After centuries of isolation, change has finally come to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, and quickly. Long a closed country whose traditional Buddhist society was ruled by a hereditary monarchy, it first opened its borders to tourists in the 1970s. Television and the Internet were introduced in 1999, and nowadays about three-quarters of the population use cell phones. English is a mandated language in school, and in 2008 the government, under its present, Western-educated young king, officially transitioned to a parliamentary democracy.
Despite better access to healthcare and education, as well as to a more developed infrastructure, Bhutan’s leap into the modern age has come at a high cost: its population is ill prepared to defend against the predations of consumer culture, which is swiftly eroding the country’s unique traditions. In villages, plastic bottles and other waste overflow comically small trashcans; young boys, even monks, play with toy guns imported from India; religious festivals are now an opportunity for vendors to line the streets hawking Nike knockoffs; and youth unemployment, suicide, and substance abuse are growing problems.
Not surprisingly, a cultural chasm has opened between the older generation, brought up in premodern Bhutan, and the young, who have had a taste of the kind of life a globalized era offers but little means for achieving it. Last year, in an issue devoted to the country’s modernization, the Bhutanese policy publication Druk Journal asked, “Are we driving change, or is change driving us?”
No one is perhaps better suited to answering this question than Dr. Karma Phuntso. The first Bhutanese to earn a doctorate at Oxford, Dr. Karma was also educated as a traditional monastic. His work has had a twofold focus: as a “disruptive thinker” and social worker, he promotes social entrepreneurship among the nation’s youth, the vast majority of whom are either unemployed or underemployed. As an academic, he has been engaged in an effort to document and write about Bhutan’s fast-disappearing cultures. After nine years heading up a project to digitize Bhutan’s sacred manuscripts, he has now begun to record the country’s oral traditions, which are integral, he says, to fully understanding a country like his, where until recently 80 percent of the population was illiterate. He and his team have spent the past three and a half years traveling through the mountainous nation, speaking to and taping conversations with elders, endeavoring to save these “intangible cultures,” as Dr. Karma calls them, before the older generation passes away.
Tricycle’s managing editor, Emma Varvaloucas, sat down with Dr. Karma in October 2016 at Lhodrak Kharchhu monastery in Bumthang, Bhutan, where he was scheduled to address a group of Westerners about Bhutanese history and culture. Wrapped in several blankets—much of Bhutan does not have central heating—Dr. Karma painted a nuanced portrait of the nation, which, as he tells it, finds itself on the brink of inalterable change.
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