Reflections on the Land of the Thunder Dragon

It’s hard to find words which adequately describe Druk Yul otherwise known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon or Kingdom in the Clouds.

Bhutan is certainly a little different, seeming to be able to retain many of its traditional values, whilst also embracing certain aspects of “westernisation”. Although the country was closed to outsiders until the 1970s, today Bhutan has international television, the internet and mobile phones are owned by everyone including monks. Up until a few years ago, the population was required to wear its national dress but now that requirement has been relaxed (other than for certain jobs) and western dress has been adopted by many, particularly in leisure time.

Bhutanese national dress: gho for men and kira for women

The government gives the preservation and promotion of culture equal billing with sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, good governance and environmental issues: these are the four pillars of Gross National Happiness or “GNH” which is how the collective happiness and well-being of its population is measured. One thing that wasn’t clear to me was how GNH was actually measured in practice though.

Punaka Valley

Physically, Bhutan is one of the most mountainous places I’ve ever visited – flat land is in pretty short supply. It is beautiful, green, forested and rural as well as calm and peaceful, apart from the ubiquitous wild dogs which seem to sleep all day and bark all night. It’s also very clean (perhaps not quite as spankingly clean in all areas as the glossy brochures would have you believe but not far off): the absence of rubbish and the fact car horns are only used incredibly sparingly makes it hard to remember that you are still in the Indian sub-continent!

Punaka Valley

Then there’s the two key aspects of society: (i) religion, specifically, Buddhism, and (ii) the secular power and authority of the king. Both are held in extremely high regard. [To be fair, we didn’t visit South Bhutan where many of the population are of Nepali descent and who typically follow Hinduism rather than Buddhism].

Iron bridge, near Tamchhog Lhaklang Monastery

Despite there being no official religion (the constitution allows for freedom of belief), Buddhism permeates daily life, both at home and at work. People have altars in their homes and Buddhism impacts all the key events in life (e.g. births, marriage, illness, death etc). For example, children are typically named by monks from the local monastery and cremations will only take place after an astrologer has been consulted etc etc. There is a widely held belief in reincarnation. Polygamy is still practiced in some parts of the country although now apparently the King is only allowed one wife (this is a recent development as the Fourth King had four Queens who were all sisters).

Buddha Dordenma Thimphu

Many of the national symbols of the country (for example the national sport of archery, the raven (national bird) and the takin (the national animal said to be created by the Divine Madman from the bones of a cow and a goat)) all have associations with Buddhism: they frequently appear in images and pictures of gods and local deities which adorn the hundreds of temples and other religious buildings.

Punaka Valley

Everywhere you visit, it seems that there is “evidence” of local saints’ legacies and blessings, for example their body imprints or foot prints in caves or on other rock formations. Every locality, mountain, lake, river, rock formation has its own sacred history guarded by local and protective deities which are highly respected by the local communities.

Monks debating theology at Lhodrak Kharchu Goemba, Jakar

Up until c 1960s, education was only provided by the monasteries (today there is free “Western style” education and health care for all citizens) and there was also a “monk tax” (whereby one child in each family was sent away from home to become a monk). While this tax has now gone, it’s still common for young boys to enter monkhood (albeit they can retire and return to lay life in the future).

Near Sopsokha

Although democracy was introduced in 2008, the Royal family (the current king is the Fifth King) still plays a key part in government. As you travel around, you feel a strong sense of order and control in play: the government seem highly protective and one example of this is the way that tourists have to be escorted etc. while touring the country (see post “We are on holiday! below). Another example is the ban on tobacco. Stories abound about the benevolence of the Royal family and how the King (particularly the Fourth King) achieved such and such): on some days, the reverence afforded to the Royal family can feel a little unnerving as if they also have protective deity-like qualities, but then as a tourist, you don’t always see the full picture of course.

Haa Valley

Bhutan is not without its problems: rural to urban migration is on the increase, there is poverty (which is more pronounced in the rural areas), it’s impacted by climate change (with melting glaciers) although is one of the only countries in the world not only to be carbon neutral but, in fact, carbon negative etc.

Punaka Valley

Geographically, it’s also a little precarious. Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan kingdom, squeezed between 2 giant neighbours, China and India. India is the “Big Brother” and evidence of Indian investment in the country is widespread and many construction projects are being undertaken by Indian labourers. As well as the local currency (ngultrum) being pegged (1 to 1) to the Indian rupee, in fact the Indian rupee itself is widely accepted all over Bhutan. We were told that up until relatively recently, India even controlled Bhutan’s foreign policy but that has now changed. Conversely, there are problems on the border with China (Bhutan’s border is actually with Tibet) and from what I understood, there is no import/export market with China.

Typical Bhutanese architecture

It’s fascinating to see a country where traditional life is still practised but not at the total exclusion of modernity either.

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