Bhutan is often referred to as the “hermit kingdom” to signify its remoteness to the world. Today the world watches the efforts of a secular king to lead his people and his monks and nuns into the modern world without losing their culture or religion. In 1952, Mil and I were able to take a landrover to Gangtok, in neighboring Sikkim, from the Indian hill station of Darjeeling. Neither Nepal nor Bhutan was then accessible by road; the building of the first road from India to Kathmandu in the 1960s is recalled in the thinly fictionalized book The Mountain is Young by Han Su Yin. By 1965 we were able to fly into Nepal on a DC-3, after three attempts to land visually before the fog descended. This year Mil and I determined to visit Bhutan as see how this guided modernization is going.
Bhutan is not an easy country to get to or to get into. To avoid the negative aspects of rapid economic transformation, the government limits visits and, until 1999, prohibited TV. Tourists must use government-approved travel agencies and are sent on fairly defined tours, whether cultural or trekking; we squeezed interviews into our tight schedule. The number of expatriates is limited and development assistance from outside the regions is accepted only from smaller countries such as Switzerland, Austria, or Holland. A representative from the Asia Development Bank told us over breakfast in the hotel that she had trouble convincing her boss in Manila that Bhutan had turned down an aid package because it felt it could not afford to pay back the loans.
Nor are data on the country east to collect. I found exactly two recent studies on women, neither published. Mil and I were both interested in the new decentralization laws, and I asked many people about elections. Often what we were told contradicted other sources; even the Lonely Planet guide notes that many facts are open to interpretation in this land of myths and legends. Few question the size of the country: 18,140 square miles, which equals Maryland and New Jersey combined. But population? When Bhutan decided to join the United Nations in 1961, it lack the minimum population of one million, so India somehow “loaned” areas to Bhutan to show that many inhabitants. That figure, adjusted upwards over time, is quoted today as nearly 1.5 million. Actual population is estimated at under 700,000; that is less than the population of Delaware.
Many of the sites we visited honored the present king’s father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, third of the current dynasty that united the country, who assumed the throne in 1952. Educated in England, the king spoke Tibetan and Hindi as well. He began a gradual reform of the country’s judicial and administrative services, created a national assembly, and abolished serfdom. In 1958 he invited Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi to tour Bhutan on horseback. He died of cancer in 1972 in Nairobi, we were told; but no one explained why there. The choten that defines Thimphu was built in his honor by his widow.
This king also ended Bhutan’s age-old isolation after the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 and the arrival of over1500 Tibetan refugees. With technical assistance primarily from India, Bhutan began a series of five year development plans in 1961. A hydroelectric dam provided the country’s first power source. Paved roads from India and across the country were first built only in 1972, after Bhutan signed a cooperative agreement with India for the defense of Bhutan’s borders during the China-India war. Since the king did not want to be totally dependent on a foreign army, he recruited young men for military training in India. Our first evening in Thimphu, Prem Tsering recalled his trip by horse to Sikkim on way to his school in Narkanda: how at dusk his group heard this frightening grunt of a best, stared into its unblinking eyes, and rolled to the ground. None of them had ever seen a jeep or car.
Bhutan had been part of the buffer zone created along the Himalayas by the British to protect the borders of the Indian Empire from China. To a great extent, geography dictated the relationship of each area to the British. On the west, the valleys of Kashmir and Manali had relatively easy access to the plains and were incorporated into India after independence in 1947. Nepal’s high escarpment guarded by malarial lowlands discouraged penetration from the south and had allowed the king and his hereditary prime minister to rule the interior valleys, paying nominal tribute to China. The British countered this by 1816 had a British resident in Kathmandu. To the west of Nepal, the configuration of mountain ranges changes with valleys and ridges becoming like spokes from a Tibetan wheel. Thus Sikkim provided a route into Tibet from Bengal; responding to Tibetan incursion, in 1890 the British declared the tiny state a protectorate; Sikkim was merged into India in 1975.
The spokes extend into Bhutan; as the river valleys extend to the plains and reach the Brahmaputra the openings are referred to as duars [doors]. The river and the malarial areas limited access, but the British needed their buffer; by 1910 they had assumed control over foreign relations. Further east the mighty Brahmaputra does a hairpin turn in Assam and doubling back toward the Tibetan plateau, enclosing both Bhutan and the Indian state of Arunchal Pradesh, created out of Assam in 1987. When Mil and I visited Assam in 1952, we took a train up the Brahmaputra valley, then bused into Assam’s capital Shillong. [Nearby Cheripunji is reputed to have the world highest annual rainfall.] Back on the train, we went on to Manipur, a buffer state along the Burmese border, and along with Tripura, the first of the several Indian states now carved out of Assam. But Bhutan was closed.
