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Bhutan joins world forum for intangible cultural heritage

International cultural experts and agencies safeguarding intangible cultural heritage (ICH) came together last week in Jeonju, South Korea, to discuss issues and share experiences.

Former UN Secretary-General addressed the gathering and highlighted how ICH cuts across the 17 sustainable development goals.

Loden Foundation’s president, Karma Phuntsho (PhD), who represented Bhutan, shared Bhutan’s experience by highlighting how urbanisation is changing the cultural landscape of the world and called for better efforts to safeguard and adopt old civic cultures of the rural villages in new urban situations.

He shared five different initiatives he is involved in as a way of safeguarding and promoting intangible cultural practices which are fundamental for community cohesion and solidarity.

His talk titled ‘Activating Ancient Intangible Civic Cultures for New Situations’ mentioned that in the past decades, the world saw an unprecedented migration of people from rural communities to urban centres.

According to the UN, “The urban population of the world has grown rapidly from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018.” Today, 55 percent of the world’s population live in urban areas (2018 Revision of World Urbanisation Prospects).

Such migration is particularly intense in the less developed countries and the rate of urbanisation is highest in Asia.

He said that in spite of its historic isolation and renowned for conservation of its traditional way of life, Bhutan was no exception to the process of urbanisation.

Just over half a century ago, there was not a single town in Bhutan. Even Thimphu, the nation’s capital for nearly four centuries, was a valley of a few scattered villages and the fortress, which housed the government and monastic headquarters. Over 99 percent of the built environment we see today in the growing metropolis of Thimphu was built after 1960s.

Today, Bhutan has over 40 percent of its population living in urban areas and the urban centres are growing rapidly (Population Projection Bhutan 2017-2047).

Like the transition from rural villages to urban towns, Bhutan has also economically moved from subsistence farming to capitalist the market economy, socially from a largely oral past to an audio-visual society, politically from a medieval Buddhist monarchy to a bicameral parliamentary democracy, and culturally from nature-oriented spiritual system to a secular and scientific worldview.

Such systemic changes and demographic shifts consist of transformations in both the tangible, physical environment and the intangible, social and cultural systems. To put it in a Buddhist idiom, we witness changes in both the nod or external landscape and the chud or internal people. Of the two, the creation of external urban infrastructure such as roads, houses, sewers, parks, etc. are achieved relatively quickly and easily, using imported materials and knowhow enhanced by advanced technology. Mainstream development efforts are also focused on such material conditions.

However, the process of developing the intangible culture of social support systems to manage and maintain the facilities and address social challenges needs much greater efforts of cultural education and social organisation. While physical facilities can be built in a span of few years, the culture to use them responsibly and sustain them takes many decades to develop.

Electrification in Bhutan is a good example. Since its introduction some 60 years ago, electricity has today reached all parts of the country. While Bhutan has done well in building hydropower stations, connecting homes to the grid and procuring electrical appliances, the general knowledge and culture of safe installation and responsible use of electricity still remains poor. As a result, many house fires in Bhutan today are caused by electric short circuits.

Modern facilities such as electricity are new to the Bhutanese citizenry, and thus, require concerted efforts of regulation and consumer education. However, this is not the case with many other challenges Bhutan’s urban areas are facing. Some challenges can be overcome by revitalizing the social and cultural practices, which existed in the villages for many centuries. Alcoholism is a case in point. Alcohol liver disease has been a top cause of death in Bhutan for about a decade. Almost all Bhutanese villages have a robust culture of drinking, particularly during festive occasions. However, the traditional communities also have a strong support system in place to help a person abusing alcohol. To begin with, the supply of alcohol is limited as it is brewed at home. If the person abuses alcohol, the person who serves would normally refrain after serving a couple of rounds. Family members, neighbours and villagers provide counselling and controlling measures when necessary. One’s sense of community identity and the general practice of community solidarity restrain the person from becoming a serious alcoholic.

When the same person abuses alcohol in a new urban environment, he or she is deprived of the social support system. Alcohol flows unlimited, having been produced in large factories, and sometimes even sold on debt. The bartender only wishes to sell as much alcohol as possible. With the anonymity granted by a populated urban centre, the person has less sense of social respect and responsibility. Support and care from family, friends and neighbours are less common in urban places where people generally live very private individualistic life. Thus, alcohol abuse becomes worse in a new urban place, leading to serious economic and social consequences.

To overcome such challenges, steps are being taken by the state and civil society organisations. However, their discourse on civil society and citizenry are modelled on foreign practices of civil society and non-governmental organisations. No serious effort has been made to transfer and adopt the existent traditional support systems and beneficial cultural practices from the traditional communities.

As Bhutan’s systems for organising society and mobilising community members for public good evolves, it is imperative that we look at the rich tradition of societal organisation and governance. Being a society with uninterrupted history, Bhutan has a rich heritage of governance systems, fiduciary and judiciary practices, social contracts and norms, and community organisational structures and strategies.

The village communities still practice these systems and schemes to maintain public spaces including religious monuments and commons, distribute resources such as pastures and water, organise village events and activities, mobilise resources, mediate in conflicts and render help during emergencies and disasters. Such civic traditions served as the social cement to hold the communities together and were sustained because the communities lived visibly interdependent and connected lives within the same social and geographic space.

Today, as large numbers of people leave rural villages to settle in new urban towns, these unwritten old practices of civil society and community mobilisation are declining fast. While material development of structures and amenities takes place with good speed, adequate attention is not being given to the intangible social support systems. This has lead to serious social challenges and rising mental health issues.

In order to build harmonious civic life and community solidarity in our new urban situations, it is crucial that we activate the traditional civic cultures from the villages in the new urban situations, astutely adapt the civic systems to keep them relevant and beneficial, and engage the urban citizens in appropriating and promoting the civic cultures of their communities of their origin.

Contributed by 

Samten Yeshei

Program Manager 


Loden Foundation.

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