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Bhutan's traditional self-contained cultural system is intrinsically fragile in the face of ongoing modern developments. Indeed, the current situation is in no small part the consequence of delayed entry to the outside world and then only partial and controlled exposures. As the country becomes regionally and globally integrated, clear established boundaries are being both broken down and permeated. Increasing contact to powerful new ideas and the fundamental changes that these imply, threatens to undermine the very foundations of the preexisting system. The cultural dynamic that previously drew predominantly on domestic influences to generate a gradual and internally consistent succession has now been opened up to unfamiliar, persuasive, multidimensional, potentially contradictory and destabilizing external authorities. Bhutanese culture is experiencing a paradigm shift.

The goal of, and associated initiatives towards, development and modernization implies some fundamental alterations in traditional legacies. Previously stable social and economic systems are being transformed, generating major structural changes and a host of new opportunities. The relatively equal distribution of such opportunities requires significant alterations in the traditional distribution of power. Furthermore, an augmented emphasis on the material dimension naturally distracts attention from the spiritual, thereby diminishing the popular role of religion. Notions of both individual and national accomplishment are shifting - now valuing material progress and constant development - and are becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. The ongoing strength and unity of an inherently dynamic culture will require it to continue to collectively judge its performance a success.

The government response has been to both promote and strengthen a national culture, and - whilst reforming economic, social, political and cultural systems - to attempt, during transition, to maintain a balance between changes in these respective areas. Keenly aware that strength comes from unity, and that the nation's continued sovereignty and independence will be reliant on the preservation of a distinct national identity, there have been concerted moves towards forming a clear national culture within its distant and diverse communities. National unity coalesces around three key interrelated elements: common history, common religious belief and common leadership. Building on dominant Ngalop traditions, several national symbols have been either encouraged or introduced. These include a national language (Dzongkha), national dress, national religion and Driglam Namzha, a code of etiquette. All congregate around the central idea of the Tsa-Wa-Sum - the King, the Country and the People - a derivation of the Three Jewels in Buddhist thought.

The processes of integration and development are inherently uneven. Aspects of traditional cultures and their more tangible manifestations are both the first things to be affected and the last things to be completely transformed by ongoing modernization. Encounters with global capitalist culture tend to encourage consumerism well before associated political, social and economic transformations are effected that might enable the overall satisfaction of these new desires. Aiming to achieve a transition that is balanced and relatively stable, the government has placed an emphasis on cultural preservation (or at least avoiding immediate cultural corruption). Policies aim to both promote traditional practices and reduce immediate exposure to potentially disorienting external influences. Tight guidelines have been put in place regarding traditional dress and architectural styles. Programmes have been introduced to promote language and religion. Furthermore, a heavily controlled tourism policy, an erstwhile ban on television (which was only made legal in 1999) and tight regulations regarding external business ventures, all aim at limiting disproportionate cultural contacts.

Government interventions notwithstanding - which should be interpreted as pragmatic rather than reactionary - transformations are relentless, and are being generated from both within the evolving internal environment and more directly from outside. Processes of social and economic change are altering the parameters within which people exist. Whereas the lifestyles of the majority have been slowly shifting, a select very modern community has emerged, associated with high status and wealth, educational achievement, profession, travel and urban living. New hierarchies are forming based around connections with multiple aspects of modernity. With increased opportunities and new aspirations a modern business mentality has taken root that places an emphasis on the production of material wealth.

People are experiencing an expansion of life-world and a broadening of worldview. With the processes of globalization few remain unaware of alternative ways of life, even if it is through overt symbols. Although television was banned, videos were available, along with books and magazines. A generation gap is emerging in Bhutanese culture, particularly within the urban communities. Although tradition remains - associated with family and broader social perforations - the more performative aspect of culture is promoting a host of modern values. Whereas the older generation considers that things are moving extremely fast, for the young they cannot happen quickly enough. Inevitable undercurrents of discontent are emerging, where some feel that their abilities and aspirations are becoming stifled. The traditional Bhutanese culture possessed the ability to reproduce the valuable elements from its past as it continually reformed itself to accommodate more current realities. To date something resembling such equilibrium has been sustained. However, if the Bhutanese culture maintains its overall coherence and retains its most valuable aspects amidst the ongoing cultural whirlwind, it will represent a major - possibly critical - achievement.

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