The secluded Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has managed to retain its unique cultural and social identity, despite the encroachments of globalisation and tourism; this identity is rooted in Buddhism and takes inspiration from the surrounding natural world. Lindsay Parnell explores the best contemporary literature, yak songs and travel writing to come out of Bhutan, and discovers differing approaches to the history and culture of this mountainous kingdom.
Kunzang Choden is the accomplished author of translated Bhutanese folktales, non-fiction essays, socioeconomic studies of food and Bhutanese culture. Her debut fictional work, The Circle of Karma, draws heavily on her childhood and adolescence spent in her native Bhutan and India. It is the harrowing tale of Tsomo, a Bhutanese woman living during the mid-20th century modernisation of her homeland. Tsomo embarks on a journey from her native Bhutan to India after the death of her mother and her expedition is an interrogation into the shifting boundaries of gender identity in modern Bhutan. Lush, decadent and poetic, The Circle of Karma is an articulate narrative whose prose is an immaculate reflection of the land and people of Bhutan. Interrogating the patriarchal oppression in the economic, political, social and sexual realms of a pre-modern Bhutan, the fiction of Kunzang Choden is a courageous and luminescent presence in international arts and letters.
Lozey is the traditional lyrical art of Bhutanese yak herders: a form of combative poetry during which rival herders try to outdo each other in the composition of richly metaphorical verse. Its defining moment is Ap Chuni Dorji’s ‘Yak Legpai Lhadar Gawo’, one of the country’s most beloved lyrics. A former yak herder himself and a gifted and poetic composer, Ap Chuni Dorji’s folk song is known for its haunting and sombre melody. Dorji’s lyrics tell the story of a beautiful yak called Legpai Lhadar Gawo who must be butchered. ‘Yak Legpai Lhadar Gawo’ is a poignant tale which is emotionally evocative for those who call Bhutan home.
Kevin Grange’s Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World is a rousing account of his efforts to conquer the 200 mile expedition through the unkempt mountainous terrain of Bhutan’s ‘Snowman Trek’. One of the country’s most beautiful and natural hidden treasures, the Snowman Trek is a truly daunting excursion to those who face it. Grange set out to experience a personal challenge and ended up exploring Bhutan’s more mystical history and culture, and met the inhabitants of consecrated valleys and forgotten villages. Grange’s recounted travels tell of his personal discovery of a country’s natural and cultural identity but also of an intimate unearthing of his own identity. Composed of meditations on travel, self-discovery and the spiritual dialogue with a foreign culture, Beneath the Blossom Rain is inspiring and enlightening.
A devoted immersion into Bhutan’s natural terrain and the spiritual history of its people, Françoise Pommaret’s Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom is a brilliantly crafted and researched anthropological study of the country known as the ‘Land of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon.’ Secluded from modern day amenities and culture, the sovereign and devout kingdom of the Land of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon houses a Bhutanese culture known for their pleasant, charismatic and rational existence, living off the unspoiled ground of their homeland. Living for centuries in these isolated villages, Pommaret’s examination of Bhutan and its people is a fascinating study and a beautiful narrative of Bhutanese culture.
Beginning as an extended travelogue about Southeast Asia, Linda Leaming’s Married to Bhutan takes an unexpected romantic turn when she finds herself involved with a local artist, Phurba Namgay. Leaming’s travel tales feature lush descriptions of the land, beauty and culture of the small country she fell deeply in love with. Devoted to embracing the Bhutanese way of life, Leaming’s travels into Bhutanese mountain kingdoms provide enlightening accounts of the untouched land and its people. Married to Bhutan is moving as she shares her accidental experiences of finding love for a country, a man and a culture whilst travelling and discovering the country’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ ideology.