Book Review: Bhutan: A Kingdom Of The Eastern Himalayas

Bhutan:  A Kingdom Of The Eastern Himalayas, by Guy Van Strydonck, Françoise Pommaret-Imaeda, and Yoshiro Imaeda

There is a subgenre of books that this particular volume belongs to that until very recently was completely unfamiliar to me, and that is richly photographed coffee table books about Bhutan that double as propaganda for the small nation and its government.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it was striking to read three books in close order that all have the same general approach as books, an approach that appears to show a long-term strategy of the government of Bhutan to simultaneously advertise even as it points out the restrictions and focus of tourism interests that it wants to educate Westerners about.  I suppose that as both a reader of books and as a global traveler, I am the sort of target audience that this sort of book has even if it has taken a long time for this particular subgenre of book to reach my attention.  Admittedly, though, I feel a bit ambivalent about the book, because there are both attractive elements to this book as well as elements that I find less enjoyable, all combined together into a package that both attracts and repels and that suggests there is more than meets the eye to this mostly photographic book.

This volume of a bit less than 200 pages begins with acknowledgements to the queen mother of Bhutan, whose interests this book serves, along with other members of the royal family and government of the country.  The queen mother then writes the foreword, praising the book for showing Bhutan for its natural beauty and peace and harmony as well as its cultural and Buddhist values. The rest of the book begins with an introduction and then eight chapters that are mainly focused on photography after the text of the introduction provides the historical context to Bhutan to an audience that is assumed to be unfamiliar with it.  The chapters of the book begin with a look at the Dzongs (fortress-monasteries), monasteries, temples, and other structures (like chortens) that dot the landscape of Bhutan (1) and then move on to look at Bhutan’s religious art (2), monastic life (3), landscapes (4), the valley of Sakteng (5), the hours and the days (6), festivals and dances (7), and the people of Bhutan (8).  After that the book closes with a map of the country, a select bibliography, and a list of illustrations.

It is easy to recommend a book like this for a coffee table.  To be sure, there are prettier books of this genre that take advantage of better photographic skills and capabilities.  The color scheme of this book is a bit washed out when compared to the other two similar books I have read, but if you had read this book thirty-five years ago when it was published, it would have had an honorable place on a coffee table to impress guests with.  Even now this is a beautiful book to look at, even if its text is somewhat out of date and even if the book does read like a great deal of propaganda for Buddhism and for the Bhutanese desire to replace “gross national product” with “gross national happiness” by portraying the nation of Bhutan as a mostly rural country full of beautiful forts and snug farming villages.  Admittedly, the book is an appealing one, and the scenery of this book is simply gorgeous.  One thing a book like this and a genre like this has going for it is that Bhutan clearly has a lot of attractive vistas to photograph even if the people photographed here do not appear to be all that happy to be staring at the camera yet.  They would learn, in time.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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