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Hidden beneath the towering peaks of the eastern Himalaya, Bhutan is the final outpost of the rapidly disappearing Tantric Buddhist culture that once guarded the Roof of the World. Tibet, Ladakh, Mustang, and Sikkim have all fallen to conquest, or cultural and economic colonialism, while Bhutan—never conquered, never colonized—remains the last jewel in Buddhism’s Himalayan crown, blessed with peace, prosperity and an ancient culture still vibrant and alive. The Fourth King rejected the conventional model of global development: more is better and growing consumption equals success. The King aimed to balance the country’s economic needs with preserving the environment and traditional values—a policy founded on the Buddhist principles that all life is sacred and all living beings are interdependent.
With such abundant resources and enlightened leadership, it’s easy to romanticize Bhutan. But to do so would be a great disservice, trivializing the very real challenges — internal and external — that threaten the Bhutanese future. These photos reveal some of these challenges and give them a human face.
These photographs were made on film between 1991 and 2014 in western and central Bhutan. From the snow peaks of Lunana and the rice paddies of Punakha to the nightclubs of Thimphu, this area represents Bhutan’s greatest diversity of culture, climate, terrain, and people. The Bhutanese are a mixed people, speaking 24 languages and more than 100 dialects of Tibeto-Burman and Indo-Aryan. People from every part of Bhutan appear in these images—living, working and playing together, seeking happiness in their hidden lands.
These images are of everyday life. No one “dressed up” for their picture. None of these scenes were commercially created for the benefit of tourists; though, like people everywhere, mothers would wipe their children’s faces and sweep out the kitchen while I was setting up the camera. There is a saying among expatriates working in Thimphu: “Bhutan could become just like any other country, but no other country could be like Bhutan.”
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