Tag Archives: bhutan

Bhutan, without the jetlag: An authentic Buddhist lhakhang completes El Paso’s Himalayan connection

Looks like Bhutan, but it's Texas

The Bhutanese ambassador to the United Nations stands in front of the new lhakhang with the 18 Bhutanese students who attend UTEP

El Paso is the new Bhutan–more than ever.  In April, I had the absolute joy of attending the opening of the Bhutanese lhakhang, or temple, installed on the campus of the University of Texas El Paso. It’s the centerpiece of a campus transformation and it was an incredible experience to be there for the first time people were allowed to step inside this gorgeous structure–something you’d never see outside of the Kingdom of Bhutan.

The temple isn't intended to serve a religious purpose, but rather stands as a cultural artifact.

The temple isn’t intended to serve a religious purpose, but rather stands as a cultural artifact.

That completes the pleasure of having seen it built in the first place on the National Mall in Washington, DC back in the summer of 2008, which I’ve written about in this story.

If you’re asking, ‘what the heck does El Paso have to do with Bhutan,’ then you’re new to this blog–welcome!–and these stories I filed on this momentous occasion will give it some context: One for PRI’s The World and the other for Smithsonian.

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Bhutan, Tex-Mex style: Himalayas cast a wide net in El Paso

Prayer wheel behind UTEP's Centennial Museum

Prayer wheel behind UTEP’s Centennial Museum

This morning around dawn, on Veteran’s Day, which also happens to be the birth anniversary of the fourth King of Bhutan, I turned an authentic Bhutanese prayer wheel in an unlikely place: on the campus of the University of Texas El Paso.

The palm tree is the dead giveaway: This is El Paso, not Bhutan

The palm tree is the dead giveaway: This is El Paso, not the Himalayas.

The entire school is built in the distinctive style of the Kingdom’s architecture.   If that wasn’t strange enough, the connection dates back to 1914, long before anyone from Texas could have imagined stepping foot in Bhutan (since the tiny country wasn’t officially open to outsiders until the 1970s.)

Campus library: A giant thangkha of the Four Friends hangs over a 100-foot altar in the lobby.  At the espresso stand on the left, the barista told me the architecture is even starting to seep into other places around El Paso

Campus library: A giant thangkha of the Four Friends hangs over a 100-foot altar in the lobby. At the espresso stand on the left, the barista told me the architecture is even starting to seep into other places around town.

I’ve written about this surreal connection in my book, Radio Shangri-la, and before on this blog, so I won’t detail the interesting history here, but my fascination with this bizarre and wonderful bit of pre-globalization globalization never ends.  This week, I’m on the campus of UTEP to speak to a number of classes and to deliver a talk at the museum tomorrow night at 5pm.

Here are some photos (and if you’d like to see some videos, please click here.)  The first one below is of an authentic Bhutanese temple that was constructed on the National Mall in DC for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2008, and was recently “re-incarnated” here on the campus in El Paso.  Surrounded by dozens of examples of the Tex-Mex interpretation of Bhutan’s architecture.

This lakhang (temple) once sat on the National Mall in DC.  It's being readied for public view in UTEP's plaza.

This lakhang (temple) once sat on the National Mall in DC. It’s being readied for public view in UTEP’s plaza, which as you can see is under renovation.

No where else on earth, not even in Bhutan, is there a parking garage that looks like this

No where else on earth, not even in Bhutan, is there a parking garage that looks like this

Nor would you ever see a stupa fronted by an animated billboard, like this one in front of the Centennial museum

Nor would you ever see a stupa fronted by an animated billboard, like this one in front of the Centennial museum

IMG_4239And if you share my fascination with all of this and would like to know more, there’s also this short story available on Amazon.

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The 100 year-old magazine article that changed the face of an American university

View of bridge outside Punakha, where the 5th King of Bhutan married several years ago.

View of bridge outside Punakha, where the 5th King of Bhutan married several years ago.

One of the most exciting parts of learning about Bhutan has been an odd, wonderful gem I learned from some people, ironically, here in Los Angeles.

The late architect Kurt Meyer and his intrepid wife Pamela Deuel Meyer kindly clued me in to the fact that the University of Texas El Paso is built entirely in the style of Bhutanese architecture.

It’s all because the wife of the provost of the school at the time, then named the Texas School of Mines, was reading this article in the National Geographic 100 years ago, poetically titled Castles in the Air.

