer of the Bhutan Engineering Services saw the completion of the initial motorable road from Phuentsholing to Thimphu, and Border Road Chief Engineers, Brig. T.V, Jegannathan and Brig. O.P. Datta, who gave the finishing touches to the road, and to the numerous officers and men who served under them with full devotion to duty and under conditions of extreme physical hardships.

After opening the Phuentsholing-Thimphu Highway, Indira Gandhi said, “Many thousands of Bhutanese have taken part building it and some have given their lives in the process. I congratulate them all on this wonderful work which they have achieved and which will mean so much for the future of Bhutan. This work shows your wisdom and statesmanship, that you have been able to give a new life to Bhutan and put it firmly on the road to development.” 

After gaining his engineering degree in Australia, Hardy married an Australian. Since then, he has lived in Australia. Last month, he turned 85 and his final message to the Bhutanese is, “for generations to come, every Bhutanese should be proud in the knowledge that it was their collective and physical efforts that achieved a project of this magnitude under extremely difficult conditions and in such a short time.” 

Contributed by

Tshering Tashi