Sunday, January 31, 2021

Mini Bhutan In The U S of A

The following article was written in 2017 - then promptly forgotten all about it. This morning as I was going through my computer for photos of Doklam areas that I had taken few years back, I came upon it. Thus if the writing sounds a little disconnected, please remember it was written four years back.


It is a connection so powerful and so improbable, it could only be karmic.

In April 1914, Kathleen Worrell, an avid traveler and wife of the dean of the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, picked up a copy of the new issue of National Geographic magazine. Its cover story: an 88-page photo essay entitled “Castles in the Air: Experiences and Journeys into the Unknown Bhutan”.

Author John Claude White—a British India political officer stationed in Sikkim and good friend of Bhutan’s first King, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck (White had attended the King’s 1907 coronation)—wrote rapturously about the remote Himalayan country that was 16,000 kilometers, 12 time zones, and countless worlds of imagination away from west Texas. 'It is impossible to find words to express adequately the wonderful beauty and variety of scenery I met with during my journeys, the grandeur of the magnificent snow peaks and the picturesque charm of the many wonderful forts and other buildings I came across', he observed. Illustrating the article were the first-ever published photos of Bhutan.

Reading these words and poring over the photos, from her home in the hot Chihuahua desert just across the border from Mexico and facing the foothills of the jagged Franklin Mountains, Mrs. Worrell was riveted. Two years later, when fire destroyed the buildings that comprised the original campus, she persuaded her husband, Dean Steve Worrell, to rebuild the school from the ground up in the style of the magnificent Dzong architecture pictured in White’s story. So began a singular and transformative connection between the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), as the school is now known, and the Kingdom of Bhutan—a connection that is stronger today than ever.

Bhutan’s sloping, thick-walled, light-colored stone architecture proved surprisingly well-suited to the unforgiving Texas climate. In 1917, the campus’ first Bhutan-inspired building, now known as Old Main, went up.

Old Main Building - first of many Bhutanese style buildings at UTEP

Today, almost 90 percent of the structures on the campus replicate the architectural aesthetic of the Land of the Thunder Dragon—earning the campus the moniker “Bhutan on the Border”. There are prayer flags, a Mani Dhungkhor (prayer wheel) replete with dhar shiings (prayer flag poles), a Lhakhang, a pedestrian overpass designed like the traditional Bazam, Bhutanese artifacts, and numerous mandalas evoking sacred deities and enlightened states of mind.

Bhutanese Lhakhang

Buildings constructed in the style of Bhutanese Dzongs

Bhutanese style cantilever bridge - Bazam

But the tie between UTEP and Bhutan is far more than symbolic. In the late 1960s, UTEP’s news and information director, Dale Walker, wrote to Bhutan officials seeking comments about the university’s Bhutan-inspired buildings. The correspondence led to the admission of the first Bhutanese citizen to UTEP: Jigme “Jimmy” Dorji, later renamed Jigme Dorji Karchung or, more popularly, “JJ”. Having earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1978, the last I know he owned and managed a successful construction business.

In the summer of 2008, speaking before more than 8,000 people assembled inside UTEP’s Don Haskins Center, during UTEP’s Bhutan Festival, His Royal Highness Prince Jigyel Wangchuck told the audience:

“Your connections with Bhutan are not just the oldest in the United States, they are among the oldest in the world”.

These connections continue to flourish. Currently, thirty-three students are pursuing studies in such diverse fields as finance, engineering, accounting, education, and geophysics.

Perhaps just as impressive, Bhutanese students at UTEP pay local tuition fees—a rare privilege accorded only to our sons and daughters. This translates into savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bhutanese parents seeking admission for their children to this acclaimed center of higher learning. In 2015, Washington Monthly magazine ranked UTEP among the top 10 universities in the U.S.—placing it in the company of Harvard, Stanford, and other prestigious institutions. And for the fourth year in a row, the magazine ranked UTEP #1 in the category of social mobility, because the university opened its doors to those who would most benefit from college—a generosity that has also opened possibilities for our own fortunate UTEP students.

Just as it was a woman whose unique vision led to the creation of “Bhutan on the Border” a century ago, so it has been the far-sighted academic stewardship of another woman that has strengthened the bonds between UTEP and Bhutan. Dr. Diana Natalicio, who has served as UTEP’s president since 1988, has brought a deep commitment to expanding the UTEP-Bhutan relationship. In 2014, Dr. Natalicio told Asia Matters for America, “For nearly 100 years, the University of Texas at El Paso has enjoyed a unique relationship and an increasingly dynamic cultural exchange with the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan”.

As one of UTEP’s distinguished alumni—Dawa Penjor, erstwhile Executive Director at the Bhutan Media Foundation and currently a member of the Rotary Club of Thimphu—remarked:

“There is no other university or institution of learning any where else in the world where Bhutanese students receive preferential treatment.

“The growth of Bhutan-UTEP relation can solely be attributed to the will and commitment of UTEP’s President, Dr. Diana Natalicio. The personal care and informal guardianship provided by the President Dr. Natalicio to Bhutanese students is a source of encouragement.

“It is in Bhutan and Bhutanese interest to see that the relationship grows. UTEP’s relationship with Bhutan is not only a ready-made stepping-stone for formal relations between Bhutan and United States of America in terms of education, research and human resource development, but also a major potential to further the informal diplomacy with the United States”.

Photo Credit: UTEP's official website

1 comment:

  1. This world is quite interconnected on many levels. Just like mini Bhutan in Texas, there are the writings of Michael Aris and motifs in textiles that tell a story. The history of the Himalayas have quite in common history of other indigenous peoples across the globe. People go looking, looking, for something only to find out after contemplation that whatever they were looking for was in their backyard all along, but the exotic-ness of other human beings seeking something similar half way across the world must be the draw. Who knows what it is that constitutes that element of humanity?