Mountain echoes

Arshi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the ‘chief royal patron’ of Bhutan’s first-ever literature festival delivers the keynote address at the India House Auditorium. Namita Bhandare elaborates.

Talk about journalistic privilege. Ambassador and writer Pavan Varma’s beautiful, willowy daughter Batasha looks at me sympathetically when I whisper to her: “I really have to file.” So, notwithstanding her seven-inch heels, she gamely takes me up through the kitchen and service area to her father’s fabulous wood-panelled study, sits me down on his computer and five minutes later I am in business. Batasha, incidentally, is a journalist, so the empathy is easy to understand.

Earlier this evening, the Queen Mother, Arshi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the ‘chief royal patron’ of Bhutan’s first-ever literature festival delivers the keynote address at the India House Auditorium. With the clear voice of a very young girl, she talks of Bhutan’s rich tradition of oral literature and how the arts play a crucial role in the understanding of culture.

There’s only a hint of disapproval when she mentions that Bhutanese youth are somewhat more inclined towards ‘television and other distractions’ and hopes that the litfest will ‘inspire creative writing in our youth’.

The Queen Mother is the eldest of four sisters, all of whom are married to the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Each of the sisters has her own palace; the king lives in a log hut. Bhutan’s monarchy follows the principle of primogeniture: the eldest male son is the heir. When the king abdicated, it was in favour of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, a 30-year-old bachelor who is the son of another wife, not the Queen Mother.

The Queen Mother’s eldest child is a girl, Sonam Dechhen who accompanies her mother for the inauguration dressed in yellow silk brocade. She is attentive and courteous and holds her mother’s handbag for her. Later, the Queen Mother proudly tells me that her daughter, a Harvard Law School graduate, is Bhutan’s first constitutional lawyer. Sonam who looks no more than 17-years-old to me shyly mentions that she is also the mother of a five-month-old baby.

The highlight of the inauguration is a keynote address by Bhutan’s first prime minister, Jigmi Y Thinley who was elected to a five-year term last year. Thinley’s talk, not unexpectedly, is about his country’s concept of Gross National Happiness. “Are we as communities becoming more civilised through the process of development?” he asks. “Are we more secure, more at peace with ourselves?” By the end of his 30-minute talk, there is not one person in the audience who isn’t a convert. “Our material growth has come at the cost of impoverishing our minds and our spirit,” he says. Arshi Dorji, whose husband, the fourth king, developed the concept of GNH in the early seventies, listens carefully. “GDP-led market economics is unsustainable and does not result in happiness,” the prime minister says. She nods vigourously.

Is happiness quantifiable? Apparently yes. There is a complex set of equations and permutations that have been worked into GNH. And the last census report asked people the all-important question: were they happy? According to Thinley, 3 per cent said they were not very happy, 52 per cent said they were happy and 45 per cent said they were ‘very happy’. The Centre for Bhutan Studies is at present conducting its next survey. I’m told the results will be out in another three months.

The prime minister has a surprise up his sleeve. Apparently, he had earlier asked Pavan Varma if he would agree to have his newest book Becoming Indian released during the inaugural function. Varma declined, saying it would be inappropriate. Nevertheless, Thinley pulls out a wrapped copy of the book, requests Arshi Dorji to release it, while Varma looks on. But there is another reason for true happiness at India House: the nine puppies recently delivered by the Varma’s labrador. Renu, Varma’s wife, hand-stiched little flannel coats for them. After all why should happiness be a human perogative alone?

    Bhutan Literary Festival: Day 2

    The Bhutan Literary Festival had an unexpected visitor today when King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth king, said he wanted to meet writers from India.

    The Bhutan Literary Festival had an unexpected visitor today when King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth king, said he wanted to meet writers from India. At a hastily convened tea, that included home-made samosas, at India House, the residence of Indian Ambassador Pavan Varma, the king dressed in a traditional black gho and accompanied by the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck who is a published author and a patron of the festival, mingled with writers, finally settling down to an impromptu poetry reading by Gulzar in Varma’s drawing room.

    Gulzar read his poems in Hindustani while Pavan Varma did the translations in English. The smallish crowd included writer and historian Patrick French whose biography of Francis Younghusband apparently impressed the Queen Mother to such a degree that French and his India-born wife, Meru Gokhale were among the few foreign guests she invited to the king’s coronation in 2008.

    The new king, K5 as he is referred to, has his work cut out for him. His father had the easier job of abdicating. Now it is his responsibility to make Bhutan a modern nation while striving to retain its unique cultural identity. The king is fond of interacting with students. He tells them to retain their individuality and continue to think creatively.

    Bhutan’s first-ever literary festival got underway at Tarayana Centre with a discussion on culture and identity between Varma and author Namita Gokhale. Varma. Identity is a big issue in Bhutan. Until a few years ago, it was mandatory to wear the traditional dress, though today it is not uncommon to see young people in the market dressed in that universal costume of globalised youth: blue jeans.

    Change was the other major concern that almost every speaker touched upon. Kinley Dorji, the managing editor of Kuensel, Bhutan’s major newspaper, and spoke about how even the notions of beauty seemed to have changed. Until now, he said, it was big and strong Bhutanese women who were considered beautiful. But last year, one of the most popular programmes on TV was the Miss Bhutan contest, complete with a swimsuit round. “And we don’t even have a swimming pool in Bhutan,” Dorji remarked.

