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The Kingdom of heaven

Religion, tradition and ancestral values mould national etiquette in Bhutan; its most visible symbol being the colourful robes people wear at work and on all formal occasions, writes Vinod Sharma.

india Updated: Aug 18, 2007 02:02 IST
Vinod Sharma

Bhutan isn’t the place where one expects to hear the Indian House Crow’s irritatingly nasal kaan kaan. The country is home to such exotic bird species as Kestrel and Whistling Thrush. It’s heaven on earth when the Drukair flight from Delhi descends on Paro’s picturesque airport running parallel to Pachu’s swift waters.

The river derives its name from the breathtakingly beautiful Paro Valley that’s an hour’s drive from Thimpu, the relatively crowded Bhutanese capital where the birds of development, the cranes, have begun dotting the skyline. Does the arrival of House Crows, about which an alarmed reader wrote to Kuensel, the country’s oldest English newspaper, signal environmental degradation so deeply abhorred and feared by the Bhutanese?

“Thimpu is deteriorating environmentally — the land, the air, the river. That’s why the natures cleaning machines are here to stay,” wrote Karma Wangchuk. “Our rivers are becoming easy dumping places; there’s a need to change the psyche that everything flows and nothing stays.” A timely reminder for a country whose water resources are as precious as West Asia’s oil reserves; its hydel power exports to India netting a positive trade balance for the tiny nation.

A tale of two cities

At 7,300 feet above sea level, Paro’s is the ambience for mediation and muse. What sets it apart from Thimpu is its silence, the pure, unpolluted air that’s inspiration for poetry and meditation by gelongs, the ordained monks in their dark red robes. The place reminds one of the spiritually lifting lyrics of V Shantaram’s Boond Jo Ban Gaye Moti: “Haree bharee vasundharaa pe neela, neela yeh gagan, key jis pe baadalon kee paalkee udaa raha pawan…. yeh kisne phool phool phool pe kiya shinghaar hai, yeh kaun chitrakaar hai, yeh kaun chitrakaar.”

Clouds hanging like palanquins on an azure sky above Paro’s green fields, in the middle of which sits the airport, set up a real life encounter with Bharat Vyas’ ode to nature — and its maker. But Thimpu’s bucolic wealth is on the decline.

Bemoaned Sangye Wangdi, an aspirant to Parliament’s Upper House in Bhutan’s tryst with democracy: “My parents aren’t used to living in apartments. Every time they come visiting me in Thimpu, they are in a hurry to return to the countryside.” The possibility of pigeon-hole existence has, in fact, triggered a lively debate on the need or otherwise of retaining traditional Bhutanese architecture in new constructions.

Houses with shingled roofs and brightly decorated window frames are an integral part of Bhutan’s landscape. Building them might cost a fortune. But they are at the core of the Kingdom’s many unique features that help promote tourism that’s sustainable and lucrative. “The mountains are magnificent, the forests dense, the people delightful, the air pure, the architecture imposing, the religion exciting, the art superb,” wrote French historian and Tibetologist Francoise Pommaret in her 2002 book on Bhutan.

The middle class

Five years down the line, there are 20,000 private vehicles in Thimpu, where metalled roads measure a meagre 75 km. Accidents and incidents of road rage are on the rise in the city where, until a decade ago, most people walked to their workplaces.

But is Thimpu, where a lakh of Bhutan’s 6.75 lakh population is concentrated, about to embrace the urban chaos so tangible in cities to which it’s linked by air: Bangkok, Kathmandu, Kolkata and Dhaka?

Not really. The growing middle class might be trying its best. Yet, its numbers are too small to cause irreparable damage to the land of Mahayana Buddhism with its myriad monasteries, prayer wheels and flags atop homes, hills and along mountain streams. “The idea isn’t to be like Bangkok, once renowned for its canals and now famous for the snarl-ups on Sukhumvit Road,” Kuensel quoted a local businessman who drives a Land Cruiser in “car crazy” Thimpu.

Urbanisation’s downside isn’t lost on the inherently wise Bhutanese. A proof of their wisdom, said a diplomat, was the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s “virtual abdication” in favour of a democratic constitutional monarchy that will be in place in 2008 — the year that will mark the centenary of the ruling dynasty and the coronation of the fifth king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who will be the Head of State under the new constitution.

“The king learnt what not to do in the right way,” the diplomat said. His mantra of “gross national happiness” guides most policies: ecological protection, urban expanse, restricted high-end tourism, ban on the sale and purchase of tobacco products, about which tourists are politely warned on arrival at Paro. It’s another matter that cigarettes are available for tourists in Thimpu’s flourishing black market. That perhaps is the Bhutanese way of educating people without seeming to be dictatorial.

Along with times

Fiercely proud of their tradition, the Bhutanese aren’t known to give in easily to outside influences. A recent ban on Dish TV to banish WWE wrestling shows hasn’t angered anyone. Religion, tradition and ancestral values mould national etiquette; its most visible symbol being the colourful robes people wear at work and on all formal occasions.

“Can we be informally dressed,” asked a group of young journalists on being invited to a dinner with counterparts from India and Pakistan. They turned up in smart casuals at a hotel that ran out of ice cubes while the party was just about warming up. That brought up the state of the hospitality sector in Thimpu, where the Taj Group is fast executing a five-star hotel project.

Employment is a big issue in the Kingdom where job generation has to be in consonance with its environment-friendly development paradigm: hospitality, services, call centres, medical transcription. But to keep high-end tourism going, the youth need to train hard and better. A receptionist at Thimpu’s best-rated Druk Hotel had no qualms telling guests that pedestal fans came with Deluxe accommodation, not ordinary rooms. Outside, the sun blazed in full fury.