Last year heads had turned when a tall, slim and elegant woman turned up at the Mountain Echoes literary festival in Thimphu, Bhutan.
Last year heads had turned when a tall, slim and elegant woman turned up at the Mountain Echoes literary festival in Thimphu, Bhutan. When the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck (a writer who is also the festival’s patron), escorted this young woman to the front row, necks craned further: who was this woman? Was it true that she was going to be the next queen of Bhutan?
Last week, 31-year-old King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangyal announced his engagement to the striking Jetsun Pema while inaugurating his country’s Parliament session. Later, the royal couple made their first official appearance at the inauguration of Mountain Echoes at India House, holding hands, posing for photographs, stealing glances and smiles. Every Bhutanese I congratulated beamed with pride as if it was a family wedding. At newspaper offices the next morning, irritated readers wanted to know why extra copies hadn’t been printed in anticipation of the huge demand for the first royal portrait. This is, after all, a country where hip teenagers sport buttons of the king’s image on their shirts. “For us Bhutanese, it’s a profound moment that symbolises continuity,” said a journalist.
Continuity and change run like a leitmotif through Bhutan. The subject of change — when it will come, how to deal with it, how to negotiate it — is nearly obsessive in this tiny country of seven lakh people. Driglam namzha or traditional etiquette was debated last year at Mountain Echoes, and this year too. For years this land-locked mountain kingdom kept the world out. Now, it’s beginning to pry open its doors — television, internet, democracy — and is wondering how much to let in, and how.
How does a nation retain its identity when change is all around? In Bhutan the question is even more complex because so much has happened in such a short time: television and the internet are less than 10 years old, roads and modern education less than 50. Bhutan is probably the most self-conscious country in the world and included in the concept of Bhutanese identity is the preservation of dzongkha, the national language. “Dzongkha is the essence of Bhutan’s ancient culture and values,” says Sherub Gyeltshen, secretary to the Dzonghka Development Commission. Bhutanese officials worry that dzongkha is losing out to English. English-speaking Bhutanese are more likely to get better paid jobs and training.
Then there is the matter of dress. All the film posters I saw had Bhutanese actors in traditional dress — the knee-length gho for men and the full-length kira for women. Under the regulations, film-makers can’t show Bhutanese actors in western clothes (and must include at least two pieces of traditional music). Debate informs the air: should a dress code be enforced? What about alcohol control regulations to counter the serious problem of alcoholism? In recent times nothing has been debated as much as the country’s new Tobacco Control Act under, which a monk was sentenced to three years in jail for carrying 48 packets (roughly R2 each) of Baba chewing tobacco. The sentence is now the subject of a raging controversy: some say the law is draconian, others say tobacco goes against the essence of Buddhism.
Despite all fear about a ‘McDonalds’ culture’, Bhutanese are introspective, and optimistic. As in India, the language of the masses is constantly enriched with new words: logrig (literally intelligent machine run on electricity) for computers, for instance. The local film industry, despite its ‘inspiration’ from the Hindi film industry has kept interest alive and the numerous singing competitions on TV are nearly all in dzongkha. “Our youth value our culture and traditions,” says author Kunzang Choden. There will always be need for individual expression, even if it takes the form of tattoos and spiked hair. The good news is that the Bhutanese question the value of that expression. When it comes they are ready to face it.
The marriage of the king in October will reignite feelings of nationalism and raise questions of identity and change once again. It was this king’s father who gave his country both a constitution and democracy. Now his son must negotiate the trickier path of making both work and aligning Bhutan with the 21st century.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal