Telling Time in Shangrila

The 20th century transformed Bhutan.

Written by Salman Haider | Published: May 18, 2013 3:31 am

The 20th century transformed Bhutan. Remote from the devastating world war,its isolation permitted it to make progress,and even to take a few cautious steps towards modernity. It had the good fortune of being led by a succession of wise rulers who made it stronger and more confident. Contrast Tibet,the civilisational parent,overwhelmed by resurgent China,or Sikkim,the sibling Himalayan kingdom,which succumbed to India’s embrace while Bhutan went from strength to strength. Effective new instruments of governance were established,prime among them being the monarchy,and in a series of measured steps Bhutan brought into being an elected assembly,a well-organised civil service,a judiciary and a legal code,and a disciplined army. All this with popular consent,in a country that had barely emerged from its medieval era. Before the century closed,Bhutan was taking full part in international affairs,especially at the UN,where it earned admiration for its innovative concept of Gross National Happiness as the proper measure of progress.

Bhutan has emerged but its historical writing has not kept pace,and modern Bhutanese scholars are yet to produce a comprehensive history in a language accessible to outsiders. Some pioneering work exists but there is a gap,and Karma Phuntsho sets out to fill it. Being deeply immersed in traditional knowledge and also skilled in modern scholarship,he is well equipped for the ambitious task of producing an all-embracing account of Bhutan from its prehistory to the present day. He begins with the land,the people and the languages,of which there is a remarkable diversity,before reaching the traditional point of departure of Bhutanese history,the arrival and spread of Buddhism. The religion was diffused from Tibet through missionary visits by great spiritual masters,with Guru Padmasambhava the most revered among them. The Guru remains central to the religion in Bhutan. Phuntso refers also to the impact of Pema Lingpa,less well-known outside Bhutan,a son of the soil described as the originator of Bhutan’s mainstream cultural and artistic tradition. The author recounts a profusion of religious schools,but even at this early stage Bhutan already had its distinct personality,setting it apart from the Tibetan lands with which it was linked.

The decisive next step that was to have permanent impact was the coming of the Zhabdrung in the middle of the 17th century. A charismatic leader of high lineage,the Zhabdrung came to Bhutan from Tibet and soon established himself as the supreme spiritual and temporal ruler. His influence was all-pervasive and has never really faded. He created Bhutan’s institutions,unified the country,and was the leading spiritual preceptor of the Kargyu school,which has been described as the state religion of Bhutan. His influence spread well beyond Bhutan,extending even as far as Ladakh.

This towering figure left no clear successor,which was a source of endless difficulty in the affairs of Bhutan. There was a continuous struggle for ascendancy after the great leader left the scene — and that too was an extraordinary affair,his death not being formally acknowledged for as long as 58 years after the event. Though a few praiseworthy individuals occasionally emerged,in the main post-Zhabdrung Bhutan was controlled by ambitious and guileful power-seekers. Reigns were short and often ended violently,and for a while the state itself was virtually split in two. This was nothing like the Shangrila that Bhutan is often believed to be.

During this period,the former Tibetan overlords did all they could to re-conquer Bhutan,but their repeated expeditions all ended in failure. Only once did the invaders get the better of the defenders,and for that they had the assistance of their suzerain power,China — an interesting footnote to Himalayan diplomatic history. Eventually,though,it was from the British that the final challenge to traditional Bhutan eventually came. For calculations of their own,the British decided they had to develop relations with Bhutan. The first contact was amiable but relations soon deteriorated and,surprisingly enough,it was the Bhutanese who had much the better of the initial exchanges: the British envoy was humiliated and sent packing and when it came to war,the Bhutanese more than held their own. It took massive and expensive mobilisation by the British to redress the balance,though the Bhutanese never formally submitted and never lost their independence. They were wise enough,nevertheless,to realise that the sun now rose in the south and accepted the British with good grace and good judgement.

This brings us to the modern period of Bhutan,including its relations with India,a period that is quite well documented and has often been written about. Phuntso refers to the expanding literature on this part of the history but does not delve too deep,for the essentials are already well-known. His more important contribution lies in tracing the historical emergence of Bhutan and in describing how it came to be what it is. The History of Bhutan is not an easy read owing to its bulk and the surfeit of detail about unfamiliar people and events. Matters are not helped by non-standard orthography and paucity of chapter headings. But Karma Phuntso has significantly expanded the literature on Bhutan and his book must be regarded as necessary reading for anyone with interest in that country.

Former foreign secretary,Salman Haider has served as Ambassador to Bhutan

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