Buddhism is imprinted in every aspect of life and the landscape of Bhutan, with more than 75% of its population devoted to it. According to local tradition, the Indian Buddhist master, Padmasambhava (Lotus Born in Sanskrit) founded Buddhism in Bhutan in the 8th century. Popularly known as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Teacher), the master is viewed as the Second Buddha by the Nyingma lineage.

Buddhism is also the foundation of the country’s development policy and governance as encapsulated in its Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy. Coined in 1972 by His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuk, GNH stands for a more holistic concept guiding governance and development towards a balanced advancement and well-being of its people, culture, and nature. GNH refreshing approach to development away from the materialistic and economic-driven dogmatism of Gross Development Product was unanimously adopted by the United Nations in 2011.

True to it, Bhutan has promoted many innovations. Its development policy and plans are anchored on Buddhist precepts of respect for nature, preservation of culture and good governance, and its Constitution stipulates that 60% of all land must be covered by forests at any time. Exceeding its target with 74% of coverage today, Bhutan is one of the few countries in the world with negative carbon emissions. Bhutan’s Constitution recognizes culture as an “evolving dynamic force” passed on from generation to generation, stressing the role of monuments, places, and objects of artistic or historic interest in safeguarding the nation’s identity. The GNH’s pillar on “preservation and promotion of local culture” is also a driver of the government’s five-year development plans. Bhutan’s cultural preservation strategy included:

  • A strict civic and cultural code of conduct and etiquette.
  • The oral transmission of cultural morals from older to younger generations through extended families.
  • A strong social support system, promotion of communal festivals and ceremonies.
  • The protection of its national monuments and support for traditional arts and crafts.

While notable, this strategy had not paid enough attention to the country’s majority of “vernacular” assets, villages and the immediate surroundings (landscapes) that have supported community life for centuries. Bhutan’s heritage was also increasingly under threat from a number of unprecedented structural transformations that its economic liberalization starting in 2007 had triggered. The resulting increased unhappiness of its people, spurred the Royal Government of Bhutan to enact measures to steward its culture with an emerging emphasis on people’s assets and landscapes.

Developing the Buddhist Circuit in Bhutan

To guide a delicate balance between conserving the values and heritage of Bhutan and accommodating the understandable aspirations of a vibrant young community searching for modern urban lifestyles, the Royal Government started with the drafting of a Heritage Sites Bill, and through its Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs, requested the World Bank support. This partnership evolved to series of activities jointly conducted, as briefly described below.

Action 1: Poverty and Social Impact Analysis (PSIA) of the Draft heritage Sites Bill

The drafting of the Heritage Sites Bill was informed by an ex-ante analysis of its potential impacts on the poor. Conducted in 2013, the PSIA profiled Bhutan’s vernacular heritage and their owners/caretakers and assessed the existing financial and governance mechanisms for cultural stewardship in Bhutan.

The PSIA findings showed that the Bill was timely, rethinking the way Bhutan had been promoting and safeguarding its culture, for its evolved continuity in the 21st century. The Bill also broadened the definition of cultural preservation from the protection of monuments to the promotion of the living cultural landscape, with effects including increased appreciation of Bhutan’s vernacular heritage, increased self-esteem of Bhutan’s ageing skilled craftspersons, generation of new employment opportunities especially for youth, greater clarity of roles and responsibilities for cultural stewardship, and more reliable financing for the maintenance and development of heritage sites, particularly its thousands of traditional villages.

To realize these positive benefits, the PSIA repositioned the Bill approach from  command and control to incentive-based mechanisms, in line with its intention to increase people’s responsibility for and capacity to steward the majority of privately owned assets currently unprotected and at risk of being lost due to modernization. The PSIA tailored actions and a package of combined material and nonmonetary incentives to improve living standards and job opportunities in heritage sites across Bhutan. The incentives were clustered by potential impact area, including governance, finance, assets management and employment. It also proposed ways of actively engaging key stakeholders, particularly owners, caretakers, local authorities from identification, inventorying and designation to the stewardship of properties and areas to be designated under the Bill as heritage sites.

