Bhutan: Now, and Then
Tibetan books sometimes referred to Bhutan as Lhojong Menjong
or the Southern Valley of Medicinal Herbs and also, Drukyul or
There are a number of ethnic groups,
and at least
two dialects of Tibetan. Hindi, Nepali dialects and English are also spoken.
But though its forests and valleys hidden in the convolutions of ridges and
streams, its magnificent peaks and its friendly people are much admired, there
has been fierce criticism of the rigid manner in which national protocol or driglam namzha
has been enforced.
Before the 17th century, Bhutan had no
central authority. In 1616, in Tibet, Ngawang
Namgyal, a high monk at a Kagyu monastery, who was experiencing opposition
to his incarnate status, interpreted the flight of a raven as the omen that he should move south. Once
established in northwestern Bhutan, he was able to unify various factions
there and mustered some forces that repelled invasion from Tibet.
founded the Drukpa offshoot and became known as the Shabdrung (or, Zhabdrung)
of Bhutan. Before he died, he determined that religious
matters be left to an elected Je Khenpo or Lord Abbot, and administration be led by a Desi, with a peunlop
(also, ponlop) or governor ruling each
region. The Shabdrung succession was to be determined by the tulku system,
ie. incarnation by means of signs.
In no time, the Peunlops gained control but rivalry and conflict reigned among
them. Finally, in the 19th century, the Tongsa Peunlop whose name was
Urgyen Wangchuck was confirmed as Druk Gyalpo or Dragon King. At
least two of the 20th-century Shabdrungs died in nefarious ways. The
current one lives in Delhi, India.
In 1972, when Jigme Sangye Wangchuk assumed the monarchy
of Bhutan, he was 17 years old -- the world's youngest king.
began as an effort to preserve traditional culture through
enforcement of a dress code -- men are to wear a gho or bokhu,
as it is called in the south, that is a striped variation of the Tibetan chuba
raised to the knee, and for women, a draped garment known as a kira -- has led to infringement of civil rights, especially of the Nepalese (mainly Hindu)
population who emigrated to southern Bhutan in the last century.
current situation seems to be partly due to consequences of the 1962 conflict between India and China
that threatened the
autonomy of Bhutan, the absorption by India of neighboring Sikkim in 1975,
and the impact of Western materialism.
currency is the ngultrim or Nu; 35 Nu = US $1.
Tourists can only enter by air at Paro, and a visa depends upon the
commitment to spend a minimum per diem of US $200.
Keunsel: Bhutan's daily newspaper online.
August 22, 2010, Where is Guru Rinpoche’s Bhutan? -- Part 6 by
Wonphu Taktshang for PERSPECTIVES at Kuensel Online [link just
[Part 5] ended . . . on the note that Jomo Tshogyal left Paro Taktshang for
Wonphu Taktshang in Tibet. Tshogyal and five of her companions that included
Monmo Tashi Chidren went there to meet Guru.
In a prescient talk admiring the qualities of Tshogyal and Dewamo, Guru
emphasized the lack of gender difference in Vajrayana attainments. Guru went
on to foretell the future rebirths of all six of them, as different members,
into the same family in a place called Dakyul Labchey. Tshogyal then
reported the various enlightening experiences she had, particularly those in
Paro Taktshang, due to Guru’s guidance. She described that her body
became divine because the notion of thigle disappeared (thig le snang ba gten
nas nub) and that she achieved the three kinds of meditative concentrations (sgyuma,
rdor rje, dpa’ bo). She mentioned her vision of Amitayus at Paro
Taktshang due to her practice of Secret Mantrayana. At this, Guru,
placing his hands on her head, pronounced that the moment has arrived for her
to practice yoga of Amitayus sadhanas, pointing out that what occurred in Paro
was a sign for her to do so. Guru thus opened to her the mandala of
Amitayus and instructed her to find another partner to felicitate her
As for Monmo Tashi Chidren, who possessed the qualities of a wisdom dakini,
Guru asked her to be the ritual partner (gzungma) for Vajrakila in order to
disseminate its pith instructions. Unless that was done, Guru said that
Vajrayana would not flourish for too long in Tibet (KMT 2005: 119-122).
Accordingly, Tshogyal made offerings of gold, turquoise and Tashi Chidren, and
asked Guru to let not only Tashi Chidren but herself also learn and practice
Vajrakila (bdags kyang rdor rje phur pa’i gdams pa).
After a moment of thought, Guru pronounced that any training within Vajrayana
must be preceded by Vajrakila to ease out impediments, and that Vajrakila was
indeed her deity. However, he said that for both Vajrakila and Amitayus
practices, it was prerequisite for her to have a practice-partner (sgrub pa’i
grogs). As foretold, a 14-year old youth from U, who was later renamed
as Lhalung Pelgyi Singye, became her practice-partner.
