Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck's "Treasures of the Thunder Dragon": Book Review

Now one of four sisters married to the fourth Dragon King, Ashi (an honorific for a royal woman), takes us around her realm, now a constitutional monarchy. She deftly introduces facts about the land and people, topography in the three zones (humid foothills, temperate valleys, and alpine highlands) as one follows the main lateral road west to east, history, monarchy, and modernity, in twenty pages. This serves as a necessarily "elevated" p-o-v, but a cogent overview for a reader new to the subject.

As a subject herself, now a queen, she tells her own story in part one. Born in 1955 in a house near Punakha high atop a ridge sheltering a village, from a distinguished family, she was among the first students to be sent off to India as the kingdom began to prepare leaders for the modernization needed. China's invasion of Tibet cut off that land from its southern partner in trade and affinity; India pushed into the Himalayas to counter Pakistani and Communist pressure, but appeared a more benign host by comparison. She reflects: "It was hard to imagine that we had grown up in a world without cars and without cars and motor roads, electricity, banks, postal services or currency notes." (60) Her husband spearheaded the changes, which have accelerated markedly in the period she wrote her 2006 account. (If you have studied other materials on Bhutan, you will also sense a diplomatic reserve or careful non-inclusion of any controversial topics or situations in the land of her reign.)

She then follows her fellow citizens down some of the rugged trails where (as of 2006 in rapidly altering infrastructure bent on more networks electronic and paved) most Bhutanese still live, eking out a living as farmers, traders, or herders. I particularly liked her account of how her rheumatism was cured by the hot springs at Dunmang, and the culture around these unsurprisingly popular attractions, for a few trekkers and many locals.

The sacred landscapes beloved by those Buddhists who live within them gain insight. The region near her place of birth, where the Divine Madman Drukpa Kinlay lived, represents with the path to Hokotsho Lake a holy, now untouched place. Rangtse Ney in the south hosts pristine caves; Gom Kora to the east has a "tsechu" (three day on the tenth day of the month) festival in honor of the founding guru of the national faith, Guru Padmasambhava. "Dapa" wooden bowls are prized from this Tashi Yangtse district. In the Royal Manas national park (24% of the country is protected), old forests survive on the Indian border (about two-thirds of Bhutan will be sustained as arboreal cover).

Two apparent testimonies to reincarnation follow, and then a tour of the strategic "dzong" monastic fortresses, and the "chorten" stupas that sadly, she reports, are increasingly vandalized for their relics. She rallied her Tarayana Foundation to coordinate civilian assistance to aid the successful 2003 victory of the national army, with the participation in battle of her husband and son, to oust Indian separatist rebels from their guerrilla bases in Bhutan. Eleven soldiers in the royal ranks were killed, and few on the opposing side in a careful conflict that minimized bloodshed. Under her impetus, a memorial series of 108 chortens were erected in tribute--to all lives lost--atop the pass at Dochu La.

Previously, a pilgrimage to a few of the many temples around the rich soil of Paro engages her lively descriptions; she also spends two tough weeks in the isolated Kheng central region. The hardships she witnesses--harelips or cleft palates caused by inbreeding, lack of tools or seeds, or the sufferings of the weak--motivate her to set up her Foundation's outreach to "especially vulnerable people." She learns how for many unmarried women and their offspring there--abandoned soon after romance--paternity attributed to a far-off "doctor in Thimphu" has entered the language as a euphemism.

In the highlands of Laya and Lunana, she finds more of her countrywomen, but there, some enter polyandrous marriages to more than one yak herder, as many men in that harsh terrain herd yaks. Glacial melting already (as of 1994) unleashes death and devastation on the terrain there and far down the rivers, and one wonders how Bhutan will cope. Yusena is so isolated even adult cattle cannot navigate its trail in. She suffers from altitude sickness, and in passes over three miles high, she realizes she will not be able to return to the land of heavenly lakes despite Diamox. These Tibetan-bordering places open only to trekkers are cut off (smugglers aside) from their ancient routes north.

For those herders in the east, the Brokpas, and those centrally indigenous Monpas and Lhopas towards the south, the queen finds other less accessible settlements (a map shows her journeys) to explore. Her feet, as she crosses one river twenty-four times in plastic sandals, get terribly blistered. The Monpas appear more animist, tied to the Bon and folk traditions, caring for the forests in which they live and from which they craft baskets, make remedies, and eat crops such as the pinkish-olive fruit the "yikashing." Even copper mining had been halted by the government, to preserve ecology.

She listens to the villagers as she goes: as in Dagana, so elsewhere in the hinterlands. Access to roads and electricity top the wish list. As settlers prefer locally to stay scattered over their home turf, solar panels have been installed as the kingdom's rural improvement project expands. This also sparks feuds as locations for basic health and school facilities must be constructed--in one chosen location.

Additional material comes from the brushes of Kama and Rinchen Wangmi, from the "Voluntary Artists' Studio of Thimphu." As an aside, you don't get the queen's insights into her bustling capital city. The pictures mingle classic iconographic with more perspective-based illustrations well, and their soft colors and pastoral style enhance the plates, along with a few royal family snapshots. A glossary of Dzongkha terms and an index append the nearly two-hundred pages of text.

This survey's drawback? I wanted more details about the off-road places, especially in the south and central mountains. Other books tell of meetings with the Lunap and Layap, the Brokpa and Monpa. But not the others, not by a Bhutanese. Also, it ends too suddenly. One closes this handsome book wishing more information could be told by the queen. Still, it's a fine place to start one's armchair excursion to Bhutan, as it's one of the to-date comparatively few reports in English told by a native. 
(Amazon US 12-18-12)

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