Friday, October 24, 2008

Bhutan: the last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom

Yab Yum Vajrasattva, 19th century, Norbgang Lhakhang, Punakha; a wooden image of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the 17th-century leader who unified Bhutan (Honolulu Academy of Arts -- more photos).

The Changing Face of Bhutan
Arthur Lubow (Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008)

As the last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom cautiously opens itself to the world, traditionalists fear for its unique culture

Black Hat Dance, Bhutan

On rural highways in Bhutan, trucks hauling huge pine logs rush past women bowed beneath bundles of firewood strapped to their backs. In the capital of Thimphu, teenagers in jeans and hooded sweat shirts hang out smoking cigarettes in a downtown square, while less than a mile away, other adolescents perform a sacred Buddhist act of devotion. Archery, the national sport, remains a fervent pursuit, but American fiberglass bows have increasingly replaced those made of traditional bamboo. While it seems that every fast-flowing stream has been harnessed to turn a prayer drum inside a shrine, on large rivers, hydroelectric projects generate electricity for sale to India, accounting for almost half the country's gross national product.

A tiny nation of 700,000 people positioned uneasily between two giants—India to the south and China to the north—Bhutan was almost as isolated as the mythical realm of Shangri-La, to which it is still compared, until the early 1960s, when the first highway was constructed. Now in a sequence of carefully calibrated moves, the last independent Himalayan Buddhist kingdom has opened itself to the outside world, building better roads, mandating instruction in English for schoolchildren, establishing a television network and introducing Internet service. This month, citizens will conclude voting for a two-house parliament that will turn the country from a traditional monarchy into a constitutional one. The elections were mandated by the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, before he abdicated in favor of his then 26-year-old son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, at the end of 2006. Two political parties scrambled into existence after the decree.

And in another unusual move for the insular country, Bhutan is putting its rich culture on display in the United States in two major exhibitions. The first, which opened at the Honolulu Academy of Arts (February 23-May 23) and will travel to the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, focuses on the country's sacred Buddhist art—not only painting and sculpture, but also ancient ritual dances, known as Cham, which are usually performed by monks to bless onlookers and impart Buddhist teachings. The second showcase is the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, to be staged this summer (June 25-29 and July 2-6) on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It will include demonstrations of traditional Bhutanese dancing, weaving, metalworking, woodcarving and herbal medicine. More>>

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