Given the geography, each valley became a fiefdom, with the warlord building large dzongs or fortresses and watchtowers along the rivers. In the 11th and 12th centuries, many Tibetan lamas brought their Himalayan form of Mahayana Buddhism to the country and incorporated into it with a tantric form of Buddhism from India to form the Drukpa Kagya, Bhutan’s official religion. In the national museum, however, four Buddhist schools are portrayed. Once school allows monks to marry; others allow monks to buy out, paying for the years of support and schooling, should they decide to leave. Often a reason was the monk’s need to support parents or maintain the farm when other relatives died. Monks were cooking meat in the first monastery we visited; apparently eating meat is all right, just not killing a living thing.
The dzongs became both the religious and administrative center of each valley, exemplifying the dual system of government with both a spiritual and a civil government head that continued until 1907. Monks still play a role in government and are visible everywhere. Today the dzongs are a major tourist attraction. Many are designated World Treasures by UNESCO and are undergoing renovation with their rotting timbers being painstakingly replaced by methods appropriate to the time of original construction.
The dzongs are incredible. The largest is in Trongsa which not only guarded north/south but also east/west travel: the paths actually went through the buildings! Walking inside the walls made me feel as if I had taken a time machine back to medieval Europe: the walkways between three story buildings, the monks of all ages distinct in red robes, the civilians in their Bhutanese dress. Part of the dzong serves as a monastery where the monks live and study. In another section are administrative offices open to the public during designated hours. This juxtaposition but separation of religion and government began in the 1640s. Today the government supports the monasteries and supports over 5000 monks [and 250 nuns]. These monks, collectively known as the sangha. The chief abbot is elected by leading monks and is the only person besides the king allowed to wear a saffron scarf. Monks have seats in both the 154 member National Assembly and in the 14 person Royal Advisory Council.
The National Assembly fascinated me. Besides the 12 monks, 37 senior civil servants are selected by the king. The remaining 105 members, called chimis, are elected from each of the 20 districts. I tried to find out how the chimis were elected, and what was their relationship to the gup, the lowest level administrative official, who was also elected. The answers were confusing, and often contradictory. A major reason is that elections and representative bodies are works in progress . Laws are adjusted frequently and local practices seem to vary. One former member of the Royal Advisory Council told me that it did not really matter because everyone in the country wants the king to rule. And several people complained that recent –and very complicate– elections to the Royal Advisory Council were corrupt, “just like in India” they said.
Eventually I did learn that elections are based on the household, and women as well as men can speak for their families. These electors must come together in a meeting; they vote by show of hands. With 80% of the population living at least an hour’s walk from a road, getting to a village to vote is arduous. With the devolution of development to the local level, more and more community meetings are called; getting people to attend requires someone to walk around to each household. As a result of the recent devolution of planning, the power of the gup is increasing along with his workload. Education and training requirements for the office are now being discussed. Some strong gups have also become chimis whose role is advisory and who meet only twice a year.
To travel west to east across high mountain passes as high as 11,000 feet certainly inhibited movement. Wherever the wind blows freely, local residents, pilgrims, and traders erect prayer flags on tall bamboo poles. And a stupa marks the top of each pass. We photographed these and the hoar frost and the barely blooming rhododendrons as we drove from Thimphu to the tropical valley on Wangdi. Driving on to Bumthang, the mountain cover was more sparse with dwarf bamboo that feeds the large flocks of yak. This route follows the old tortuous paths in and out along cliffs and around tributaries. The paved road was built by the Indian army in 1972 and continue to maintain it with Indian repair villages spaced along the route. Roads were also paved to connect India to the south; most traverse areas out of bounds to tourists because members of insurgent groups in India cross the open borders to camp in Bhutan. The major trading route south of Thimphu remains open to tourists willing to take a long bus ride from the border. Pilgrims going to Buddhist shrines in India go this way; but ride Indian busses from the border. Previously angry Nepalis, who left the country in protest and now are having trouble returning, often attacked them. They were protesting laws that required everyone to wear Bhutanese dress in public and that stopped teaching Nepali in schools.
The only airport is in Paro in the west; no where else can even small planes land, though the country is now considering helicopter service. Druk Air – the only airline allowed to land – has two planes, each seating 72 people, and flies from Bangkok via Calcutta and from New Dehli via Kathmandu. Pilots are extensively trained in England on simulators, we were told; and they regularly total a house perched on a hill in the approach path. Efforts to move the family have not been successful, as so far no pilot has hit the house in real life!
The flight from Kathmandu to Paro is breath-taking with its dramatic views of the world’s highest peaks, including Everest and Kanchenjunga. The drop to Paro valley is abrupt; the dzong on the nearby hill proclaims the uniqueness of the country. We were met by our guide Karma whose square earlobes mimic those on thousands of statues of Buddha. He wore the requisite national dress: an ankle-length robe made of local textiles that was hiked up with a belt around the waist to form a loose pocket for resting the left hand or carrying things. In contrast, the van was a new Toyota HI-ACE. This mix of medieval and new continued to confound us: the signs were all in English and young people were constantly practicing on us. It felt as if we had wondered onto an elaborate Hollywood set.