There were other disciples participating in that Vajrakila sadhana, such as
Lhalung Pelgyi Singye, Namkhai Nyingpo, Ma Rinchen Chog, Dorji Dudjom, Dewamo
(renamed at this occasion as Pelgi Chodney), Acharya Saleh (renamed on this
occasion as Karma Dondup), Acharya Pelyang (renamed on this occasion as Karma
Tharjed), and Mon [ethnic group of Myanmar / Burma, Theravadin
Buddhist via contact w Sri Lanka] boy Saleh (named on this occasion as
Tshogyal’s biography mentions that during the seven days of practice by the
three Guru-Yab-Yum, Tshogyal was the main consort (rtsa ba’i gzungs ma) and
Tashi Chidren was the consort at the conclusion of the practice (sgrol ba’i
gzungs ma ) (KMT 2005; 122). The subtle description in Vajrayana phraselogy
suggests that ritual union elements were involved. Williams gives a clear
summary of the tantric union practice and its origins. Ritual union was a part
of Mahayoga tantras such as Hevajra Tantra (He Vajra) (Williams 2000:
Dorji Droloed Yab-Yum and Phurba Thingnag Dorji
After praticing for seven days at Wonphu Taktshang, Guru, Tshogyal, and Tashi
Chidren revealed or opened the mandala of 42 Etrams of Jitotama Vajrakila and
of 78 kilas. Exhaustive signs and symbols were witnessed. Guru
manifested in the form of Dorji Droloed: Yeshey Tshogyal, the tantric union
partner, manifested as dakini Ekatsati, and Tashi Chidren manifested as the
Tigress on which Dorji Droloed and Ekatsati [Ekajati]
rode. Ekatsati is the protector of tantric practices and manifestation of
Samanthabadri (Kuntu Zangmo Yum). While Tshogyal and Guru achieved meditative
concentration of tantric union, Tashi Chidren turned into a tigress. The text
alludes to the purpose of such manifestations as control of spirits of Tibet
During this Vajrakila sadhana, the countless images of the three fierce Guru-Yab-Yum
(Dorji Droloed but complete with Ekatsati, in contrast to Dorji Droloed on
Tigress) appeared (khro bo rngams pa’i sku’i cha byad las rang ‘dra grangs med
pa spro zhing).
There is particular mention about the wrathful blue-black Vajrakila that
reached Paro Taktshang in order to quell all eight classes of lha ma sin (lha
ma srin sde brgyad) of Mon, Nepal and India and other lands in the south.
Similarly, a brown-black Vajrakila reached the border of two Kham Taktshangs
to quell the lha ma sin of Jang, China and Hor.
Tshogyal’s biography thus shows the centrality of Paro Taktshang in two ways.
Firstly, the three Guru-Yab-Yum (with Tshogyal as Ekatsati) appeared in Paro
Taktshang, as simultaneous projections of what miraculously happened in Wonphu
Taktshang. This is based on the statement cited above that countless identical
forms of the three Guru-Yab-Yum appeared at that moment. However, it is quite
clear that the Vajrakila sadhana itself took place at Wonphu Taktshang,
although Vajrakila sadhana was also practiced at other sites on other
occasions according to other sources. Secondly, a blue-black Vajrakila (mthing
nag rdo rje) materialized in Paro Taktshang during this sadhana, as a means of
controlling malevolent beings of the South East Asian region. The intact blue
black Vajrakila is the main relic empowering the famous site to this day.
I should add that Guru’s transformation into Dorji Droloed (perhaps without
Ekatsati and Tigress) took place earlier in other places. Pema Thangyig notes
that Padmasambhava received the name of Dorji Droloed during his five year
retreat in the great cemetery known as Pematsek (Heap of Lotus) in Odiyana (Si
khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang edition, 2006: 117). This event happened before
Guru came to Bhutan and Tibet. The other event where Dorji Droloed is
mentioned in Tshogyal’s biography is related to the debate between outer Bon
and Buddhists at Samye in which Guru is described as a main actor. As Guru’s
mental manifestation (thugs kyi sprul pa rdor rje gro lod du sprul te), Dorji
Droloed worked adversely on the minds of the Bon debators.
