A literature festival in the mountains shows a Bhutan that straddles the ambition of its youth with the wisdom of centuries – with a little help from good and bad jokes.

Thimphu: Time often stands still in Bhutan. In the mornings, when the busiest of thoroughfares in Thimphu has a single car, in the afternoons when the sun is dancing at the feet of a monk resting under a cypress tree, and at night, when the strains of a guitar far away fills the sky. 

To honour this special unhurriedness is difficult. To build a literature festival with a distinct tourism plug around it is tougher still. And yet ‘Bhutan Echoes’ from August 4-6 struck several unique balances in selling – but not overselling – what drives this small, beautiful country. For three days, sessions in Thimphu’s Royal University of Bhutan, featuring mainly Indian and Bhutanese personalities sought to unfurl some of the distinct directions Bhutan was keen to take. 

For one, it is eager to come into its own.

This year’s literature festival is the first offline one since it rebranded from the earlier ‘Mountain Echoes’ into a distinct local pitch. The festival is now called ‘Bhutan Echoes: Drukyul’s Literature Festival.’ Drukyul is the name Bhutanese call Bhutan. It has also transited from its earlier Indian organisers – literature personalities Namita Gokhale, Mita Kapur and Pramod Kumar K.G., and was put up by an entirely Bhutanese team of Tshering Tashi, Kalden ‘Kelly’ Dorji, Sonam Wangmo Dukpa and Kitso Pelmo Wangdi. And yet, for Bhutan, India is never too far – Gokhale, Kapur and Kumar all had sessions of their own, along with numerous mentions of their contributions as the festival’s friends.

One of the unique parts of the festival is its royal patron, the queen mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. It is easy to dismiss – especially as a resident of a country like India – of the value, beyond optics, of a monarchical figurehead sitting atop a social function. But Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck is, to put it mildly, a lively presence. An author of several books, it is most of all her really easy humour that goes towards explaining why even the young in the country find it within themselves to wear badges depicting royalty, to stand up when someone from the royal family enters a room and to speak well of them in their absence.

One of the first sessions of the festival had the queen mother in conversation with former Bhutan high court chief justice Dasho Paljor Jigme ‘Benji’ Dorji, about her latest book, Dochula: A Spiritual Abode in Bhutan

The Queen Mother Ashi Dori Wangmo Wangchuck and ‘Benji’ Dorji. Photo: Bhutan Echoes

Speaking on Dasho Benji’s role as a longtime advisor to the royal family, the 68-year-old queen mother said at one point, “Benji is the first king…” Then, realising her mistake, she said to a hall bursting into peals of laughter, “I am so sorry, I hope he’s not (the first king)! He’s the first cousin!”

And so it was that while a new line of kings might be a prickly topic to navigate for a queen, it was still not above a joke. 

Like all speakers, the queen mother too opened the hall to questions. Her teenager grandson, indistinguishable in the white shawl worn by commoners to formal events, asked which one of her books was her favourite. No one would have guessed it was the prince had the queen mother not said, “Oh thank you Jigche Singye Wangchuk, thank you for asking the question,” leading the audience to once again chuckle at the boy’s smooth act of journalism with his grandmother.

The Queen Mother’s grandson, Jigche Singye Wangchuk, poses a question to his grandmother on the books she has written. Photo: Bhutan Echoes.

The whole festival bore these hallmarks – nothing was out of bounds. In another one of the sessions on day one, the mysticism of the mountains was the topic and the speakers had little space for disbelief.

“Not all truths are to be known,” said Namita Gokhale. In response, one of Bhutan’s most lively literary personalities, Tshering Tashi, recounted with a deadpan face how a revered monk once politely threw him out of a room after discovering that he was taking down notes on what he was saying.

After 30 minutes of the session, it became clear that never once has Tashi received a clear answer from a spiritual guide.

Tashi’s stories set the tone for the festival itself. They seemed to say that Bhutan’s spirituality may be a commodity for sale, but it can only be sold in exchange for something you have – a bit of your own understanding. It is a seamless barter system and one that tells the world of the exquisite balance Bhutan has struck in its quest to tell the world of who it is.

