What’s Jill doing in Bhutan?
A few weeks ago John Greenwell, Australian lawyer and friend of many years’ standing, mentioned in an e-mail that his wife Jill, not long ago retired from teaching at Canberra’s (perhaps Australia’s) premier girls’ school, was in Bhutan. “What,” I enquired in reply, “on earth is Jill doing in Bhutan?”
A short time after this, Jill’s own reply to my question arrived:
The short answer to your question is that I don’t know. Curiosity is
probably the best answer.
The odd thing about Bhutan is that it’s not easy to write it up in the way I
did in Vietnam. However it’s a fascinating place – and of course I’m snared
by the fact that you hadn’t heard of Thimphu, (or I presume you hadn’t,
seeing you didn’t know it was Bhutan’s capital city), so here I
Well, at almost exactly the same time as you and I were biting our nails lest
Obama didn’t win, in Bhutan the 5th king was about to be crowned. He’s 28.
The ‘old king‘ (aged 53 – yes, we should be so lucky!) abdicated in 2006 in
favour of his son who was crowned on 6 November, a date determined by
Buddhist astrologers after much consultation only resolved in about August
this year. (How on earth would western astrologers — whoops, spin doctors —
cope? We are talking here about having only a couple of months to prepare
for a coronation!)
6 Niovember was also the date on which I arrived in Paro, the only spot with
enough flat space — just — for an airport.
A couple of days later I got to Thimphu where the coronation was still being
celebrated. What I was not prepared for was that the next day, not on the
official royal schedule, was one which the new king determined would be his
opportunity to greet all those citizens who’d queued unsucessfully in the
previous three days.
From my hotel window at about 7 a.m. I saw the crowds in the Thimphu stadium
(photo). It was only later that I learnt why they were there. And much later
I was there too! When the main gates to the stadium were locked to any more
visitors, and people were being shepherded to an entrance near the ground
level of the stadium, I couldn’t believe it that a) we found ourselves right
next to the entrance and b) it was a sudden hush which heralded the arrival
of the king.
(Where on earth are people quiet when celebrities are about to arrive?
Perhaps in Britain respect for the monarchy is such that this sort of thing
can happen. The Australian Governor-General, lovely though she is, is
certainly not treated with such awe. Although I doubt that her arrival would
provoke much excitement anyway.)
Where else wouldn’t you be frisked for cameras, phones etc. etc? Here we’d
been asked to hand in cameras – which I didn’t do – and then that was that!
I got a glimpse of the king, flinging the distinctively regal yellow
toga-like stole as he walked in, and then as he began going along the rows
of people offering him their white scarves – which he would be accepting for
the rest of the day. An amazing endurance test for him.
What does all that say about the Bhutanese? They certainly love their king,
indeed their kings – as the posters around Thimphu proclaimed. It’s not just
the new (5th)king whom they love; it’s “our kings” – not just the present
king, but his father.
At another extreme, geographically as well as conceptually, try the Buddhist
festival in central Bhutan. It’s at the temple to the Future Buddha and it’s
an occasion for the re-enactment of Buddhist rituals. That’s code for
“religious mumbo-jumbo of the kind which mediaeval Roman Catholic priests
could only have dreamt of”. The dancing’s fun, especially if you don’t know
what it means, and it clearly creates an occasion for the locals to get
together and have fun. (See photo).
Buddhism is central to Bhutan – Buddhism existed as the unifier of the
region much as Greek mythology did in what is now known as Greece, in
pre-classical times. Politically there was no Bhutan before the 17th
century. Prior to that Buddhism, and its source of influence, Tibet, was the
unifying factor in a geographic area which had no other source of identity.
(Difficult for former colonialists to come to terms with a land without
borders, given that so many borders have been determined, if badly, by
Two temples remain testimony to the Tibetan drive to spread Buddhism: Kyichu
lakhang, and Jampa lakhang.
Kyichu Lakhang (see photo) was first established by Tsongtsen Gampo in 7th
century. Tsongtsen Gampo was 22nd king of Tibet at a time when Tibetan
control extended across central Asia and as far east as Chang-an (modern
Sian) in China. His marriage to a Tang Dynasty princess would have been a
dynastic one to cement the political relationship of Tibet and China. As
Buddhists, Tsongtsen Gampo and his wife were alarmed when the Jo (as in
‘Jomolhari’) – or ‘Lord’ – which they were carrying somewhere got stuck in
the mud. His wife attributed this to a demoness so she got out her geomantic
divination charts and determined to pin the demoness’s body in 108 parts of
the Tibetan world, two of them in the Bhutan area: one at Kyiuchu (the name
incidentally of the river in the Lhasa plain) and one at Jampa in Bumthang.
The social structure/level of prosperity? The politics of the place?
I found it very hard to categorise Bhutan. It’s poor. It’s predominantly
rural. It does not have beggars. It is clean. People wear shoes. Kids learn
to read and speak English at primary school. It is dignified. Houses are
quite substantial. The notable exceptions are the Indian road-workers whose
houses are flattened out tar barrels, pathetically painted with ‘welcome’
signs on their doorways.
But how on earth did the 3rd king, some time in the 50s, mandate the end of
serfdom, the end of slavery, and the end of limitless private ownership of
land? He decreed that land would be re-allocated so that no-one would hold
more than 25 acres per family for agricultural or developmental purposes.
This is the sort of stuff of centuries of social reform in Europe — or else
revolution! How was it achieved in Bhutan?
This is a country which saw its first cars when we were first seeing
television. It’s a country for which transport has meant that it’s become
possible to have contact from one end of it to the other.
Each king has pushed Bhutan further into the international community —
membership of the UN was about 1972 – in order to confirm Bhutan’s
distinctive national identity. Dictating democracy was only one further step
in a direction of political modernisation begun decades ago. This is
apparently intended to shore up support should there be any aggression
against a small independent (failed?) Himalayan state.
There’s a whole range of issues about Bhutan’s affirmation of national
culture, not least in regards to the problem created by the king’s
determination in the 1990s to assert Bhutanise citizenship, that are
creating tensions within Bhutan as well as with its neighbours, especially
Nepal. However that’s one thing which I’d love to hear more about from
bloggers, but won’t go into more detail about now.
Just in case I haven’t made enough of the point that Bhutan has some
spectacular scenery, I’ll add a couple more attachments.
Cheers for now,
A small selection of Jill’s Bhutan photographs is here. Click the first thumbnail to see the picture full size, then hover the mouse pointer over the centre of the right-hand side of it and click the arrow to see the next picture, etc. You can read more about Jill’s background here. Her diary of her visit to Vietnam in 2007 is here.