The Kingdom at the Centre of the World: Journeys into Bhutan
A world in which deeds are written with blood and fire, where the future pivots on the actions of singular human beings: this, in the words of Omair Ahmad, is Bhutan, where all such stories are true. His journey transports the reader through the mythic history of this land, through the deeds of heroes who emerged at opportune times to provide a vision for the future. Delving into stories of heroes, he tries to understand not only this magical Himalayan land, but the larger world and one’s place in it.
In the virtual absence of records, the history of Bhutan is a journey into myth and folklore. Ahmad’s deep empathy and veneration for the country and its people make our journey with him enriching and evocative. Not seeking nor expecting the usual answers, he is content to present a rambling narrative that gives the reader a better feel of Bhutan than a more conventional approach would have done. This is not a travelogue, nor an account of places and people encountered; indeed his descriptions of the Himalayan setting are disappointingly prosaic and his digressions sometimes tedious. The strength of the book lies in making Bhutan’s unique history come alive through stories that explain not only how it survives, nay thrives, in its tough neighbourhood, but also how it epitomises the concept of ‘national happiness’.
The story of Bhutan begins with that of the Padmasambhava, the Buddhist sage who rode into Druk Yul (the Land of the Thunder Dragon) atop a flying tigress – one of the manifestations of his consort – to exorcise the local ruler of an evil spirit. Both the chieftain and the spirit became acolytes of Padmasabhava or Guru Rinpoche (Precious Master) as he came to be called, who is credited with the spread of Buddhist teachings across the Himalayan region and regarded there as the Second Buddha. After making the area safe for the new religion, he is said to have flown up to a cave overlooking the Paro Valley – an important religious and tourist site even today.
The narratives of Bhutan and Tibet are intertwined till a Tibetan army was routed by a Bhutanese militia led by the so-called Shabdrung. This is an incredible tale of a saint who was urged by a deity taking the form of a raven to create the state of Bhutan. After contemplating the proposal for three years, he succeeded over a span of two and a half decades in consolidating the borders of Bhutan, before withdrawing into retreat again till he was formally declared dead fifty years later. Through coercion, black magic and armed warfare – including a comprehensive defeat of Tibetan and Bhutanese opponents in 1635 and of fearsome Mongol cavalry some years later – the Shabdrung, who was said to be gentle and humane, gave Bhutan the identity of a state, with a code of laws, and borders that remain largely unchanged to this day. Dzhongs, or fortress-temples that he established are important centres even today, and the language of the country (dzhongka) derives from these seats of power.
Following a relapse into prolonged internecine warfare, the man who united Bhutan for the second time is the shadowy Black Regent, who was “dark, wore a black robe and rode a black horse”, and whose legend, Omair Ahmad says, “fit into the quasi-mythical story of Bhutan’s history, how the country understands itself”. Otherwise known as Jigme Namgyal, the Black Regent rose to become the most powerful man in Bhutan. His reputation enhanced by his public humiliation of the British envoy, Sir Ashley Eden, and his repulsing, with bows and arrows, of the British army in the Duar War, the Black Regent took Bhutan to the threshold of its future as an independent kingdom.
This was actually accomplished by his son Ugyen Wangchuk. Using charm, diplomacy and consensus building skills, Wangchuk won over not only the heads of the dzhongs, but also the Tibetans and British through his role in facilitating an agreement between them following the infamous and brutal Younghusband expedition to Lhasa. Having brought peace and unity, as well as glory, to the land, he was crowned by an assembly of priests and nobles – with the Raven Crown – as the first King of Bhutan in 1907. In typically Bhutanese fashion, Wangchuk appeared before the congregation barefoot – to signify his humility and servitude.
The rest of the story is well known, but continues to mystify and amaze. Surrounded by large and powerful neighbours engaged in ‘great games’ of geopolitical machination, Bhutan survives as a proud Himalayan kingdom while its sisters, Tibet and Sikkim, have ceased to exist as independent entities and Nepal flounders uncertainly. Not only this, Bhutan retains its inimitable character and presents to the world a unique yardstick – human happiness – to measure development; its king personally leads his miniscule army in a successful campaign to drive out thousands of insurgent militants because he regards their presence in his country as his personal failure for which he must take responsibility and be prepared to pay the ultimate price; and later – against the wishes of his subjects – cedes his authority to become a constitutional monarch and usher in representative government.
Ahmad’s tale is enlivened with sideshows highlighting the mystery of Bhutan: of Drukpa Kunley, a saint who won devotees and beat opponents into submission with his euphemistically-named ‘flaming thunderbolt’, worship of whom accounts for ubiquitous and unabashed depictions of the male phallus across Bhutan; of the venerable mystic and wanderer, Milarepa, and how the Drukpa School of Buddhism came to dominate the region; of the builder of chain-link iron bridges that lasted six hundred years and were paid for by staging musical productions; and many others, that portray a land existing in the modern age comfortably with its mythic past. While the book carries detailed accounts of the problem of Nepali refugees, Bhutan’s quest for international recognition of its sovereign existence, and so on, Ahmad’s book is remarkable for capturing the enchantment of the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
(Govindan Nair is a former civil servant now based in Chennai)