The first king of Bhutan was crowned during a visit by John Claude White, who worked for the Brits "next door" in India.

The first king of Bhutan was crowned during a visit by John Claude White, who worked for the Brits “next door” in India.

John Claude White, who built a bridge between Bhutan and El Paso, Texas--without realizing it

John Claude White, who built a bridge between Bhutan and El Paso, Texas–without realizing it

The British explorer John Claude White offered a peak inside the Kingdom that the world, certainly not the west, had ever seen before.  88 pages of photographs made on plate glass, that somehow managed to make it out of Bhutan on horseback.

Tantalized by the architecture and this mysterious Kingdom in the clouds, Kathleen Worrell pushed her husband to model the school he ran after this unique place—long before any tourists could ever imagine visiting it.

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You have to look awfully close, at the center of this photograph, to see the hermit house

Used to be, if you wanted to see that article, you had to plunk down a pretty penny for a back issue, or find it at a library, or in someone’s dusty old collection.  Not as of today.  The good folks at National Geographic have published it online, photographs and all.

The dzong in Thimphu looks much like this photograph from 100 years ago.

The dzong in Thimphu looks much like this photograph from 100 years ago.

If you are at all interested in Bhutan, its history, or UTEP, or the impact of a magazine article to inspire someone half a world away, you must read it: here.

And here’s my piece about the unique connection in the LA Times.

UTEP calls itself "Bhutan on the Border" (of Mexico, of course.)

UTEP calls itself “Bhutan on the Border” (of Mexico, of course.)

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“A hopeless situation:” writer Prajwal Parajuly visits the other side of Bhutan

Author Prawal Parajuly's new book is The Gurkha's Daughter

Author Prawal Parajuly’s new book is The Gurkha’s Daughter

This is a reprint from a story originally published on the Bhutan News Service.

Prajwal Parajuly’s father is Indian, his mother is Nepalese and he himself is entirely a citizen of the world.  Educated in the US state of Missouri, this not-quite-30-year old attended Oxford, and lives in both England and New York.  He is already considered to be one of the best writers of his generation.

His new book of short stories, The Gurkha’s Daughter, is about the modern Nepali condition from a variety of perspectives, from Bhutanese refugee about to be resettled from the Nepali camps to wealthy widow and her wicked relationship with her young servant girl.

This is an interview I conducted with him via email for the Bhutan News Service, after reviewing his book for the publication, The Aerogram.
Q: You were born several years before the banishment of people of Nepalese descent from Bhutan.  Do you remember how (and when) you became aware of the situation?

PARAJULY: I had some sense of the goings-on, but it was only much later that I realized the enormity of what had happened. I had no clue that there were more than 106,000 people being herded out of Bhutan’s borders like they were cattle; I was under the impression the number was a lot lower.

71Nq8eh5b0LI visited some of my mother’s relatives who lived close to the International Organization for Migration building in Damak, Nepal, and that’s when my curiosity was first piqued. I started reading up on the issue, and it was a revelation. After that, I decided to visit the refugee camps in Nepal. Still unsatisfied, I visited Bhutan.

Q: Where did you go when visiting Bhutan and what were your general impressions?  How did people react to your ethnic heritage there?

PARAJULY: I went to Bhutan in the summer of 2010. It was interesting– on the surface, everything seemed lovely. Get people to drink a little, and the stories come tumbling out. The Nepali-speaking people have been scarred. They live in fear. It’s tragic.

Q: What was your experience in the camps?

PARAJULY: Oh, yes, you don’t want to visit the camps. You just don’t. Besides the poverty, the terrible living conditions (I say this despite being someone familiar with poverty in South Asia), the constant fear of their lives and dignity being threatened, what’s heartbreaking about the camps is the issue of the people there being non-contributing members of society for close to two decades. Imagine that—no job, nothing to look forward to, living the same life for days, months and years. It’s horrible.

Q: What made you want to treat the situation in your story, No Land is Her Land?  Have you met people like Anamika, the main character in your story?

PARAJULY: Anamika came about because I wanted to write a strong woman into the story. But strength has its limits. Anamika has been through a lot—just like many women who lived in the camps for years. I did come across women similar to Anamika. They are everywhere—in Denver, in Vermont, hiding in Assam, and in Aberdeen.

