An Echo That Opened Up Mountainous Bhutan

As literary festivals around the world become contested spaces, a local writes about how Bhutan’s annual Mountain Echoes festival has become a site of learning, inspiration and deeper democratisation in the country.

Raghu Dixit and Tandin Wangchuk in conversation with Karma Wangchuk at the Mountain Echoes festival in 2015. Credit: Twitter

Raghu Dixit and Tandin Wangchuk in conversation with Karma Wangchuk at the Mountain Echoes festival in 2015. Credit: Twitter

“What is this Mountain Echoes festival? How are we going to cover it? Perhaps we could interview some of the speakers. Maybe we could film some of the sessions?”

This was the reaction seven years ago to Bhutan’s first literary festival when I was an anchor for the national broadcaster – the Bhutan Broadcasting Service. We did not know much back then. We also did not expect the festival to grow as quickly as it did and become what it is today.

Most Bhutanese are not familiar with festivals on literature, arts and culture and it is not uncommon to find many asking if they need to pay to attend the sessions or should wait for invites. Public affairs in Bhutan tend to be quite formal, so to have a festival like Mountain Echoes, where one can simply walk in, tends to unsettle quite a few. That incredulity quickly turns to joy and excitement once the free entry is confirmed.

Pema Choden Tenzin, the editor of Yeewong, Bhutan’s first women’s magazine, finds tremendous inspiration in the festival and says it is an event that she looks forward to every year. Like many Bhutanese, Tenzin’s only experience of attending such a festival has been through Mountain Echoes.

Bhutan is a tiny country in comparison to its two neighbours India and China, with a population of only around 7,00,000. It is also a country made up of seven mountain valleys, with only one road connecting the country from east to west.

Due to the nature of mountain communities, there is a huge diversity of languages – about 25 different ones are spoken in the country. Couple that with a complex terrain and an economy that has just emerged out of subsistence farming – trade was so minimal to Bhutan that it only introduced its currency, the Ngultrum, in 1974.

Over the last few decades, Bhutan has expanded at a steady pace, from satellite television and international tourism to global politics – particularly when it comes to the environment. The introduction of democracy in 2008 and a much freer press has led to many more conversations among Bhutanese about each other and to the sharing of stories across the country and with outsiders.

The literary festival, thus, arrived at a critical juncture in Bhutan’s modern history.

Siok Sian Dorji, one of the two Bhutanese festival directors, defines the Mountain Echoes experience as representing an ongoing dialogue and exchange. “It is a space where people gather simply to enjoy the swapping of tales. Most of all, it is special because of the intimacy and the size of the festival.”

Many lasting friendships have been forged due to the intimate nature of the festival. I would know, as I have been a grateful beneficiary myself. Authors, artists and the audience, all marvel at the cosy, warm and genial atmosphere of this festival. Since the festival is small, people are engaging to express, not to impress.

More than anything else, the festival has encouraged the emergence of a nascent literary culture. There were barely any Bhutanese authors beyond Kunzang Choden, the first Bhutanese to have written a novel in English. We have seen this change dramatically over the years. “The stories shared and the presence of so many luminary storytellers has opened up our interest in capturing our own stories. We’ve seen a parallel development in writing – the increasing number of children’s books written by Bhutanese is another tangible example,” Dorji said.

The festival has encountered its fair share of criticism as well, a major one being that it is not Bhutanese enough. Part of this is the dominance of English and the lack of writers and speakers fluent in that language in a country as small as Bhutan. Although there are sessions in Dzongkha this year, they exclude foreign participants, which is one of the main attractions for many Bhutanese since this is their first experience with international literature. This year there are about 33 Bhutanese participants and approximately 45 writers and artists from India and other countries.

At this year’s literature festival, journalist Tara Limbu is looking forward to seeing her favourite author, Amitav Ghosh. The diehard Bollywood fans will get an opportunity to meet the Indian actor Tabu. At an earlier festival they were captivated by India’s famous lyricist and poet, Gulzar.

I remember with great fondness how Eka – a swatantra rock band from India – sang for me on my birthday after I interviewed them. The beloved Indian actor Sharmila Tagore, who was one of the speakers at the festival, was crossing the hotel lobby. The band members jovially hollered an invite to her and she graciously accepted. In that one moment of celebration, we all felt like a family.

This, I think, is what has made this literary festival so special to the Bhutanese. It has created enduring bonds that deepen identities and cultures. It has opened our ideas of what we thought was possible. The “perhaps” and “maybes” that we Bhutanese began with do not mean the same anymore. It is now: perhaps, I could be an author too and talk about my work at the festival, maybe I will collaborate with foreign talent.

Namgay Zam is an independent journalist. She was formerly a television anchor and editor in English for the Bhutan Broadcasting Service. She tweets @namgayzam.