Winds of change in Bhutan
Once a sequestered nation, shy of opening up to the outside world, Bhutan, the land of fluttering prayer flags, massive fortress monasteries and oracles, is today in transition.
The tiny Himalayan kingdom is on the move - winds of globalisation are beginning to sweep this Land of the Thunder Dragon, known for its traditional values based on Buddhist dogmas.
Shaking a leg to a peppy Shakira number at a disco in downtown Thimphu, young Ugyen Penjor was in high spirits.
"Taking about a disco would have been taboo a few years back. Things are now changing," says Penjor, his face barely visible with the Double Derby lights moving up and down to the music.
Penjor is among the new generation Bhutanese who loves wearing studs, faded jeans and Puma T-shirts, speaking in English, and computer savvy.
"Our roots are well grounded and we need not worry about our unique culture, faith, or traditions getting diluted with the advent of modernity," said young Sonam Tshering, taking out a sleek Samsung mobile handset from a Gucci bag slung over his shoulders.
Penjor and Tshering, in their early 20s and sophomores in a British management college, are in Bhutan on a short vacation.
"We need to change with the times and modernity is bound to creep in," said Jaganath Sharma, radio manager of the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), the national broadcaster.
It is an irony of sorts - the last Shangri-La of jaw-dropping beauty of about 700,000 people did not have roads until 1960 with the first car reportedly arriving only in 1961. Before that locals commuted on foot or on horsebacks.
It had no telephones or currency until the 1960s, was never colonised. For centuries, the Bhutanese relished their independence and isolation from the outside world, maintaining a barter economy, and allowing few foreigners to visit. Archery is their national sport - a game that reached its apogee some six centuries back in Britain.
The Buddhist nation ruled by the monarchy since 1907 finally allowed television only in 1999 and just two call centres set up a couple of months back - hint of modernity creeping slowly to this medieval land where superstitions and demons still hold sway.
Tibetan shamanism is practiced by some - followers believe in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits and depend on a shaman (priest or priestess) to communicate with the spirits on their behalf.
"The changes are slow, but it is good for a country like ours, or else western culture would swamp us if we allow it to enter rapidly," Jam Yang, a lawyer in Thimphu, said.
Despite nightclubs, discos, hotels (about 70 in Thimphu), and other aspects of modern civilisation beginning to penetrate Bhutan, visitors are surprised not to find any traffic signal lights in the capital city. Most of its older citizens still wear their traditional dresses - men in colourful 'ghos', full-sleeved robes tied at the waist, and women in 'kiras', sarong-like wraps.
The challenges are aplenty - the new generation Bhutanese is becoming increasingly influenced by changes in the outside world.
Perhaps the former visionary King Jigme Singye Wangchuck decided to shift from absolute monarchy to democracy, sensing the transition in the mindset of the youth from isolation to becoming more liberal in their outlook.
"The former king perhaps thought why let a revolution start against the monarchy and so decided for democracy and make Bhutan change with the times and relinquish absolute rule," Bhutan's Chief Election Commissioner Dasho Kunzang Wandgi told IANS.
By 2008, Bhutan is to be become a democracy with the first multiparty parliamentary elections scheduled - the kingdom has already held two rounds of mock polls aimed at familiarising people with electoral procedures. But there are conservatives who are apprehensive about the changes and say Bhutan is at the crossroads of a cultural invasion.
"The younger generation would tend to forget their roots and deviate from traditional values to materialism if we allow the country to get exposed to western influence," said Pema Tashi, a middle-aged schoolteacher.
But people like Penjor and Tshering want to clear all apprehensions.
"Let us take advantage of change by embracing it rather than allowing the change to take advantage of us," Penjor said in a matter-of-fact manner before slipping onto the dance floor to swing to the tune of an American rock star.