The 1914 National Geographic titled Castles in the Sky brought the beauty of Bhutanese architecture to the world. Image: John Claude White/National Geographic

The University of Texas El Paso and Bhutan Celebrate a Century of Cultural Exchange


In 2013, Opera Bhutan put on the first Western opera production that Bhutan had ever hosted, in the nation’s capital of Thimphu. Australian conductor Aaron Carpené, who conceived the project, led 32 University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) students, faculty, and staff on a three week trip to learn about the country and perform for the Bhutanese. In 2014, the same show was put on in El Paso for students and local residents. The purpose of the show was to commemorate a century-long relationship between UTEP and Bhutan.

UTEP President Diana 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.”

The relationship began with a 1914 National Geographic special on Bhutanese architecture titled “Castles in the Air.” In 1916, a fire burned down the UTEP campus, which was then called the State School of Mines and Metallurgy. The campus was moved to a new site across town on a hill overlooking El Paso. The new UTEP site reminded Kathleen Warren, wife of the first Dean, of the National Geographic article and she convinced her husband to have the first new building modeled in the style of Bhutanese architecture.

All buildings on the UTEP campus are designed after Bhutanese style architecture. Image: Univeristy of Texas El PasoBhutanese architecture

is characterized by large, textured walls, high inset windows, bands of brick, and mosaic-tiled mandalas. Since the first building went up, UTEP has required that all new buildings follow the same architectural style. In contrast to most US college campuses, which often lack architectural uniformity due to the variety of donors, UTEP stands unique in its consistency.

President Natalicio also said that the UTEP-Bhutan relationship “has been enhanced, especially during the past 20 years, through growing cultural exchanges, including the donation to UTEP of the treasured Bhutanese lhakhang at the center of our campus,and UTEP’s growing Bhutanese student enrollment.”

In 1978, Bhutanese Prince Jigme “Jimmy” Dorji, was the first Bhutanese student to receive a bachelor’s degree from the university. Since 1995, more than two dozen Bhutanese students have received degrees from UTEP.

Since 2003, the university hosts a bi-annual “Bhutan Days,” which brings performers and artisans from Bhutan to UTEP’s campus. These events are open to students, faculty, and members of the surrounding communities, providing an opportunity for expanding Texan ties to the small Himalayan kingdom.

Ethan Kannel is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a junior at Cornell University