Sunday, January 13, 2013

"Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods": Book Review

This folio-format study commemorates a Viennese exhibition at the Museum für Völkerkunde in 1997-98. While scholarly, and hefty in size and substance, it contributes more weightily to the knowledge we have of this Himalayan kingdom. I found it valuable as a corrective to the often more romanticized photo collections, easier to consult than more specialized if even drier monographs, or more balanced than necessarily more hurried summations in travel narratives by and for Westerners. 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, and regional peoples and their distinctive dress unfold.

Schicklgruber reminds us of the challenges a "mountain fortress" faces, given the fate of Buddhist enclaves in Ladakh, Mustang, Tibet, and Sikkim. He considers the demands of the Nepali and often Hindi populations on the southern borders, and the competing cultural and ethnic identities of the Buddhist majorities in the heartlands. He notes how modernization for the nation may not equate with conventional Western judgments, and attributes the royal stewardship for the decisions demanded as this small region deals with the pressures from India to the south and occupying China to the north.

Botanist Gerard Navara begins with a chapter on its landscape, while co-editor and Tibetologist [see my May 2012 review of her Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom (Odyssey Guide)], Francoise Pommaret's linguistic and ethnographic survey documents the various peoples with cultural and ethnic allegiances. It (as other contributions) can be slow reading, but it sums up value--much remains to be learned about the array of languages and dialects in such a small country. Marc Dujardin, in an ambitious analysis of Rukubji in the central region, explains how it's "living architecture." As opposed to a Western understanding of monuments and concrete fixing a place's meaning, Dujardin assesses Bhutanese construction in its evolving context, sites placed by religious considerations where spirits may lurk, deities may abscond, and modern methods may undermine or support ancient ideas of how, say a farmhouse is to be rebuilt for every generation in the same family's spot.

Then, everyday life and religious worship comprise part two. I admired ethnologist Martin Brauen's "Dreamworld Tibet" (see my Feb. 2012 review) and his report from another, if unspecified, central community shows his knack for conveying the reality of life in the mountains and not myth. He relates how taxes and tasks must be achieved, and what happens when women own land and farms. 

This aligns well with Dujardin's chapter, and we see how women negotiate power and control, even as a significant percentage of the village consists of the landless families. Brauen here as in his other book cautions any Shangri-La expectations. Buddhism, more skeptical towards female energy, keeps its hold over the village and the mindsets of men and women, even as education beckons. For, the farm, if run by women, may expect girls not to stay in school, and for all there in such a village, the afterlife is still seen as more likely to reward a male than a female, regardless of her merit in this life.

"Zorig chusum" or the "thirteen crafts" have been passed down from parents to children for centuries. Barry Ison finds these exemplifying the material mixed with the spiritual out of the hardships and the diversity of Bhutan's situation. As its people cannot compete making cheap products for the globalized market, they can promote their heritage and expertise with wood, stone, painting, clay, bronze, metalwork, cane and bamboo, paper, tailoring, weaving. As in other sections, artifacts intersperse in photographs as evidence.

For the third section, Buddhism and the state being mutually supportive, Mynak Tulku as a "high cleric" interprets ritual. Although an aside, I found his paragraph on p. 140 intriguing: Buddhism may have entered Bhutan far earlier than the 7th c. AD, perhaps as early as 200-100 BC. 

Schicklgruber matches gods to sacred mountains, and applies its shamanistic origins to a religious interpretation of the striking, fabled landscape on multiple levels. "To put it rather crudely one can say that the Bhutanese do not fulfil Western demands for precise levels of classification." (161)  These gods, from folk tradition, harass or please humans, and Buddhism superseding their mythic rule, it tried to supplant or overpower them. Even the raven crown of the king may stem from this.

History, as nationhood (late for this realm), follows. Legends around the noble origins begin Pommaret's long treatment of sketchy or venerable sources transmitted from antiquity. Animism and even megaliths gave way to temples and Tibetans entered the "southern valleys of medicinal herbs" which gained fame with Guru Rinpoche's arrival in the eighth century CE. Drukpas and secondarily Nyingmapas gained pre-eminence in particular regions of the then-fragmented land. Pema Lingpa galvanized central and eastern regions as the "treasure revealer" (1450-1521). The first Shabdrung (visited by Portuguese Jesuits in 1627) repelled Tibetans to establish a western region under Drukpas. This ruler constructed dzongs in each valley to fortify then one unified theocratic-monastic kingdom.

She continues with the coming of the British (1772-1926) to use their records to compare with Bhutanese accounts. As India pushed north, Bhutan gave in, and as a trade route to Tibet, the Swiss-sized kingdom in the middle sought to stay independent internally. By the early 20th c, "Relations were excellent but distant" between the Raj and Bhutan's first king, Ugyen Wangchuck. There's a tremendous amount of information in these two chapters, full of rivalries and assassinations, but the data add up to much more than a non-specialist may want to sift through.

The final section features Karma Ura's perspective as a civil servant (and writer) on "tradition and development." He reminds us that most Bhutanese still live more than a day's walk from the "motor road," and the layout of settlement means mule tracks may endure for some as the ancient path. But, exposed as many in the capital and other towns on the road become to media and foreign goods, the elite crave more, and expectations rise faster than incomes, within a Buddhist-ruled system which cautions against excess. Globalization and development must be balanced against a precious and now rare combination of traditional values and ecological legacy. Village altruism weakens when impersonal cities beckon the young and ambitious. The lama may deserve a voice alongside the investment banker. Meanwhile, Ura's fellow intellectual, Kunzang Chöden, who wrote the first novel in English [The Circle of Karma] by a Bhutanese woman, offers five interviews from females in the capital that grows 7-10% annually. (Thimphu has now around triple the population it did when this chapter itself was drafted in the late 1990s, to prove the point.)

A glossary and list of objects illustrated end the volume. 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 the media as a happy hideaway.

(P.S. This book reincarnated as an award-winning 2001 Austrian website, but that's long defunct.)[11-29-12 to Amazon US]

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