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From Barnard to Bhutan

Bordered by China, Nepal, and India, with southern tropical valleys and northern mountain peaks of the Great Himalayas, the small country of Bhutan is something of a hidden treasure. Landlocked and known locally as Druk Yul or “land of the thunder dragon,” Bhutan is slightly smaller than Switzerland, and is two-thirds covered by mostly virgin forest. It has been called the last Shangri-La, and is an ideal destination for eco-tourists. As isolated as Bhutan is geographically, its government’s travel restrictions seem designed to keep it that way. Independent travel is not permitted, visitors must work with the country’s Tourism Council to obtain a visa to enter, and the only airline flying into the country is the Bhutanese government’s Drukair, which operates few flights and has small passenger capacity. There is a minimum daily tariff for visitors of around $200, which does include all meals, accommodations, and transportation, but keeps the country from being a choice destination for the budget-minded looking to spend closer to $50 a day. Still, its very difficulties may be a lure for some: The tourist trade in the country is growing—28,000 people traveled to Bhutan in 2008, more than double the 13,600 who visited in 2005. For a week last March, Karen Fairbanks, the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Professional Practice in Architecture and chair of Barnard’s architecture department, had the rare pleasure of touring Bhutan.

What Fairbanks observed was a country and a people at a fascinating point in history, experiencing twenty-first-century developments without having participated in much of the progress of the previous one. Closed off from the rest of the world until 1961, the primarily Buddhist people of Bhutan have been slow to adopt modernism until very recently. The Bhutanese were introduced to television only 10 years ago, in 1999, which coincided with their first exposure to the Internet. Cell phones came later, in 2003. Add to those heady cultural changes the country’s momentous political developments: Bhutan is home to the world’s youngest monarch, 29-year-old King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and youngest democracy, established in early 2008.

A major focus of Fairbanks’ journey was education. With about three-quarters of the population under the age of 18, and only 47 percent of the population over age 15 able to read and write, according to a 2005 census, Bhutan is embarking on a much-needed plan for educational reform. Until the 1960s, the only educated people outside the monasteries were those who studied abroad. Today, Fairbanks says, “Bhutan only requires students to complete education through 10th grade. There are some colleges, but not many. Often, if students want to study further, they go abroad.” (Interestingly, although the country’s official language is Dzongkha, English is the primary language taught in schools.) Through a colleague who runs an educational nonprofit group and is a special adviser to Bhutan’s Royal Education Council—an organization established by the government with the task of reforming the country’s education system—Fairbanks had the opportunity to visit as a guest of the Bhutanese government. Her professional architecture practice, Marble Fairbanks, specializes in educational facilities, and her partner and husband, Scott Marble, professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, was taking the trip along with a group of graduate students—she had taught two of them in the undergraduate program—to work on studio projects related to the country’s educational challenges. With the stipend that comes with being an Ann Whitney Olin Professor, Fairbanks was more than interested in the opportunity to participate in the discussion. She also brought along information about Barnard’s Visiting International Scholar Program. “They were eager to learn more about Barnard’s program and also eager to suggest that Barnard students could learn much from Bhutan,” she says. “Barnard and Bhutan are at opposite ends of the spectrum of globalization and both are discussing how to teach, how to educate in a global community.”

For Fairbanks, her experience is worth sharing—as much for the educational benefits as the beautiful landscapes, vibrant arts and architecture, and friendly people. “Any student who visited Bhutan would understand the complexity of this moment in Bhutanese history,” she says. “This culture is straddling the desire to be part of the global community but also to keep their distinct cultural identity.”

However slow Bhutan’s modern evolution might seem, it is remarkable considering its complete isolation from the outside world less than 50 years ago. Ruled by a hereditary monarchy, and the Wangchuck family dynasty (each king is known as Druk Gyalpo, or “dragon king”) beginning in 1907 and throughout the twentieth century, Bhutan saw tremendous change after the third king in the royal line, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, was crowned in 1952. At that time, Bhuddist monks were responsible for the people’s education; Wangchuck was educated formally in India and Britain, and seemed to appreciate much of what he learned from the outside world. In 1953 he created a code of law, and introduced a Tshodgu, a national assembly of 150 members made up of clergy, appointed government officials, and representatives for people in the villages. He also created a court, an army, and a police force. In 1961, the king put an end to the country’s isolationist policy and embarked on a path of development— from joining the United Nations to building an educational system outside the monasteries to building a hydroelectric project in the western part of the country. The plant supplies power to nearby India, and today hydroelectricity is the country’s biggest export, bringing in about one-third of the government’s revenue.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck succeeded his father in 1972 with even bigger plans for modernization. Most dramatic were the political changes he oversaw, bringing democracy to the country. In the 1990s, he transferred administrative duties from the monarchy to the National Assembly, along with the right to depose him through a two-thirds vote of no confidence. In essence, he made the Tshodgu the head of the government. In 2005, he announced plans to abdicate the throne to his son and create a constitutional monarchy. In 2008, 80 percent of the people voted in an election for a new prime minister. Bhutan’s first constitution was ratified in July 2008.

Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck also introduced the people of Bhutan to one of the country’s most progressive goals: Gross National Happiness. Akin to Gross National Product, GNH is more than a plea to the populace to put on a happy face. It is a way to measure the well being of the people and is seen as a serious indicator of the country’s success. Just as important as a sustainable economy, reasoned the king, is a sustainable happiness in the face of so-called progress. One component of GNH, for example, is a pristine environment, which is part of the reason the country imposes such travel restrictions and explains the generally slow developmental pace. More than 70 percent of the land is undeveloped, and 60 percent is to remain so by mandate. Other components of GNH are economic self-reliance, the preservation and promotion of Bhutanese culture, and a democratic government. In 2006, BusinessWeek named Bhutan the eighth happiest place in the world, according to a study done by researchers at the University of Leicester in Britain. (The country did not make it into the top 10 in the more recent list done in 2008.)

Beyond happy people, however, it’s the strong juxtaposition of cultural preservation and modernity that’s part of what is enticing about travel to Bhutan. Fairbanks describes how the strict, almost monastic dress code (required for students and government employees) worn during the day—ankle-length dresses for women, heavy knee-length robes for men—gives way to many young people wearing casual jeans and tee- shirts in the evening. Some young locals are anxious to discuss American culture. In a movie theater in the capital city of Thimphu, a Coca-Cola sign hangs over the popcorn concession stand, while Buddhist flags and the king’s portrait hang nearby. These prayer flags are everywhere (the wind blowing through them sends prayers over the land), and in lieu of big-city advertisements or graffiti, all around Bhutan there can be found colorful and sometimes crude images of phalluses, which are thought to ward against evil spirits. This tradition is in honor of a mad saint named Lama Drupka Kinley, who lived 500 years ago and apparently used his own to thwart demons.

One of the country’s ambitious goals for the future is to develop an “education city” to include facilities for students in every age group, with an emphasis on training teachers. “The Royal Education Council [REC] wants Bhutan to become a knowledge-based society. They want their top students to stay in Bhutan for their education,” says Fairbanks. The city is still in the very early planning stages, but the REC shared some of their research with the group, and allowed the Columbia graduate students to present their projects. In the discussions of how to develop the site, Fairbanks got a firsthand understanding of the “seemingly competing interests to become more engaged in global issues while maintaining a distinct cultural identity.” She adds, “We could feel that tension as the grad students presented their initial work and research and the REC began to consider how those projects related to their particular needs,” she says. “The discussion about how architecture can support certain educational goals is universal, but the particular language and architectural techniques that we would use to do that are not the same as theirs.” For example, they discussed how digital tools could add a level of detail and craft to architecture. However, the ornate handicraft involved in Bhutanese architecture is part of its unswerving cultural tradition, a skill passed from generation to generation.

A man named Karma Thinlay Wangchuk, chief of infrastructure, planning and design for the REC, and a leading Bhutanese architect who studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, participated in the discussions and also functioned as tour guide for the group, offering a rare peek inside Bhutanese life. “We had access to monasteries and other places that we wouldn’t be able to get into if we were typical tourists. Karma was our resource for the history and traditions these places represent. He traveled with us almost every day making our on-site experiences far more intense and much richer than we could have anticipated,” Fairbanks says. They toured a number of significant sites, from newly constructed buildings to important historical ones, and were fascinated with the strict architectural tradition and construction techniques—such as rammed earth walls for residential construction—and the decorative carvings and paintings integrated into their buildings via windows, doors and cornices. The look of the country is fairly homogenous; for example, monasteries must have certain types of roofs and are painted with broad red bands. Chortens, Buddhist monuments similar to India’s stupas, which hold religious relics, line the countryside. Even in a new, sleekly modern hotel being built in Thimphu (think: W Hotel Bhutan), the architecture follows strict traditional style.

Fairbanks’ group also dropped in on one of the country’s art schools, where students are taught Zorig Chusum, the 13 traditional arts and crafts— carpentry, masonry, carving, painting, sculpture, casting, blacksmithing, gold- and silversmithing, bamboo work, weaving, embroidery, woodturning, and papermaking. “Even today most art is tied to religion and religious symbolism, but there are some small galleries where artists are experimenting with those traditions,” notes Fairbanks. At a contemporary art gallery, for example, one artist had used recycled food wrappers to create what looked like a pixilated picture of a dragon. “I’ve seen similar techniques in other places, but I was surprised to see it in Bhutan.” Even the tools used in the national pastime, archery, are handcrafted: with bows made from bamboo and arrows adorned with pheasant feathers.

Beyond the fascinating culture and its visual arts, Fairbanks simply enjoyed the sheer beauty of the place. The March weather, she says, was “perfect”—not even too chilly when the group took a 3,000-foot vertical hike above the city of Paro to visit the breathtaking Taktshang Goemba, the Tiger’s Nest monastery, built in 1692 along a cliff edge. Even the flight into Paro was a thrill. “You have to slip down into a valley to land, because you are up in the Himalayas,” she says. “It’s really amazing.”

With so much to see and experience, Fairbanks thinks Barnard students would be amazed as well. “Bhutan offers students a unique experience in one of the most beautiful places in the world where the arts, religion, and nature are all intricately woven in what is currently a fairly homogenous culture,” she observes. “Traveling in Bhutan today is an opportunity to witness and ultimately reflect on the inevitable clash between Bhutanese cultural traditions and the pressures of globalization.”

-by Melissa Phipps, photographs by Karen Fairbanks

To see additional photos of Bhutan taken by Professor Fairbanks, go to alum.barnard.edu/magazine.