I had a very remote idea of Bhutan before I was going there. A land far away from modernity, not connected by modern means of communication, where much of the people are poor, but happy. So the GNH (Gross National Happiness) of which Bhutan is proud of, popped up in my mind always. 'Are you happy?' was the question I wanted to ask every Bhutanese I came across.
Much of my prejudices are gone when I reached Thimpu, the capital. I could taste Bhutanese hospitality the very first day when my taxi driver took extra pain to find me a room (even without me asking for that). Thimpu is quite and lovely, people are friendly, curious and like to be photographed. I really fell in love with its unique architecture, besides there is no sky scrappers to intimidate you. It has got the feel and taste of a city, yet it is not in the rat race for modernity.
Changes are evident with the introduction of TV and Internet in 1999. There are restrictions regarding certain channels and sites, still Bhutanese youth are quite trendy and up to date about fashion. They enjoy parties, dancing, liquors as any youngsters elsewhere in the world.
India is very important for Bhutan due to economic and geographical reasons. As a country hardly industrialised, Bhutan has to depend heavily on Indian products and India give military protection also. Hindi films and serials are very popular there, I was even surprised when some little girls enquired me about Hindi film actors. It is a common sight in Bhutan where girls glued into TV to watch sas-bahu serials. Most of the Bhutanese understand Hindi (thanks to films and serials). And my home state Kerala is very popular among Bhutanese due to the huge presence of teachers from there. 'Keralites make good teachers than Bhutanese' some youth confirms.
They are very proud about their country. Almost all the people answered in the affirmative to my question whether they are happy. Eventhough the country has voted for democracy, people aren't much bothered about that. But they love their king, probably no head of state earns that much love and respect in this world. 'In war like situations, our king lead the army in the front' a young forest officer says. The visionary king Jigme Wangchok's sincere efforts pay the dividents. Government tries the best to provide quality education to its people. It pays for higher studies in foreign countries to those students who are qualified. Beside, medical treatment is free to all in this country. 'We are lucky to be born here' says Karma Choeden, an young girl who works with an NGO. Young Bhutanese are not very keen to go abroad in search of greener pastures. Garab Dorji, an young IT officer with Thimpu corporation represents the spirit of educated young bhutan. 'I love to visit other countries, but not for work. I am happy here'.
Bhutanese girls are so elegant in their traditional 'Kira'. Though this dress is compulsory in offices, they are free to wear the dress of their choice outside. As crime rate is much lower, girls are safe and free in this country (serious crimes hardly occur here). In thimpu, I have seen girls running restaurants, shops etc.
Tsongs, where the main administrative activities are done, lend a special charm to this tiny Buddhist country. Religion is a major influence in all aspects of Bhutanese life. Eventhough they eat meat, animal slaughter is banned. Development without exploiting nature and culture is the mantra of Bhutan. So there are certain villages that is restricted for travellers (ofcourse in Bhutan you need special permission to go almost everywhere). With 80% land forested, ancient temples, traditional way of living, Bhutan is really a delight for the mind and the soul. I still fondly remember the smell of nature during my journey from Thimpu to Phunaka. Bhutan is a place where one love to get lost in nature's abundance. It is probably the last Shangri-la on earth as they say.
But the influence of west can be seen in cities. Hip-hop, fashion- all they ready to receive from West. X rated films and drugs popp into the lives of younsters, despite ban. Some youth already feel the threat. 'Today's youngsters are not modernised, but westernised. So they are getting more arrogant', Dr. Choeden points out. I feel, it would be extremely hard for the authorities to hold the young in the fold of tradition and values.
Yet we have a lot to learn from this country about how to be modern without forgetting who you are.
I live in a society where all the major religions in the world have its presence. This enabled me to have a broader vision about religion and reach beyond its narrow frame. But what happens in Kandhmal (Orissa) in the name of religion make me think 'why religion'?
India is one of the few countries where there is no official religion - thanks to the enlightened view of the architechts of our constitution. If go by statitics, India has all the 'right' to be a Hindu state. But this land allows even certain special rights to minority communities in the area of education and minority interests are well guarded in the constitution. Until politics came into the scene, Hindus never were concerned of religious conversion or any activities of minority community.
When politics reared its ugly head, things got much worse. Politicians treat people as mere vote bank and religious leaders use them for their selfish motives. Politics and religion make strange bed fellows and together it exploit the ignorance of the mass. Religion is something so deeply rooted in Indian psyche, so people are quite 'vulnerable' in this regard.
All religions are responsible for the clashes in the name of religion. Probably it is the caste system and poverty that pushes many hindus to the fold of other religions that promise equality (but that is not true, a lower caste hindu converted to christianity remain a lower caste christain all his/her life – the complex indian social system is to be blamed for this).
Now with their political wing, hindus feel the need to protect religion and act against religious conversions. And it is not only Hindus who fight in Kandhmal, Christians also fight with the help of Maoists (what an irony, join hand with atheists in the name of religion). It is totally wrong to depict India as a place where minorities are not safe as certain western medias do.
I am against proselytism, it is just taking advantage of one's disadvantage. At the same time it would be nice if the protectors of religion have an insight about our society. So atleast they can find an answer to why conversions happens. Probably then they can turn their destructive energy to constructive one. That would contribute to the upliftment of underprivileged class. So conversions can be stopped forever.
Besides, I feel the mass should be educated against being used in the name of religion and politics. They must be taught to be compassionate and tolerant. After all religion is to purify oneself, not to fight with each other.