Q: Your story deftly covers the complexities and deep emotion of the situation. While Anamika feels “if her country didn’t want her, she didn’t want it back.” she still allows her children to learn Dzonghka in the hopes they might be repatriated.  And then there is the issue of her estranged, opportunistic Nepalese husband who reappears so he, too, can be resettled in the US.  Do you feel that this is an issue that will ever be resolved?  Sometimes I think that the new generations will bring fresh perspective on it, and other times I feel a bit hopeless.  You?

PARAJULY: I feel it’s a hopeless situation. I don’t think it’s an issue that can be resolved. The best Bhutan can do is – I hope it’s okay for me to invoke the death of a person who’s responsible for so many deaths – to hope for the fourth king, under whose watch the ethnic cleansing happened, to die and for the current king to apologize about what happened. He could also allow those who want to return to go back. I doubt there will be very many people wanting to go back. Hasn’t all their land been reallocated, though? That’s the best the country can do–that’s how sad the situation is. But it doesn’t need to worry about that. It invented Gross National Happiness. Hurray.

Q: Do you think India could have or should have played a role in the Nepalese situation, given how important an ally they are to Bhutan?

PARAJULY: Yes, I think India could have played a role. I think India could have put a stop to it all. Why it decided not to intervene is beyond me. Perhaps because it didn’t want to alienate the one true ally it had in the region?

Q: Why is it important for non-southeast Asians to learn about the region, do you think? It’s hard to explain the situation to people who aren’t familiar with, or don’t care about, that part of the world.

PARAJULY: I think it’s time we realized there’s more to this beautiful kingdom than Gross National Happiness-the last Shangrila-this is a peaceful Buddhist state claptrap, there’s a country that has gotten away with far too much. The Western world is too focused on Syria and Gaza and Sudan to worry about what went on in Bhutan.

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Opera in Bhutan

The remote kingdom of Bhutan boasts distinctive traditional music and culture, which the government has long been committed to preserving (lest it be watered down or eliminated by, say, the incursion of contemporary pop music.)  Which is what makes this partnership between opera-lovers and the kingdom particularly interesting.  Led by a team from Rome, these classically trained Western musicians staged an opera (Handel’s Acis and Galatea) in a historic setting in Bhutan this past fall.

ImageClick on this link to see a short video by filmmaker Tao Ruspoli (who happens to a descendent of a patron of Handel’s) about their recent historic efforts.

 

 

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Bhutan: Cheaper to visit than NYC?

My friend (who is a tour operator) Lotay sent me this story this morning declaring the Kingdom of Bhutan cheaper to visit than, say, New York City.  That is….if you don’t use a pricey tour operator (if you’ve ever investigated, you’ve found that some charge a thousand bucks a day for a visit.)

Of course, there’s no other comparison between Bhutan and NYC–two radically different places in every way, especially as far as vacation destinations!  And depending on where you’re coming from, you have to factor in airfare, which can be considerable.  But it’s a good point not to be scared away by the “tourist tariff” Bhutan charges (and a nice plug for Lotay’s services.  He’s a swell guy, by the way.)Image.

The mention was on a list from a blog called Compass and Camera.

 

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Phajoding, Bhutan

…is a very special place in a land filled with special, beautiful places.  The photographer Jesse Montes captures this monastery, perched in a sacred spot, particularly well. (And you can read more about it here.)

I let my mind go back to scenes like these whenever the stress and sensory demands of the city are overwhelming.

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The power of media: All-volunteer Bhutan News Service, run virtually, keeps refugees up on the diaspora

The all-volunteer Bhutan News Service is hosting a training session in Pittsburgh this weekend.  Exiles from Bhutan make up the largest population of refugee newcomers to that city, so it’s a logical location.

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About 83-thousand refugees, resettled from camps along the Nepali border in a dispute that dates back over 20 years, are scattered around the world, but the majority (70-thousand) have been brought to the US in the last several years.

BNS is an online-only concern, with contributors sending in reports from around the world.  (Its current editor, Buddha Mani Dhakal, resides in Kentucky.)  The idea is to keep the refugees connected as they’ve been resettled, both with news of what’s happening inside Bhutan, as democracy takes root there–and with information about what the refugees are facing as they build new lives.  Suicide, for one thing, is high among the relocated refugees.

