Mountain Echoes brought the cultures and stories of India and Bhutan together seamlessly, enriching both.

One has to be careful when calling things unique nowadays; the word gets thrown around so. But Mountain Echoes, held in the arms of the one country that has somehow managed to move ahead and stay still in harmonious juxtaposition, is definitely unique. An initiative of the India Bhutan Foundation, with HM Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk as its Chief Royal Patron, Mountain Echoes 2012 was held in Bhutan last week, and the symbiosis of cultures and ideas that took place over the course of four days gave a whole new dimension to the concept of literary festivals.

This year, Mountain Echoes also challenged and explored the very concept of literature and art; and the popularly accepted notion of what defines literature. The strong presence of another culture, another people, with new concepts and definitions, made it possible to cast a fresh look at the idea of literature, giving it a more holistic shape and embracing and incorporating ideas and concepts that were hitherto isolated. Suddenly, you found yourself discussing mountaineering and textiles, with not even a sliver of doubt in your head that they were, in fact, crucial aspects of literature. “This year, we expanded the festival and broadened the scope of literature , bringing together unconventional concepts and issues, instead on merely focussing on books and what is conventionally known as literature,” said Mita Kapur, Founder and Head of Siyahi, and organiser of Mountain Echoes.

Discovering a culture

Almost every Bhutanese person is multilingual, speaking Dzongkha, Hindi and English fluently. There are not many of them, and the country's population is barely over seven lakhs. Land-locked and never colonised, the Bhutanese people have kept their culture close to their hearts, and their sacred mountains untouched and unclimbed. They have chosen to forego the increased inflow of foreign investments, banning mountaineering to protect a climate they guard so fiercely. “The idea of climbing mountains and conquering peaks is a very western concept. We don't look at our mountains with the idea of conquering their heights. They are sacred to us; we want to feel close to them spiritually, we live in harmony with them,” said Manju, a young Bhutanese girl, during the “Unclimbed Mountains” session.

Bhutan doesn't have coffee chains and malls. Its people are happy, the happiest in the world, according to a recent study, and while cinema, music and books are still in their fledgling states, the sense of peace that pervades this Buddhist country tells you that none of them are in a mad rush to grow up. “Till recently, a couple of years back or so, our radio stations didn't have clocks. If a show was good, it went on. If it was bad, it ended. For a very long time, we worked on instinct, not by clocks,” said Siok Sian Dorji, Director of the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy.

Judicious mix

The sessions, held over four days, covered a wide range of issues, ideas and topics. Apart from mountaineering, textile and food was discussed, with experts like Wendell Rodericks and Laila Tyabji in the panel. At the same time, the discussion introduced HM Ashi Sangay Choden, the patron of the Bhutan Textile Museum in Thimphu, Bhutan. Already enriched by the presence of authors like Vikram Seth and William Darymple, the panels gained further by the presence of acclaimed Bhutanese authors like Karma Singye Dorji, the author of Dreaming of Prayer Flags: Stories and Images from Bhutan, and Karma Tenzin ‘Yongba', who not only founded and headed the Crime and Special branch of Royal Bhutan Police but also writes detective fiction.

This festival was also about stories, stories from different cultures and times, stories that weave into the fabric of a country's history. We heard of the Divine Mad Man of Bhutan, Drukpa Kunley, and the Goan people's resistance against the Portugese. We heard of the eccentricities of the Nawabs of Hyderabad and of Kuenga, the Valiant son who emerged a superhero.

Many things were familiar, the pacific, unargumentative note to the discussions, certain faces, and many issues. Yet, one wouldn't be justified in calling Mountain Echoes yet another identikit Literary Festival. Of course, the fresh mountain air of Bhutan, the delightfully clement weather, and the small, intimate gathering helped endlessly; and set in the folds of Bhutan's sacred, prayer flag-clad mountains, Mountain Echoes 2012 succeeded in setting a definite benchmark in the register of literary festivals.