Eye of the Beholder


Until the late 1960s, Bhutan’s subsistence-farming economy ran on barter, and we relied on personal networks for advertisements and negotiations. Older people still tend to view the new phenomenon of urban commercial centers with apprehension.

Yet, the capital city of Thimphu is said to be one of the fastest-growing urban centers in Asia. In less than 50 years, its population has grown from a mere 6,000 inhabitants to more than 100,000. Along with urbanization have come supermarkets and malls, which are replacing the small shops once run by “my uncle” or “my neighbor”. Ironically, more and more of the paddy fields upon which we depended to cultivate food are themselves being eaten up by sprawling business centers.

These are changes of formidable proportions. A few years ago, after seeing the changes and perhaps fearing that the country could actually move away from the very essence of Gross National Happiness, such as family bonding and traditional social networks, the government decided to discourage intrusive billboards and signs that symbolized an alien business ethos. The Thimphu City Cooperation  introduced a rule requiring all commercial billboards to follow standard sizes and colors: white on blue. This rule  has been adopted throughout the country. Government billboards and license plates have remained yellow on red, the colors of the national flag.

If billboards and other signage represent a community, then I think Bhutan is represented by large and not-regularized portraits of the newly-married royal couple: the handsome king and the beautiful queen. Many buildings and shops carry the king and queen’s portraits, always placed at a respectful height above commercial signs. Bhutan has a youthful population, with over 60% of citizens under the age 30. They look to the young, yet regally dignified couple as their source of inspiration and hope.

The portraits are not just hung for show. People keep the royal portraits in the most private and sacred corners of their homes, on their altars and among their family portraits. Portraits of the royal couple have become a ubiquitous symbol of Bhutanese homes.
Bhutanese buildings and homes have one other ubiquitous symbol of a very different kind: overt and blatant phalluses. These symbols -created with the widest artistic license- are representations of artists’ wildest fantasies: phalluses decorated with flowing ceremonial scarves adorn the walls of buildings; some stare out of doorways with glaring eyes, and yes, there are also those with menacing teeth that grin you to shame. Curved wooden phalluses hang merrily down the sides of the houses to protect the home and its occupants, while gigantic wooden poles with phallus heads stalwartly guard the entrances. I think these symbols always get in the way for a country claiming to work toward gender neutrality.

The phallus is an omnipotent symbol, embellished with other attributes. For most Bhutanese, it signifies fertility. In a society where as many hands as possible were once needed on the farmstead, there is a natural desire for lots of children.

The phallus symbol can also repel malicious gossip. Malicious gossip is believed to have a negative effect on the victims, and in small, closed societies such as Bhutan, gossip is rampant. If only the paparazzi-hounded celebrities of the West would turn to the phallus to ward off malicious gossip, then Bhutan would have a niche product that would not need billboards to market it.

I, for one, would give the phalluses away for free.