Guru’s last visit to Paro Taktshang
Tshogyal’s biography mentions that Mutri Tsenpo succeeded Muni Tsenpo who in
turn succeeded Trisong Detsen. All these happened while Guru was in Tibet. But
sometime in the reign of Mutri Tsenpo, Guru departed for Sinyul. The longest
period Yeshey Tshogyal stayed together with Guru was in Chimphu for 11 years,
when Guru acted as Mutri Tshenpo’s root lama (KMT 2005: 170). At the end of
their stay, Yeshey Tshogyal became comparable to Guru in body, speech,
thought, knowledge and actions. Immediately after their stay in Chimphu, Guru
and Tshogyal decided to visit physically the three Taktshangs, before they
returned to the Samye. The three Taktshangs they visited in chronological
order were Paro Taktshang, Wonphu Taktshang and Kham Taktshang. As far as I
could make out, this visit by Guru should be taken as the fourth one, but
certainly the last, to Bhutan. Tshogyal came to Bhutan once more after this
visit. Having returned to Tibet from their visits to three Taktshangs, Guru
left Tibet from Gungthangla, bid farewell by Mutri Tsenpo’s entourage.
Tshogyal accompanied Guru, by a form of flight, till Tshashorong at the border
of Nepal and Tibet. There, she received more teaching for a week. Her
encounters with Guru after that are in the nature of pure vision when she
received many prophecies, instructions and aural transmissions (lung bstan
bslab bya snyan rgyud mang du zhus so) (see KMT 2005; 187).
Tshogyal’s last visit to Bhutan
Guru had entrusted his legacy of secret mantrayana or Vajrayana to Tshogyal
when he departed from Tibet. By then, Tshogyal had become the main bearer or
holder of the teaching (bstan ‘dzin) for Vajrakila because of her
accomplishment (sgrub pa) and practice (nyams len) of this tantric cycle (dkyil
‘khor kun gyi grtso mor gyur/ ‘on phu stag tsang phur pa grub).
In the later half of her life, after Guru left Tibet possibly in the reign of
Mutri Tsenpo, she travelled to the 108 main meditation places and countless
subsidiary places of Guru. A large number of these places were listed by their
names along with the duration of her stay and the number of ter she deposited
in each of these places (see for details KMT 2005; 196-201). Scanning her
biography, I could count 631 ters deposited by Tshogyal in 35 major places,
most of them in Tibet. I could identify some places in Bhutan. One of the
places in Bhutan she visited were Khenpalung where she lived for one and half
year and deposited there 10 ter (gter kha bcu krag gcig sbas so). She lived
for more than a year in a placed called Mon Budumlung and an unspecified
period again in Nering Singye dzong. These visits were additional to her
previous stays in Bhutan for an unspecified period in Sengyi Dzong and seven
months in Paro Taktshang, when she was younger and Guru was still in Tibet.
Thus, it is clear that Tshogyal herself was in Bhutan at least three times at
different points in her long life.
We know about Guru’s activities in Bhutan more clearly from Tshogyal. Guru
told her that provided there is higher motivation, women can exceed men in
spiritual progress (sems bskyed ldan na mo lus lhag (KMT 2005:114)). As his
principle adherent, she was the first widely known liberated Himalayan woman
to prove it. Tshogyal passed away in rainbow body form at Pama Gang, leaving
behind mortal remains of ears, teeth, nails, head-hairs and body-hairs. Five
days before that, she spoke to us all, through Monmo Tashi Chidren, a
Bhutanese and daughter of Mon King Hamray, whom Tshogyal met first at Singye
Food Site (pork, cheese, potatoes)
You may enjoy Jamie Zeppa's Beyond
the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan. (NY: Penguin Putnam,
1998.) It is an account of her 3 years as a volunteer teacher, her
discovery of Buddhism and her journey into her own nature.
Four years ago, Bhutan, the fabled Himalayan Shangri-la, became the last
nation on earth to introduce television. Suddenly a culture, barely changed
in centuries, was bombarded by 46 cable channels. And all too soon came
Bhutan's first crime wave - murder, fraud, drug offences. Cathy Scott-Clark
and Adrian Levy report from a country crash-landing in the 21st century
April 2002 was a turbulent month for the people of Bhutan. One of the
remotest nations in the world, perched high in the snowlines of the
Himalayas, suffered a crime wave. The 700,000 inhabitants of a kingdom that
calls itself the Land of the Thunder Dragon had never experienced serious
law-breaking before. Yet now there were reports from many towns and villages
of fraud, violence and even murder.
