What’s Jill doing in Bhutan?

A few weeks ago John Greenwell, Australian lawyer and friend of many years’ standing, mentioned in an e-mail that his wife Jill, not long ago retired from teaching at Canberra’s (perhaps Australia’s) premier girls’ school, was in Bhutan.  “What,” I enquired in reply, “on earth is Jill doing in Bhutan?”

A short time after this, Jill’s own reply to my question arrived:

The short answer to your question is that I don’t know. Curiosity is
probably the best answer.

The odd thing about Bhutan is that it’s not easy to write it up in the way I
did in Vietnam
. However it’s a fascinating place – and of course I’m snared
by the fact that you hadn’t heard of Thimphu, (or I presume you hadn’t,
seeing you didn’t know it was Bhutan’s capital city), so here I

Well, at almost exactly the same time as you and I were biting our nails lest
Obama didn’t win, in Bhutan the 5th king was about to be crowned. He’s 28.
The ‘old king‘ (aged 53 – yes, we should be so lucky!) abdicated in 2006 in
favour of his son who was crowned on 6 November, a date determined by
Buddhist astrologers after much consultation only resolved in about August
this year. (How on earth would western astrologers — whoops, spin doctors —
cope? We are talking here about having only a couple of months to prepare
for a coronation!)

6 Niovember was also the date on which I arrived in Paro, the only spot with
enough flat space — just — for an airport.

A couple of days later I got to Thimphu where the coronation was still being
celebrated. What I was not prepared for was that the next day, not on the
official royal schedule, was one which the new king determined would be his
opportunity to greet all those citizens who’d queued unsucessfully in the
previous three days.

From my hotel window at about 7 a.m. I saw the crowds in the Thimphu stadium
(photo). It was only later that I learnt why they were there. And much later
I was there too! When the main gates to the stadium were locked to any more
visitors, and people were being shepherded to an entrance near the ground
level of the stadium, I couldn’t believe it that a) we found ourselves right
next to the entrance and b) it was a sudden hush which heralded the arrival
of the king.

(Where on earth are people quiet when celebrities are about to arrive?
Perhaps in Britain respect for the monarchy is such that this sort of thing
can happen. The Australian Governor-General, lovely though she is, is
certainly not treated with such awe. Although I doubt that her arrival would
provoke much excitement anyway.)

Where else wouldn’t you be frisked for cameras, phones etc. etc? Here we’d
been asked to hand in cameras – which I didn’t do – and then that was that!

I got a glimpse of the king, flinging the distinctively regal yellow
toga-like stole as he walked in, and then as he began going along the rows
of people offering him their white scarves – which he would be accepting for
the rest of the day. An amazing endurance test for him.

What does all that say about the Bhutanese? They certainly love their king,
indeed their kings – as the posters around Thimphu proclaimed. It’s not just
the new (5th)king whom they love; it’s “our kings” – not just the present
king, but his father.

At another extreme, geographically as well as conceptually, try the Buddhist
festival in central Bhutan. It’s at the temple to the Future Buddha and it’s
an occasion for the re-enactment of Buddhist rituals. That’s code for
“religious mumbo-jumbo of the kind which mediaeval Roman Catholic priests
could only have dreamt of”. The dancing’s fun, especially if you don’t know
what it means, and it clearly creates an occasion for the locals to get
together and have fun.  (See photo).

Buddhism is central to Bhutan – Buddhism existed as the unifier of the
region much as Greek mythology did in what is now known as Greece, in
pre-classical times. Politically there was no Bhutan before the 17th
century. Prior to that Buddhism, and its source of influence, Tibet, was the
unifying factor in a geographic area which had no other source of identity.
(Difficult for former colonialists to come to terms with a land without
borders, given that so many borders have been determined, if badly, by
colonial powers.)

Two temples remain testimony to the Tibetan drive to spread Buddhism: Kyichu
lakhang, and Jampa lakhang.

Kyichu Lakhang (see photo) was first established by Tsongtsen Gampo in 7th
century. Tsongtsen Gampo was 22nd king of Tibet at a time when Tibetan
control extended across central Asia and as far east as Chang-an (modern
Sian) in China. His marriage to a Tang Dynasty princess would have been a
dynastic one to cement the political relationship of Tibet and China. As
Buddhists, Tsongtsen Gampo and his wife were alarmed when the Jo (as in
‘Jomolhari’) – or ‘Lord’ – which they were carrying somewhere got stuck in
the mud. His wife attributed this to a demoness so she got out her geomantic
divination charts and determined to pin the demoness’s body in 108 parts of
the Tibetan world, two of them in the Bhutan area: one at Kyiuchu (the name
incidentally of the river in the Lhasa plain) and one at Jampa in Bumthang.

