Welcome to Bhutan, the dragon kingdom of literary happiness

The Independent,27 March 2010


Welcome to Bhutan, the dragon kingdom of literary happiness
By Andrew Buncombe, Asia Correspondent

The Himalayan nation of Bhutan, famed for its natural beauty and government policy to spread gross national happiness, is to host its first literary festival. In what may be a further indication of the country’s desire to open up to greater outside influence, the so-called Dragon Kingdom is to gather international and local writers for an event that will focus on the literature of the mountains.

The author Pavan Varma, who is also India’s ambassador to Bhutan, and whose books include the best-selling Being Indian, said: “The theme of the festival is the mountains, but the sub-theme is about the environment and the need to enhance and preserve it.” Patrick French, pictured right, author of a biography of VS Naipaul and a friend of Bhutan’s King, is among those taking part.

Bhutan is squeezed between India and China, and its rulers made a point of restricting access to the already hard-to-reach nation. Modernity was slow to arrive. Bhutan obtained its first television sets in 1999. Its first election was in 2008, when it became a constitutional monarchy. During the 1970s, the then monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, developed the theory of promoting GNH (gross national happiness) above GDP. He said: “We do not have military muscle. We cannot play a dominant international role. The only factor we can fall back on which can strengthen Bhutan’s sovereignty and our different identity is the unique culture we have.”

Yet many say that change has come too fast. Urbanisation and a breakdown of traditional extended family structures is blamed for an increase in stress and even suicides.

The festival in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, aims to present the more positive aspects of Bhutanese culture. In addition to French, who in 2008 was a guest at the colourful coronation of King Wangchuck’s son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the festival will feature a number of Indian authors, including Omair Ahmad, who penned The Storyteller’s Tale.

Yet the organisers are determined that Bhutanese writers, who have a more restricted access to an international audience, are also showcased.

Among those taking part in the festival, entitled Mountain Echoes, is Kinley Dorji, editor-in-chief of Bhutan’s only national newspaper, Kuensal, and author of Within the Realm of Happiness, a collection of short stories and memoir that has received positive reviews within the region.