The Meaning of Miss Bhutan

Even the tiny Himalayan kingdom can’t escape globalization—and may even like it.

If you’re looking for evidence that the hackneyed term globalization means something after all, then look no further than Miss Bhutan. On a crisp Sunday afternoon, dressed down in a sequined top, painted-on blue jeans and snake-skin stilettos, 25-year-old Tsokye Tsomo Karchung frets about Facebook. Someone has set up an unauthorized fan page and uploaded her photographs, she says. Friend requests from strangers—2,000 pending at last count—flood her personal account.
bhutanese-queen
“I feel, this is my life, my privacy has been taken away from me,” says Ms. Karchung. “But then I think I can’t expect people to give me privacy.”

When people think of Bhutan, celebrity angst isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind. If anything, the temptation to portray the tiny Himalayan kingdom of 685,000 people lodged between India and China as something out of a fairy tale can be overwhelming. Many liken it to the Shangri-La of James Hilton’s 1933 novel “Lost Horizon,” a mystical land of gentle lamas cut off from the rest of the world.

In some ways, Bhutan does indeed belong in a fable. The national sport is archery. The national animal, the takin, is a strange cross between a goat and an antelope. The previous king, fourth in a dynasty that has reigned since 1907, married a quartet of beautiful sisters. Perhaps most famously, and endearingly, Bhutan measures its well-being by gross national happiness, a warm and fuzzy concept that includes sustainable development, cultural preservation, environmental health and good governance.

Tsokye Tsomo Karchung: Contributing to gross national happiness.

The kingdom laid down its first roads less than 60 years ago, and even today Thimphu may be the world’s only capital city without a traffic light. The national airline, Druk Air, flies to only four countries: India, Nepal, Thailand and Bangladesh. Bhutan welcomed its first foreign tourists as recently as 1974. It remains somewhat ambivalent about the business, permitting high-end travelers willing to plonk down $200 a day, but shunning the less well-heeled.

Nonetheless, for all its caution, Bhutan has telescoped more change into the past 12 years than over the previous hundred. In 1998 the then king ceased to be the head of government, ceding some of his powers to a national assembly. In 2005, the country unveiled a new constitution ahead of national elections. Two years ago, Bhutan held its first parliamentary polls. (One pro-monarchy party won 45 out of 47 seats; another pro-monarchy party picked up the remaining two.)

In Thimphu, however, it’s the onslaught of global pop culture that’s most palpable. In 1999 Bhutan became the last country in the world to embrace television; the same year it cracked open the door to the Internet. Today, you can sit at a bar in Thimphu—or, if you prefer, at home—and watch Simon Cowell handicap Crystal Bowersox’s prospects in “American Idol.” Earlier this year, life came to a halt across much of the country when Bhutan television aired a local knock-off called “Druk Star.” Indian soap operas, advertisements and Bollywood songs are, of course, ubiquitous. Thanks to South Korea’s Arirang TV, Thimphu hipsters imitate the look of Korean popstars such as Rain and Se7en.

Then there’s Ms. Karchung, the first, and thus far only, Miss Bhutan. Shortly after winning the pageant in 2008, she represented her country at the Miss Earth competition in the Philippines. Since then Ms. Karchung has acted in two Bhutanese movies, and is widely regarded as the country’s first authentic female star. Little girls giggle and follow her when she ventures into Thimphu’s main square. Families ask to be photographed with her at Tsab Tsab, a fast-food joint inspired by McDonald’s. Ms. Karchung has appeared in advertisements for Bhutan Telecom and Bank of Bhutan. In New Delhi, she signed up with Elite Model Management, a branch of the famous New York agency, and walked the runway for Ritu Beri and Tarun Tahiliani, two of India’s best-known fashion designers. In Thailand, she has flogged Corum watches and appeared on the cover of OK magazine.

To be sure, not everyone approves of the idea of a Miss Bhutan. Opponents have decried the event as un-Bhutanese, and demanded a Miss Gross National Happiness instead. As a sop to local sentiment, the organizers dropped the customary swimwear round and added one with the national dress for women, the kira, which is mandatory in schools and government offices. Nonetheless, authorities forbade Miss Bhutan’s organizers from associating themselves with the magical letters GNH, and the pageant is yet to air on television. “What is the relevance?” asks Kinley Dorji, a top official in the ministry of information and a former editor of Kuensel, Bhutan’s leading newspaper.

The concerns of the event’s detractors are misplaced. For one, unlike scruffy tourists, international pop culture can’t be stopped at the border. Like the rest of Asia, Bhutan has little choice in the matter. Moreover, fears of the kingdom losing its distinctiveness are overblown. A homogenous population, an enlightened and widely revered royal family, and a deep attachment to Buddhism give Bhutan an anchor in the high seas of globalization. As Thimphu gears up for this year’s pageant in September, the country may well find that this year’s winner, like Ms. Karchung before her, only adds to the quantum of national happiness.

Mr. Dhume, a columnist for WSJ.com, is writing a book on the new Indian middle class.

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