Bhutan is a country unknown to most of the world, but if there is one thing most people do know about the small Himalayan mountain kingdom, it’s their concept of “Gross National Happiness”, as opposed to Gross National Profit, as a goal for development. Sounds lovely, I know, but I’ve always been skeptical of it. It’s all very well for leaders to say that their people are more concerned about happiness than about material wealth, but what do the citizens themselves think about this? I don’t know the answers, and as far as I can gather, too little outside research on Bhutan as a twenty-first century nation (rather than as some timeless Buddhist shangri-la) has been done. An interesting, recent opinion-piece on Himal Southasian‘s blog also questions these common assumptions and calls for better language and scholarship from non-Bhutanese reporters and writers.
Martin Uitz’s Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon doesn’t pay a lot of attention to this common trope (somewhat mercifully) but he does question it subtley. This simple, charming travel account of contemporary Bhutan is most valuable in its descriptions of Bhutanese traditions and contemporary as well as traditional ways of life. It does read as rather anthropological at times, and hence makes for a rather old-fashioned style of travel writing, but for a reader who has very little prior knowledge of Bhutan, I found this mostly interesting. Uitz’s attention to detail in his descriptions made some of the language quite beautiful, particularly in his almost erotic description of a traditional Bhutanese hot-stone bath, where one sits in a bath and one by one hot stones are placed in the water, heating it up to steaming temperatures.
Despite all my research on South Asia, there are clearly major gaps in my geo-political historical knowledge, and Hidden Bhutan filled in some of these gaps. I didn’t know, for instance, that in 1975 Sikkim (now a state of India) became the last Himalayan country to lose its independence when it was annexed by India. Nepal and Bhutan are the only two kingdoms (or, in the case of Nepal, recent ex-kingdom) not to have been absorbed by their more powerful neighbours, with Kashmir being fought over by India and Pakistan and currently being ruled by both; the formerly independent Ladakh and Spiti now belong to India, and Swat, Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral to Pakistan.
There were other new discoveries to be found here, too. It’s funny how you can go your whole life not knowing something, and then just when you learn about it, that same thing seems to pop up everywhere for a little while, prompting you to ask how you had not known about it earlier! I was watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth on TV in Australia a few weeks ago, and was horrified by a segment on these fungi that inhabit the bodies of other creatures, such as ants, drive them bad, kill them, and then grow out of the carcass. It really looked like something from a horror movie. Well, this demonic fungus featured in Hidden Bhutan, too, and if I hadn’t seen it animated in Attenborough’s film I don’t think I would have had the imagination to picture it. Uitz describes how the fungus, Cordyceps Sinensis, is used in traditional Chinese, Tibetan and Bhutanese medicine, as it has curative properties which can also improve strength and athleticism. As such, it was associated with some Chinese doping scandals in the 1990s. With the memory of Attenborough’s film in my mind, I shudder at the thought of drinking such a potion.
Amongst all of the fascinating details, I would have liked a bit more information on the author. In my last post on Patrick Marnham’s Road to Katmandu I did criticise his over-emphasis on the characters and not the places being traveled through, but here there was perhaps the opposite problem. I would’ve liked to know more about what Uitz was doing in Bhutan, his everyday life as a foreigner there, and the major challenges he faced. But, overall, this was an informative and enjoyable short book on a little-known country.
London: The Armchair Traveller at the BookHaus, 2008. Originally published in German as Einlass ins Reich des Donnerdrachens. Verborgenes Bhutan, 2006.