A couple of years ago (040921), I wrote about my interest in and relationship with the country and people of Bhutan. I closed that piece expressing the hope of returning. This week, having just returned, I want to talk about Bemji, a village near Trongsa in central Bhutan, where we visited the family and home village of our long-time friend, Karma Nima.
Most of the time in my four trips here, has been spent either in towns or the city (the capital, Thimphu, is the only place with more than 25,000 people) or trekking in the countryside. So, to spend a day and night here in a small village (100+ people) gives another perspective. Nowadays, everything is pretty much connected or connectable—via phone, internet, or satellite—so, there is no more illusion of rustic isolation. Even ten years ago, I had to ask our trekking guide to get off his cell phone so we could try to imagine that we had escaped from modernity amid the country’s natural beauty. Still, Bemji is a 45 minute drive from the main road (even if mostly “paved”), so going to or from is not a daily event.
Small towns/villages/hamlets still run to a local rhythm, even if they are well connected. They are a microcosm of what Bhutan itself is trying to do on a larger scale: maintain the hand-made tapestry of life amid the digital onslaught. Our friend Karma arranged for us to stay in the village temple in a room just off the main shrine. About 20 locals gathered to meet us for dinner there (including a formal presentation of locally-made arak to drink, followed by dancing (Facebook video link available for a small fee!). The next morning we had private prayer ceremony and, due to an auspicious coincidence, the neighboring monastery was hosting a special ceremony of unwrapping a model of Zangtopelri (Guru Rinpoche’s heavenly palace). We got to meet Karma’s 93 yar old uncle and innumerable cousins (by both blood and affection).Then, Karma arranged a demonstration of an ancient Bon (pre-Buddhist) warrior dance which was great fun.
The vibe of the village reminded me of a trip we had taken twenty years ago this week to a small town in the Marché region of Italy, where our friend Ezio gave us a tour of his small home town. The walk took several hours, because Ezio couldn’t get more than half a block without running into someone he knew who insisted on catching up. Karma is less effusive than Ezio, but the sense of human connectedness was the same. It’s a sense I rarely find in the US, between metropolitan frames of life (83% of us live in metro areas) and the ease with which most of my friends/acquaintances have relocated, often multiple times, around the country. But, since a real sense of “people in place” seems to take at least two generations, it’s not so clear how modern American cities can replicate this aspect of “community.”
This is my fourth trip to Bhutan over 25 years. Beyond the usual eye-openers of travel and the chance to establish more extensive relationships with some individuals, my time here has given me a chance to see change over time in a way not possible at home, where compounding daily/weekly/monthly events of change become a blur and are hard to see at a distance. I’ve been going to London for fifty years, and have seen great changes there, too. But they seem incremental as well. The process of modernity, which, in the West has taken us about five centuries, is compressed here to less than fifty years. Of course, that is the great challenge which Bhutanese culture is wrestling with.
While I enjoy and marvel at the chance to observe this, I am also acutely aware of the risk of falling in with modernity’s arrogant stance towards those less “advanced.” Given the widespread evidence that Western modernity has gone off the rails, no small amount of cultural humility is in order.
One of the principal reasons for my trip has been to check in on two projects on which I’ve been working for a few years: democracy education and tree planting. The latter is going great guns, we are on target to plant 190,000 trees this year as part of a five-year, million tree project. Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world and I hope that our project will keep pushing the frontiers of what is possible to fight what I see as our civilization’s greatest threat. I’ll be talking about democracy in Bhutan in an upcoming posting.
Our first day in Bhutan, a bit bleary from travel, we were given a tour of the new JSW Law School, a remarkable campus high in the hills above Paro. The Dean explained how he had led the design and construction of the school and, perhaps more importantly, a new curriculum to train a new generation of Bhutanese leaders: a combination of law and humanities (this is a college-level, not (yet) graduate-level program); a combination of Buddhist tradition, current Bhutanese law and modern international law/relations. It was an inspiring example of a rooted modernity; exactly the kind of innovation that moves a traditional culture forward. It’s also the other end of Bhutan in terms of engaging with modernity.
The village of Bemji is fading. It had well over 300 people scattered across its valley when Karma was growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s. As has happened in countless other countries over the past few hundred years, the lure of cities and the opportunities of the world are eroding the local culture and weakening the roots of tradition. Karma told us that it’s been a challenge to find someone to learn to lead the Bon warrior ceremony, now that the currently leader’s dancing is not so sprightly anymore. Bemji is calling, but now its calling via Facetime.
We left Bemji on Saturday and got back to SF on Tuesday; a testament to the wonders of global travel. We had a raft of great experiences, both personal and cultural (both religious and modern). We’re already planning a return in a few years. Stay tuned.