Every evening, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan and father of the present king, rides a bicycle as part of his exercise regimen. He pedals swiftly up a steep mountain road, followed by just one cyclist guard. In his traditional costume, with no show of pomp or ceremony to mark his passage, he could be just another of the many Bhutanese commoners who cycle for their health.
We are standing on the hillside, watching the lights of Thimpu come on far below, when the king whizzes past on his cycle. ‘The king, that’s the fourth king, you are so lucky...’ gushes Sonam, the girl with us, breathless with excitement. ‘How do you know it’s him,’ we chorus. ‘Ï recognised him,’ she says, ‘and the guard behind him was wearing the palace livery.’
This little episode reflects much of what Bhutan is today. Its people still have a fairytale respect for their royalty; their faith in their way of life is touchingly earnest. And they seem determined to hold on to their culture and beliefs even as the wind of change blows softly in, winding its way through the valleys and passes to curl insidiously around their minds.
There is much in Bhutan to delight the eye and intrigue the senses. The first sight of a people still dressed in their traditional costumes comes as a bit of a shock. The men who pick us up at the airport are in traditional dress, a heavy coat-like garment tied at the waist, socks that reach their ankles, and shoes. It’s not just for special occasions; the gho is common everyday attire and the men look amazingly comfortable in its warm folds.
The women match them perfectly. The ankle-length kera in colourful patterns teamed with a blouse and a jacket held together by a brooch lends them infinite gracefulness. I spend my entire stay watching how the colours and patterns mix and match for an unending variety of looks, while the silhouette remains the same. Westerners must wonder thus at our sari-clad women.
Yet, along the main streets of Thimpu, the capital, shops sell a variety of western clothes, cheap synthetics stitched into jackets and knitted into tights and blouses. Jeans and halter tops stand boldly on mannequins. And yes, even the graceful Sonam, who floats through the day on soft feet, sometimes chooses to dress differently. A refreshing change but somehow it robs her of her classic beauty. Other signs of change are more alarming. A kilometre away from Thimpu with its houses and buildings of carved and painted wood that blend smoothly with the verdant surroundings, the air is sharp with the sound of machines and men. Buildings reach up many floors along the swift flowing river, their frames are brick, not mud, their fronts in some cases will be of toughened glass. Renting a house is the first choice for many city-dwellers, and builders are finding ways to cash in on the growing need.
Many city-dwellers own land in far-off villages. Lakey, in her 20s, works in media and lives in Thimpu while her ancestral home is in a village close to Paro.
When it is time to plant paddy, the 23-year-old takes time off to go home and help her family with farming. “Ï weed the paddy, I milk the cows, it’s hard work,” she says. “Life in the city makes chores that were part of our lives not so long ago almost too tough to bear.”
Tenzing on the other hand admits that though his mother owned land in the east she gave them away when she moved to Paro. “Land we don’t want is either sold or given away to relatives,” he explains, “my mother gave hers to her sister.”
The mood for change has accelerated since the once closed kingdom opened itself to the world. The fourth king opened the doors by aiding the formation of the country’s first democratic government headed by a constitutional monarch. Reportedly, his subjects wept at the idea but have come to terms with democracy, with its attendant aspects: a growing media, electioneering, penal codes et al.
More sweeping was the opening of Bhutan to the Internet and television. Today, saffron dressed young monks hold cell phones and the prayer wheel alternately, and an evening visit to shops selling bolts of Chinese silk in Thimpu can get you a disinterested glance from an attendant immersed in the latest soap beamed by Indian TV.
The present seems secure. The Gross National Happiness index is still a tenet to live by, though some youngsters I quizzed were not sure what the four pillars of the tenet were. Rivers and trees are still considered sacred, as are mountains (mountaineering is prohibited by law) and God is omnipresent on hilltops, in homes and dronzes, and in Bhutanese lives.
I watch amazed as a monk prostrates at every step of the uphill route to his monastery, and wonder if any of the approximately 50,000 young people who live in the country would also consider such an open display of devotion to their religion. Yet godliness resides in the smiles and the soft speech of the Bhutanese. Hopefully, the winds that are blowing in will not steal that away. To me it seems that as long as ‘the soul of Bhutan’ lives on in its faith in a loving God, the country will remain insured from facelessness. And the fourth King can pedal away on his daily constitutional knowing all is well in his country.