The social structure/level of prosperity? The politics of the place?

I found it very hard to categorise Bhutan. It’s poor. It’s predominantly
rural. It does not have beggars. It is clean. People wear shoes. Kids learn
to read and speak English at primary school. It is dignified. Houses are
quite substantial. The notable exceptions are the Indian road-workers whose
houses are flattened out tar barrels, pathetically painted with ‘welcome’
signs on their doorways.

But how on earth did the 3rd king, some time in the 50s, mandate the end of
serfdom, the end of slavery, and the end of limitless private ownership of
land?  He decreed that land would be re-allocated so that no-one would hold
more than 25 acres per family for agricultural or developmental purposes.
This is the sort of stuff of centuries of social reform in Europe — or else
revolution! How was it achieved in Bhutan?

This is a country which saw its first cars when we were first seeing
television.  It’s a country for which transport has meant that it’s become
possible to have contact from one end of it to the other.

Each king has pushed Bhutan further into the international community —
membership of the UN was about 1972 – in order to confirm Bhutan’s
distinctive national identity. Dictating democracy was only one further step
in a direction of political modernisation begun decades ago. This is
apparently intended to shore up support should there be any aggression
against a small independent (failed?) Himalayan state.

There’s a whole range of issues about Bhutan’s affirmation of national
culture, not least in regards to the problem created by the king’s
determination in the 1990s to assert Bhutanise citizenship, that are
creating tensions within Bhutan as well as with its neighbours, especially
Nepal. However that’s one thing which I’d love to hear more about from
bloggers, but won’t go into more detail about now.

Just in case I haven’t made enough of the point that Bhutan has some
spectacular scenery, I’ll add a couple more attachments.

Cheers for now,

A small selection of Jill’s Bhutan photographs is here.  Click the first thumbnail to see the picture full size, then hover the mouse pointer over the centre of the right-hand side of it and click the arrow to see the next picture, etc. You can read more about Jill’s background here.  Her diary of her visit to Vietnam in 2007 is here.

5 Responses

  1. Michael Hornsby says:

    I much enjoyed Jill Greenwell’s thoughts on (and pictures of) her visit to Bhutan. I was glad to see that the appearance of the place – that of a smaller, more intimate and more hospitable version of Tibet – does not seem to have changed much since I went there in 1974 for The Times to cover the coronation of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the chap who now in his fifties has rather sensibly abdicated to make way for his son. He was then only 18 years old, the youngest monarch in the world, and (if I remember rightly) fresh from a couple of years’ makeover as an English gentleman at Sherborne, your alma mater, Brian, and with a breath-takingly beautiful sister of similar age. In those days there was no airport at Thimpu and the journey from the baking heat of the Delhi plains was by a long, winding and stomach-churning road up through the Himalayan foothills, with one or possibly even two overnight stops en route, and more regular intervening halts along the way to allow victims of motion-sickness to get out and throw up. (The tarmac road was itself relatively new. A predecessor as Times correspondent, who made the same journey some ten years earlier, had completed the last stretch with mules and porters.) At one of the stops we picked up sketchy Indian radio news reports that there had been some sort of eve-of-coronation coup attempt in Thimpu, though when we eventually got there all seemed tranquil enough. I think we later learnt that a malcontent uncle of the boy king, who presumably had entertained designs on the succession himself, had been arrested, or something of the sort. We were rather a select group, the Bhutanese authorities having decided that they could accommodate only one newspaperman and one TV/radio reporter from each of the countries invited to send diplomatic representatives. Mark Tully – now Sir Mark (aka Tully Sahib to millions of India listeners to the BBC) – was there for the Beeb, and Gerry Ratzin for Reuters, along with Delhi-based colleagues from the New  York Times and Le Monde. We were housed in some style in a monastery-like building at God knows what horrendous cost to the Bhutanese exchequer. Excellent food was provided by one of the big Indian hotel chains, and expensive French wines flowed freely.  I may be wrong, but I do not think the stadium shown in Jill’s photograph was there then, merely a vast open grassy area similar to an Indian maidan.  This was the venue for a ceremonial archery contest, opened by the boy king, in which the visiting ambassadors were also expected to compete, kitting themselves out for the occasion in Bhutanese national costume, a sort of heavily-quilted, vertically-striped dressing-gown of colourful aspect. The estimable Pat Moynihan, recently installed as the US ambassador to New Delhi, was there for the Americans and a Sir Michael Somebody (can you supply the surname, Brian?) for the Brits. Our man, straining every sinew, loosed off an arrow that flew an immense distance, worthy of a longbow-man at Agincourt, but slightly wayward as to direction. We could just make out in the distance some kind of commotion in the crowd of onlookers. A mischievous junior member of the British diplomatic party subsequently leaked the fact that a hapless Bhutanese spectator had been pierced through the thigh by the falling missile and whisked off to hospital, news which sent the chortling and disreputable scribes scurrying off to the cable office to regale their readers with this entertaining copy. Appeals by more senior British officials to the hacks’ better nature (a lost cause if ever there was one), coupled with piteous warnings of the irreparable damage that reporting of the incident might do to Anglo-Bhutanese relations, fell, as you would expect, Brian, on deaf ears. (Fortunately, unlike Sir David Normington over the Damian Green affair, the Bhutanese authorities took a relaxed view of the incident and refrained from sending in their counter-terrorist thought police to seize our typewriters.) All in all, a fascinating few days. My memories of the place are only good ones. I would love to go back but fear now that I never shall.

