The hills were alive with the sound of music and literature this week in the mountain-rimmed Himalayan capital of Thimphu, Bhutan.
The Buddhist kingdom’s third annual literature festival, Mountain Echoes, opened May 20 with a traditional lamp-lighting ceremony holy to Buddhists and Hindus alike. Wedged between China and India in a mountainous terrain slightly larger than Switzerland, Bhutan boasts a small population, pristine environment, and a rich Buddhist heritage that informs its much-lauded policy of “Gross National Happiness,” which is “the measurement of national success by the happiness of its people rather than gross domestic product.”
“Festivals like Mountain Echoes help create literary conversations and dialogue across the Himalayan belt and South Asia,” said Namita Gokhale, founder of Siyahi, the Indian literary consultancy firm that coordinated the festival. “In a moment of intense change, they conserve continuities and help grapple with new modernities.”
The festival was attended by a wide range of literary luminaries from across the world like the poet Gulzar, whose song “Jai Ho” received international attention with the success of the film Slumdog Millionaire, Patrick French, William Dalrymple, and Vikram Seth of A Suitable Boy fame. Among Bhutanese speakers featured at the festival were the Queen Mother of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, author of Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan and the venerable master of Bhutanese letters, Lopen Kuenzang Thinley, who has penned more than 60 works, including songs, grammar and historical research, and Bhutanese scholarship in the kingdom’s native language, Dzongkha.
“The mountains provide a natural source of inspiration,” Lopen Kuenzang Thinley said. “They not only form our political and geographical boundaries but define our stories and our lives.”
The impact of modernization and change was a recurring theme at the festival. It was acknowledged that despite the perceived beauty and serenity of Bhutan there were new challenges facing the kingdom—rising youth unemployment, the migration of rural people to its towns and cities, and the temptations of materialism beamed into the bedrooms of its population by satellite TV and the Internet.
“It is very important for our country to be mindful of the changes,” said the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. “We must keep our traditions and the spirituality intact in our lives.”
Bhutan, known to its people as Druk Yul, which translates as “Land of the Thunder Dragon” did not have roads, medical facilities, and modern (Western-style) schools until the early 1960s. Satellite TV, which had previously been banned in the kingdom, was introduced in 1999. The Internet followed soon after. In a rare move that is seen in Bhutan as an act of enlightened leadership the kingdom’s much-loved fourth hereditary king Jigme Singye Wangchuck—who coined the phrase “Gross National Happiness”—ushered in democratic reforms by stepping down in late 2006. Today a democratically elected prime minister leads the government.
‘The Buddhist masters have taught us that you have the best resource for happiness within you, and that’s your mind.’
Among the new books launched at the festival were Bhutan: Through the Lens of a King, a book of photographs by Bhutan’s fifth king Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck and When Loss Is Gain, a story set in contemporary India and Bhutan that deals with life, disillusionment, death, the rational, and the spiritual.
The festival ended on May 26 with a panel discussion on the “Blessings of Bhutan.” Speaking at the final session, the Bhutanese research scholar, Dr. Karma Phuntsho, talked about the need to preserve the kingdom’s unique outlook on happiness.
“The Buddhist masters have taught us that you have the best resource for happiness within you, and that’s your mind.”