Leveraging Cultural Diversity

Dasho Karma Ura’s transcribed keynote address at recent Helvetas Conference at RTC

I wish to briefly broach a few things on the following issues in Bhutan:

  1. Culture and Economy
  2. Culture and Historical Consciousness
  3. Culture and Education,
  4. Culture and Politics,
  5. Culture and Happiness.

I would rather discuss on in a separate article the issue about culture and politics because it is the most fascinating thing in the aftermath of elections. Although I have not thought a lot about any of these topics, I feel these are more important to discuss than repeating the usual narratives of tangible and intangible culture in Bhutan, along with listing of organizations and a description of their formal charges. Audience influences what to discuss, and the audience, I assume, is Bhutanese, not The Bhutanese, this newspaper.

It is said the way we pitch our shouts is cultural, our nostalgia and fantasies are cultural, our ideas about happiness is cultural, in the sense, that it is constructed. Cultural analysis can help us understand these and other issues better.

There are two senses of culture. One is culture, in the sense of a cultured person who has a set of traits and skills, which are collectively admired. A woman of culture is a woman of Buddhist sublime nature, as well as of terrific skills. In not too distant past in Bhutan, a woman who could safely climb a fodder tree was admired. Just so, falling from trees was a cause of invalidity and mortality.

The other meaning of culture refers to the common patterns of thinking, behaviour, and artefacts-which are trans-generational and dynamic within a particular community. Cultural promotion can perpetuate them if a conscious choice is made about them. But we have to know which ones to select and to promote. In housing

design promotion, for example, we could ask: is the singular or an essentialized focus on phana and bog and the arc of horgo windows the most worthy? Builders abide by the rules nominally, projecting mean looking phanas and deformed horgos. But does it satisfy culture of architecture or have we deformed it.

The cultural situation of any community or nation is very fluid. Due to financial flows, tourist flows, audio-visual flows, educational shifts- our ideas are unstable. Due to tourist flows, globally traded goods flows including technology in material forms, our artefacts are being substituted with imported ones. Both ideas and artefacts are mutually reinforcing cultural changes. I checked the statistics on household possessions. TV set is a household item among 59% of the houses, sofa set by 35% of the households, and fans by 22% of the households. Mobile phones are owned by 93% of the households. Around 60% of households have altars, with Thimphu, Paro and Bumthang leading the race towards choesham (altar) ownership. We know that despite having altars, people in these places spend, comparatively, the longest time watching TV. It leads me to speculate that people in the wealthier districts might be sitting longer in front of TV than altars.

When the cultural communities are small in mass, especially in terms of modest population size, the transformation is rapid both within and between groups. This is particularly so for Bhutan with 7,00,000 plus people, half of which are children below 25 years. A certain linguistic group in Bhutan have only around 2000 speakers. There may not be more than 500 men who know how to castrate male livestock without causing infections. There may not be more than 100 people who can make bark

paper. There may not be more than more than a few hundred women who can dye yarns from colours derived from forest, and have practical knowledge of where and which part of the trees they come from. There are very few indigenous physicians who have actually scoured the mountain slopes and know where rare herbal plants grow. There are very few painters who know how to make mineral paints. There are very few shamans who can teach us on how to go deep into an alternate consciousness and experience interconnectedness. People are leaving us before their implicit knowledge can be externalized in the form of recorded knowledge.

Culture and Economy

GDP does not distinguish whether culture is improving or diminishing.GDP is growing, but probably culture is not. GDP does not wear cultural lens, and so it can be oblivious to culture. Let us look at agriculture and livestock. Let us recall that our ancestors grew, cooked and consumed foods from their farms and forests around them. Examining the composition and shifts in GDP, my impressions of the cultural processes in farming sector is that it is not thriving. Let me run through sectors in GDP. In primary sector, i.e., agriculture, the knowledge of indigenous cultivation methods and varieties, are probably shrinking along with farm output shrinking in the face of import competition. 59% of rice, 63% of other cereals, 36% of dairy products, 42% of vegetables, and 50% of meat are imported. Cereals diversity has reduced, and food diversity has also reduced. Food culture has changed. Many dried vegetables and forest foods are out now, and dal (lentil) is in, for example.

Let us look at indigenous livestock. I will just give a few examples. Why has the indigenous poultry, the beautiful fowl that crowed hourly in the villages gone? They have been replaced by the ‘belengti’ poultry? Why has the slim local swine gone almost extinct? In their place has come the big eared ‘japhag’. Why has the smart ‘damchi’ breeds gone? Many may follow their path to extinction. Diversity has become overcome by homogeneity of livestock.

