The Mystique and Magic of Bhutan

The Asian Age,30 May 2010


The Mystique and Magic of Bhutan

Bhutan, we call it; Druk Yul, is their name for the country. Most people translate this to mean “The Land of the Thunder Dragon”, and it is easy to understand why when the airplane skims through the clouds hiding Mount Everest, then dips and swerves to land into a sudden valley surrounded by misty mountains. If there are thunder dragons then this is the place they would be found.

The history behind the name Druk Yul is more complex, and for us, this band of Indians arriving for the first ever Bhutan Literary Festival, much more relevant. In the 12th century a monk, Tsanga Gyare Yeshe Dorji, meditating in the high Tibetan plateaus, heard the four Noble Truths of Buddhism in a long roll of thunder, the great insights of the sage Siddhartha Gautam revealed by nature itself in the voice of the Druk, the dragon whose voice was thunder. When Bhutan was consolidated as a state in the 17th century, its state religion was Drukpa Kargyupa, following in the footsteps of this monk.

This though was on nobody’s mind. For most of us, escaping the terrible heat of the Indian summer, it was the lovely weather that was important, not the grumbling thunder. It was only as we arrived at the hotel that the light rainfall made the thunder more relevant, then lightning struck, the electricity disappeared, and in the long roll of thunder that followed you could almost imagine laughter. The EPABX system of the hotel was fried, and it would take three days to fix. Our phones and intercoms dead, the price we paid for not paying attention to the thunder. We were here to listen to Bhutan as well as to speak; we had been reminded.

Within minutes we were whisked off to the grand India House Estate, one of the most beautiful Indian embassies in the world for an evening of speeches, poetry and performances. The keynote address was given by the always elegant, extremely impressive Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. Poised, focused, a writer herself, the Queen Mother made a short speech of welcome and lit the lamps of welcome in the company of Pavan Varma, India’s ambassador to Bhutan.

The longest speech given was by the Bhutanese Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley. Again a speaker used to impressive audiences, but his speech on Gross National Happiness struck a discordant note. It is rare for a writer to focus on happiness. It is our sadness, our grief at the way the world is, maybe even just curiosity, that compels us forward, not contentment. In an odd way Mr Thinley threw light on it by unwrapping Pavan Varma’s latest book, Becoming Indian, an examination of the problems that British colonialism has left on the Indian national consciousness. Whatever one’s view of the subject the nature of the book is a deliberation on hurt, not happiness.

In a minor sense this was echoed by the festival. The non-Bhutanese writers, whether Patrick French, Urvashi Butalia, Sanjoy Hazarika, Sarnath Bannerjee, or others very clearly focused on hurts and problems. The Bhutanese writers such as Kunzang Choeden, Karma Ura, Sonam Kinga, Kinley Dorji, were more careful in exploring the texture of their lives though as the days unwound it was obvious that they too were focussed on getting at the nub of the truth.

In fact, the most delightful thing about the festival was the quick, precise questions posed by the audience. Anyone who has attended an Indian literary event will know that there are always the audience members who don’t really want to ask a question, but rather want to make some rambling point about something that nobody really understands, except for some stray reference to Rabindranath Tagore and quantum mechanics. There was none of that. The audience, primarily Bhutanese, asked about things they wanted to know and listened intently to the answers. For them the event was about learning, opening themselves up to new knowledge, not spectacle. There was no point when the hall was less than three-quarters full (except for the first 10 minutes after the lunch break of course!) and no point when the audience was less focused on the words and debate rather than on the people themselves, even when the people were stars such as Gulzar, the Bollywood actress Tisca Chopra, the film director Shashank Ghosh, or even Chetan Bhagat.

Maybe because of the nature of the audience it was also exhausting. Siyahi’s Mita Kapur, who organised the festival, ran a tight ship and there were few talks that were delayed for more than a few minutes. It is in the nature of literary festivals that they offer more information than a person can absorb. I learnt this at this year’s Jaipur Festival, when after running around from one event to another I found myself totally drained and retired to the coffee shop. In Thimphu too, I snuck off to one of my favourite little places, the Art Cafe, for their fabulous hot chocolate with marshmallows, after lunch on the third day.

Of course, this meant that I missed a few sessions, and maybe I regret that, maybe I don’t. This is Druk Yul, a country where wisdom is obvious in nature’s words. I would have been a fool not to savour the sight of the mountains and the clouds leisurely wrapping themselves, unwrapping themselves, around them.

Omair Ahmad is the author of The Storyteller’s Tale and Sense Terra and Encounters