Generation in Tradition

Teenage Bhutanese hang out at Clock Tower Square, literally Thimphu’s city centre and its most ‘happening’ spot. {{name}}
Teenage Bhutanese hang out at Clock Tower Square, literally Thimphu’s city centre and its most ‘happening’ spot. {{name}}
01 February, 2012

IN 1979, BHUTAN’S THEN KING, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the term Gross National Happiness (GNH) during an interview with the Indian media. It took till April 1987 before the Fifth Druk Gyalpo’s now-eponymous societal philosophy became known to the Western world when Financial Times, London, interviewed him about why Bhutan’s development was crawling ahead compared to development in Nepal and Thailand.

Today, we all know where Nepal and Thailand stand vis-a-vis Bhutan in the Human Development Index. Even a quarter century ago, the very idea that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product” took hold of Bhutan’s citizens as immediately as it did the rest of the world in search of a new benchmark of progress. But decades have passed since GNH was enshrined as the country’s governing philosophy, and things change; today, the country’s youth, who form a significant percentage of the population—21.5 percent are 15-24 years old (UN’s World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision)—are yearning to be part of a global mainstream that the concept of traditional GNH might find unequipped to address.

And this yearning is reflected in the casual, often blithe, way the Bhutanese are looking at and embracing change. Television and the Internet have been accessible here only since June 1999, and were introduced despite widespread fears that their “controversial” content such as fashion shows, Western music, WWF wrestling and pornography could destroy the kingdom’s traditional way of life based on unique Buddhist principles. (In fact, when welcoming media into the country, Jigme Singye Wangchuck had cautioned his people that this modern technology could be “both beneficial as well as negative for the individual and the society”.)

This caution has little meaning now: teenagers dressed in hip Western outfits adjacent to a red-robed Buddhist monk are evidence of the contradiction in terms that the modern landscape of Bhutan is becoming. This ‘image’, although an easy juxtaposition, is symbolic of the questioning of the idea of Bhutan’s modernity.

Going to a club and dancing till the early hours was once alien to Bhutanese. But today downtown Thimphu has some raucous clubs, and they are packed on weekends. Those youth who cannot afford these clubs end up in small, underground ‘dance-bars’, where they have ‘geishas’ for company. These girls, who sing and dance, make more than the national average—in a country where the per capita income has been more than $2,000 a year for at least the past three fiscals—but constantly have to deal with the downside: misbehaviour by clubbers.

What is being questioned in 21st-century Bhutan is the negotiating of change—as opposed to negotiating with change, which is done and dusted—change won. Now, the very definition of ‘happiness’ will need to accommodate the increasing admittance of international motifs of style and fashion and lifestyle. The kingdom of Druk Yul—such as it is, for the king has no constitutional powers (but nonetheless, and seemingly paradoxically, remains the driver of change: the current monarch, the “people’s king”, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, married a commoner in October this year to no societal perturbation whatsoever)—is now, rather uncomfortably, coming to terms with access to international brands. The trepidation about letting the world barge in is very real here—notwithstanding that Bhutan itself has become an international brand.