Bhutan Dragons Meet U.S. Rockets

“Before nobody thought rockets will go to the moon. In olden times, Bhutanese always thought that dragons made the sounds of thunder. These are all symbols of power. I wanted to paint symbols of power.” – Phurba Namgay

The Asia Society and the Bhutan Foundation in Washington DC recently co-hosted an event for Linda Leaming to present her new book, Married to Bhutan: How One Woman Got Lost, Said “I Do,” and Found Bliss. Linda is a former Tennessean-turned-Bhutanese woman who has married the reknown Bhutanese thangka painter, Phurba Namgay. This marriage has resulted in some culture sharing that is evident in Namgay’s paintings and in Linda’s new attitude towards life. Namgay is a classically trained thangka painter. Thangka means “rolled art” and the pictures he paints are used for Buddhist rituals and meditation.

Normally, thangkas are not an expression of the artists’ vision or personality, but you can clearly see Namgay’s sense of humor and astonishment shines through in these blends of modern and traditional icons.

Leaming explains why some modern elements are now popping up in his work: “He follows a tradition that hasn’t changed much in 400 years because up until about 40 years ago, no one came in or went out of Bhutan. Our time in the U.S. has expanded his repertoire and vision. He paints his thangkas but he also studies western art. It’s his way into American culture. His current obsession is rockets. The closest Bhutanese is about 1000 miles away. I can imagine he feels pretty isolated at times, like he’s traveling in space, not knowing where he’s going, but going there really fast.”

Leaming herself experienced this isolation when she first arrived in Bhutan, but due to dogged patience, a healthy sense of humor, and a willingness to learn the language, she quickly was embraced by her neighbors, the school where she taught, and eventually Namgay himself.

The Bhutanese way of life—rugged yet blissful—can seem daunting to most Westerners, consumed with time, efficiency, and acquiring things. Rather than measuring their gross national product, the country measures quality of life or social progress, or their gross national happiness. Of course, measuring happiness accurately can be tricky business and the Bhutanese are still working out a reliable system. Some feel that no reliable system can be put in place since everyone should set their own goals and therefore measure against those on how they are doing. For example, as a Bhutanese surgeon in the audience explained, “I should learn how to operate. I should operate. I love to operate.” Since he has achieved all these goals, and is a happy surgeon, his happiness quotient is high. But, a non-surgeon shouldn’t measure their happiness against these goals, as theirs would be quite different.

Bhutan currently uses a survey in which residents of Bhutan answer questions like “What are the six or seven things that you consider to be most important in leading to a happy and contented life?” and “How much do you enjoy life?”.

Many Bhutanese who go oversees for college educations return to Bhutan after graduating. As a Bhutanese member of audience stated: “There is always that sense that home is home.”

Home, according to Leaming, consists of a people with a wonderful sense of humor, impeccable manners, and extreme generosity. When describing her quest to find work so that she could stay in the country she says: “I never quit. I was always polite. They never said ‘no’.”

Both Linda and Namgay live in Bhutan with their daughter, Kinlay, and cat, Geymo.

Continue to follow their adventures:

Linda Leaming’s Blog
Phurba Namgay’s Blog
Linda Leaming on Twitter

Changing Planet

Amy Bucci is a web producer for National Geographic. Her projects mainly cover National Geographic explorers, grantees and initiatives.