Of course, the information exiled Bhutanese are most interested in is whether officials in Bhutan will engage in discussions to resettle them in-country, or to even acknowledge their existence.  (Most Bhutanese dispute that the people in question were ever actually citizens.)  That kind of news is rare.

ImageImageSince I first went to Bhutan to volunteer with the first non-governmental radio station Kuzoo FM in January 2007, I’ve slowly unearthed the previously little-told story of the southern Bhutanese.   Just as I felt privileged to volunteer with young journalists at the dawn of democratic rule in Bhutan, (as the media landscape was just beginning and a newly drafted Constitution guaranteed freedom of the press,) I feel lucky to be in touch with the refugee population, too.

Today, in a session we held via Skype, I had the curious responsibility of explaining to the group (from my home in Los Angeles) what media are like today in modern Bhutan.  See, many of the younger contributors to BNS have never set foot in the country–they were born in refugee camps.  None of the constituency has been there since long before 1999, when TV was first introduced into Bhutan. I felt an awesome weight on my shoulders, for having witnessed and experienced what I have as a third party.

After 30 years in journalism, I’m often cynical about the state of the profession.  But knowing this group of people, who take the incredible responsibility of informing the world about their situation and using media as a glue to hold them together, makes me feel the incredible power of communication.  I believe that power will yield some sort of resolution to this long-standing dispute, hopefully sooner rather than later–as Bhutan changes, as the world changes, as we all change.

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The power of books and reading

2013-09-29-Bhutan1aI love libraries. I use them all the time.  A young friend last week saw the library book in my hand and kind of sniffed at it, as if it were weird.

But he hasn’t been to a place where books are rare.  He can buy books whenever he wants on his iPad.  And even if you’re like him, I hope you’ll consider the power of libraries, too.

Like a supermarket, a community’s library tells you a lot about a place.  One of the most amazing experiences I’ve had was visiting a READ Global library in Ura, Bhutan–the first library built outside the nation’s capital city, 11 hours from it, in fact.  Kids in this beautiful farming village drank up the library from the moment the doors of the creaky converted farmhouse opened.  One boy told me proudly that he had a small stack of books of his own. They all couldn’t wait to show me their favorite books.

Somehow my infectiousness for the place trickled over to a little girl named Claire, who subsequently helped raise enough money to build another library there.

Here’s the story about her wonderful feat, from adventurer and explorer Richard Bangs on the Huffington Post.

You don’t need to raise enough money to build an entire library.  And the library you support doesn’t have to be half a world away.  But I share this in the hopes you’ll be inspired, like Claire was, to share the power of books and reading.

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Not about happiness

ImageWhat’s this, you might ask? The newly elected prime minister in Bhutan, the articulate, social-media-sophisticate and Harvard-educated Tshering Tobgay, has already declared that he doesn’t see it as his job to promote the Gross National Happiness thing to the rest of the world.

The recently exited last prime minister made a big show of the happiness discussion, appearing at the United Nations and other places to discuss the benefits of Gross National Happiness.  (Which, by the way, was simply a term bandied in an offhanded remark by the then-Kingsome 40-odd years ago in response to a reporter’s question about his planned economic growth strategy.)  He was roundly criticized by educated Bhutanese for doing so, while economic and social problems swirled and grew around him.

This seeming shift isn’t really a surprise.  This new prime minister has long decried the shiny, happy thing (see the paperback edition of my book, actually, where we meet during his service as opposition leader) and realizes there are other deeper issues in Bhutan to be addressed.

Many intellectuals in and around Bhutan hate the “happiness” thing.  (Less educated people there aren’t really aware of it; they’re too busy tending the land and surviving.)  One reason some snipe at my 2011 book, Radio Shangri-La, is because they assume from the title that it’s all about celebrating Bhutan and tra-la-la happiness.   (When in fact if they bothered to read it, they’d learn that it’s all about how media and globalization–and the promise of making piles of money–are making Bhutan unhappy.  Which is why some other people dislike the book!)

Of course the irony is that media headlines (like book titles) reduce complex issues to slogans and soundbites–which is another theme I tackle.)

Tshering Tobgay is to Bhutan like Barack Obama was to the US back in 2008, a powerful and thoughtful steward of promise and change. It’s going to be exciting, these next five years, to see how he tackles issues like rising unemployment, alcoholism and corruption, among other problems that Bhutan sadly faces along with most of the rest of the world.

And maybe, just maybe, he’ll even address the refugee issue….

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