Join our Mailing List

"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

The Changing Face of Bhutan

February 28, 2008

As the last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom cautiously opens itself to the
world, traditionalists fear for its unique culture

Smithsonian magazine
February 2008
By Arthur Lubow

On rural highways in Bhutan, trucks hauling huge pine logs rush past
women bowed beneath bundles of firewood strapped to their backs. In
the capital of Thimphu, teenagers in jeans and hooded sweat shirts
hang out smoking cigarettes in a downtown square, while less than a
mile away, other adolescents perform a sacred Buddhist act of
devotion. Archery, the national sport, remains a fervent pursuit, but
American fiberglass bows have increasingly replaced those made of
traditional bamboo. While it seems that every fast-flowing stream has
been harnessed to turn a prayer drum inside a shrine, on large rivers,
hydroelectric projects generate electricity for sale to India,
accounting for almost half the country's gross national product.

A tiny nation of 700,000 people positioned uneasily between two
giants—India to the south and China to the north—Bhutan was almost as
isolated as the mythical realm of Shangri-La, to which it is still
compared, until the early 1960s, when the first highway was
constructed. Now in a sequence of carefully calibrated moves, the last
independent Himalayan Buddhist kingdom has opened itself to the
outside world, building better roads, mandating instruction in English
for schoolchildren, establishing a television network and introducing
Internet service. This month, citizens will conclude voting for a
two-house parliament that will turn the country from a traditional
monarchy into a constitutional one. The elections were mandated by the
fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, before he abdicated in favor of
his then 26-year-old son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, at the end
of 2006. Two political parties scrambled into existence after the
decree.

And in another unusual move for the insular country, Bhutan is putting
its rich culture on display in the United States in two major
exhibitions. The first, which opened at the Honolulu Academy of Arts
(February 23-May 23) and will travel to the Rubin Museum of Art in New
York City and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, focuses on the
country's sacred Buddhist art—not only painting and sculpture, but
also ancient ritual dances, known as Cham, which are usually performed
by monks to bless onlookers and impart Buddhist teachings. The second
showcase is the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, to be staged
this summer (June 25-29 and July 2-6) on the National Mall in
Washington, D.C. It will include demonstrations of traditional
Bhutanese dancing, weaving, metalworking, woodcarving and herbal
medicine.

The two exhibitions are part of the centennial anniversary celebration
of the nation's monarchy, which was founded on December 17, 1907. More
important, Bhutanese leaders hope that the shows will raise awareness
of the country's unique culture. "What is required of a small country
with a small population is felt ever more strongly with all this
globalization," says Dasho Penden Wangchuk, the Secretary of Home and
Cultural Affairs. "We feel ourselves a drop in the ocean. And what do
we need to survive? Our culture. You want to preserve a plant or the
black-necked crane because they are endangered. But [people] are the
highest form of living being. The world goes gaga over a particular
variety of orchid, but here is a nation. Would you like to see Bhutan
disappear?"

Like much of the country's early history, the origins of the name
"Bhutan" are obscure; it may derive from Sanskrit words that mean "end
of Tibet." Certain facts, however, are clear. Tantric, or Vajrayana,
Buddhism—which employs esoteric techniques as a shortcut to
enlightenment—took root in Bhutan in the eighth century through the
efforts of the Indian sage Padmasambhava, who traveled widely in Tibet
and Bhutan and is reverentially referred to as Guru Rinpoche, or
"precious teacher." His influence is everywhere, not only in the many
temples said to have been constructed by him and his followers, but
also in contemporary jurisprudence. When I asked a former Bhutanese
smoker why the country banned cigarette sales (a brisk black-market
trade persists), I was told that tobacco is made of the ash of a
demoness who was shattered into a thousand pieces when kicked by Guru
Rinpoche's horse. Such stories probably began as parables for how
Buddhism superseded the animist Bon religion in Bhutan. However, the
old gods were never completely effaced. Even today, the Himalayas in
Bhutan are regarded as deities, and the Bhutanese government forbids
mountain climbing, which has attracted so many tourists to neighboring
Nepal.

The leader who unified the country in the 17th century, Ngawang
Namgyal, is revered today as a saint. Fleeing a power struggle in
Tibet in 1616, he settled in western Bhutan, where his particular
brand of Buddhism, known as the Drukpa school, was already well
entrenched. The charismatic Zhabdrung ("at whose feet one submits"),
as he is known, repelled Tibetan armies, subdued feudal lords within
Bhutan and began the system of dzongs—the fortresses that combine
religious and civil jurisdiction in each district. The characteristic
style of Bhutanese architecture, with its bay windows and elevated,
pitched roofs, as well as the country's religious rituals and unique
dress style (the kimono-like gho for men and kira for women), stemmed
from the Zhabdrung's desire to distinguish the country from its
expansion-minded neighbor Tibet.

More than anything, though, Buddhism is central to Bhutan's identity.
"We believe that Bhutan without Buddhism would not be Bhutan," said
Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering, a former Secretary of Labor and Human Resources
and now a candidate for the National Assembly. Bhutanese Buddhism
flourished for centuries in relative isolation. But the modern
world—particularly as seen on television, which arrived legally in the
kingdom in 1999—has already produced some undesirable changes. "Acts
of violence in the movies, which show so much fighting, have not been
so good for our youth," Penden Wangchuk said. "We have had gang fights
and youths fighting with each other. This is not a healthy thing.
Bhutan stands for peace, tolerance and nonviolence."

Still, most of Bhutan's leaders seem to think that controlled contact
with the outside world will be beneficial. Inaugurated in 1974,
tourism has since grown steadily; in 2007, nearly 20,000 foreigners
visited Bhutan. Travelers are required to make all arrangements
through an approved tour operator and spend about $200 a day in the
country. This "high-value, low-impact" tourism aims to avoid the
experience of Nepal, where hordes of backpackers roam the country
without spending much money.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank