Through the Clear Eye of Photojournalism and Film
Since Tantric Buddhism dominates, until very recently as the state religion, it merits attention. A Swiss-based trio of scholars in The Dragon Kingdom reports from nascent stages of the kingdom’s connections with the West. The Buddhist-based analysis is therefore very light on modernization, which had just begun in the period they visited in the early 1980s. It can be perused in a sitting, as a quick introduction to Bhutan’s traditions and panoramas.
A folio-format study, Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods commemorates a Viennese exhibition at the Museum für Völkerkunde in 1997-1998. While scholarly, and hefty in size and substance, it endures as a corrective to romance or brevity in Western accounts. As co-editor Christian Schicklgruber introduces the collection, it mirrors how a visitor would approach Bhutan. Visual impressions, “the lay of the land,” flora and fauna, architecture, history, art, politics, and regional peoples and their distinctive dress unfold.
Not an exhibition catalogue in the usual sense, Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods instead presents an in-depth examination of the nation. While very factual in tone and heavily academic, the contributors serve as a cross-section of native and European scholars best able to explain this kingdom seriously to an audience for which fantasy and effusion seem to suffice given its dominant portrayal in certain media as a happy hideaway. (This book reincarnated as an award-winning 2001 Austrian website, but that’s long defunct.)
Robert Dompnier in Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon offers photography taken in the ‘90s, emphasizing tradition, tsechu dances which enliven vivid rituals through the year at many a dzong, and crafts such as weaving, costumes, and intricate architecture which persist not as folklore for tourists but as organic expressions of Buddhist perceptions in everyday settings. While short on text, the presentation is handsomely arranged. The bright textiles, dresses, and painted facades leap out. The size allows a map far larger than in most books on Bhutan—but a tiny caption warns: “The borders as shown on this map are neither authentic or [sic] correct.”
As for size, Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom as the younger sibling to the world’s biggest book continued raising funds for medical and educational projects. Friendly Planet, a charity spinoff of M.I.T., generated income in an innovative fashion, as digital photography and bookbinding skill combined with high-tech expertise under a team led by Professor Michael Hawley, who ran the campus Media Lab’s special projects division. The big brother book, 5’ by 7’ and weighing 150 lbs., dwarfed the two Bhutanese schoolchildren the team “adopted” on their initial November 2001 visit, when displayed at Harry Winston’s gallery in Manhattan. This 2003 book symbolized the meeting of high rollers with a worthy cause, and demonstrated how a $15,000 volume could support other schoolchildren and families in the remote areas of this region, reached only by trails, far from the touristy areas the book documents.
For the smaller companion, itself considerable at a foot by two feet and 15 lbs., this expands the original. It reproduces the immense photos and doubles their number, if in less stupendous manner, by explaining how the original was assembled, and how the team returned to Bhutan in 2003 to bring aid to villages and schools from the moneys raised by the big book. Now out-of-print, this follow-up 2004 volume also contributed its profits to Friendly Planet, and Hawley’s text and captions, garnered from a cooperative of eleven photographers, conveys the appeal—if in rather soft-focus moods despite the digital accuracy—of the Buddhist kingdom and people.
Libby Lloyd and Robert van Koesveld report in 2010 from spring times on the Lateral Road, the east-west connection across the vertiginous valleys and high passes that furrow between the Himalayas and the subtropical plantations. As these Australian-based photographers and social workers explain early on in Bhutan Heartland, the choice they faced, to move from west to east, is repeated, if perhaps in reverse, by the natives of this kingdom daily. That road, and increasingly the feeder routes paved along what have been yak trails and footpaths, represents for this constitutional monarchy’s Gross National Happiness plan a way to increase access to within a day’s hike of most of its still largely rural citizens.
The authors efficiently intersperse a lot of background (a glossary and too-short reading list are appended, and a link to van Koesveld’s photo archive website) that some earlier authors have struggled to include. It’s the right amount for a newcomer: less footnoted and less weighty than the Fortress study but more in-depth than Dompnier, and less-dated than Dragon Kingdom. For handsomely reproduced photographs and accessible text, it’s a great place to begin a virtual visit.
Nicole Grace’s Dreaming Bhutan presents in “a brief glimpse” over 40 photos on the right side, and a spare text which could fit on a postcard on the left, leaving lots of blank space. Perhaps the slightly blurred resolution of some of the photographs fits the title, as she in promotional material for this 2011 book explains how she wants to show “dreaming” not “of” but “Bhutan” itself—as a portal to enlightenment. A romanticized approach directs Grace’s gaze. It prefers “a world of enchantment, ancient rituals and dress that seems not to have changed in hundreds of years.”
From visits totaling seven months from 1999 to 2005 to this Himalayan kingdom, Mary Peck’s 56 black-and-white photographs in Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth, each on its own right-hand page facing a blank left, command attention. Many have captions as endnotes; a few do not. This 2011 removal of words from image (except four brief poems, one by Gary Snyder, another by W.S. Merwin, and a pair of his translations from Muso Soseki) allows the reader to look at the landscapes, people, ceremonies, and architecture as if witnessed first-hand. Grace’s captions inspire curiosity as to their short length; Peck’s pages suggest a trust in unpredictability ahead.
In her afterword, “Bhutan’s Curve of Time”, Peck relates how directions were given by Bhutanese. Each of her inquiries led to a local range of instructions by a resident. “Just walk into that cloud,” one man told her. Beyond circumscribed limits, hemmed in by gorges or peaks, paths or landmarks, the estimates faded, and new ones emerged with the next encounter, the next person down the trail.
Karma Ura situates his nation within these same furrowed contours. As a distinguished leader of the monarchy’s think tank implementing the nation’s evolving Gross National Happiness policy, Ura explains in his thoughtful forward the scope of GNH. He sums up the country, full of micro-climates dividing one valley from the next. He notes how “the food chain is more or less completed within one’s own valley.” Therefore, the mythology, community, and the land are integrated over generations to support the people in an intimate, in-depth knowledge—differing from the fragmented skills promoted today as a solution to education and modernization.
John Wehrheim’s Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness gazes, through words and via a camera. While limited of course to his choice, the combination invites the reader to become a viewer. This Chicago-born, Kaua’i-based hydrologist who mingles narrative journeys with black-and-white silver gelatin photography between 1991 and 2006 in his afterword warns: “The words and events are true but not always in the order and sequence implied.”
Under the direction of its fifth king and such experts as Karma Ura, “Gross National Happiness” increasingly grows familiar as a catchphrase to sum up Bhutan’s ambitions to orient itself within harmonious precepts as taught by Buddhism and shared equitably among its peoples to assure mutual comfort, educational advancement, and spiritual progress. Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness, a one-hour 2009 video produced by Thomas Vendetti and John Wehrheim, introduces GNH. This kingdom’s initiative under its watchful monarchy seeks to promote wise globalization while nourishing traditional lifestyles, as Bhutan perches between a covetous China and a teeming India.
Unlike some photo-narratives on this often-mythologized kingdom, Matthieu Ricard’s Bhutan: Land of Serenity takes a sober, almost detached approach that reveals this monk’s calm. After a decade in the company of the Dalai Lama’s tutor there (Tibetan refugee Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche), and now the Dalai Lama’s French translator himself, French-born Ricard brings the same considered evaluation of Buddhist practice and culture that his sponsorship and appearance in the films Brilliant Moon and The Spirit of Tibet demonstrate about his devotion to his exiled mentors. What this has to do with Bhutan as a larger entity comes across more gradually. Three pages introducing each of these eight sections of his brilliantly reproduced color photography, 1980-2007, convey this more vividly than the miniscule font (too small, let alone the captions even smaller) do in this admittedly handsome, compact text, translated by Ruth Sharman.
As the first feature-length film from Bhutan, reincarnate lama-director Khyentse Norbu’s 2003 follow-up to his festival success of soccer-mad Tibetan monks in 1999’s The Cup generates attention by that statement alone. Travelers and Magicians nestles in a familiar frame: the varied cast hiking or hitching on the road hears a story along the way. The plot unfolds genially and gently. It’s not fast-paced, and reflects the steady, shrewd sensibility of its makers and actors. Norbu wishes to offer the world and his own homeland a reflection of how Buddhist themes might enrich people, as if painting a traditional tapestry by the light of cinema. The bonus feature elucidates this philosophy as it underlies the film. For more backstory on the director, consult Lesley Ann Patten’s nearly concurrent (if unevenly directed) 2003 documentary Words of My Perfect Teacher about Norbu, under his Buddhist name, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.