To offset any potential adverse impacts of the Bill, six overarching recommendations were also detailed to:

  • Engage those most affected in the preparation of stewardship plans.
  • Provide incentives to heritage site owners and local authorities.
  • Establish institutional arrangements for proper coordination among stakeholders.
  • Develop a mechanism for the tourism sector to contribute to the conservation of cultural assets used by the sector.
  • Promote community and site-specific stewardship plans rather than standardized blueprints.
  • Foster education and invest in awareness raising.

The Royal government fully adopted the PSIA recommendations which informed the refinement of the draft Heritage Sites Bill into the ambitious Cultural Heritage Bill.

Action 2: Cultural Heritage Bill and Stewardship Guidelines

The Cultural Heritage Bill is the first piece of legislation aimed at recognizing and protecting Bhutan’s “cultural landscape”. It moves beyond monuments to recognize living communities that are founded in and around monumental sites and the surrounding landscapes shaped by them. The Bill proposes the required institutional, financial, and regulatory framework for their conservation, management, and development (“stewardship”).

Thus far, the Royal Government has focused primarily on either promoting traditional crafts and arts or protecting major religious and historic monuments with national significance, such as a temples and dzongs. There are about 2,000 such monuments currently listed in the country’s inventory.

While continuing to protect these important cultural expressions and major monuments and archeological sites, the Bill is innovative in its cultural landscape approach, which ties together Bhutan’s breadth of traditional villages and their vernacular heritage assets, such as stupas, chortens, rice terraces, footpaths, watermills and traditional houses, with the cultural, historical, natural and spiritual values and expressions that are at the heart of its communities and surrounding landscapes and have shaped Bhutan’s evolved and continuing way of life.

The scale shift to cultural landscapes recognizes entire villages and the immediate surroundings that support village life as heritage sites whose stewardship presages a vibrant, vital future. Vernacular heritage sites of this kind include about 5,0000 traditional villages and more than 10,000 related assets in Bhutan.[1] This is a significant number, given the country’s small size of 46,500 square kilometres and sparse population of about 750,000 inhabitants.

By broadening its interpretation of cultural heritage through the Bill, the Royal Government seeks to acknowledge Bhutan’s diverse material and intangible heritage and the ongoing, valuable contribution of that heritage to community identity and societal development. The Cultural Heritage Bill recognizes that all elements of a cultural landscape are intertwined and cannot be preserved in isolation and without the stewardship and commitment of host communities. The shift comes at a pivotal moment in the country’s history. Having long maintained a policy of strict isolationism to preserve its culture and independence, Bhutan has become increasingly open to outside influences, and now feels the need to institutionalize a broad, inclusive range of principles and practices aimed at steering its development in a culturally sensitive manner.

Since its inception, the drafting of the Bill has continued to evolve through research and consultation in adherence to underlying Gross National Happiness (GNH) principles, national relevance, and larger development goals. The Bill’s proposes clear provisions and tools for the stewardship of Bhutan’s cultural landscape and heritages sites at both the policy and heritage site levels:

