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Mountain Echoes: Discovering Bhutan's culture

Bhutan is breathtakingly beautiful, the people are polite and friendly, and they love Hindi cinema! What more could one ask for?

travel Updated: Aug 30, 2015 14:36 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Bhutan,Mountain Echoes,Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo
The Dochula Pass in Bhutan is a popular destination for both tourists and locals. (Photo: Tourism Council of Bhutan)

As Misty Terrace, a local Bhutanese music band breaks into Jeena Jeena from the Hindi film Badlapur, the crowd at Mojo Park, a live music lounge in Thimphu, comprising mostly of young Bhutanese, joins in enthusiastically. "There's no escaping Bollywood," I whisper to musician Raghu Dikshit, as he unwinds at Mojo post his concert at the city's Clock Tower earlier that evening."It is a revelation," he nods.

As was my four-day stay in Bhutan to cover Mountain Echoes - the Bhutan festival of literature, art and culture. Held between August 20-22, this was the sixth edition of the festival that enjoys the patronage of the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk of Bhutan. For weeks before my visit, friends, family and colleagues had all uniformly gushed about Bhutan being a "lovely place". But nothing could have prepared me for the breathtakingly beautiful view from the aeroplane window, as the pilot expertly manoeuvred the craft between the mountain peaks and landed smoothly at Paro airport, said to be one of the world's most difficult landing strips. Bhutan's cloud-kissed mountains and lush vegetation are like balm to a body and soul choked daily by New Delhi's polluted air.

For an Indian, spoilt by the West's exaggerated praise of our country's "exotic" cultural beauty, the exposure to Bhutan is a study in what we have lost. There is a balance between progress and tradition here, a perfect example of which is their architecture. Malls, banks, multi-storeys and offices are all in the mould of traditional Bhutanese structures, unlike the uniform glass-front buildings that have come to characterise all urban Indian spaces. And unlike Indians, most Bhutanese men and women carry the national costume with grace through the day, reserving the ubiquitous jeans for their leisure hours.

It's impossible to be in a place like that and not be influenced by it. And so like Dublin does in all of James Joyce's literature, Bhutan became a living, breathing character at Mountain Echoes. From the art of writing biographies to food, women's rights and the environment, nothing was beyond the scope of discussion. "While approximately 70 per cent of Bhutan is under green cover, in India we are losing about 333 acres of forest every day," said journalist-writer-conservationist Bahar Dutt. While Ashwin Sanghi and Chetan Bhagat gave readers a peek into their writings, others mulled on prostitution, domestic violence, eroticism in literature and religious fundamentalism. On the sidelines were photography exhibitions, puppet shows and performances by Bhutanese and Indian musicians like Raghu Dikshit. "At lit fests you get to meet your readers. But writers have to be selective about which festivals they attend. If a festival is inclusive, like this one is, it is worth attending," said writer Patrick French.

This year, as the festival coincided with the celebrations of the 60th birth anniversary of the fourth king of Bhutan, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuk, Mountain Echoes also saw discussions on politics and democracy (introduced in Bhutan by the king), Bhutanese culture and Gross National Happiness - a phrase coined by the fourth king as a yardstick to examine the wellbeing of the Bhutanese. Mountain Echoes is also credited with having inspired the Bhutanese to read and write more. "We have many young writers writing in English and the vernaculars today. But most of these books are self-published as international publishers are yet to arrive in Bhutan," said writer and one of the festival directors Kunzang Choden.

Two of these young writers, Chador Wangmo and Pema Gyaltshen, graciously offered to accompany me on my search for a tailor to stitch my kira, a skirt worn by Bhutanese women. I am not sure if it is Bhutan's Buddhist spiritualism or the legacy to measure life in happiness rather than capital or because it's a tourist destination that makes the Bhutanese such gracious hosts, but during the three days of the festival, Thimphu opened itself to its foreign guests like few other places do. A love for Hindi music and Bollywood and friendly relations with India have given many a working knowledge of Hindi, so an Indian feels extremely welcome. However, like the fiery chilli in the cheesy ema datshi, a staple Bhutanese dish, my Bhutan experience was not without one peeve: prices are steep. It is traumatic for a dedicated shopper to see such beautiful textiles, silver and handicrafts and not be able to splurge. Thankfully, bargaining is accepted. The Bhutanese also reward good behaviour so if you answer them with a smile, you might just get a discount for "a sweet nature" as I did from the old Bhutanese lady selling colourful knitted bags at Thimphu's crafts bazaar.

Men and women are equal in Bhutan: The Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk

In one of your books you talk about how you enjoy travelling alone. Do you ever get tired of being royalty and the protocol that comes with it?

When I travel, I travel normally with a small entourage and there is a sense of freedom in that. I walk for many, many days, go to the villages, live with the people, eat with the people, feel with the people. And the basic fact here is to really know the conditions of their lives and try and do something to better that and to follow up, which we do through the Tarayana Foundation.

I have enjoyed reading your writings on Bhutan. Any plans to write on other subjects?