The Bhutanese had always been proud of their incorruptible officials - until
Parop Tshering, the 42-year-old chief accountant of the State Trading
Corporation, was charged on April 5 with embezzling 4.5m ngultrums
(£70,000). Every aspect of Bhutanese life is steeped in Himalayan Buddhism,
and yet on April 13 the Royal Bhutan police began searching the provincial
town of Mongar for thieves who had vandalised and robbed three of the
country's most ancient stupas. Three days later in Thimphu, Bhutan's sedate
capital, where overindulgence in rice wine had been the only social vice,
Dorje, a 37-year-old truck driver, bludgeoned his wife to death after she
discovered he was addicted to heroin. In Bhutan, family welfare has always
come first; then, on April 28, Sonam, a 42-year-old farmer, drove his
terrified in-laws off a cliff in a drunken rage, killing his niece and
injuring his sister.
Why was this kingdom with its head in the clouds falling victim to the kind
of crime associated with urban life in America and Europe? For the
Bhutanese, the only explanation seemed to be five large satellite dishes,
planted in a vegetable patch, ringed by sugar-pink cosmos flowers on the
outskirts of Thimphu.
In June 1999, Bhutan became the last nation in the world to turn on
television. The Dragon King had lifted a ban on the small screen as part of
a radical plan to modernise his country, and those who could afford the
£4-a-month subscription signed up in their thousands to a cable service that
provided 46 channels of round-the-clock entertainment, much of it from
Rupert Murdoch's Star TV network.
Four years on, those same subscribers are beginning to accuse television of
smothering their unique culture, of promoting a world that is incompatible
with their own, and of threatening to destroy an idyll where time has stood
still for half a millennium.
A refugee monk from Tibet, the Shabdrung, created this tiny country in 1616
as a bey-yul, or Buddhist sanctuary, a refuge from the ills of the world. So
successful were he and his descendants at isolating themselves that by the
1930s virtually all that was known of Bhutan in the west was James Hilton's
novel, Lost Horizon. He called it Shangri-la, a secret Himalayan valley,
whose people never grew old and lived by principles laid down by their high
lama: "Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations,
conserving the frail elegancies of a dying age."
In the real Bhutan, there were no public hospitals or schools until the
1950s, and no paper currency, roads or electricity until several years after
that. Bhutan had no diplomatic relations with any other country until 1961,
and the first invited western visitors came only in 1974, for the coronation
of the current monarch, Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Today, although
a constant stream of people are moving to Thimphu -- with their cars -- there
is still no word in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language, for traffic jam.
But none of these developments, it seems, has made such a fundamental impact
on Bhutanese life as TV. Since the April 2002 crime wave, the national
newspaper, Kuensel, has called for the censoring of television (some have
even suggested that foreign broadcasters, such as Star TV, be banned
altogether). An editorial warns: "We are seeing for the first time broken
families, school dropouts and other negative youth crimes. We are beginning
to see crime associated with drug users all over the world -- shoplifting,
burglary and violence."
Every week, the letters page carries columns of worried correspondence:
"Dear Editor, TV is very bad for our country... it controls our minds... and
makes [us] crazy. The enemy is right here with us in our own living room.
People behave like the actors, and are now anxious, greedy and discontent."
But is television really destroying this last refuge for Himalayan Buddhism,
the preserve of tens of thousands of ancient books and a lifestyle that
China has already obliterated over the border in Tibet? Can TV reasonably be
accused of weakening spiritual values, of inciting fraud and murder among a
peaceable people? Or is Bhutan's new anti-TV lobby just a cover for those in
fear of change?
Television always gets the blame in the west when society undergoes
convulsions, and there are always those ready with a counter argument. In
Bhutan, thanks to its political and geographic isolation, and the abruptness
with which its people embraced those 46 cable channels, the issue should be
more clearcut. And for those of us sitting on the couch in the west, how the
kingdom is affected by TV may well help to find an answer to the question
that has evaded us: have we become the product of what we watch?
The Bhutanese government itself says that it is too early to decide. Only
Sangay Ngedup, minister for health and education, will concede that there is
a gulf opening up between old Bhutan and the new: "Until recently, we shied
away from killing insects, and yet now we Bhutanese are asked to watch
people on TV blowing heads off with shotguns. Will we now be blowing each
other's heads off?"
Arriving at dusk, we pass medieval fortresses and pressed-mud towers, their
roofs carpeted with drying scarlet chillies. Faint beads of electric light
outline sleepy Thimphu. Twisting lanes rise and fall along the hillside, all
of them leading to the central clock tower, where the battered corpse of
Tshering, a 50-year-old farmer, was found. In this Brueghel-like scene,
crowded and shambolic, where the entire population shares fewer than two
dozen names, TV is omnipresent. Potato stores sell flat-screen Trinitrons;
old penitents whirl their prayer wheels outside the Sony service centre;
inside every candle-lit shop-house a brand new screen flickers.
