Bhutan King at the Literary Festival

Asian Window,19 May 2010


Bhutan King at the Literary Festival

Pavan Varma and Gulzar

Namita Bhandare from Thimphu on Day 2 of Bhutan’s first-ever literary festival:

Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, inaugurates the Mountain Echoes literary festival as Indian ambassador Pavan K Varma (Right) looks on. Photo: Kuensel

The Bhutan Literary Festival had an unexpected visitor today when King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth king, said he wanted to meet writers from India. At a hastily convened tea, that included home-made samosas, at India House, the residence of Indian Ambassador Pavan Varma, the King dressed in a traditional black gho and accompanied by the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck who is a published author and a patron of the festival, mingled with writers, finally settling down to an impromptu poetry reading by Gulzar in Varma’s drawing room.

Gulzar read his poems in Hindustani while Pavan Varma did the translations in English. The smallish crowd included writer and historian Patrick French whose biography of Francis Younghusband apparently impressed the Queen Mother to such a degree that French and his India-born wife, Meru Gokhale, were among the few foreign guests she invited to the King’s coronation in 2008.

The new King, K5 as he is referred to, has his work cut out for him. His father had the easier job of abdicating. Now it is his responsibility to make Bhutan a modern nation while striving to retain its unique cultural identity. The King is fond of interacting with students. He tells them to retain their individuality and continue to think creatively.

Click here for the Kuensel story

Bhutan’s first-ever literary festival got underway at Tarayana Centre with a discussion on culture and identity between Varma and author Namita Gokhale. Identity is a big issue in Bhutan. Until a few years ago, it was mandatory to wear the traditional dress, though today it is not uncommon to see young people in the market dressed in that universal costume of globalised youth: blue jeans.

Change was the other major concern that almost every speaker touched upon. Kinley Dorji, the managing editor of Kuensel, Bhutan’s major newspaper, spoke about how even the notions of beauty seemed to have changed. Until now, he said, it was big and strong Bhutanese women who were considered beautiful. But last year, one of the most popular programmes on TV was the Miss Bhutan contest, complete with a swimsuit round. “And we don’t even have a swimming pool in Bhutan,” Dorji remarked.

Some things might be slower to change. Bhutan’s first elected Parliament voted recently to disallow permits to mountaineers seeking to climb the country’s highest mountain. “The mountains are the abode of our gods,” said Siok Sian Dorji who runs a media centre in the country. “Do we want people trampling over our sacred spaces?” The issue was significant enough to warrant a Parliamentary debate, the result of which was a decision to continue keeping the higher peaks off limits to tourists and mountaineers.

The mountains are never far in Bhutan. Travel + Leisure magazine lists the runway at Paro Airport, some 45 mintues away from Thimphu, as among the “world’s scariest runways”. Druk Air is the national carrier and the only airline that flies into Paro. Apparently there are only eight pilots in the world who are qualified to land at this airport.

First begins the descent from above a circle of 16,000-feet high mountains. Our Airbus 319 banks steeply to the left as it bears down hard, squeezing itself into a narrow strip of valley. Appropriately enough, there is a cluster of white prayer flags located just at the beginning of the runway where the plane touches down, braking madly before coming to a halt with a barely a few metres left of the strip.

Bhutan is vegetarian this month – the month when the Buddha attained nirvana. But I see meat everywhere. Kinley Dorji explains to me: slaughter is prohibited, eating meat is not. So, most people stock up their freezers in anticipation of this month. Bhutanese cuisine is, alas, not a highlight with chilli being a staple vegetable. Hemadatsi – consisting entirely of chillies with cheese sauce added almost as a postscript – pops up at every meal I have eaten so far.

At the lunch buffet at Tarayana Center, a friendly black dog turns up, looking greedily for leftovers. My daughter offers it some buckwheat pancake when I suggest the red chilli beef might be too spicy for it. Of course, I am wrong and the dog gobbles up the beef, chilli and all.