The drums are rumbling and the dancers swirling around the courtyard of the monastery. Watching them are hundreds of Bhutanese who have come from town and nearby villages to attend their annual local festival, dressed in their best outfit. I, too am attending the Jakar Festival in Bhumtang, Bhutan. My return to the small Himalayan kingdom this fall as a tour leader for two weeks of cultural discovery also triggered some reflections regarding the influence of modernity on a country so rich in traditions.
I was in Bhutan in 2003, mostly trekking through remote areas, which gave me the impression of having stepped back 300 years in time. This year I got a bit of a shock when we entered Thimphu, the capital. Although still the only capital city in the world without a traffic light, the growth was obvious: construction happening everywhere around town as more Bhutanese were coming to the city to find work. In Thimphu it was also obvious that, after business hours, jeans were the preferred attire to the traditional outfits, gho and kira. Western dress was now allowed. Had Bhutan lost its genuine character?
Not quite. As we drove further east into the country I found again the Bhutan of my previous visit. The roads were still very primitive, improvement rendered difficult by a challenging geography. Forests covered more than 60 percent of the country, magnificent Dzongs-17th century fortresses -- and monasteries were treasured and inhabited by monks, attesting to the revered Buddhist tradition of Bhutan. We went through small villages, and saw alot of traditional Bhutanese houses spread out on farming land. Although our guides and drivers were now users of cell phones and the Internet, they clearly did not like Thimphu and preferred Paro and the more traditional Bhutan.
Modern technologies such as Internet, television, cell phones, have progressively been introduced since the '90s in order to not isolate Bhutan from the rest of the world and respond to the needs of the youth, for better communications and education. Unlimited numbers of tourists are now allowed every year, which has also brought more western influences, and more desire from Bhutanese to develop businesses.
But at the same time, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king, introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and set it up as a reference for his country. Indicators such as good governance, equitable economical development, cultural preservation and ecology are what determines GNH versus GNP (Gross National Product). His son, the fifth king ( K5!,) and the government -- as Bhutan now has a parliament -- have been following the same principles.
This is the way that Bhutan has found to address modernization and the problems emerging from the evolution of a rural country towards a modern society. The Bhutanese love their kings and it seems that these have done good governance for Bhutan. Although we missed the royal wedding, the country was still basking in it with photos of the newly-weds everywhere, lapel pins, and a superb lightning of Tashichoedzong -- the government building in Thimphu -- at night.
Certainly what had not changed since my previous visit was the friendliness of the Bhutanese people. For example, walking through Phobjika valley, a beautiful house caught our attention in the middle of turnip fields. Our guide Dorji, a farmer himself when not guiding, went ahead to see if somebody was home. Very soon we were introduced to the whole family, who seemed really happy and honored to have us visit their home and to answer our questions. Like our guides and driver did, serving us the best they could seemed to make them happy and happier, an altruistic attitude definitively anchored in Buddhist practice.
Changes, even in apparently the most remote places in the world, seem unavoidable. After all, impermanence being a main Buddhist principle, it seems logical that Bhutan evolves too. Health care seemed to be totally missing in the areas I visited in 2003, and is still very basic in the rural parts of the country. The concept of Gross National Happiness has been invented by Bhutan to preserve its essence. Traveling through Bhutan was eye-opening. As long as its traditions remain, not for the tourists but for the sake of the Bhutanese people, a visit to Bhutan will be a joyful, inspiring experience.