His Excellency Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan's foreign minister, greets us wrapped
in an orange scarf, a foot-long silver sword hanging over his ceremonial
robe, or gho. He sweeps us into a pillared hall embossed with golden dragons
to explain why the king welcomed cable television to the Land of the Thunder
Dragon. "We wanted a goal different from the material concept of maximising
gross national product pursued by western governments," he says with a
beatific smile. "His Majesty decided that, as a spiritual society, happiness
was the most important thing for us - something that had never been
discussed before as a policy goal or pronounced as the responsibility of the
state." And so, in 1998, the Dragon King defined his nation's guiding principle as Gross National Happiness.
But happiness proved to be an elusive concept. The Bhutanese wondered
whether it increased with a bigger house or the number of revolutions of a
prayer wheel. A delegation from the foreign ministry was sent abroad to
investigate whether happiness could be measured. They finally found a Dutch
professor who had made its study his life's work and were disappointed to
learn that his conclusion was that happiness equalled £6,400 a year - the
minimum on which one could live comfortably. It was a bald and irrelevant
answer for the Bhutanese middle classes, whose average annual salary was
barely £1,000 and whose outlook was slightly more metaphysical.
[Football / soccer]
The people of Bhutan, however, finally decided for themselves what would
make them happy. France 1998 was driving the football-mad kingdom into a
frenzy of goggle-eyed envy of those who were able to watch the World Cup on
television. The small screen had always been prohibited in Bhutan, although
the kingdom was crisscrossed by satellite signals that it was finding
increasingly difficult to keep out. Even the king was rumoured to have a
Star TV satellite package installed at his palace. Faced by recriminations,
the government relented and Bhutan's Olympic Committee was permitted to
erect a giant screen in Changlimithang stadium -- but only temporarily.
A TV screen in the middle of Thimphu was a revolutionary sight. The kingdom,
for so long an autocracy, had only recently forged links with the outside
world. In 1959, China quelled an uprising in Tibet, spilling war into the
north of Bhutan, forcing the previous Dragon King to forge diplomatic ties
for the first time in the country's history. "Even then," says the foreign
minister, "we were determined not to become pawns on a chessboard and
decided not to have formal relations with the superpowers. We also sensed
the regret of many nations across the world at what they had lost in terms
of values and culture."
The current Dragon King's father initiated a careful programme of
modernisation that saw his people embrace the kind of material progress that
most western countries take centuries to achieve: education, modern
medicine, transportation, currency, electricity. However, mindful of those
afraid that foreign influences could destroy Bhutanese culture, he attempted
to inhibit conspicuous consumption. No Coca-Cola. No advertising hoardings.
And definitely no television.
By France 1998, Bhutan had a new Dragon King and, under growing pressure
from an unsettled country, he had a new political agenda. That year, King
Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced he would give up his role as head of
government and cede power to the national assembly. The people would be
consulted about the drafting of a constitution. The process would complete
Bhutan's transformation from monarchist Shangri-la into a modern democracy.
And television would play its part.
The prime minister of Bhutan, Kinzang Dorji, has invited us to tea and we
sit with him beneath a large thangka painting of the Wheel of Life. "His
Majesty wants the Bhutanese people to run their own country. But many are
frightened of the responsibility. A lot of things have changed very quickly
in Bhutan, and we do recognise that some people feel lost, at sea," the
prime minister explains. "Watching news on the BBC and CNN enables them to
see how democracies work in other parts of the world, how people can take
charge of their own destinies. The old feudal ways have to end."
The year after France beat Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final, the people of
Thimphu gathered once again in Changlimithang stadium, this time to
celebrate the Dragon King's silver jubilee. On June 2 1999, he stood before
them to announce that now they could watch TV whenever they wanted. "But not
everything you will see will be good," he warned. "It is my sincere hope
that the introduction of television will be beneficial to our people and
The prime minister insists that the introduction of television was carefully
prepared: "To mitigate the impact of negative messages, we launched firstly
the Bhutan Broadcasting Service [BBS] to provide a local educational and
cultural service." Only after the BBS had found its voice would a limited
number of foreign channels be permitted to beam programmes into Bhutan via
local cable operators.
News footage from the first BBS broadcast of June 2 1999, records the cheer
that resounded around Changlimithang. Bhutan's spiritual and cultural
leaders were all agreed that TV could only increase the country's Gross
National Happiness and help the people to pave the way to a modern,
democratic nation. Mynak Tulku, the reincarnation of a powerful lama, is the
Dragon King's unofficial ambassador for new technology.