My third book, Dochula: A Spiritual Abode was released at this festival. It is a coffee table book and it has to do with how the Dochula pass was transformed. I had 108 stupas built there along with a temple and also initiated a festival. I am planning on continuing to write. I love poetry and write and read poetry.

You yourself studied at a boarding school in Darjeeling. What is the standard of education in Bhutan today?

I think education is the most important base for life and the Royal Government of Bhutan since the very first of the five year plans laid great emphasis on education. Education in our country is free to the tenth standard and the level of education has also improved greatly over the decades. We have very well qualified Bhutanese people in all fields. That is a testament of where education has come. But having said that, we also have our problems, such as getting the right teachers, having too many students per class and so on. There are many Bhutanese who are also going for specialised studies to India, the US, Australia, Europe, Bangkok, Singapore and so on. It is good in a sense because they get a lot of experience and exposure and they come back to the country and serve the kingdom.

How free is the media in Bhutan?

Media is very important, whether it is the television or the print or radio. Yes the television broadcasters are state owned, but the government is coming to a decision about private channels. There are many private newspapers and the radio plays a huge part in the outreach, especially in the villages, where my interest lies because most of them are very remote.

And what is the position of women in Bhutanese society?

Men and women are equals in Bhutan. It just so happened that in the past when we started modern education, more men were sent to the institutes for education. It's not because men were picked and women were not, but in the past the education that was given was in the form of central monastic religious order and they were all men. However, in the later years, from the seventies, there was not much difference in the numbers. Women traditionally inherited properties. However, there is a lot to be done for the welfare of women and in making them more independent economically. The Tarayana Foundation is trying to do whatever we can to enhance the income of the women through income generating activities like basket making, pottery, weaving and so on. We also market their products.

You have just had your first woman minister in the government.

Yes. Generally in the civil service the ratio of men and women is at par. But in the higher strata there are fewer women, much fewer women. But it's all going to change in the future (laughs).

What are the most pressing challenges facing Bhutanese society?

One problem we are facing is the rural-urban migration. It's going to be a huge challenge to absorb everybody who wants to come to Thimphu or the other cities. Another challenge is to make them stay in their villages. I would wish Bhutan and our villages to retain their original character but with better facilities and better income opportunities so people will remain in their villages.

How has democracy changed the role of the royal family in Bhutanese society? Have your responsibilities lessened?

I have become busier, more involved and so have my royal sisters. We all have our different responsibilities. All of us are here to serve our people through our various organisations. We are now older, more mature, more experienced so I feel we have more to contribute now.

Writer's Corner: Heard at the festival
Sudhir Kakar

It's not right to say that India is either this or that. The struggle between the ascetic and the erotic have always been a part of Indian society. And it is our own ascetic trait, combined with British Victorian morals, that have led to the extremely conservative society that we see now. When it comes to increasing fundamentalism in Indian society, and the world, it is a by product of globalisation. With globalisation many people are feeling insecure about their cultural identities and the fundamentalists are taking advantage of this insecurity, telling them that the only way to withstand the onslaught is to revive and adhere to ancestral values. They provide the scaffolding for such shaky identities.
Rocky Singh-Mayur Sharma

The journey of food in India has become a lot more democratic. India has always concentrated on creating divisions within itself. So there is the traditional divide between meat eaters vs the vegetarians, pork eaters vs beef eaters and so on. Now, there is a new divide between fancy places, high class, puritanical, fusion foods. We are here to say that food needs to be loved. Why should a group of people decide what is good food. Also, before our show, people only spoke of foreign food and fine dining places. There was nothing on street food. Now, everyone, even fine dining magazines are talking about street food.

Janice Pariat

Whenever an incidence of racial discrimination against anyone from the north-east takes place in Delhi, we are quick to criticise it. But the truth is that we are as racist. It is difficult to feel bitter against discrimination if you know that your city has done the same with others. Growing up in Shillong, I have seen what a racist place it is. We are as brutal to outsiders. Maybe the cases don't get highlighted as much because it is not the capital. One thing I do feel strongly about, however, is labels. Literature from the north or west of India is never labelled as is literature from the north-east. I find the tag of a north-eastern writer extremely frustrating. It is not just that my writing, the culture I talk about will be very different from the culture in Mizoram or Nagaland, but what I write about Shillong is a personal perception.

Sprititual Pass

The Dochula Pass in Bhutan connects the country's capital in Thimphu to the Punakha area. In 2003 when the fourth king of Bhutan Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuk was leading a force against militants his wife and the present Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk decided to build 108 stupas there which she did, followed subsequently by a temple. Later she initiated an annual festival to be held at the pass. Her book Dochula: A Spiritual Abode documents this transition of the pass and was released on the last evening of Mountain Echoes 2015. Writer Patrick French also conversed with Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wango Wangchuk and writer and director of Centre for Bhutan Studies Dasho Karma Ura on the transition of the pass.

The writer was hosted by the organisers of Mountain Echoes.

First Published: Aug 30, 2015 13:17 IST