When did you first become interested in Bhutan?
Bhutan had been on our travel list for decades as a culturally fascinating and visually beautiful Himalayan country. We have had over thirty years of interest in Tibetan Buddhism, but could not face the sadness of visiting Tibet.
The extraordinary story of Bhutan’s peaceful shift from feudalism to modernity made it irresistible. So when we heard of a particular photo tour it seemed a straightforward way to be introduced to the Bhutan. Once there, we fell in love with the place and its people.
Tell us about this shift from feudalism to modernity, and the social and political changes it has brought.
Bhutan’s transformation from a semi-feudal monarchy to a democratic country began fifty years ago when the present king’s grandfather began the complex process of developing the structures, skills and philosophies of a modern country. He’d been educated outside Bhutan and witnessed the dramatic political events in surrounding countries and was determined to help his small country maximise the benefits of modernisation without compromising their Buddhist values. His son embraced this goal and created the notion of Gross National Happiness (GNH) being even more important than Gross National Product. Then after thirty years of hard work the king abdicated in favour of his son whom he crowned as the first constitutional monarch in 2009, just after their first national elections.
Step by step they have developed local, regional and national government structures and encouraged people to participate in this process rather than rely on patronage. Of especial importance have been the foundations of GNH: good governance, economic self-reliance, environmental preservation and cultural promotion. Free public schooling and healthcare were introduced, land ownership was made more equitable, roads were built, sustainable aid programs were established and scholarships provided for postgraduate studies to bring back skills and knowledge for ongoing development.
There are many challenges as rural people move to the capital, young people struggle with the implications of unemployment and consumer goods tempt young and old. Dilemmas too as populations of Nepali ‘migrants’ have swelled in southern Bhutan over the past hundred years. The democratic processes, Buddhist values and wise leadership will hopefully guide Bhutan through these complexities.
How does Bhutan show the intersection of traditional and modern culture?
It’s a long list, starting with the impact of roads, electricity, cars, mobiles and TVs in remote villages. Then there was their choice in the 1960s between nineteen languages as to which would be the official and educational language; they advantaged their new generations by choosing English for schooling and also chose Dzongkha as the national language to represent their heritage and teach that in all schools. Young Bhutanese are of course smitten with modern Western and Indian culture reflected in music, movies and jeans, but they conform to regulations about national dress at school, in offices and other formal occasions. Environmental science informs Bhutan’s strong policies about preserving forests (60% must remain pristine) and making hydro electricity (using underground diversion of rivers rather than dams).
Who are some of the local people whom you remember fondly?
Ap Trashi (60 years old) was the cheerful head horseman who took care of us so well on the Bumthang trek. As the mules picked their way over stony paths he made sure we didn’t fall off into the steep valleys and entertained us with his sweet singing. A widower for many years and a tough resourceful farmer, he had traded across the borders and bred mules to help finance his raising of a fine son and daughter. Seeing the potential in his son Galey (17 years old), we were delighted when he accepted our offer to subsidise the return of this personable young man to high school, so he could fulfil his dream of training as a guide.
Lam Renzin has been the head monk of the famed Taktshang Gompa (aka the Tiger’s Nest) for five years and before that he was involved with the long restoration following the disastrous fire of 1998. We first met him over a cup of tea when our photo tour group reached this glorious cluster of golden rooved buildings clinging to the sheer rock face, some 800m above the valley. He found a place in our memories because of his calm warmth and patient answers to all our questions about the monastery, its restoration, Buddhism and his own life journey. When we talked with him the following year in the capital Thimphu, he was preparing to leave his beloved Taktshang and move to a flatter, warmer part of Bhutan so he could return to his favourite activity, meditation. A very intelligent and modern monk, his blessing of us was interrupted by his mobile phone requesting his attendance at a meeting with the royal family.
The simple contentment and warmth of the many older people we met while they were perambulating around Buddhist monuments, chanting with their prayer wheels or making pilgrimages to their favourite temples.
Which place in Bhutan has had the most lasting impact on you?
Taktshang Gompa, for its awesome beauty, clinging to the sheer rock wall amidst the clouds and forests high above the Paro valley. Twelve centuries of pilgrims have walked the long path up to the site of Guru Rinpoche’s meditation cave.
Also, Ogyen Choling, the village surrounding the old feudal manor house that we have come to know during stays in the guest house, hanging out with the locals and hearing its history from the author Kunzang Choden, the twentieth generation with links to the village and the manor house, now a museum.
What would you say are the chief influences on the lives of ordinary Bhutanese?
Buddhism is central to the lifestyle of most people in central and northern Bhutan, along with loyalty to their family. Most Bhutanese too are facing the dilemmas of transition: the encroaching modern world with all its delights and risks. This includes roads, electricity and television opening up their village to more outside influences and tempting their young to move to the towns. The tradition of contentment and creating your own material goods is inevitably being challenged by consumerism.
What did you find challenging about bringing your Bhutan experiences together in a book?
Having established the framework of themes as the narrative moving from east to west, a suitable writing style was needed. This involved frank feedback from the editor. Then Rob and I had the task of together choosing about 200 photos from our collection of 20,000 and resolving the tension between narrative and artistic choices. The next challenge was to find the facts, quite difficult in a context that is ‘flexible’ with spelling and history; the internet is full of misinformation too. Checking facts with various Bhutanese people in the book and with the fact checker there (a retired history teacher) was complex as responses were often delayed and overly polite. Creating the book together was a privilege and a surprise but meant virtually living in Bhutan for over two years (regardless of what country we were in physically) since we were either actually in Bhutan or reading about it or looking at images of it or talking and thinking about it. All rather disorienting and delightful.
If you could describe Bhutan in five words, which words would you choose?
Buddhist integrity; colourful mountainous beauty.
Bhutan Heartland is available now.