In GDP’s secondary sector consisting of manufacturing, mining, wholesale and retail, construction etc., retailing has overtaken bartering, and sharing of goods by buying goods.

Construction is a booming sector, especially in towns, thanks to loans to urban sector. Only a marginal proportion of loans go to rural Bhutan. Urban buildings could have better architecture and design. Carpentry and masonry is prevalent among 30% of Bhutanese men. But this male skill need to be utilized to make Bhutanese looking houses. We are de-sensitized now to accept Bajo, Khuru, Thimphu, and so forth with a new urban architecture and housing, which looks fairly pseudo-colonial. A perfect example of this is the Ministerial Enclave architecture. Even official buildings have forsaken proportions and rules of Bhutanese architecture. But, I find myself admiring the newly built Royal Textile Museum. The healthiest skill alive is weaving. It is prevalent among 32% women, particularly in the east. Yet, overall, it makes very little income when the array of income sources is reviewed. It provides just 1.36% of the total household income, averaging Nu 2900 per household. Of course, it means that textile is a concentrated income in the east.

I would like to admiringly and happily mention about the numerous glorious constructions of Lhakhangs, the infrastructure of teachings of Buddhism. Painting, statuary, and carvings are being replicated profusely, though I object to the horrendous loudness of toxic plastics paints in which the Boddhisattvas are bathed on the walls of the temples. Devotees who stay long below them may not be breathing the cleanest of air.

When it comes to GDP’s service sector, tourism will transform Bhutan, but I hope it does not transform its culture. I will have more to say about tourism when it comes to archaeological culture.

The volume of tourists is now going to be out of proportion, and in fact Mckinsey has effectively declared low value and high volume tourism. The new target is 200,000 a year, one third of which will be from the region.

GDP goes up when things, which were earlier unpaid are transacted in market. Rituals were primarily unpaid services. Now they are priced rather heavily. A household’s yearly expenditure on doma is about a little over 2% of its income, but miscellaneous expenditure which includes religious fees is 11%. Blessings may have to be increasingly bought, if this trend goes up. So you can gauge its impact. Other forms of reciprocal labour are also decreasing, and being substituted by transacted labour.

Economics is supposedly value free. Market do not ask question about values. But good culture is about good values. GDP and the market is about selling and buying. Some things should not be bought and sold because they degrade while doing so. In a good community, members should provide social and emotional support to each other when a member is in dire situations. Such support is still strong in rural

neighbourhoods. This is good culture in action. Market would have us buy them. Can we buy friendship and solidarity? Then they would not be real! 34% of the adult people spend everyday , about 57 minutes in giving care. That is genuine social support and good culture in action.

If you extend the idea of solidarity, being cultural and expressing preference for cultural products is the crucial thing about culture. One should wear handwoven gho or kira, not because it is fashionable. It is an ethical action, not an ethnic action because they help local weavers. If there were no gho or kira wearers, there would obviously be no weavers. We can kill them as a vocation. Consumption of similarly produced, artisanal products lift the low wage earners and help in their subsistence. Culture is solidarity economy. Not only about what good you buy and use, but how it was made and who made it are important. Likewise, wealthy people should buy expensive paintings. If there is no big buyer, there can be no big painter. Let me give an example, if there were wealthy Taiwanese patrons, there could not be Khenpo Nima, a wellknown iconography painter from Bumthang whose work is known more outside Bhutan. Likewise, if there were no royal patronage, there could not be great statue makers like late Jinzo Omtong or Jinzo Karma.

Cultural and Historical Consciousness

Ancient ruins and sites must be zealously protected even if they displace big money spinners like hydro-power projects. After all, it might well be that a power place like Taktsang brings more cash than hydropower place like Tala in course of time. Taktsang is certainly more famous than Tala. And a place like Taktsang certainly generates more meaning and identity. My point here is that local communities should become active steward of their heritage as no one else will be.

Future generations will need these archaeological sites more than us, as their identities and ancient history are threatened by supersonic speed of globalization. In the past too, these places have been the reasons for internal tourism and by visiting them our ancestors have been able to form images of ancient Bhutan and are associated with their origins. For the people near these sites, they have helped form their local identities. We have to set up more museums for our own people so that they have a chance to view the pasts, to touch the artefacts, and to understand the lifestyles at a given point of time.

And we should recall our origins, our struggles as a people, despite conflicts and differences, in maintaining the sovereignty of our country and increasing internal and external peace of our people. In doing so, we should recollect the heroes and teachers who shaped norms in our culture, from Guru the King of Lotus (Pema Gyalpo) to the Kings of Wangchuck Dynasty.

