Friday, November 1, 2013

Bhutan: Now and Then (TimeOut Explorer)

9 am: Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (in colour), 33, and his four predecessors (in black and white) --the kings of The Land of Thunder Dragon-- greet immigrants at the Paro airport in their full-length photographs. Accompanying them is the Scottish whisky-maker, Johnnie Walker, brandishing its merchandise.
3 pm: Kencho Dorjee, 25, slips out of the chanting room at the Thimphu Stupa and surreptitiously takes out his cell phone from under his maroon monk’s robe to talk to his family.
9 pm: Dawa Drakpa, 21, lead guitarist and vocalist of the Baby Boomers band rocks to Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” at Thimphu’s Mojo Park night-club donning a black t-shirt with the batman emblem.

Today, this is how a day looks like in a place stereotypically associated only with prayer flags and withdrawn lamas, pursuit of happiness and all things the modern world is too busy for: Bhutan. But when ara (traditional rice-brew) has given way to Johnnie Walker; women’s customary attire, kira, is fitted to make them look sleeker and stylish; youth relate more with guitar and less with dramyin (Bhutanese musical-instrument); and monks zip past in Mercedes (Maybe, Bhutan’s economy cannot afford a Ferrari yet), is our distinct neighbor losing its cultural identity?

Bhutanese authorities believe that their culture including language, artisan skills, socio-cultural participation and driglam namzha (code of conduct) provides identity to its people and thus is a source of happiness. They, therefore, incorporate cultural preservation as one of the four pillars of their signature measure of prosperity-Gross National Happiness (GNH). Sangay Dorji, program officer at GNH Commission, says, “there is a strong sense of co-relation between well-being (happiness) and sense of your identity and evidently culture is the building block of our identity.” However, the supposedly righteous concept itself is one of the culprits behind the adulteration of culture. Carol Graham, researcher at the Brookings Institution and author of several books on happiness, says, “GNH is very little about happiness and much about a forward-looking development-strategy. But development is, in the end, modernization which also clashes with the cultural heritage that the Bhutanese want to protect.”
Other than development, Graham adds, there is a huge influence on local culture of TV, Internet and other technologies through which Bhutanese youth are connected to the world.

At the age of 14, when children decide what they want to be when they grow up, Drakpa saw a documentary about John Lennon on Fox Channel and found his role model. Inspired by Beatles, he formed his rock-band and named it Baby Boomers in honor of the period to which the popular group belonged. Never having played Bhutanese folk-songs or instruments, the foursome bob their heads to guitar chords with ease. “Rock-music defines us,” Drakpa says.

Other than career decisions, mass media also guides everyday clothing choices. Chimi Demand, 19; wearing leopard-print hair-band, fitted pants, and boots; chats with her college friends at Thimphu’s clock-tower square before heading for picnic. Ask her the inspiration behind her sartorial statement and she coyly says, “Movies and music videos.”

The lure of television has engulfed not just the worldly. Lobzang Choda, 24, has been a monk from nine years. He does not know what night-clubs are and does not wear pants, but he yearns to watch football and wrestling on TV (Bhutan’s national sport is archery). Although monks are barred from watching television at Dzongs where they live, he confesses that he catches glimpses of his favorite sports when he goes to the grocery stores in the city.

Although mass media has a great influence on popular culture; penetration of TV, Internet, newspapers and other technologies is also dependent on development of the country. In her book Cosmopolitan Communications: Cultural Diversity in a Globalized World, Pippa Norris, Professor at Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, writes in the chapter ‘Poverty’: “Processes of economic development do gradually expand public access to the mass media more broadly throughout societies.” She mentions lack of investment in telecommunication infrastructure by the government and problem of affordability among the people as limiting economic factors for mass media to penetrate rural, under-developed markets. “If modern ideas and images from Google, Disney-ABC television, or the Murdoch newspaper empire do not actually reach poorer people living in isolated places such as Timbuktu and Thimpu –regardless of any effects arising from state restriction on freedom of expression, trade barriers, or social psychological filters—then the multinational media corporations are unlikely to pose an immediate threat to traditional life-styles, values, or beliefs in these communities,” Professor Norris concludes.

A lot has changed in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, between when Professor Norris published her book in 2009 to now. Having access to the national channel (Bhutan Broadcasting Service) and international channels like CNN and NDTV on television, 12 national newspapers, seven radio channels, Internet and mobile connectivity; Thimphu is not isolated any more. On the other hand, in the rural southern and eastern parts of the country, radio still remains the most prevalent form of mass media.
One such village in south Bhutan is Dekiling where Indira Rai, 19, receptionist at Thimphu’s Jumolhari Hotel belongs to. There people grow paddy, guava and orange for a living. The majority of population in her village, Rai says, is illiterate and “religious” who depend on radio as the only source of information. Rai finds cultural differences between her village and the city: “In the village, I wear kurta and long skirt at home whereas in Thimphu, I wear jeans when I’m not working,” says the soft-spoken damsel. In Bhutan, it is compulsory for citizens to wear national dress (gho for men and kira for women) at work, school and college, monastery and other formal institutions. “Also, in the village, my parents don’t allow me to go out with friends while here, my aunt I live with is modernized and doesn’t mind me going out with boys,” Rai chuckles.

