Saturday, 19 December 2015

Bhutan, Progress and Tradition

The National Assembly Building in Thimphu ©Solange Hando

Progress came with a bang in 2006 when the 4th King announced his forthcoming abdication in favour of his son  and the institution of a democratic government. Bhutan had come of age and the new National Assembly held its first session in 2008. The Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party won every seat but two, but the situation was reversed in 2013 when the People's Democratic Party secured 32/47 seats.

Once again, change was on its way but in this traditional building oozing Buddhist values, the mission is the same, whoever is in power: 'to achieve the goal of Gross National Happiness enshrined in the Constitution' and endorsed by the highly-respected king and monks' body. 

Bright Lights in Thimphu ©Solange Hando

Thimphu has grown tenfold in the past decade or so and western dress is a common sight though at festival time, everyone loves to show off their best traditional clothes, kira for the ladies and gho for the men. The capital has its share of modern shops but craftsmen and artists still practise their ancient skills and on the roundabout, a policeman directs the traffic with the grace of a ballet dancer. There are no traffic lights.

Likewise, towns such as Punakha or Wangdi Phrodang have seen new districts popping up, financed by the World Bank and paying lip service to traditional architecture. But apartments are modern, less susceptible to fire and the people like them.

Paro Airport ©Solange Hando

Efforts to increase tourism have been successful and the infrastructure is still catching up. Druk Air, the national carrier, now shares the load with the private Bhutanese Airlines and there are a number of domestic flights which operate subject to weather conditions and passenger numbers.

The west to east highway is being upgraded across its entire length so traffic is slower than it ever was but the scenery is just as stunning.

The Black Mountains ©Solange Hando

Respect for nature and all living things remains at the heart of Bhutanese culture and that is unlikely to change for the time being. The slightest hint of a new dam arouses concerns about wild life and so far the balance is on the side of conservation. Bears roam unhindered in the forest, snow leopards and even tigers survive at high altitude and in the Phobjikha Valley, the return of black-necked cranes in the autumn is greeted with a special festival.

Tilling the Land in the Ura Valley ©Solange Hando

At first sight the pace of change is much slower in the countryside and there lies the greatest challenge for 21st century Bhutan: youngsters heading for the city, drawn by the bright lights and the lure of well paid jobs that are few and far in between. Private enterprise is in its infancy and until business skills are developed, the problem is likely to grow.

Meanwhile in the country, there are fewer farmers to till the land and fewer young people to care for the elderly and keep families together.   

Children Attending a Festival, Punakha Dzong ©Solange Hando

But it is the children who hold the key to the future and with Bhutan's laudable efforts in education and encouragement from all leaders, religious or civic, there is every reason to hope that they will achieve a fine balance between tradition and progress. Bhutan is not a 'museum' but it does have something special which is worth preserving.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Bhutan's Royalty

 Traditional Festivities in Bhutan ©Solange Hando

Bhutan is changing for sure but traditions and culture remain as strong as ever, anchored in the Buddhist faith and respect for the royal family.

In 2015, celebrations were held throughout the kingdom in honour of the 4th King's 60th birthday. They culminated in Thimphu on November 11th when soon after dawn, crowds made their way to the stadium to enjoy a colourful mix of parades, traditional dances and games and a heartfelt tribute from the current king to his father.

His Majesty the 5th King Meeting his People ©Solange Hando

Democracy came to Bhutan in 2008 but the royal family is as popular as ever, symbolising the country's unity and culture, but what the people appreciate most is their approachability and simple lifestyle. 

Don't expect a sumptuous residence or even a castle, the Royal Palace is a comfortable but modest cottage tucked among the trees on the edge of the capital, with one guard on duty at a gate you might not even notice. Then there's a retreat in Punakha which would do nicely for a solitary monk.

 Just as important, the king is close to his people, mingling with the crowds at festival time, walking across the kingdom to meet them if the occasion demands or stopping his car at the roadside to chat to farmers and villagers, listening to their concerns as an attendant makes notes which will be followed up. Just like his father did. 

Portraits of the 4th King (right) and his Son at the Birthday Celebrations ©Solange Hando

During his 34 years on the throne, until he stepped down for his son in 2006, the 4th Dragon King of Bhutan moved his country forward in bold but measured steps, reinforcing unity under the 'one nation, one people' banner, modernising the kingdom and opening the gates to the outside world while maintaining traditional Bhutanese values.

But most of all, he gave democracy to his people because he felt the time was right. Both his retirement and the new system shook the nation at the time but today, he is seen as an enlightened leader who paved the way for the future.

Punakha Dzong, Royal Wedding Location ©Solange Hando

Meanwhile in 2011, the 5th King married the young Jetsun Pema in Punakha dzong, 'the fortress of great happiness' where the first King of Bhutan was crowned. After the wedding, the King and his Queen walked more or less all the way back to Thimphu, 71km and 13 hours away, so they could meet the thousands of people who lined up along the road to pay their respects.

That's just one of the reasons why they call His Majesty 'the People's King', keen to greet them one by one and lend a hand as needed: when the magnificent dzong of Wangdi Phrodang was destroyed by fire in 2012, he left Thimphu and rushed to the site to help villagers salvage what they could.

Then at the royal celebrations in 2015, the 5th King delivered the long awaited news that a royal heir was on his way. The crowds loved it and a gentle wave of jubilation rippled across the stadium. The baby is due in the early spring and there couldn't have been a better birthday present for the 4th King.

The King and Queen of Bhutan

The 4th King had four wives but His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has opted for one and a love marriage, even holding hands in public in a land where Gross National Happiness is enshrined in the Constitution.