Wip­ing Off a Rich Past

Old houses are giv­ing way to mod­ern build­ings in the cap­i­tal city of Bhutan, leading to an oblit­er­a­tion of the coun­try’s rich her­itage.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sarah Ba­tool Haider The writer is a Karachi-based jour­nal­ist.

The re­cent res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion boom in Bhutan poses a threat to the coun­try’s cen­turies-old ar­chi­tec­tural legacy.

Through­out the world, the con­struc­tion of high-rise build­ings and sim­i­lar mod­ern struc­tures is con­sid­ered a part of de­vel­op­ment. This es­pe­cially holds true for de­vel­op­ing coun­tries where mod­ern con­struc­tion is deemed im­por­tant by the es­tab­lish­ment and people alike in or­der to keep pace with the faste­volv­ing world. Al­though mod­ern build­ings, par­tic­u­larly res­i­den­tial ones, give a sense of pro­gres­sive­ness to in­hab­i­tants, their con­struc­tion some­times leads to prob­lems. One of the most press­ing prob­lems that mod­ern-day con­struc­tion poses is the de­mo­li­tion of his­tor­i­cal build­ings.

For in­stance, in his­tor­i­cally rich places such as Thim­phu, the fast-de­vel­op­ing cap­i­tal of Bhutan, tra­di­tional houses are rapidly be­ing re­placed by mod­ern build­ings. Un­der the 10th Five Year Plan, the govern­ment of Bhutan planned to boost the so­cioe­co­nomic de­vel­op­ment of the coun­try by con­struct­ing more ad­vanced, in­no­va­tive and en­vi­ron­ment-friendly build­ings. This was done to show­case Bhutan as a mod­ern so­ci­ety and also to strengthen the lo­cal con­struc­tion in­dus­try by cre­at­ing more jobs.

Though it was a pos­i­tive step taken by the govern­ment, the con­struc­tion drive re­sulted in wip­ing off the map many his­tor­i­cal build­ings. Ow­ing to the re­cent res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion boom in Bhutan, the tra­di­tional style and con­struc­tion prac­tices have sharply de­clined, pos­ing a threat to the coun­try’s cen­turies-old legacy.

The tra­di­tion­ally de­signed build­ings in Thimpu con­trib­ute a lot to the rich her­itage of the coun­try. Sur­rounded by exquisite­ness and

a sym­bolic aura, they have al­ways at­tracted a large num­ber of tourists from across the globe. Sadly, how­ever, over the last few years, there are hardly any tra­di­tional houses left for tourists to see in Thim­phu. This is be­cause a lot of old build­ings in the city have been dis­man­tled and re­placed by tall, con­crete struc­tures. Though the build­ings were a part of Bhutan’s an­cient cul­ture, the res­i­dents of the city did not take much no­tice of the rapid changes and quickly be­came ac­cus­tomed to the new build­ings.

Apart from pav­ing the way for mod­ern build­ings, the main rea­son why tra­di­tional houses in Thim­phu were de­mol­ished was that the old build­ings were not a good source of rental in­come for their own­ers. There­fore, more and more people pre­ferred con­crete build­ings over tra­di­tional houses.

Ear­lier, any tourist vis­it­ing Thim­phu would be mes­mer­ized by the land­scape filled with unique, tra­di­tional Bhutanese houses but now the city is filled with con­crete struc­tures. Cen­turies-old build­ings such as Thromde in Changjiji and Babesa, which fall in the cat­e­gory of her­itage sites, are among the few re­main­ing his­tor­i­cal struc­tures in the coun­try.

Tra­di­tional build­ings in Bhutan are a blend of di­verse char­ac­ter­is­tics. For in­stance, one of the defin­ing fea­tures of Bhutanese ar­chi­tec­ture is that over the years, the style of con­struc­tion has re­mained un­changed. This lends a sense of time­less­ness to the build­ings and though the style dates back to hun­dreds of years, the ex­ist­ing struc­tures ap­pears com­pletely mod­ern to for­eign­ers.

Sim­i­larly, since the build­ing de­signs are an­cient, there is no trace of the ar­chi­tects who crafted these build­ings. This anonymity lends Bhutanese ed­i­fices some unique at­tributes that one can­not find in any other cul­ture.

An­other dis­tin­guish­ing trait of tra­di­tional Bhutanese ar­chi­tec­ture is the spir­i­tu­al­ism that is in­her­ent in all as­pects of con­struc­tion. All ma­jor con­struc­tion phases – from lay­ing the foun­da­tion stone to set­ting framed doors to the erec­tion of pre­fab­ri­cated walls and ceil­ings, etc. – are pre­ceded by par­tic­u­lar rites and rit­u­als.

Un­like other coun­tries, tra­di­tional build­ings in Bhutan are unique be­cause they are built with­out any build­ing plans. Tra­di­tions were passed on ver­bally from gen­er­a­tions to gen­er­a­tions. In the past, the constructor had the fi­nal struc­ture of the build­ing in his mind. Con­se­quently, the ex­ag­ger­ated plans that are com­monly used in western cul­tures and which do not por­tray the ar­chi­tec­tural qual­ity of a build­ing but serve spec­u­la­tion pur­poses, be­came in­ap­pli­ca­ble to Bhutan. More­over, tra­di­tional ar­chi­tec­ture is mainly based on an ar­che­typ­i­cal de­sign with lit­tle lo­cal vari­a­tions. Its sim­ple but at­trac­tive ap­pear­ance emerged mainly from nat­u­ral needs and pur­poses with­out any un­nec­es­sary ac­ces­sories and im­i­ta­tions.

All these fea­tures of Bhutanese ar­chi­tec­ture give rise to the idea that tech­no­log­i­cal im­prove­ments and de­vel­op­ment can­not nec­es­sar­ily re­place an­cient cul­ture or im­prove the qual­ity of life.

Bhutan is one of the very few coun­tries that have suc­cess­fully held fast to its age-old tra­di­tions which have be­come a liv­ing re­al­ity for its people in­stead of a dis­tant past. It is, in­deed, sad to note that be­cause of mod­ern con­struc­tion trends that took Bhutan by storm, the coun­try has failed to pro­tect its his­tor­i­cal build­ings which added to its rich her­itage. Al­though mod­ern con­struc­tion is in­evitable and there would be a need for more houses to ac­com­mo­date the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion, the govern­ment of Bhutan should take ad­e­quate mea­sures to pre­serve its his­tor­i­cal build­ings. This is be­cause his­tor­i­cal ed­i­fices ex­hibit the rich tra­di­tional her­itage of Bhutan and also serve as a re­minder of the past.

It is ex­tremely im­por­tant to pre­serve the his­tor­i­cal build­ings in a city be­cause they make its in­hab­i­tants un­der­stand their past. Such build­ings make people feel more con­nected to their cul­tural and tra­di­tional past. Ad­di­tion­ally, pre­serv­ing and restor­ing his­tor­i­cal build­ings can al­low people to com­pre­hend how the past can shape the fu­ture.

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