Hundreds of artists, scientists and visitors from three wildly different cultures Texas, NASA and the isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan converged Wednesday at the opening of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall.
Bhutanese monks in traditional robes stood in line with tourists and NASA engineers for a taste of Texan cuisine that included steak fajitas and noodles from Houston's Vietnamese community.
''Bhutan and America are indeed two very different nations different in size, wealth, geography and population,'' said the 23-year-old Prince of Bhutan, Jigyel Ugyen Wangchuck. ''But together, we share common values.''
This has been a historic year for the once-reclusive nation of Bhutan, which became the world's newest democracy in March with its first-ever parliamentary elections. Participating in the Smithsonian festival, which draws about 1 million visitors each year, is likely the single-largest presentation of its cultural heritage.
When Smithsonian leaders traveled to Bhutan several years ago to begin planning the exhibit, ''Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon,'' they found the folklife festival was high on the government's agenda, second only to forming a new constitution, said Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian's acting undersecretary for art, history and culture.
''The festival is really an exercise in cultural democracy,'' Kurin said.
A centerpiece of the festival is a Bhutanese Buddhist Ihakhang (temple) built as a gift of friendship for the people of the United States. The temple, which features intricate carvings and colorful depictions of a dragon, is the largest structure ever built for a festival on the National Mall. After the festival, it will be donated to the University of Texas at El Paso.
Near the temple, monks demonstrate different art forms from weaving to a unique style of sand painting that uses ground limestone colored with natural pigments.
Dozens of people gathered around soon after the festival's opening as some of the monks answered questions about their lives and artwork.
''This is great, because you get to talk to people firsthand,'' said Elizabeth Terschuur, 26, a dancer from Baltimore. ''I've always wanted to go visit a monastery like that, and to even talk to them about it one-on-one is amazing.''
The traditional arts contrast sharply with the high-tech innovations nearby in the NASA exhibit, which celebrates the space agency's 50th anniversary and gives a glimpse of planning for future lunar and Mars missions. While it may seem odd for the folklife festival to feature a government agency, organizers said they have often focused on the cultures of specific occupations, including the White House and the U.S. Forest Service. They said NASA offers many stories and contributions to the wider U.S. culture.
''You're dealing with something that's almost a mythic occupation exploring the heavens,'' Kurin said. ''If this was another society, you'd be talking about a cult of mystics and oracles.''
Astronauts, engineers and even the people who prepare food for space flights are scheduled to speak throughout the festival, which runs through Sunday, takes a break and then opens for its second leg July 2 to July 6.
Finally, the state of Texas is featured specifically for its food, wine and music. Texas Gov. Rick Perry greeted visitors with a hearty ''Howdy!'' at the festival's opening. He said he was amazed to see some Bhutanese people taking pictures of these ''exotic Texans.''
The governor, wearing black cowboy boots, noted he had some competition in the footwear category. Bhutan's prince wore brightly colored boots that were ornately embroidered.
''I told his highness backstage that there are very few times in my life that I have ever been outbooted,'' Perry said, drawing laughs. ''But I'm tellin' ya', he even put me to shame today.''
Associated Press writer Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Smithsonian Folklife Festival: http://www.folklife.si.edu/
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