Namita Gokhale, Mita Kapur and Tshering Tashi. Photo: Bhutan Echoes

That those who tell this story of this hitherto isolated world risk exposing it to those who may not honour it is not lost on Bhutan’s literary giants Kunzang Choden – its first English novelist and custodian of folk tales – and Karma Phuntsho – the author of the seminal History of Bhutan

Choden’s and Phuntsho’s sessions could not be more different, but both spoke of the struggle of putting down on paper centuries of oral tradition, religious churn and untold secrets. What happens to collective memory once it is set on paper? What happens to an age-old stupa once it is removed to construct a hotel? Bhutan’s literary world navigates these questions with discomfort and understanding. 

But the young are full of hope and cheer.

The sessions were largely populated by high school students who arrived in buses from across the country. Together, they laughed, clapped, played among themselves and also yawned loudly when talk got too tedious. “I’ve told them they need to write essays on this outing, so they’ll pay attention,” said an economics teacher at the Royal Academy of Bhutan.

The Queen Mother with school students. Photo: Bhutan Echoes

But it was clear that Bhutan’s young had reserved the loudest claps for those who had shown them how to be comfortable in their skin.

Attendees swarmed Karma Tshering ‘Lhari’ Wangchuk, who curates the ‘Bhutan Street Fashion’ blog and who was insistent that Bhutan has what he called “angey fashion” – where grandmothers or angeys decide trends for the coming years simply because it is what they own that their grandkids will wear. 

Deep silence greeted Dechen Wangdi, who built ‘Humans of Thimphu’, as he spoke of the damned and dazzling youth of a country no less a stranger to bullying, sexual harassment, rape and ritual injustices. Wangdi’s presentation was remarkably candid and he spoke of the struggles of doing justice to personal stories of pain and resilience faced by extraordinary young people.

Right afterwards was a startling performance by Sangay Loday. Powerful, it drowned in darkness and emerged with a few lessons on self acceptance.

Dechen Wangdi speaks on ‘Humans of Thimphu’. Photo: Instagram/BBSBhutan

How does a country positioning itself as an abode of unaltering peace and happiness ensure enough movement for its young to continue living in it? Does it build that highway? Does it protect a millenia-old structure?

Bhutan appears poised on a precipice, eager to leap. While its primary plug is still very much its ‘Gross National Happiness’ formulation, the country’s governing brass are keen to make at least some effort to ensure that its young do not migrate away to Australia in larger numbers.

In an off record meeting with journalists of both countries, Bhutan’s prime minister Lotay Tshering asked, “What can we do to ensure our media thrives?” 

A difficult question in a country where those questioning bureaucracy and authority also speak of a genuine love for the monarchy.

A member of the audience asks a question during a session. Photo: Video screengrab/Bhutan Echoes.

At lunch on day two of the festival, the writer Yangday La who is compiling the stories of 108 women from across the country, said that the badge with the king’s face, which she wears on her silk blouse, is a genuine expression of love and appreciation for the king. This, from the same person who stated that if her fiancé was to stop being a feminist, then she would stop being in a relationship with him – no compromises. There must be something there.

Yangday asked us to not ask her when her book will be out – “it’s the cruelest question,” she said. Her humour is not singular. In fact, if there is one strain that drives the festival, it’s the humour of Bhutan’s women – who, like the queen mother, are loath to take themselves seriously. 

Royal University of Bhutan lecturer Chimi Nangsel Dorji, in a session on translations, said, “I have to say, I have my notes on my phone in an effort to appeal to Gen Z. I hope you don’t think I am chatting with anyone.” The audience was in splits. “I even have something dangling from my phone,” Chimi groaned.

Authors, organisers and attendees at Bhutan Echoes. Photo: Video screengrab/Bhutan Echoes

The festival’s essence was in the small things. But the small things somehow doubled as universal concerns.

Poet Rolf Hermann told poet Sonam Pem Tshoki of his grandmother who wanted, very badly, to leave her mountain village in Europe, but never could. It was perhaps not lost on Hermann that these words would resonate with an audience in a country with ever increasing outbound migration. Indians too are no stranger to this longing and perhaps the whole of south Asia exists between going away and coming home.

A little later, a member of the audience asked Hermann how he viewed criticism. Hermann said he was lucky that he had people whose criticism he values. It improves his work, he said. With a straight face, Sonam replied, “I can’t relate, but that’s really nice.” The audience laughed and Bhutan was alive. 

This is the first in a two-part series on the Bhutan Echoes festival. In part two, we explore how narrative traditions lend themselves to other facets of Bhutanese life.