On June 26, 2021, the Global Collaboration Center and the Japan Institute for Bhutan Studies co-hosted the first seminar in the Bhutan Seminar Series for 2021 as an online event. Through the NHK “Somewhere Street” episode on Bhutan’s capital Thimpu filmed back in 2011, we learned about Thimpu’s streetscape, culture, and lifestyles, with commentator Keiko Yamamoto (author of Doorway to Bhutan: The Thunder Dragon Kingdom and Work Note: Textiles of Bhutan) explaining what we were seeing and what things are really like in Bhutan.
Located at 2,400 meters above sea level, Thimpu is Bhutan’s biggest city, with a population of around 100,000 people. Most of Bhutan’s citizens are Buddhists, and that influence can be seen in the prayers at school morning assemblies and building design in Thimpu. One particularly striking example is the cylindrical Buddhist mani prayer wheel, which, when spun clockwise, is believed to have the same meritorious effect as orally reciting prayers. Deeply embedded in Bhutanese daily life, mani prayer wheels come in various sizes and styles, including wheels dotted on every street, wheels turned by hydraulic power, portable wheels, and solar-powered wheels.
Many people walk around in gho and kira, Bhutanese traditional dress. Men wear the gho, which has a similar shape to the Japanese kimono. By fastening the belt so that the top half bulges out a little, a space is created over the stomach to use in place of a bag for carrying around textbooks, laptops, and other items. Women wear the kira, which is a single piece of cloth that they wind around themselves like an Indian sari. With traditional dress compulsory in public places in Bhutan, students, civil servants, and many other people conduct their daily lives in traditional dress.
What surprised me most was that Bhutan has no traffic signals, with traffic instead directed by policemen. Bhutan previously had so few cars that this system posed no problems. Recently, however, numbers are increasing and causing traffic jams, so I look forward to seeing how Bhutan deals with this issue.
While Bhutan is by no means a developed country, it is said to be one of the world’s happiest. Glimpses of Thimpu’s streets gave me an insight into life in Bhutan, but because the footage was shot back in 2011, it made me curious about how the country might look now amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Misuzu Takanabe, first-year student, Department of Physics, Faculty of Sciences)