Morning studies done, monks at Kurjey Lhakhang monastery head out for lunch—and into a new world. This year, after holding national elections, Bhutan will become a constitutional monarchy, ending a century of absolute rule by kings.
Morning studies done, monks at Kurjey Lhakhang monastery head out for lunch—and into a new world. This year, after holding national elections, Bhutan will become a constitutional monarchy, ending a century of absolute rule by kings.

Bhutan’s Enlightened Experiment

Guided by a novel idea, the tiny Buddhist kingdom tries to join the modern world without losing its soul.

First come the high clear notes of the ceremonial trumpet. Then the Buddhist pilgrims, gravitating toward the sound. The sun has slid behind the mountains looming over Thimphu, capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, and the day’s final ritual is set to begin. Along the edge of the crowd, in pageboy haircuts and tattered robes, stand peasants who have traveled three days from their remote villages on their first visit to the big city, likely the only capital in the world without a traffic light. Near the center of the plaza clusters a group of Buddhist monks, arms linked, their betel-nut-stained teeth matching their burgundy robes. Together the monks and peasants and townspeople press forward to catch a glimpse of the main attraction: a small boy standing in the center of the circle, his bright orange shirt hanging down to his knees.

As the beat accelerates, the boy—seven-year-old Kinzang Norbu—hurls himself to the ground, spinning on his back so fast that he dissolves into a saffron blur. The crowd, steeped in the ancient mysticism of Bhutan, land of the flying tigress and the divine madman, might wonder if Norbu is the whirling reincarnation of a Buddhist saint. But the boy is channeling another, more mystifying world. Blasting from the speakers is not a Buddhist incantation but the opening riffs of Shakira’s risqué pop anthem, “Hips Don’t Lie,” piped in from a sleek white Macintosh laptop. And when Norbu twirls to a stop in a no-hands headstand, his shirt rides up to reveal his homage to global youth culture: red Nike high-top sneakers, baggy Adidas sweatpants, and a temporary tattoo that spells out, in jagged English letters, the name he and his homeys have adopted—“B-Boyz.”

When the song fades out, Norbu struts away with an impish smile and a crooked-finger gang salute. His fellow B-Boyz whistle and cheer. The monks break into befuddled red-tooth grins. And the sun-burnished peasants? They just gape at the boy. If he were a masked festival dancer, spinning toward enlightenment, they might understand. And yet, for all the mutual incomprehension, the moment still binds them together. For in one mind-bending performance, Norbu has captured the essence of a country that is attempting the impossible: to leap from the Middle Ages to the 21st century without losing its balance.

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