Light pouring in through the carved wooden windows catches his large
protruding ears and bathes the monk in a golden glow. Nearby, in the main
library, some of the oldest surviving texts in Tibetan Buddhism, dharmic
verses penned in liquid gold, are being digitised. "I am so excited about
technology," beams the Tulku, the epitome of the king's notion of Gross
National Happiness. "And let me tell you that TV's OK, as long as you
appreciate that it is a transitory experience. I tell my students that it's
like rushing in from the cold, going straight to the heater and ending up
with frostbite. Ha, ha. TV can make you think that you are being educated,
when in fact all you're doing is blinking your life away with a remote
control. Ha, ha."
The Bhutan Broadcasting Service was intended to be a bulwark against cable
television. When we call by, it is clear the studio is still not finished:
the team of technicians hired from Bollywood has gone home for Diwali. The
state broadcaster has only one clip-on microphone, but the features producer
cannot find it. There are a bundle of programmes "in the can", he says, but
none is ready for broadcast. A list of feature ideas hangs on a board, each
one eclipsed by a large question mark: Bhutanese MTV? Candid Camera? Pop
Idol? Big Brother?
There is no one else on any of the three floors of the BBS building, but
there is a distant clamour coming from outside. There, behind a garden shed,
we eventually find the BBS cameramen and reporters dressed in their
billowing ghos, throwing giant darts at a clay target. It is a badly needed
team-building exercise, says Kinga Singye, the BBS executive director, with
a doleful voice that makes him sound as if he has had enough of the royal
experiment in television. He describes how, in 1999, the last people to
learn of the lifting of the television ban were those then charged with
setting up the new national station. "They were given three months to make
it work. It was done with incredible haste -- to be ready in time for the
king'ssilver jubilee. What the government wanted was hugely ambitious and
expensive, yet we didn't have experience and they had no funding to give,"
he says. Everyone was surprised when the ministers then issued licences to
cable TV operators in August 1999, a bare three months after BBS went on
Three years later, in the absence of investment, BBS can still be
transmitted only in Thimphu; tapes of its shows bound for the remote eastern
town of Trashigang take three days to arrive, by bus and mule. "Our job was
supposed to be to show people that not everything coming from outside is
good," Kinga Singye says. "But we are now being drowned out by the foreign
TV signals. People are continually disappointed in us."
That evening, the nightly BBS News At Seven begins at 7.10pm. A documentary
on a Bhutanese football prodigy is mysteriously canned halfway through. It
is followed by some footage of an important government event, the Move For
Health. The sound is indistinct, the picture faded, the message lost.
Downtown, at the southern end of Norzin Lam high street, a wriggling crowd
of children press their faces to a shop window. Inside the headquarters of
Sigma Cable, the walls are papered with an X-Files calendar and posters for
an HBO show called Hollywood Beauties. Beneath a portrait of the Dragon
King, the in-store TV shows wrestling before BeastMaster comes on. A man in
tigerskin trunks has trained his marmosets to infiltrate the palace of a
barbarian king. When the monarch is decapitated and gore slip-slaps across
the screen, the children watching outside screech with glee. Inside the
Sigma office, the staff are scrapping over the remote control,
channel-hopping, mixing messages. President Bush in a 10-gallon hat welcomes
Jiang Zemin to Texas. Midgets wrestle on Star World. Female skaters catfight
Today, Sigma Cable, whose feed comes from five large satellite dishes at the
edge of the city, is the most successful of more than 30 cable operators.
Together, they supply virtually the entire country, ensuring that even the
folks in remote Trashigang can sit down every night to watch Larry King
Rinzy Dorje, Sigma's chief executive, wears a traditional gho but his mind
is on fibreoptics and broadband. He was one of the first people in Bhutan to
learn to program a computer, and back then (the 1980s) his machine came
housed in a home-made wooden box. When he launched Sigma on September 10,
1999, he captured the market in Thimphu, signing up the queen mother, the
king and his four wives, among others.
Between calls on his new mobile telephone, he defends cable TV: "Look,
Bhutan couldn't hold back any longer - we can't pretend we're still a
medieval, hermit nation. When the government finally got around to
announcing cable TV, I was ready, that's all. All the information you need
to know on cable technology is on the net. I got prices and sourced the
parts in Delhi and Taiwan. And cable came to Bhutan. It's no big deal."
A disgruntled subscriber rings to complain that MTV has gone down. Are there
are too many channels? "I couldn't cut back on the channels even if I wanted
to - the customers would go elsewhere and Star TV wants us to show more
channels, not fewer."
Have Bhutan's values been corroded by TV? "We are entitled to watch what we
want, when we want, if we want. And we are quite capable of weeding out the
rubbish; turning off the crap," he retorts.