(To link more interdependence in a small kingdom, while the cast of Travelers and Magicians—the first film in Dzongkha, the native language taught in schools there along with English—is billed as non-professionals, I understand that the lead character of Dondup is the exception. Played by Tshewang Dendup, a Thimphu-based radio actor, he appears in Jamie Zeppa’s memoir, for Dondup in real life was the genial student with whom she as a young Canadian teacher fell in love. In turn, Martin Uitz discusses the reception of this and more low-budget films in Dzongkha during the past decade.)
With a Guide at Your Side
For those who want to see more of Bhutan than a film depicts, three guidebooks mediate between the armchair and the adventure. Gyurme Dorje, as a Himalayan expert, offers in Footprint’s Bhutan Handbook practicalities similar to Lonely Planet’s Bhutan (Country Travel Guide) by Bradley Mayhew, Lindsay Brown, and Anirban Mahapatra. The Footprint guidebook in format and layout resembles Lonely Planet, but Dorje’s background coverage in a separate chapter of religious, artistic, and literary contexts does not match the scope of Odyssey’s Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom by fellow Tibetologist (and Bhutan-based scholar) Françoise Pommaret, who authored the first such guidebook, and co-edited Fortress. Rather, like Lonely Planet, Footprint provides a concise introduction; both in turn examine the capital Thimphu, followed by the western, central, and eastern regions.
Lonely Planet tallies nearly 300 pages; Footprint adds about 80 pages in a slightly larger font. Color photos are about equal; seven (blue-hued) Lonely Planet and nine (pink-shaded) Footprint chapters can be downloaded separately or together. I’ve sampled both guides in their PDF versions. They did not convert legibly to my Kindle Touch. Also, even kept as PDFs, a Kindle font cannot be matched to their format neatly or very legibly. On a PC, in color, the PDF files scan better; the maps hang together with the text, sidebars, and illustrations.
Footprint lacks Lonely Planet’s verve and Odyssey’s anthropological bent, but it instructs. Its background chapter delves into Buddhist contexts such as the auspicious symbols and prayer flags. Dorje explains: “The sparse population, the slow, measured pace of daily life and, in some sectors, an almost anarchical disdain for political involvement have encouraged the spiritual cultivation of Buddhism to such an extent that it has come to permeate the entire culture.”
For those leaving its lateral highway behind, Bart Jordan’s Bhutan: A Trekker’s Guide for Cicerone details twenty-seven yak trails and footpaths across this vertically-biased kingdom. Jordans’ “Dutch-English” describes affectionately and carefully (one drawback, if minor: a few glitches remain in his idiom, or the proofreading) many remote sights and dramatically situated sacred landscapes infused by belief. This same guidebook was taken along on the Snowman Trek by Kevin Grange; the practical itineraries and mythical lore it shares will reward anybody planning a few days, or weeks, in the unpaved northern or central regions.
Leaving this short shelf, I wonder how Bhutan can welcome those of us who peer or edge in—through books, through videos, the authors and filmmakers introduce change- - without too many gatecrashers. Few Bhutanese deny themselves their new television, internet, or cellphones. The New York Times featured the kingdom as one of this year’s top destinations: luxury eco-resorts proliferate. Pico Iyer surmises how Bhutanese with formidable etiquette mingled with skillful deference—inherited over centuries of civil service, monastic preferment, and feudal hierarchies—enforce customs which admit visitors at a polite distance.
Traversing the east-west highway, one follows the ancient routes past the formidable dzong guarding each district. Housing monks and officials, these monastery-fortresses force any approaching along a single path through the vertiginous terrain of steep slopes and sudden ravines to reveal themselves. Travelers have to trudge through or ride by the dzong. Passes can be patrolled, and roads checked to monitor jeeps and tourists, just as trails have always been, to protect princesses or to patrol among pilgrims.
Perhaps Bhutan will survive in a manner that both visitors and natives will coexist happily. In John Wehrheim’s last chapter, at a bar in Thimphu, he tells an ambitious Indian who wishes to push Bhutan 20 years forward that such a jolt will leave it like Sikkim: invaded by immigrants, overrun by India. Bhutan may lag 40 years behind its neighboring fellow (ex-)Buddhist principality, but its fate is better than that of tiny Sikkim—let alone giant Tibet during the past half-century. In a parallel conversation with a Tibetan-descended man, whose family in part escaped Chinese decimation, Wehrheim sums up his subject slyly. “Happy peasants in bountiful fields. A King who’s too good to be true. The usual. I’m making photos, shooting video and collecting stories. Everybody in Bhutan’s got a story—some of them might even be true.”