Gazing across a valley, from the terraced fields to the thickly wooded slopes dotted with bamboo spires, away in the distance to the mauve mountains, with the scent of lemongrass and bitter wormwood rising up from my feet and a light drizzle—in Bhutan considered auspicious and known as the ‘rain of flowers’—falling, I found myself on the horns—almost maliciously sharpened—of a travel writer’s familiar dilemma. How to write about a place without making people want to go there?
Bhutan is known variously as the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon,’ ‘the Hidden Kingdom’, ‘Shangri-la’, as though its own name is insufficient to capture the poetry and magic of the place. And it really does seem like a fairytale place, complete with farmers tilling the fields with wooden ploughs and oxen, and forests deep and dark. And yet, here it is: a very real and vibrant democratic monarchy with internet and community radio, progressive educational policies, cell phone coverage, an astonishingly high percentage of Facebook users and the sine qua non of a modern nation state, a literary festival.
I was there recently to participate in the second Mountain Echoes festival—a privilege, not only for the opportunity to be with interesting writers, filmmakers and thinkers, but also because the organisers (bless them!) were picking up the tab. Without that, the $200 daily tariff for foreign passport holders like myself would have meant that Bhutan would have stayed firmly in the imaginary sphere: a kingdom forbidden to all but the affluent few not by royal decree or sacred taboo but by the (perhaps more effective) route of hard economics.
The festival kicked off with director Mita Kapur requesting “Her Majesty and His Excellency to please take the stage.” What followed was not a stuffy exchange between a senior diplomat and a member of the royalty, but a lively discussion between two writers: Pavan Varma, whose writerly credentials rest on his nonfiction book, Being Indian, and whose novel (previewed at the festival) is soon to be published, and Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, who described herself as ‘a scribbler not a writer’ but whose recently published book Treasures of the Thunder Dragon establishes the opposite.
By the end of day one, it became clear that it was pretty much impossible to get through a session without some mention of GNH. The term ‘Gross National Happiness’ was coined by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, soon after his ascension to the throne in 1974. GNH is based “on the conviction that material wealth alone does not bring happiness, or ensure the contentment and well-being of the people…”
This concept, intertwined with a deeply rooted Buddhist way of life, forms the bedrock of Bhutanese society and what for the Indian delegation—there were about 25 of us in all—was such a refreshing change.
Two examples that immediately strike a new arrival in the country. The first is the uniformity of the buildings. There’s lots of new construction going on—especially in the capital, Thimphu, where the festival was being held—and yet beneath their wooden and bamboo scaffolding, all of the new buildings looked like heritage hotels, with carved lintels, stone or packed-mud walls, and sloping roofs held slightly aloft of the tops of the outer walls with grand wooden beams. Regulations passed by the ruling government a few years back ensure that all new buildings conform to traditional Bhutanese architectural styles. So the hospital looks like a monastery looks like a school looks like a petrol station looks like someone’s house looks like the palace looks like a mall.
When we arrived in the airport terminal, the Indian delegates stood in a quiet line at the immigration counter, gazing up in awe at the mandala painted on the ceiling, the chevrons of gold, sky blue and red painted around the walls and the carved wooden columns. “See?” remarked historian and conservationist Aman Nath, who was ahead of me in the queue. “This is what happens when people are in their cultural milieu. And not,” he added darkly, “trying to be Singapore.”
The second dawns on you more slowly, and accounts for the unfamiliar sense of peace that steals over you—a peace not normally associated with capital cities. There’s no advertising. Not only are there no hoardings or signs for Pepsi, Garnier or Druk Jam, for that matter anywhere on the streets of Thimphu, even the shop signs are plain dark blue boards, hand-painted with white lettering.
It was small wonder that Valmik Thapar’s suggestion during his session that India be dubbed the land of ‘Gross National Horror’ was an instant hit with the delegates—at least with the Indians: the Bhutanese were far too well brought up.
Outlook Traveller magazine, July 2011