    Brian writes: Many thanks for this fascinating contribution, Michael.

  2. Brian says:

    J. has helpfully commented, in reply to Michael’s query in the preceding comment: 

    The British High Commissioner to India, 1973 -1877, was Sir (Charles) Michael Walker.  I don’t think there was a separate Embassy or High Commission in Bhutan.

  3. Michael Hornsby says:

    Thanks for that, but I don’t think Sir Michael can have been British High Commissioner in New Delhi from 1973 to 1877, unless he briefly moonlighted as the “timelord” Dr Who in the eponymous BBC TV  series – though it would undoubtedly have been an interesting time to have been in India! You are, of course, quite right that no country would then (or I imagine now) have had an ambassador or high commissioner  permanently en poste in Thimpu, which is why they all came from Delhi for the coronation. I’ve now found a Daily Telegraph obit of Sir Michael, who appears to have died in 2001 at the age of 85, which mentions the archery incident, though wrongly saying it occurred in 1973, a year before the coronation. According to the DT, the Bhutanese spectator was hit in the foot rather than the thigh, as I recalled. That is probably right. Apparently the young king, showing a diplomatic tact beyond his years, consoled the apologetic Sir Michael with the comment: “Don’t worry. That happens all the time”. The DT also says he served in India from 1973 to 1976, but given their haziness about the other date, he probably left in 1977 (as Jane, presumably, meant to write).

    Brian writes: Sorry about the typo, which I should have spotted myself. If the innocent spectator was indeed shot in the foot, not the thigh, by the high commissioner’s defective archery skills, it echoes nicely the experience of Lord Tangent in Decline and Fall, who — if I remember correctly — is shot in the foot by a starting pistol at the school sports day early in the book (“his heel was slightly grazed”); and the gradually worsening condition of the foot, from infection, through gangrene to amputation and eventual death is a typical and very darkly funny Waugh trope.

  4. Michael Hornsby says:

    A postscript to Bhutan and Sir Michael Walker: I see the Telegraph obit also tells a delightful story about Sir Michael’s time as BHC to Malaysia in the late 1960s when students were rioting in protest against a possible supply of British military equipment to apartheid South Africa. One of the student leaders telephoned him at the High Commission and politely asked if he could supply a Union Jack for burning. Sir M said he didn’t have one to spare and suggested that the students go out and buy one. This advice was evidently followed, as a student delegation later visited the BHC to present a petition, accompanied by the ashes of a flag. Sir Michael complimented the students on their independence and high spirits.

  5. Gerry Ratzin says:

    The notes by Jill and Michael do bring back memories of Bhutan from almost 35 years ago. Like Michael, my most vivid recollection is of the inaccurate archery of the British Ambassador. I also remember the (alleged?) comment by the Bhutanese official that shooting a spectator was a common occurrence.

    The coronation was a very splendid occasion, paid for, I’m sure, by the Indians and probably the CIA too as they would not have wanted the Bhutanese to become friendly with the Chinese. We were give numerous presents before we left and I still have a silver cigarette case among otehr baubles.

    The long drive was extremely bone-shattering but there was an excellent guest house on the India-Bhutan border which had been made famous a few years earlier when Shirley McLaine became one of the first celebrities to visit Bhutan. I cannot recall why.

    I had been one of only three or four foreign journalists to attend the funeral of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk’s father in (I think )1972. Apart from myself, there was Leon Daniel of UPI, Werner Adam of Sud Deutsche Zeiting and the fourth, I believe, was someone from ABC (Australian Broadcsting.)

    The most unexpected  event of that visit occurred on the day following the funeral ceremony. We sat around an altar-like construction covered by a canopy in which, we were told, was the late King’s body. In accordance with Buddhist custom, we then ladled sweetmeats and other good items into bowls set out for the late King’s consumption. The excess was to be handed out to poor people.

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