Culture and Education

The second last subject that I scratch quickly here is culture and education. Culture is about meaning and representations. It has two parts: a decontextualized knowledge and a contextualised one. Contextualised meaning and representations applies particularly to representations of human beings and their relationships. It is highly shaped by cultural elements such as mores and traits, and here language is very important. It is embedded in language, which is Dzongkha in our specific culture. Dzongkha lives in the shadow of English in the bureaucracy, the main agency of cultural change. Until that is changed, certain type of knowledge is at risk, in my view, despite the policy of promoting Dzongkha. Only a minority, perhaps 7,000 out of 23,000 copies of newspapers are published in Dzongkha. Only one class out of seven are in Dzongkha in schools. Our solace is the monastic bodies which study the language.

In Buddhist culture, knowledge should be valued: Buddhist formula of learning emphasised studying, debating and writing strongly for its intrinsic value. But also it was path to enlightenment education. Now, there is a new emphasis on credentialism. Certificates and mere qualification are valued as indicators because these are taken at face value in providing access to well paid jobs.

Education in the past in Bhutan was primarily a procedural learning, as opposed to declarative or abstract learning. People learnt by doing at specific work place in particular jobs. Knowledge was contextualised. It is the same type of knowledge that features so strongly in economic literature on growth in the West. Productivity of labour increases by learning by experience as the key to growth. Experience accumulated from working with tools and techniques and by observation. Our forefathers called this procedural knowledge ‘Thongwalaglen’, that is ‘doing by seeing’ as opposed to ‘doing by reading’. Mask dance is a key example of Thongwalaglen. So is the blowing oboe or jaling. You are instructed by doing and seeing. There are no textbooks, they are experiential.

The present situation in Bhutan is that literacy has been overly valued, and skill which is learning by doing and doing by seeing is undervalued. Skill is overshadowed by literacy. A child leaves school without a single skill, except that of reading and writing. But the cultural world is created and shaped by material creation and that is not possible by simply wielding a pen and being able to read signboards and magazines.

Politics and Culture

One thing we have not launched as yet is a cultural analysis of politics. There is a rapid change in political culture of Bhutanese type. Someone should take up study of politics as social drama that is unfolding rapidly. A cultural analysis of politics goes beyond studying the formal processes of politics such as political parties, elections, rules of the games in terms of candidate qualification, age, and counts of laws they have passed etc. In political cultural analysis, distinction is made between attitude and action, the focus is on attitudes, and system of meanings and symbols.

In cultural analysis of politics, we could study norms and structural characteristics of political groups. Why is there a difference in political orientation among different group? How do they use symbols and norms to maximize their power? How do they obtain resources, which may be declared, and mostly undeclared? What unknown rewards and rhetoric they use to bind supporters and benefactors to them? What meanings they convey to supporters and voters? How do they seek recognition? How do they compete for power and with whom? And above all what power means to the political actors? What meaning they make of their own self in this particular endeavour? Are material incentives becoming a strong core of politics? Are politicians seen as benefactors rather than legislators? Depending on which role they aim, it can lead to extremely divergent outcomes and means.

Culture and Happiness

My last point is about culture and happiness. Cultural values, practices, and beliefs are never valuable or virtuous simply because they exist as someone said. One of the ways of weighing their values is to relate it to happiness so that it leads to happiness and what should be preserved. At a governmental level, GNH policy screening tools are designed to transparently evaluate and analyse proposals by reference to an ultimate collective goal of happiness. The process of evaluation and the norms adopted have to be extremely methodical. While assessing the happiness impact of cultural change, we have to deal with the question how to weigh the happiness of one individual against the other, and one group against another where the issues are contentious. They led us to consider the rights of cultural groups within a country. Hard questions about balancing cultural diversity and social harmony can crop up.

We may not be able to resist huge cultural changes. But at least, we could moderate its speed. If speed is unmanageable, undesirable psychosocial conditions associated with rapid cultural transitions can arise, silently and invisibly, unleashing crisis of identity and psychological disorder. There may not be an overt or external conflict. Nonetheless, substantial proportion of population can feel lack of internal peace simply because the pace of change is too rapid to cope with. This requires speed adjustment of change within societies.

In a world where there is moving and mixing, intercultural empathy is becoming ever more important. People need cultural diversity and cultural exposure to meet this challenge arising from moving and mixing. And becoming aware of these two aspects help us in leveraging cultural diversity. But, it is first necessary to be aware of one’s culture through cultural analysis and cultural promotion, before we try to become diverse and different.

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