Three times now, I have visited Thimpu. This time, for the second year running, I am here for the Mountain Echoes Literature Festival. Something about the place and the people invests the festival with meaning, layering it with many shades—from the poetic to the dramatic, and I am repeatedly drawn to it.
Thimpu is a small idyllic town that passes off for a capital city. Smooth roads rolling up and down the undulating landscape, dollhouse like homes with wooden windows beautifully carved and painted fronts and a soothing abundance of green have charmed me each time. As have the men and women. Dressed in their traditional clothes, kira (ankle-length dress) and wonju (long-sleeved blouse), they are well-spoken, polite and seem content with the way they lead their life. Even the cars that travel single-file on one-way streets seem disciplined. Contrast this with the road rage or tenor of life in other cities across the world, and Thimpu truly seems in a time warp.
Yet, it is not really so. Change has been coming over the years—slowly at first, then with quickening pace.
As late as the end of the 1950s, the people of Bhutan would walk for a week through highlands and thick forests to reach the borders of India to enter West Bengal, where they went for trade. They braved thick fog, leeches, attacks by bear, leopard and wild elephant herds. In fact, Bhutan’s first motor vehicle, a Willys Jeep built in India, was brought to Thimpu only in the late 1950s. The capital had no proper roads, nor was it reachable by any highway at the time (connectivity was still a work in progress). So it was driven up to the border town of Phuentsoling in Bhutan. The jeep was then dismantled and carried in bits and pieces over terrifying abysses and through many mountain passes. Once all the pieces reached Thimpu, it was reassembled and lay in wait till an asphalt road was ready for it to ride on.
Even today, it is possible to encounter village children who have never seen a car and gawk when they see one in or around Thimpu. The villages of Bhutan, far flung and isolated by mountainous terrain, are still innocent of motor vehicles. The roads of Thimpu—which has one-seventh of Bhutan’s population— may now see traffic jams familiar to urban Indians, but that first Willys Jeep was greeted with a mixture of fear and awe. In her book, Treasures of the Thunder Dragon, Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wango Wangchuk writes eloquently of her first encounter with the vehicle: ‘My own reaction on seeing the jeep was sheer terror—at its size, its noise and the nauseating smell of petrol. It was with great reluctance that I climbed in, crammed at the back with my sister and some cousins for the journey to Kalimpong.’ Later on, she writes that the experience was nightmarish, with landslides that they had to scramble over to climb into a vehicle waiting on the other side. However, she writes, ‘The 184 kilometre drive on the motor road to Phuentsoling had been like a journey to a new planet, introducing us to a world we knew nothing about. Looking back, I see that journey as a turning point in our lives—it transported us from the medieval world straight into the 20th century.’
There is ample evidence that in the past half century, Thimpu has expanded and embraced things almost unknown before. Large numbers of students go to India, Australia and elsewhere to study, and development experts come to Bhutan to help build it. Tall buildings, bars and shops, hotels, including the Taj Tashi that hosts a segment of the Mountain Echoes Fest—the trappings of modernity are obvious. But parts of Thimpu seem to linger in the 20th century. The new structures sit beside old ones, including homes with dragons and flying penises painted on them, reflective of a way of life still steeped in the Buddhist tenets of non-violence, respect for life and veneration of culture.
Of the changes, perhaps the two most sweeping are the electronic media and the change in the structure of governance, and, like the Willys Jeep, both aspects inspire awe and fear. “My granddaughters are hooked to saas-bahu serials, I no longer spend my evenings with them but in another room where I can watch my sports channels undisturbed,” says Karma Tenzin Yongba, a former Superintendent of the Crime and Special Branch who is the founder of Bhutan’s first private investigation company, Top Secure. He has also written two crime fiction books. He sees the onset of the internet and television as the lifting of what could well be the lid of a Pandora’s box. “Earlier, no house in Thimpu would be locked,” he says. “Theft and vandalism were taboo. Things changed once developmental initiatives began, and a contract understanding with Nepal resulted in droves of migrant labour coming in. A migrant would come in as contract labour, earn enough money to marry, bring his wife who would start a shop and a family, and he would become a contractor himself. He would buy some land, build a house. But his values were not Bhutanese.” The sacred pool, to his mind, was being muddied.
In the late 1980s, Bhutan saw an uprising of ‘outsiders’. As a measure to integrate those of foreign origin with its cultural ethos, the country implemented a policy of ‘driglam namzha’ (traditional values and etiquette), making the wearing of the gho and kira national dress mandatory at government offices and official functions. Simultaneously, the study of the Nepali language was eliminated from the school curriculum. This enraged people of Nepali origin who saw in the policy a threat to their culture.
