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.
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.