    Some things might be slower to change. Bhutan’s first elected Parliament voted recently to disallow permits to mountaineers seeking to climb the country’s highest mountain. “The mountains are the abode of our gods,” said Siok Sian Dorji who runs a media centre in the country. “Do we want people trampling over our sacred spaces?” The issue was significant enough to warrant a Parliamentary debate, the result of which was a decision to continue keeping the higher peaks off limits to tourists and mountaineers.

    The mountains are never far in Bhutan. *Travel + Leisure* magazine lists the runway at Paro Airport, some 45 mintues away from Thimpu, as among the “world’s scariest runways”. Drukair is the national carrier and the only airline that flies into Paro. Apparently there are only eight pilots in the world who are qualified to land at this airport.

    First begins the descent from above a circle of 16,000-feet high mountains. Our Airbus 319 banks steeply to the left as it bears down hard, squeezing itself into a narrow strip of valley. Appropriately enough, there is a cluster of white prayer flags located just at the beginning of the runway where the plane touches down, braking madly before coming to a halt with a barely a few metres left of the strip.

    Bhutan is vegetarian this month – the month when the Buddha attained nirvana. But I see meat everywhere. Kinley Dorji explains to me: slaughter is prohibited, eating meat is not. So, most people stock up their freezers in anticipation of this month. Bhutanese cuisine is, alas, not a highlight with chilli being a staple vegetable. Hemadatsi – consisting entirely of chillies with cheese sauce added almost as a postscript – pops up at every meal I have eaten so far.

    At the lunch buffet at Tarayana Center, a friendly black dog turns up, looking greedily for leftovers. My daughter offers it some buckwheat pancake when I suggest the red chilli beef might be too spicy for it. Of course, I am wrong and the dog gobbles up the beef, chilli and all.

    Revealing Kinley Dorji

    Kinley Dorji, secretary in the ministry of Information, points out that the main competitors of newspapers in Bhutan are not television, but word-of-mouth rumour mongering.

    Kinley Dorji, secretary in the ministry of Information, points out that the main competitors of newspapers in Bhutan are not television, but word-of-mouth rumour mongering.

    “Bhutan is a small country,” he says to me over drinks the previous night. “Here we not only know who is sleeping with whom, but also who will be sleeping with whom.”

    At last count, Bhutan had six newspapers, five radio stations and one television station. Earlier at a reception, I am introduced to Sherpem, an attractive Bhutanese woman who has a degree in journalism from Columbia University. She is, I am told, ‘the Barkha Dutt of Bhutan’.

    Dorji has also studied journalism in the United States. “I came back with a journalism degree,” says the Stanford University alum, “But no newspaper to work for.” So, he did the next best thing: he started his own paper, Kuensel.

    From playing editor, Dorji is currently hammering out his country’s media policy. His point of view is that it is the government’s responsibility to develop a professional media industry. The big concern is international media. Until 1999, there was no television, now over 40 channels beam into Bhutanese homes. At the time when TV was first introduced, the role model for most young Bhutanese men was the king. Today it is Shah Rukh Khan and 50 Cent, says Dorji.

    How do you fit the concept of gross national happiness into this nascent media world? By having media awards that focus not so much on the top breaking stories as much as stories that best present culture or focus on good governance or the environment.

    Dorji has his work cut out; not a moment to lose. Bhutan is laying fibre optic lines from Thimpu to its 20 districts, connecting the country by broadband. Freedom of expression and the right to information is guaranteed by the country’s newly adopted Constitution. Over 2,000 citizens engage actively in online discussions and there are 18,000 registered internet users in this country of 634,982 people; 60 per cent survive on subsistence farming, 25 per cent live below the poverty line. Incidentally, Siok Sian Dorji who heads Bhutan’s Centre for Media and Democracy, points out that half the population has cell phones.

    Meeting Tshering Tobgay, the leader of the two-member Opposition – sometimes referred to as the world’s smallest opposition – is a delight. Tobgay is one of Bhutan’s best-known bloggers ( In March 2008, his party, the People’s Democratic Party got whupped at the general elections. “So, I did the next best thing. I started blogging,” he says.

    Unlike India’s opposition leaders who seem obsessed with opposing government policy regardless of what it is, Tobgay sees his role in a more positive light. “The people have given this government a huge mandate. It is now their job to deliver.” His job is not to discredit the government but to make sure that first, it fulfills the people’s aspirations and that second, it functions within the purview of the Constitution. “Our job should be to support them.”

    This philosophy is so refreshing to the jaded Indian audience that one of them suggests that our Opposition leaders be sent at once to Thimpu at once for a crash course in affirmative politics.

    Another Bhutanese member of Parliament Sonam Kinga is an expert of the indigenous poetic technique of katsoms, which is a poem that follows an elaborate set of rules. He tells us of another great Bhutanese tradition: that of the night-hunt. Apparently, since Bhutanese society was (and is) largely agrarian, young men found they had no time for courtship rituals, and so this important aspect of social life was best practiced during the dead of night, when there were less pressing demands on time. Men would stake out the houses of women they were interested in – easier said than done, said Kinga. There were walls to be climbed, roosters to be avoided (lest they started crowing) and, of course, parents to be dodged and all this done on the assumption that the woman in question reciprocated the man’s feelings and didn’t send him packing off. But that tradition, alas, is now relegated to the past. Blame electricity, he said.