The situation had to be handled with firmness and understanding. The solution arrived at by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in which Karma Tenzin was actively involved as Superintendent of the Crime and Special Branch, brought peace back to Thimpu in 1989. But the climate had changed irrevocably. As a custodian of law and order, Tenzin has had a ringside view of the seamier turns of life in his city. “Crime got more sophisticated post the 70s,” he says. “Cross border smuggling, sex related crimes... every young man was a ‘dada’. Youngsters went outside to study and came back with attitudes non-existent in Bhutan. Taking a girl for a ride is now cool, even the way they drink tea is different... It is sad. They only pick up the bad things,” he says, adding that gang fights were among the bad things. “Boys from the North of Thimpu will fix a time and place to fight those from the South... maybe because a girl does not like a boy who belongs to the other group but has taken a shine to her, or because they don’t like a referee’s decision in a football match.”
Thimpu now boasts of many liquor and dance bars that attract the youth. “Consumerism has taken the young over,” Tenzin says. “Look around you in the evenings and they have all changed into shiny, figure-hugging clothes bought off the row of shack-like shops that sell cheap imported clothes. They air kiss instead of bowing, and for the first time the generation gap is truly wide.” Drugs and alcoholism are other fallouts of changing norms, as is migration to Thimpu from villages. “In larger countries, such things can be wished away, but it corrupts a small population like ours,” Tenzin says.
Lily Wangchuk, Bhutan’s first woman to contest an election to the National Assembly—held earlier this year—and leader of the Druk Chirwang Tshogpa, a political party, agrees there is trouble in paradise. Migration to the capital is one big reason, she says. “When 100,000 live in a city that once housed 100, shortages are bound to happen. And corruption follows as everyone tries to grab things for themselves. For the first time now, Thimpu has some associations—of taximen, construction workers, tourism people. Luckily, there is no conflict as yet. But who knows?”
Wangchuk adds, “The social media, crowding due to migration from villages and the new TV culture have changed attitudes towards women. It is [tearing] up the social fabric. Youngsters chat on the net, meet... It can lead to misunderstandings.”
Cases of rape and female destitution, unheard of earlier, are now in noticeable numbers. Organisations like RENEW have had to be instituted by the Queen Mothers. Bhutan has four of them, sisters by blood, all wives of the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who dedicate themselves to various social service activities through foundations that each has set up. RENEW, short for Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women, was founded in 2004 by Queen Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck as an NGO dedicated to empowerment of women and girls in Bhutan, especially victims and survivors of domestic violence.
Perhaps the country’s biggest threat is from drugs. Caught unawares by the rising habit, the government does not know how to cope. Marijuana grows freely. Harder drugs have filtered in. Lack of opportunity and isolation in the city away from their rural homes lead the young to addiction. There is no rehabilitation programme in Bhutan yet for drug addicts.
Yet, all is not lost. The hold of Buddhism is still strong. Political ambitions have not yet created monsters out of those in power. Bhutan’s monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, as well as the elected Prime Minister Jigme Thinley, think nothing of cycling alone for exercise or to work on no-car days. A venerable elder who studies such things tells me with confidence that while the individual living in Thimpu might be only ‘50 per cent happy’, the city may boast of ‘70 per cent of its people being at least 50 per cent happy’ by the parameters on which Bhutan measures its Gross National Happiness.
Tenzin is among those who have plans to correct the country’s balance before it tips too far off the middle path. He plans a project to engage the young in productive farming and reverse the migratory process through rural initiatives in self-sufficiency.
Lily Wangchuk hopes that her success in the next round of polls will bring a female perspective to a male dominated system that runs the city, and through it, the country. “Instead of looking at the National Happiness idea and fitting the individual into it, happiness needs to start with the individual,” she says. “To improve the National index, Thimpu must be able to guarantee every person food, health and shelter.”
Despite the country’s undeniable problems, I am hopeful about the future of this growing city. There are signs that the old order might never entirely be replaced by a new one. I see it in the long line of craft shops running along the Taj Tashi that bear the look of honey traps for rich tourists. The prices are blithely marked in multiples of thousand, even though there is no denying the quality of the products, raw material and workmanship. More heartening is to see these objects still in much valued use in homes across the country. Even in Thimpu, plastic has not replaced wood and wicker in the kitchen and elsewhere. I see it too in the contemporary adaptations of the national garment. Like the sari, the kira and wonju have acquired new colours and designs in their weaves, but retain their grace. I see it in the bowing of city-bred heads as they pass a dzong or temple, in the flags fluttering over every hill in sight, in the lines of walkers toiling up the steep slope to pay their respects to the larger-than-life Buddha statue that overlooks Thimpu. And I see it with finality in the slow progress of the young monk in maroon robes, supine on the road, as he measures his way with his body up the slope to his monastery. It tells me that despite all the changes, Thimpu will be safe. It is the capital of Bhutan, after all.