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Bumthang Valley, Bhutan – Boutique hotel ruffles feathers in the Himalayas

The relationship between Bhutan’s architectural identity and its national security. Photography by Graham Prentice

In the pocket-sized nation of Bhutan - a country so steeped in historical custom that a visit there is akin to travelling back in time - cultural preservation is a serious issue.

Pressed between Asian powerhouses India and China, the Himalayan nation operates under the reality that it could be annexed at any time. For the Bhutanese, maintaining a distinctive identity is a matter of national security. Which is why a new hotel in the valley of Bumthang is a cause of controversy.

Amid the calm buckwheat fields and golden-roofed Buddhist temples, its presence is as alien as a spaceship; for the Amankora Hotel is from a future the country has yet to embrace.

Owned by the Singapore-based Aman chain and designed by Australian architect Kerry Hill, it is one of five such resorts in Bhutan that trade the ornate carvings and vivid palette of traditional structures for quiet lines and muted colours.

Although Bhutanese politeness makes few willing to admit it, there is concern that the influence of Amankora’s modern design could instigate a degradation of Bhutanese culture and, by extension, its viability as an independent nation.

‘Without the daily influence of its architecture, Bhutan’s sovereignty would be at grave risk,’ says Samten Wangchuk, editor of national newspaper Kuensel. ‘We would be just another little Indian state up north, or a tiny Chinese province down south.’

The threat of cultural invasion has deep roots. Prior to the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1951, Bhutan followed a practice of voluntary isolation, relying on its mountains for protection. By the 1960s, fearful of replicating Tibet’s fate, Bhutan introduced an open foreign policy.

Now, half a century later, Bhutanese identity blends traditional and westernised influences. With a population of less than 700,000, natural resources are almost as intact as a century ago, and citizens are required to wear 17th century-style dress.

Yet in the capital city of Thimpu, children grow up as comfortable with video games as with ancient Buddhist dances. To ensure that the country maintains its identity, the government relies on a variety of regulatory measures.

According to national building codes, architectural features and outer facades of all proposed developments are required to incorporate aspects of traditional Bhutanese style, characterised by rammed earth, heavy timber and stone materials, stacked lintel construction and intricate paintings of mythical creatures.

However, conflating ornamentation with architectural tradition poses a real risk to cultural preservation, in Bhutan and elsewhere. According to Richard Wolkowitz, an American architect who has worked in the Himalayan nation: ‘Just putting traditional details on facades of buildings isn’t necessarily keeping the country’s culture alive.’

Part of a culture is the people who perpetuate skills such as carpentry and craftsmanship. Yet many large projects such as hospitals depend on cheap labour from India and Nepal, removing most Bhutanese citizens from the building process.

How the depth of Bhutanese architecture should be joined up with the realities of development in the 21st century is a complex question. Although this is not a new quandary, pressures imposed by geopolitical realities of the eastern Himalayas have raised the stakes for Bhutan.

While the effect that projects such as the Amankora Hotel will have on the country remains unclear, modernity’s place in Bhutanese design calls for attention. As former army colonel Kado Tshering declares, doing so ‘is key to our survival’.

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