However you look at it, it's obvious that the BBS has been charged down by
the juggernaut of Star TV. "If the government wanted to control what people
watched, they should have legislated, not tried to compete," says Rinzy
It takes three days to pin down Leki Dorji, the deputy minister of
communications, an overloaded crown appointee who is also responsible for
roads, urban renewal, civil aviation and construction. He readily admits
that, in its haste to introduce TV, the government failed to prepare
legislation. There is no film classification board or TV watershed in force
here, no regulations about media ownership. Companies such as Star TV are
free to broadcast whatever they want. Only three years after the
introduction of cable did the government announce that a media act would be
drafted. Leki Dorji says his ministry is also planning an impact study, but
adds that he does not believe cable television is responsible for April's
crime wave. "Yes, we are seeing some different types of crime, but that just
reflects the fact that our society is changing in many ways. A culture as
rich and sophisticated as ours can survive trash on TV and people are quite
capable of turning off the rubbish."
Whether the truck-driver Dorje was influenced by something he had watched on
television when he began smoking heroin or when he clubbed his wife to death
has yet to be established. We will not know whether the death of Sonam's
niece had anything to do with the impatient, selfish society promoted by
television until the impact study is completed. But there is a wealth of
evidence that points to television having been a critical factor.
The marijuana that flourishes like a weed in every Bhutanese hedgerow was
only ever used to feed pigs before the advent of TV, but police have
arrested hundreds for smoking it in recent years. Six employees of the Bank
of Bhutan have been sentenced for siphoning off 2.4m ngultrums (£40,000).
Six weeks before we arrived, 18 people were jailed after a gang of drunken
boys broke into houses to steal foreign currency and a 21-inch television
set. During the holy Bishwa Karma Puja celebrations, a man was stabbed in
the stomach in a fight over alcohol. A middle-class Thimphu boy is serving a
sentence after putting on a bandanna and shooting up the ceiling of a local
bar with his dad's new gun. Police can barely control the fights at the new
hip-hop night on Saturdays.
While the government delays, an independent group of Bhutanese academics has
carried out its own impact study and found that cable television has caused
"dramatic changes" to society, being responsible for increasing crime,
corruption, an uncontrolled desire for western products, and changing
attitudes to love and relationships. Dorji Penjore, one of the researchers
involved in the study, says: "Even my children are changing. They are
fighting in the playground, imitating techniques they see on World Wrestling
Federation. Some have already been injured, as they do not understand that
what they see is not real. When I was growing up, WWF meant World Wide Fund
Kinley Dorji, editor of Kuensel (motto: That The Nation Shall Be Informed),
warns that Bhutan's ruling elite is out of touch. "We pride ourselves in
being academic and sophisticated, but we are also a very naive kingdom that
does not yet fully understand the outside world. The government
underestimated how aggressively channels like Star market themselves, how
little they seem to care about programming, how virulent the message of the
advertisers is." Kinley Dorji, a member of the taskforce charged with
drafting the kingdom's first media act, believes Bhutanese society is in
danger of being polarised by TV. "My generation, the ministers, lamas and
headteachers, have our grounding in old Bhutan and can apply ancient culture
to this new phenomenon. But the ordinary people, the villagers, are confused
about whether they should be ancient or modern, and the younger generation
don't really care. They jettison traditional culture for whatever they are
sold on TV. Go and see real Bhutan, see how the people are affected."
A fanfare of Tibetan trumpets booms through the pine forest. A rough choir
of a thousand voices sings out: "Move for, move for health." It is so early
in the morning that the birds are still asleep. But Sangay Ngedup, minister
for health and education, has been on the path for hours. His gho is bunched
beneath his backpack, and a badge with the king's smiling face is pinned on
to his baseball hat. In the past 15 days, he has climbed and scrambled over
some of the world's most extreme terrain, from sea level to a rarefied
13,500ft in the Bhutanese Himalayas. Is there anywhere else in the world
where a cabinet minister would trek 560km to warn people against becoming a
nation of couch potatoes? "We used to think nothing of walking three days to
see our in-laws," he says. "Now we can't even be bothered to walk to the end
of Norzin Lam high street."
He pauses at an impromptu feeding station, gulping down salt tea and
buttered yak's cheese. "You can never predict the impact of things like TV
or the urbanisation it brings with it," he says. "But you can prepare. If
the BBS was intended as our answer to the cable world, I have to say that,
at the moment, it is rather pathetic." Sangay Ngedup is one of the only
government ministers willing to voice concerns about television.
For the first time, he says, children are confiding in their teachers of
feeling manic, envious and stressed. Boys have been caught mugging for cash.
