Every year in February and March, hundreds of children gather at the gates of the Buddhist monasteries of Bhutan. Their ages will range from between 5 and 14. Some will return together with their carers a number of times as they beg a place inside. If they succeed, they will don the monk’s robes and on a day appointed by an astrologer, will take the monastic vows. Today’s child monks are a continuation of an almost 500-year- long Bhutanese tradition of sending one son to a monastic life.
It may be difficult to believe, but in the 1960s there was no secular education in this country. The creation of generally available education was an enormous challenge for Bhutan. Just over 20 years ago, only 25% of children attended primary school and around 80% of the population was illiterate. This is no surprise if we consider that the majority of this country’s population lived in mountain villages many hours by foot from any kind of road.
In this situation, sending children to a monastery was usually the only possibility of ensuring their access to education and opportunity for social advance. The acceleration of modernisation in Bhutan in recent years has radically changed this picture. Practically in the course of a single decade, this traditional society living in isolation was presented with the all opportunities and faced with all threats of global 21 st Century civilisation.
The symbolic moment in this transformation was the opening up of Bhutan, as the last country in the world, to television and the internet. This took place in 1999 and required a special royal decree. In the following years, a process took place that could only be called culture shock. The traditional society, which had been protective of its cultural heritage and treasured isolation from the world of media, was suddenly deluged with Bollywood, American wrestling and youth pop culture delivered by 45 channels of satellite TV.
As yet unknown social problems appeared: violence in schools, drug use, muggings and corruption. In reaction to a growing wave of criticism, the King decided to block the channels regarded as most disruptive to traditional values: MTV, FashionTV or those with the American wrestling. However, like in the myth of Pandora’s box, once unleashed, it is impossible to control problems of this kind.
At the time of my first stay in Bhutan, in 2007, television had not yet reached many of the more remote mountain villages. I have an image in my mind from that time – after school, the most level piece of mountain meadow would fill up with children playing football or competing in archery tournaments, which is the country’s national sport. When I returned two years later, I was shocked to find that the children had disappeared from these playing fields. And it was easy to work out what the cause of this sudden change was – TV had arrived at the village. From that moment on, the children’s lives between school, work on the household and sleep were filled with Bollywood.
This collision Bhutan has experienced with the world of TV may serve as an illustration of the price its society has had to pay for its accelerated “modernisation”. However, looking at the statistics, on balance this process seems to have come out as definitely positive. In the course of twenty years, the number of people living in extreme poverty was reduced from over 50% to less than 20% and is over twice as low as in neighbouring India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Currently, around 90% of children complete basic education. All economic programmes are carried out according to standards of respect for the natural environment and the principles of sustainable development.
This list of undoubted successes has however another side not mentioned in the official statistics. The aroused consumption aspirations connected to the higher level of education have caused more intense migration from the mountain villages, where life is still very hard despite the changes, to the few towns in the country. The traditional multi-generation family ties are fraying, villages are being left deserted and households abandoned without heirs. So together with the family ties, the values binding local and family communities are being undermined – values like solidarity, cooperation and mutual help and support in difficult times essential for survival in the mountains. Often the young people who end up in the cities do not find any kind of employment let alone jobs meeting their aspirations. This arouses frustration expressed in alcohol, drugs or violence. The first victims of this “dark” side of modernisation are the weakest, most defenceless and prone to social marginalisation – children from poor areas where family ties are deteriorating. The norm in Bhutan is a lack of formal marriages, which leads to the loss of legal capacity for effective execution of children’s alimony. The ease and common nature of the break-up of such relations, together with the retreat of traditional communities and migration to cities, means that ever more mothers are left without means to satisfy their children’s minimal needs.
Currently, in Bhutan there is a lack of foster care institutions like children’s homes or foster families. The only place children in poverty or social exclusion can find shelter is Buddhist monasteries that, out of necessity, become orphanages of last resort. These abandoned children become “Buddha’s Children” as the same places that in the past created the opportunity for social advance, today become asylums for the socially bereaved.
The growing number of children needing care every year greatly exceeds the monasteries’ financial and educational capacities. I asked one of the abbots, who had complained about the lack of care resources for ever more children, what happens when they are refused admission. He told me that then they are left on the road to the monastery, in which case they must receive shelter in accordance with religious and conscientious imperatives.
Adaptation to monastic life is very hard for children, especially those who had previously experienced normal family life or who had attended school. Daily duties start at around 5am with communal prayer and meditation. Education is in the form of rote learning of new religious canon texts set every day. The degree of memorisation is verified by teachers by individual examination at the end of each day of learning. Depending on availability of means and the chance to gain the help of volunteers, the educational programme is sometimes broadened with the basics of English or maths.
In certain monasteries, especially those located high in the mountains, the children’s living conditions cannot be described as anything other than dramatic. There is a general lack of warm clothes during the Himalayan winter, when the monastery buildings are not heated. The poor, insufficient diet causes sickness and delayed development. I often failed to correctly recognise children’s age as judging by their height and weight I thought they were at least four or five years younger than they actually were.
During my whole stay, I only came across a few children who, at the age of 14 as tradition requires, consciously choose the monastic life as the place of their further learning and development. In every one of these cases there was a close person in their family who was a known and respected monk. For all the rest, their stay in the monastery was forced by circumstances, which lead to common escapes, especially among the older children. Caught or returned by their family, and despite corporal punishment, they did not stop making further attempts to run away. There were monasteries where more children reaching the age of 16 finally absconded than those who completed their monastic education.
I spent many weeks taking pictures of child monks in conditions totally unacceptable from what we consider the basis of a happy childhood. This was a difficult experience. There were times when the provision of medical care, the purchase of medicine or educational support was more important than photography. I often found myself asking how I would cope in a situation of this kind, and I was not only thinking of childhood. There were places in the mountains where I am sure I would have not survived the winter as an adult, let alone as a child.
However, the most extraordinary thing was how, in such difficult conditions, apparently totally bereft of any happiness and play, these child monks were able to take advantage of every free moment to gain “space” for their childhood. Every unused piece of paper became an aeroplane, a bundle of rags a football and the steep mountain slopes a slide. Observing their joy and unbridled vitality offered the hope that by retaining even a trace of their childhood, they could find the strength to seek their own way in life. And I wished them that with all my heart.