Bhutan's bounty

Bhutan's bounty

Of the four Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms, Ladakh, Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan, only Bhutan has managed to retain its sovereignty. While Ladakh and Sikkim became part of India, Tibet was gobbled up by Communist China. How this landlocked, sparsely-populated nation survived foreign territorial ambitions and invasions is an amazing story. After emerging as an independent Buddhist nation in the 17th century under Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, this tiny country even managed to stand up to the might of the British empire. Over the centuries, what shaped Bhutan’s history were myths, legends and folklore.

Omair Ahmad travels to Bhutan in an effort to unravel the myths enveloping the Buddhist kingdom. The Kingdom at the Centre of the World is a sincere effort to sift facts from Bhutan’s past shrouded in faith and folklore. Ahmad partially succeeds in tracing Bhutan’s roots, as he has to reckon with a national psyche attuned to treat myths as gospel truths and a scarcity of historical texts. The myths tell of a saint Guru Rinpoche riding a flying tigress. Historically, he is Padmasambhava, who was responsible for the second great expansion of Buddhism in the Himalayan region in the eighth century.

The book is a mix of travel writing and political history by a person bewitched by the serenity of the Himalayan landscape, simplicity of its people, and the low profile of its rulers. “Saints have shaped Bhutan, its society, song and culture,” he observes. One such saint who had left a lasting legacy was Thangtong Gyalpo, who had built suspension bridges made of iron chains in the 15th century. A few of them still survive, baffling experts how the iron has survived rusting for centuries. The suspension bridges in Europe in later centuries were obviously inspired by this saint’s creations, discovered by Jesuits in the 17th century.

Tibet and Bhutan had a love-hate relationship, with the two countries in a state of war for over a century. Bhutan escaped a Mongol invasion, as the invaders lost their horses in the monsoon. The exploits of legendary Jigme Namgyal, the Black Regent, whose army braved the British might forcing the imperial army to standstill in 1864-65, get due attention. The reader also has a glimpse of the British paranoia about the Russian threat from the north and the ridiculous, costly adventures it had undertaken to face the imaginary threat.

The book traces the evolution of Wangchuk dynasty, and how the dynasty has shaped the nation’s growth and survival in a difficult environment. The Wangchuk monarchs, with an entirely different outlook, have ruled Bhutan for over a century. Ahmad gives due attention to the achievements of the Wangchuks. “The crown of Bhutan was achieved not through wars or wealth, but by skillful diplomacy, humility and consensus,” says Ahmad. It was a masterstroke of diplomacy that fetched Bhutan the membership of UN just two months before China replaced Taiwan as a permanent member of the Security Council. Otherwise, Bhutan would have been the victim of a Chinese veto.

Bhutan has the unsettled problem of the spread of people of Nepali origin in the kingdom. Alarmed by the loss of sovereignty of Sikkim, Nepali migrants swamped the locals and Bhutan embarked on a policy of discouraging migration sans integration.

When Tibetan refugees rejected offers of citizenship in 1979, Bhutan expelled 4,000 of them. The refugees subsequently landed in India. In 1989, when Bhutan insisted on all citizens wearing the national dress, there were fierce protests against the move in southern Bhutan, predominantly inhabited by Nepalis. The king was accused of cultural suppression and violation of human rights of the people of Nepali origin. The presence of thousands of stateless people in the refugee camps in Nepal is a grim reminder of Bhutan’s ethnic problem.

In 2003, in a quiet operation, Bhutan managed to expel a vast army of militants from India’s north-east region. Bhutan had kept India waiting for almost six years before acting decisively. The book says Bhutan, “manoeuvred between the great giants, India and China, between the irredentist Gorkhaland movement and the insurgencies of India’s north-east, warding off danger not so much through strength, but by self-control.”

The author devotes a lot of pages in eulogising the alternative form of inclusive governance and moderate progress that Bhutan is following. Bhutan opts for Gross National Happiness (GNH) over Gross National Product (GNP) under the guided system of democracy. It has chosen a middle path, while retaining its cultural distinctiveness. A tiny nation with a population of just seven lakhs can afford to follow such a model. Too much emphasis on it will be out of place.

The real value of the book is that it fills a void as very few books on Bhutan are available.

The kingdom at the centre of the world
Omair Ahmad
Aleph
2013, pp 240
495

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