  • A landscape approach to heritage stewardship, advancing the thinking and practice in Bhutan by integrating the density of its heritage assets within a large societal, environmental and economic context.
  • Principles for registration and designation of heritage sites and intangible heritage in a way that respects the associated natural settings, living traditions, and values.
  • Provisions by which the different categories of heritage properties, sites and intangible elements will be registered/designated or deregistered/designated. These provisions set clear responsibilities for central and local governments and owners, readjusting the role of the Department of Culture from an executing agency to a regulator and promoter of conservation of heritage under a long-needed regulatory framework.
  • Cultural Heritage Fund as a dedicated mechanism for the stewardship of designated/ registered cultural heritage, the protection of registered heritage sites at risk, and for public campaigns, research, and publications relevant to the protection of heritage in Bhutan.
  • Adaptive reuse of heritage sites by owners, entitling owners to adapt heritage structures to contemporary uses with guidance on interventions to ensure that heritage values are stewarded. Considering the presentation of heritage to visitors, the Bill grants the possibility of charging fees to visitors as one important incentive.
  • Obligatory cultural landscape impact assessments and clearances prior to large-scale development projects in and around designated heritage sites. If the foreseen impacts are considered to affect the balance of the cultural landscape, the entity will be instructed to adapt the work plan or implement prevention and/or mitigation measures.
  • Formulation of safeguard measures for intangible cultural heritage designated as Intangible Cultural Heritage of National Importance as per the Bill include, inter alia, subsidies and incentives to the bearers of the asset, capacity building of the bearers, inclusion of asset as a topic in the school curriculum, research and documentation, public awareness raising, and tourism.

In addition, tools such as zoning (buffer zones) and other legal restrictions were outlined to protect built and natural heritage assets from encroachment, damage, insensitive reuse and demolition or irreversible degradation.

To assure the success of these regulatory shifts in rural Bhutan, where the trend is increasingly to abandon traditional villages and ways of life and move to cities—a trend that will surely be strengthened with the imposition of strict regulation and a lack of incentives to remain. As such, activities at the heritage site level are also required. As experience shows, an effective approach to keeping up the vitality of shrinking communities—and reducing induced rural/urban migration—is to empower communities through the transfer of stewardship responsibilities and incentives to the local level. Moreover, through effective, community-led stewardship planning and implementation, heritage assets can come to represent economic, social and environmental assets with direct and indirect benefits to the communities themselves.

Therefore, the CHB mandates the preparation and implementation of stewardship plans for heritage buildings and cultural sites designated as heritage sites according to the CHB criteria. A stewardship plan is a roadmap for the responsible and sustainable management of resources/assets. In the context of the CHB, these resources/assets may be built (heritage buildings) or a mixture of built, natural and intangible (cultural sites). 

Stewardship plans go beyond defining how to conduct “conservation” of these assets, to focus on integrating and embedding conservation actions into the assets’ broader contexts or cultural landscapes. In this sense, stewardship planning moves away from a focus on heritage objects or elements and maintaining or rehabilitating their physical conditions towards a focus on the values people draw from them, the functions they serve for society and the uses to which they are put. Such “value-driven” stewardship planning in a cultural landscape approach incorporates those values into decision-making for stewardship purposes and ensures that stewardship activities are sensitive and responsive to ever-changing contexts and cultural conditions.

The preparation and implementation of a stewardship plan is a multi-stage, multi-stakeholder process. Moreover, community-based stewardship planning is a relatively new approach to the management of cultural and natural assets for rural villages of Bhutan, where the majority of people live with, and depend on, these assets.

For these reasons, and at the request of the Royal Government of Bhutan, as part of a technical assistance program to the Department of Culture, the World Bank has prepared this document.[1] It outlines and provides guidelines on conducting the stewardship planning process for the heritage sites sub-category of “cultural sites”. An effective stewardship planning process and resulting plan for a cultural site as per the CHB will reconcile the conservation of cultural and natural diversity within a cultural site—which may be a cluster of buildings, a community, a village or a valley—with the required and desired social and economic development that is closely linked to that diversity. It will ensure that “owners” of heritage assets are able to meet their social and economic aspirations without having to break down their sociocultural structure and out-migrate to improve their quality of life.

These guidelines break the process down into six main phases and explain the meaning, importance and methodology of each phase. By including step-by-step instructions and practical examples, this document aims to provide comprehensive guidelines for any department, agency or organization involved in the stewardship planning process.

The methodology presented in these guidelines was developed, tested and refined through an iterative pilot stewardship planning process for two distinct cultural site contexts in Bhutan: Nobgang village and the cluster of villages at Chimi Lhakhang, in the Punakha valley. The process resulted in the preparation of a draft stewardship plan for each site.