Notes from a Higher Place

Notes from a Higher Place

Swati Vashishtha brings back tales from the Land of the Thunder Dragon and the Land of Happiness.

Mountain Echoes 2016

Swati VashishthaSwati Vashishtha | CNN-NEWS18 swativashishtha

Published: September 14, 2016


WHEN YOU'RE getting on a flight to Paro in Bhutan, the first thing anyone who has been there will tell you is to procure a window seat to the left. For at least an hour out of the two it takes to get there from New Delhi, you can feast your senses on the breathtaking montage of cloud formations over the highest Himalayan ranges.

  • Mount Everest

    Mount Everest (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

The mountain ranges you fly along, including Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga tender the most beautiful aerial photo-ops.

The drive from Paro to Thimphu along the sparkling waters of river Paro Chhu, is an enchanting endnote to this picturesque mid-air chapter.

The pristine landscape makes one wonder; what does a nation do to conserve such bounties? Well, ask Bhutan, which justifiably prides itself in being the only carbon negative country of the world. But it knows that the road ahead is tough.

Can Bhutan stay carbon negative? That's one of the questions India's ambassador to Bhutan Jaideep Sarkar and author Amitav Ghosh, who explores the issue of climate change in his latest book; 'The great derangement', toyed with in the first session of the Mountain Echoes literary festival. As the issues of politics of the carbon economy and climate change took the centre-stage at the festival, it made everyone attending sit up and take note of the harsh realities of unsustainable lifestyles the planet is faced with.

This year we have more Bhutanese speakers than Indian speakers. But we had to beg, cajole and even mildly arm twist them into coming and speaking

— Tshering Tashi, co-director of Mountain Echoes

Climate change is not something of the future, it is right here, said Ghosh, disappointed at how rarely stories of climate change reflect in our discourse through writing, art and journalism despite the enormity of its importance. A shocked Ghosh pointed out how he had hardly seen any detailed reportage of the temperature touching 51 degrees in Rajasthan this year, only to later be pleasantly surprised by News18's first immersive report by this author, that did actually document the anatomy of the recent heat wave.

A man from the audience could hardly keep how sobering the talk was when he stood up to point out how much negativity he felt had been unleashed first thing in the morning. Fortunately for him, an Atsara outside had the people in splits with his antics. Atsaras (drawn from Sanskrit word Acharya) are enlightened beings who defy norms of socially accepted human behaviour in an expression of their detachment from embarrassment or hesitation that ordinary mortals might feel.

An Atsara performing

For a festival that's in its 7th year now, Mountain Echoes is charmingly uncluttered and not bursting at the seams, making it refreshingly different from the famous Jaipur Literature Festival.

From the early years when Indian speakers outnumbered the Bhutanese, to this year when the Bhutanese speakers outnumber their Indian counterparts, the festival has grown "mindfully, the Bhutanese way", says Namita Gokhale one of four festival directors.

Namita Gokhale, one of the four directors of the Mountain Echoes literary festival.

The growing numbers at the festival reflect a rising inclination towards reading in India's Himalayan neighbour-also famous as the land of Gross National Happiness Index.

In line with its happiness ethos, Bhutan committed to observe 2015 as National Reading Year.

Students in Bhutan are reported to have read 2.5 million books in the ten months since the announcement-no mean feat for a population little over 7.5 lakh.

But not everyone would rather read. Just down the street from Royal Bhutan University-the venue of the festival-at the stadium an archery tournament was underway amidst a mild drizzle, with onlookers just as passionate as the players, about Bhutan's National sport.

Whether they are at work or play or attending a literary festival, the Bhutanese invariably are dressed in their national dress, Gho for men and Kira for women.

It is mandatory for the people of Bhutan to wear their national dress to work or for anything ceremonial.

Bhutanese actor and model Kelly Dorji speaks on the Bhutanese national dress Gho

While most people love wearing it on a daily basis, some young people mildly crib about the uniformity it lends to their wardrobes.

That said, is it charming or is it charming? Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje who bought herself one and turned up at the festival dressed in a Kira would vouch for that.

For Pico Iyer who returned to Bhutan after 28 years to talk about the art of stillness, for once there was an audience that organically knew what he was talking about. A sense of gather seems to come naturally to people in Bhutan where no one's in a hurry to get anywhere. "We don't have our days and weeks planned ahead or have tight schedules", says Kinley, a student.

  • Mount Everest

    Girls wearing the Bhutanese national dress Kira. (Photo: Swati Vashishtha)

Even the traditional musical instruments and the music they make is slow and succulent. The Bhutanese lute, for instance, crafted in bright colours with an ornate dragon on top, producing lilting strums that echo gently in the hills.

The Bhutanese lute has six strings. The instrument still comes in saturated colors as it did traditionally and creates a soft melodious sound. It is clearly not everyone's cup of tea to play the lute.

That doesn't come in the way of good old Indian Ocean pumping up the jam at the Clock Tower at Thimphu to a roaring response.

Indian band Indian Ocean performing at Clock Tower at Thimphu

The Nehru Wangchuck Cultural Centre, with black and white photographs of Rajasthan had whiff of home right in the heart of Thimphu. The festival, sponsored in part by Rajasthan Tourism and co-organized by Jaipur based literary consultancy Siyahi-showcased 'An Ode to Rajasthan', a photography exhibition on architecture and life of the desert state, internalised by photographer Sudhir Kasliwal through his lens.

The festival saw authors like Amitav Ghosh, Pico Iyer and Pawan Varma, actors like Tabu, Kelly Dorji and Mita Vashisht, Buddhist monks from high monasteries, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, the popular Queen Mother of Bhutan Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck and school children rubbing shoulders with each other.

  • Bankaya Mata

    Bhutan's Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck at the Mountain Echoes literary festival

The queen mother, when asked what she would have been if not queen mother, stole the show with her answer that reflected the simplicity which is possibly Bhutan's biggest strength. "A primary school teacher," she said. Now that has a lasting echo.

(Produced by Soumyadip Choudhury)