Posts Tagged ‘bhutan’


Photo: Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times
Customers browsing through books in Thimphu, Bhutan. Literacy is growing in the isolated Himalayan country.

Bhutan is a small Himalayan country best known for its focus on Gross National Happiness. I know two other things about it, and they are contradictory. One is that the Hindu Nepalese ethnic minority gets so little happiness there that many end up in refugee camps in India for decades.

But the other thing I know is that Suzanne found Bhutan to be a magical place when she traveled there after her time as vice president of Red Envelope and just before founding Luna & Stella. A Buddhist monk in Bhutan even provided her with a name for her first-born. (She translated it into Swedish and used it as a middle name.)

Nations are complicated.

Here is a recent article I liked about Bhutan’s growing literary culture. It’s by Jeffrey Gettleman at the New York Times. “Not long ago, when Bhutan’s government tried to enroll children in school,” he writes, “parents hid them in the attic and bribed government agents with butter and cheese to go away. Families needed their children as field hands. The last thing they cared about were books.

“But … literacy is taking root across these deep green mountain valleys — it’s now around 60 percent, compared to 3 percent in the 1950s — giving rise to a surprising underdog literary scene.

“The number of bookshops is increasing; there are around a dozen in the capital, Thimphu, and a few more in far-flung districts. Bhutanese writers are publishing books more than ever before — fantasy novels, poetry, short story collections and especially folklore. Each August, Bhutan hosts an international literary festival. …

“It’s a delicate dance of letting in outsiders without getting steamrollered. Historically, Bhutan has sealed itself off, a Shangri-La nestled in the highest, snow-capped mountain range in the world. Before the 1960s, few foreigners set foot here; it was only in 1999 that television was allowed in. …

“This new generation of Bhutanese writers and novelists see themselves as occupying a special role: as guardians of their nation’s culture. Many are relatively young, in their 30s and 40s, and love to reminisce about growing up in villages without radios or TVs or even roads, wearing traditional clothes and eating traditional foods (such as hard cubes of yak cheese the size of Starburst candies). They feel an urgency to write about the old ways deep in the mountain villages before that lifestyle totally disappears.

“ ‘Create?’ asked Tshering Tashi, a writer, journalist, tour guide and co-director of the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival. ‘That’s a luxury. Our foremost job is to record.’ …

“Mr. Tashi, 45, is determined to track down the last of the traditional shamans and spiritual hermits — the custodians of Bhutanese legends — and write their stories, not his, before they take them to the grave. On one mission, he hiked two weeks into the mountains where no roads reach; he finally found his target, an old hermit who had been living by himself for 70 years. …

“Gopilal Acharya, 40, is a poet with dark eyes, a natty beard, crisp plaid shirts and a slightly coiled vibe. He writes in English, like most Bhutanese writers, because that is what he studied in school. (Several indigenous languages are spoken in Bhutan but relatively few books are printed in them.) …

“Mr. Acharya is passionate about Bhutanese folklore. He wrote a book of children’s tales that celebrate a way of life rooted in isolated hamlets where even today, on windswept mountainsides, people till fields of buckwheat with yoked oxen and wooden plows.

“ ‘These stories are how we are anchored as a society,’ he said. ‘We don’t have military or economic power. Our culture is all we have.’ ” More here.

For yet another angle on Bhutan, check out this Washington Post article on why some residents hate the nasty politics of their new democracy so much, they are pining for the old days — and the “absolute monarchy under a beloved king.”


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A few years ago, Suzanne visited Bhutan, drawn to a country that talks more about Gross National Happiness, GNH, than Gross Domestic Product, GDP.

Magda Fahsi at Mint Press News recently interviewed Bhutan’s former Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmi Y Thinley and asked whether Bhutan ran into difficulties talking with other countries about development, given that its index is GNH and theirs is GDP.

He answered, “We have had no difficulties at all. We know our development partner countries in particular are interested in Bhutan’s growth process as measured through the yardstick of GDP; and we have not rejected GDP.

“GNH does not exclude GDP, but confines it to the role that it is supposed to play as originally conceived by Simon Kuznets, the person who established the measure after the Great Depression. Kuznets said that it was nothing but a measure of the goods and services produced by a particular place, at a particular time and exchanged in the market. He made it very clear to Congress that it was not a measure of development, not a measure of societal well-being. And in fact, he was very sad to see that his GDP was being misused, because, as you know, many countries now associate GDP with well-being. And this is where the mistake is.

“So Bhutan uses GDP as well, but only to indicate our material or economic progress; we give equal importance to other things like environmental conservation, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and good governance; these are further separated into nine dimensions that enable true societal well-being. …

“Happiness is a state of being that one achieves when one is able to balance the needs of the body with the needs of the mind, when the material and the emotional, psychological needs are being met, within a stable, peaceful and secure environment.”

More here.

Photo: AP /Mustafa Quraishi
Bhutan’s former Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmi Y Thinley, puts on his shoes after paying tribute at Mahatma Gandhi memorial in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, July 16, 2008.

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In Bhutan, the queen is an enthusiastic basketball player. And she has an unusual advantage: no one is allowed to touch royalty without permission.

Today, says Gardiner Harris of the NY Times, Bhutanese royalty has begun sharing their game with the public.

“After decades of being a largely royal preserve, basketball here is about to have its breakout moment.

“A South Korean coach has been hired to cobble together a national team that many hope will someday be able to challenge its neighbors for bragging rights in South Asia and beyond. Bhutan has tried many times to win an international game but, except for a single victory in a three-on-three tournament, has never succeeded. …

“Bhutanese players say their best hope for a win could be against the Maldives, a country with half of Bhutan’s population that is threatened by global warming. As sea levels rise, Maldivians may have trouble finding places to play, players noted. And facing them in Thimphu’s thin air (the city’s altitude is 7,710 feet) could provide a crucial advantage.”


Photo: Kuni Takahashi for the NY Times
Bhutan’s queen, Jetsun Pema Wangchuck, who is a good player

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John knows a good blog topic when he sees it. This tip he gave me is about minimally invasive education, which brings learning to the poorest of the poor.

According to wikipedia, “Dr. Sugata Mitra, Chief Scientist at NIIT, is credited with the discovery of Hole-in-the-Wall [HiWEL]. As early as 1982, he had been toying with the idea of unsupervised learning and computers.

“Finally, in 1999, he decided to test his ideas in the field. On 26th January, Dr. Mitra’s team carved a ‘hole in the wall’ that separated the NIIT premises from the adjoining slum in Kalkaji, New Delhi. Through this hole, a freely accessible computer was put up for use.

“This computer proved to be an instant hit among the slum dwellers, especially the children. With no prior experience, the children learned to use the computer on their own. This prompted Dr. Mitra to propose the following hypothesis: ‘The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.’ ”

More at Hole-in-the-Wall.com. Also at the Christian Science Monitor.

And of course, I have to say a word about the program’s appearance in Bhutan, since Suzanne loves Bhutan.

“One of the major projects that HiWEL is in the process of executing is for the Royal Government of Bhutan. The project is part of a large Indo-Bhutan project formally known as the Chiphen Rigpel (broadly meaning ‘Enabling a society, Empowering a nation’). Chiphen Rigpel is an ambitious project designed to empower Bhutan to become a Knowledge-based society.” Read more.

Photograph: HiWEL
Playground Learning Stations in Dewathang Gewog of Samdrup Jongkhar District in Eastern Bhutan.

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