Education in English began as soon as the country began to open up in the 1960s. King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck had married an educated Sikkimese princess; her brother served as an advisor to the king. Recognizing the need for educated Bhutanese as the country opened, they convinced the king of the importance of educating the country’s youth. A quota was set for recruiting students and the advisor traveled by horse throughout the country talking to reluctant parents. Students would be totally supported at schools in Darjeeling, sent to higher education as appropriate, and hired by the government upon graduation. All the Bhutanese we talked to had been educated by the government, primarily in India; even our guide had been sent to Nepal and then France to improve his French!
In Bumthang we talked with Kuenzang Choden who, along with her older brother, was sent to India in the first group when she was nine. From her home she walked for 12 days with a trading caravan to the Indian border; the entire trip took a month. Once they were in Darjeeling, she and her brother did not often go home, but sometimes a relative would visit. She thought her parents were willing to send their children because they saw changes ahead. The family had been wealthy, with royal ties, and had owned considerable land. The abolition of serfdom and the limitation on land holding heralded a new era. Serfs were deeded land away from where they had been in bondage where they would be equals.
Many of the first group of educated children returned to become teachers. Today the country has placed community schools in rural areas, and set up residential middle schools. A university in the eastern part of the country offers liberal arts and engineering and teacher training colleges are found in different regions: the government has avoided concentrating higher education in the capital, Thimphu. Good students are still educated abroad, primarily in India; they must sign a bond to work for the government for five years. Planners are worried that the pool of educated people is rapidly outpacing available jobs, and for the first time have set up an employment section within the government.
Another worry about the rapid education is urban migration. Long time resident and education specialist Nancy Strickland argues that building community schools pulls students away from farming, this in a country where over 80% of the people live by subsistence farming.
And where food scarcity is a serious problem. She believes that a preferable approach would have been to require agricultural extension workers to add literacy and numeracy to their outreach activities. Similar attempts in both India and Indonesia to adapt primary education to the needs of rural areas were defeated by the urban middle class who opposed any dilution of western-based curricula.
One unintended impact of rural education is the apparent increase in gender disparities. Bhutan, like most subsistence societies, has a definite sexual division of labor that is fairly egalitarian. But historically, women stayed on the farm to support the brothers who became monks. Today the government supports the monks but the women stay on the farm to support their parents who generally leave their land to the daughter. Land ownership in most countries would seem empowering, but Anne Currie-Namgyal in a 1999 report suggests that even when women inherit land, men seem to control it, especially if development projects are involved. Because girls must work the land due to severe labor shortages, they cannot attend school. As a result, their lack of fluency in the national language, Dzongkha, also limits their trading in the markets.
Divorce is common; until recently neither marriage nor divorce were even registered. In Thimphu we talked with three young women in the government: two were divorced and raising children alone; the other brought her husband along to meet us. Custom required a young couple to marry if the girl became pregnant, but many refused. Kuenzang Choden says that illegitimacy was a stigma when she was growing up; the 1996 law on marriage requires men to support their children and provides blood tests if men deny their fatherhood.
Less discussed is violence against women. The Druk airline magazine had an evocative short story that I read on the plane. A young mother tried to comfort her hungry children saying that their father had her last money so that he could buy them food as well as oil for lighting the lamp for the religious celebration. The husband comes home drunk, kills his wife accidentally with the broken bottle, and reflects on his crime in jail not knowing what happened to his children. Our first stop along the routed from Paro to Thimphu, was to take photos and buy mandarins. A girl was crouched behind the counter whimpering; a man in Bhutanese dress wielded a five foot long branch and was beating her. As she ran across the bridge, several other women traders formed a ring around her, yelling at them to stop. Perhaps foolishly, I joined them. The man walked away. Later our guide said the man told him that his daughter had been gambling and that it was his right to punish her as he wished.
The owner of our travel company Etho Metho, or rhododendron, was an accomplished business woman who also owned an interest in cable TV. The queen mother continues to play an important role in the country. But the present king confused women’s status by marrying four sisters. The story is that he wanted a younger one but had to marry the others with whom he had dallied; after all, one man told us, he was the king, a young playboy, and who could refuse him?
Indeed, the country confused us. Run by a benevolent despot, he seems to be doing many things very well. But how long will the people be willing to play roles in his pageant? Kuenzang Choden says most village women she has talked to think their lives are better than thirty years ago. The new rich drive fancy imported cars; a new 100% duty may slow that trend. Still along the road we saw cars and motorcycles that had been covered with plastic and left on the roadside until their owners might return in days or weeks. Many families now send their children abroad to study; only some return because they can’t find jobs at home. Those living in Bhutan seem content with the gradual approach to modernization and optimistic that they will be able to avoid the wrenching changes that are creating crises in Nepal. We can only wish them well.