However, in the last five years, Dekiling like many hamlets in Bhutan was electrified and connected by road under government’s national urbanization strategy. While TV was introduced in Bhutan’s major cities in 1999, its villages got their share of the world in a box only in last few years. Handful of households in Dekiling own TV sets.

“I hear they are planning to build a factory too,” Rai adds, suggesting government’s proposed project in her village. Graham explains how development affects the parameters of culture, namely artisan skills and language, included in GNH. “As production techniques modernize, they often crowd out traditional ones, such as handicrafts, both in terms of efficiency and in changing taste and demand for products.” GNH takes into account Bhutanese people’s interest and knowledge in 13 arts and crafts like weaving, carpentry and bamboo works. Graham adds, “As economic activity becomes more global and requires usage of an international language like English, local languages become less relevant.” The cultural component of GNH also considers people’s fluency in their regional dialect, with Dzongkha being Bhutan’s national language.

Villages have been put on the development path by initiatives like that of Tourism Council of Bhutan to develop tourism, country’s second largest revenue-aggregator after hydro-power, in rural eastern parts of Bhutan. Their urban counterparts like Thimphu and Paro started on the development path before five decades.

The story of development in Bhutan started in 1960s when culture was not proclaimed so much for fetching happiness to its people as a tool for national security. Sandwiched between two super-powers, India and China; naïve, peace-loving and economically-feeble Bhutan had its cultural identity as the only weapon to protect itself from being swallowed. To shield its prized asset from outside influences, the kingdom remained in isolation for ages. This thwarted its development which manifested in high poverty, illiteracy and infant-mortality rates. Therefore, Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, opened the country to the world for development to step in. However, along with development, some inevitable enemies of culture like consumerism and modern notions also crept in which clashed with the Buddhism-influenced non-materialist culture of Bhutan.

In 1980s, the fourth king vocalized his preference for Gross National Happiness (with four pillars: development, culture preservation, environmental protection, and governance) over Gross National Product (pure economic-development indicator). Under nascent democracy institutionalized by the king in 2008, which some believe is just nominal change of power, the governments (both ruling and opposition) pledge allegiance to GNH. The philosophy of development with consideration for culture is apparent in policies like that of tourism corporation to charge a high daily-tariff from visitors to attract only responsible tourists who would not harm their culture. But this is an illustration of curtailing outside influences. Can intrinsic cultural changes due to urbanization, for example, ushering in villages like Dekiling be leashed if development is to sustain? Graham is skeptical.

Thus, if either development or culture can exist; Indra Adhikari, Bhutanese journalist who thinks that democratic government has ended monarchy’s role in politics, says that the government as opposed to monarchy is pro-development. “Monarchists were pro-culture. But now there is reduced influence of monarchy on government to concentrate on preservation of culture,” he says. “Now, more concentration is on development,” Adhikari adds.

Sibi Mathew, General Manager of Hotel Taj Tashi in Thimphu, testifies: “Over the last four years, Thimphu is gradually beginning to be much more like a concrete jungle with lots of businesses having set foot and is beginning to loose its natural charm,” he says.

Another characteristic of democracy that affects culture, in addition to focus on development understandably due to accountability to the public for a term, is freedom of choice. Contained in Bhutan’s constitution, freedom of choice prima facie seems contradictory to the code of conduct (driglam namzha) mandated under the development philosophy’s (GNH’s) cultural component.
Karma Tshiteem, Secretary at GNH Commission, says “People are most happy when they make choices themselves.” Nevertheless, Adhikari says, freedom of choice has not fully translated into practice as the government enforces driglam namzha under GNH.  For example, in Bhutan, it is required to maintain uniform façade in all forms of architecture in terms of multi-colored wood frontages, small arched windows and sloping roofs.

Many believe that the benevolent kings never imposed culture on the people of Bhutan and that people willingly followed the traditions. Under democracy, people understand they have right to choices (including cultural), but neither does the development-oriented government expect them to behave differently nor do they mind juggling both: culture and modernization (offshoot of development).
Drakpa of Baby Boomers says that the rock music his band plays does not contradict with traditional Bhutanese culture. “Bhutan is a free democratic country after all,” he says. Yet, when his band performed on BBS before two years; as they unplugged “Oh darling” by Beatles draped in gho, it seemed Drakpa was addressing his traditional culture when crooning: “I’ll never do you no harm.”

Read more…