A girl was discovered prostituting herself for pocket money in a hotel in
the southern town of Phuents-holing. "We have had to send teachers to Canada
to be trained as professional counsellors," says Sangay Ngedup. This march
is not just against a sedentary lifestyle; it is a protest against the
values of the cable channels. One child's placard proclaims, "Use dope, no
hope." "Breast is best," a girl shouts. "Enjoy the gift of sex with
condoms," reads a toddler's T-shirt.
The next day, as they do every day at Yangchenphug high school, teachers
prepare their pupils for the nightly onslaught of foreign images on
television. They pray to Jambayang, the Buddhist god of wisdom, a recent
addition to the school timetable insisted upon by the clergy. A class of
15-year-olds are inquisitive and smart. How many of you have television, we
ask. Laughter fills the room. "We all have TV, sir and madam," a girl at the
front pipes up.
"What's your culture like?" they ask. "Do you have universities? Does it
rain a lot where you come from?"
What do you like about TV, we ask the class. "Posh and Becks, Eminem, Linkin
Park. We love The Rock," they chorus. "Aliens. Homer Simpson." No mention of
BBS. No one saw its documentary on Buddhist festivals last night.
Superficially, these pupils are as they would be in any school in the world,
but this is a country that has reached modernity at such breakneck speed
that the god of wisdom Jambayang is finding it virtually impossible to
compete with the new icons.
A new section entitled "controversies" in the principal's annual report
describes "marathon staff meetings that continue on a war footing to discuss
student discipline, substance abuse, degradation of values in changing
times". On another page is a short obituary for ninth-year pupil Sonam
Yoezer, "battered to death by an adult in the town". Violence, greed, pride,
jealousy, spite - some of the new subjects on the school curriculum, all of
which teachers attribute to the world of television. In his airy study, the
principal, Karma Yeshey, whose MA is from Leeds University but whose
attitude is still otherworldly, pours Earl Grey tea. "Our children live in
two different worlds, one created by the school and another by cable. Our
challenge is to help them understand both, and we are terribly afraid of
Outside Thimphu, the two worlds of Bhutan are already beginning to blur into
one. In the heart of the kingdom's spiritual capital of Punakha stands the
Palace of Great Happiness, where the Shabdrung, the country's founding
father, is interred. Today a black wire crosses the drawbridge to the
17th-century fortress, running through a top-floor casement and taking cable
television into the sacred shrine. So high is the demand for Oprah and
Mutant X that in this town the size of London's Blackheath there are now two
rival operators vying for business.
The children of Punakha are, by the dozen, abandoning their ghos for jeans
and T-shirts bearing US wrestling logos; on their heads are Stars and
Stripes bandannas. On the whitewashed mud wall of the ancient crematorium,
they have scrawled in charcoal a message in English: "Fuck off Kinley and
How quickly their ancient culture is being supplanted by a mish-mash of
alien ideas, while their parents loiter for hours at a time in the Welcome
Guest House, farmers with their new socks embossed with Fila logos, all
glued to David Beckham on Manchester United TV. A local official tells us
that in one village so many farmers were watching television that an entire
crop failed. It is not just a sedentary lifestyle this official is afraid
of. Here, in the Welcome Guest House, farmers' wives ogle adverts for a
Mercedes that would cost more than a lifetime's wages. Furniture "you've
always desired", accessories "you have always wanted", shoes "you've always
dreamed of" - the messages from cable's sponsors come every five minutes,
and the audience watching them grows by the day.
There is something depressing about watching a society casting aside its un
ique character in favour of a Californian beach. Cable TV has created, with
acute speed, a nation of hungry consumers from a kingdom that once acted
collectively and spiritually.
Bhutan's isolation has made the impact of television all the clearer, even
if the government chooses to ignore it. Consider the results of the
unofficial impact study. One third of girls now want to look more American
(whiter skin, blond hair). A similar proportion have new approaches to
relationships (boyfriends not husbands, sex not marriage). More than 35% of
parents prefer to watch TV than talk to their children. Almost 50% of the
children watch for up to 12 hours a day. Is this how we came to live in our
Big Brother society, mesmerised by the fate of minor celebrities fighting in
Everyone is as yet too polite to say it, but, like all of us, the Dragon
King underestimated the power of TV, perceiving it as a benign and
controllable force, allowing it free rein, believing that his kingdom's
culture was strong enough to resist its messages. But television is a
portal, and in Bhutan it is systematically replacing one culture with
another, skewing the notion of Gross National Happiness, persuading a nation
of novice Buddhist consumers to become preoccupied with themselves, rather
than searching for their self.
~ above article is from the UK's The Guardian.
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