The Crane Festival in Phobjikha Valley was a very colorful visual treat. The first group of monks came out wearing traditional animal masks considered highly sacred. Some had dear horns, others looked like tigers, some were wild boars, and others were representations of fantastic animals like Garuda (the bird god) .
Last week we had a lecture with Dr. Francoise Pommaret, a well-know French scholar who has lived in Bhutan for over 30 years, and she explained that the purpose of the imposing animal-like look is to deter evil spirits and, thus, protect temples, homes, and people. In these higher mountain regions, the Bhutanese believe that local deities inhabit the rivers, forests and winds. The deities can have both a benevolent and malevolent side; some are represented as demons, sometimes as demoness. Similar, to the four faced Tara, they can be creators or destroyers, therefore they must be appeased with offerings such as songs and dances. The sacred numbers used in painterly art and architectures of most temples are also repeated in the number of dancers and the colors they wear. I learned that the colors worn represent the elements: blue for water, green for earth, red for fire, white is wind, and gold is the sacred. The thunderous drumming is also meant to scare evil spirits and to please the divine.
The Crane dance, although quite old, became a part of the newly-established crane festival which was introduced recently, about 10 years ago. The black cranes arrive to Bhutan with the fall season, leaving the freezing temperature of Tibet and spending the winter months in the warmer wetlands of the Phobjikha Valley. The locals describe them as “gracious, beautiful and harmless”.
They are a protected species and their arrival is considered auspicious. Every year on 11/11 Bhutanese and chillips (foreigners) get together at Gangtey Goempa and enjoy the visual feast of dancers, vendors, and monks in ceremonial dress jumping as high as only athletes can do. Literally, their legs and trunks touching each other in mid air during the traditional dances while landing graciously and continuing to twirl, as if no effort was spent. The crane dance is a series of vignettes mimicking the behavior of black cranes, whether feeding, courting or mating.
As we exited the main square of the festival, we are again in long lines of colorful bazaars to entice tourists to shop for souvenirs. I asked myself, many times in our multiple tours: “What is the price of modernization and fast progress for Bhutan?”
Progress has certainly increased local wealth and creates a somewhat easier life with electricity and roads, and cellular connection. Bhutan is a state that only started its process of modernization only in the 60’s. In many ways, it is an opportunity to experience life differently because if this. Right now, priority goes to basic infrastructure, like building roads, or making sure everyone even in remote areas has electricity and health care.
My prior expectation of Bhutan as a mythical Shangri-La has now met with are a different reality. However, I need to remind myself to polish my lens of perception and judgment; that there is much I do not yet understand about the pressures of modernity. I remind myself also that – especially in western Countries – we are all fascinated by the delusional ‘myth of progress’ and that much mental and physical malaise comes along with it. Another lecturer, Dr. Karma Phuntsho pointed out that Bhutanese policy is not focused on GDP but rather on keeping in mind the Gross National Happiness of Bhutan. This is clearly stated in the four pillars and nine domains of the GNH development philosophy, not just as an idea but as a planned development strategy.
Dr. Karma also briefly touched on some of the youth problems created by the speed of modernization: with movement from agricultural lands to urban life, many youths have less ability to communicate or interact with their grandparents, which creates a cultural loss; and with the use of Internet comes great western influence, causing some to feel compelled to leave well-known traditional beliefs for unknown modern lifeways.
I ponder on all these points while taking a long gentle hike along the forests and fields of this beautiful valley, enjoying the smell of pines and fall leaves. Peaceful cows are grazing in the fields. I realize, after all, cows and cranes have no problem sharing space; that along with cows much of the local economy is also based on potato patches and the local farmers have to integrate the past agricultural tradition with contemporary tourism and so called “Progress” and the cranes are a big attraction!
As I ponder the dilemmas of accepting progress and yet maintaining sustainable agriculture , a theme appears in my inner mind: “I think I will write about Cranes, Cows and the Holy crap used as organic fertilizer..!!”
Suddenly, I see how in Bhutan there is still a healthy integration of all of these social-ecological-economic systems. I see it in Phobjikha, I see it at the black crane festival. I see that the people and landscape are in constant dynamic evolution and I console myself with the thought of Bhutan’s resilient traditions in the face of modern pressures.