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Bhutan's Search for Gross National Happiness

Bhutan is one country where the Indian passport puts you at an advantage.

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In a world that measures a country's prowess on its gross domestic product (GDP), you have to marvel at a nation with the spunk and spirit to rate itself on its GNH - Gross National Happiness.

Monks perform a black hat dance, a dance of ground purification, during the Tsechu festival at Punakha Dzong in the Punkha district
That's Bhutan for you, a small Shangri-La of just 634,000 citizens and some 40,000 expatriates.

Landlocked between India and China, surrounded by rugged mountains, Bhutan has prospered in isolation, retaining its culture, its Buddhist faith, its pristine environment and its essential nature.

In 1907, after several centuries of divided rule by various influential families, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck unified Bhutan under the name of Druk Yul - Land of the Thunder Dragon.

It's hard to believe, but as recently as 1960 there were no roads in Bhutan and all travel had to be done on foot or by horseback! This abode of the Gods with its many stupas and prayer flags is only a three hour flight from New Delhi yet few really know the fairy tale kingdom.

Americans got a rare glimpse of contemporary Bhutan at an exhibition of Indian photojournalist Serena Chopra's black and white images at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Manhattan.

Tiger's Nest Monastery
"I first visited Bhutan on a trekking expedition," says Chopra, who lives in New Delhi. "The Bhutanese people's struggle to retain their culture and identity made a significant impression on me and I was drawn to return here again and again."

These are evocative images where time seems to have stood still, of silent valleys, of ancient stupas, and a smiling, unspoilt people who live close to the heartbeat of the land: Yak Cham performers with their striking masks, tribesmen, nuns, village families, and monks preparing a thousand butter lamps. Yet the images also show a country in transition: you see huge new hotels being built, a youth culture becoming more aware of western music and discos, of modernity creeping into this ancient civilization.

Indeed, the challenge of moving into the new world of the 21st century while retaining its past is at the core of contemporary Bhutan. Writes Chopra about the current King Jigme Singye Wangchuck's efforts in her book, Bhutan: A Certain Modernity: "Over the past 30 years he has opened the doors to his kingdom in slow, barely perceptible, motion. The visionary monarch has chosen not to engage with the hurly burly of modern mediocrity; instead he strides joyfully towards creating a new genre of modern society - a society that matures gently because it remains rooted in its faith, identity and culture. The last independent Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, Bhutan has inadvertently given itself an enormous responsibility: to prove to the world that its citizens' emotional well-being is the cornerstone of a prosperous society."

Children laugh while telling stories on the floor of their family's kitchen in Thimpu
While almost every country is well represented in the immigrant mix in the U.S., Bhutan has virtually no presence in America, and its inhabitants aren't a part of the teeming, swirling immigrant mass in New York or California, where citizens of every nation seem to be trying to find a toehold. Indeed, there are no Bhutanese businesses or restaurants in New York. A Tibetan restaurant "Tibetan Kitchen" in Manhattan where some dishes are close to Bhutanese cuisine, is the closest you can come to capturing a whiff of the country.

Bhutan does not have an embassy or consulate in the United States. It's highest official representative Ambassador Daw Penjo, permanent representative of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations, says: "We do not have a large Bhutanese community living in the U.S. Apart from the mission staff and others working for various international organizations including the United Nations, the Bhutanese in the U.S. are mostly students studying in various educational institutions."

As there are no major universities in Bhutan, many students who can afford it come to America to study, but then head back home. One them is Yangchen Wangchuk, who is from the royal family and spent five years at the University of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. She is all set to leave for home, with a degree in systems engineering.

Education is the biggest draw for Bhutanese who venture out of their country and interestingly enough, crown prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck graduated from the Cushing Academy and the Wheaton College. He went on to complete his masters at Magdalen College, Oxford University. The current king is abdicating in favor of his son, the crown prince, who will be introducing parliamentary democracy and elections, gingerly taking Bhutan into the modern world.

Chopra writes, "My impression of Thimpu in the year 2006 is of a city besieged by construction. Shopping centers, hotels, restaurants, discotheques and now even a movie hall. Every street and corner has at least one building under construction. Traffic in the busy market area has increased manifold and the solitary policeman dances constantly, flinging his arms about to control the ever increasing volume of cars on the road. This is the only capital in the world that does not use traffic lights."

Yak Chem performers in Merak village
Bhutan remains veiled from the outer world and it's not easy to secure permission to travel to the country. It is one of ten bio-diversity hotspots in the world and harbors over 770 species of birds, 50 species of rhododendrons along with rare medical plants and orchids. There are such wonderful species of animal life as blue sheep, golden langurs and snow leopards. To safeguard these treasures tourism is conducted in a controlled setting with tourists only allowed on group tours or customized visits. In 2004 Bhutan allowed only 9,000 tourists into the country; in 2006 the number doubled to 18,000. Slowly, the door is opening to a country where the past is very much a part of the present.

In our harried world, who wouldn't like to take a time out in Bhutan? The official Bhutan website notes, "For the traveler in quest for peace, tranquility, inspiration and enchantment Bhutan is the perfect answer. Here amidst monasteries, fluttering prayer flags, friendly people, pristine scenery, running streams, green valleys, lakes and awe inspiring architecture the traveler wakes up to a deep and pleasant realization that his inward journey has been as much valuable as his outward trip."

But perhaps far tellingly at a time when global warming and environmental chaos are an inconvenient truth, the website goes on to note: "The Bhutanese traditional reverence for nature has delivered the country into the third millennium with its environment - both natural and popular - still richly intact."

A view of Thimpu
Says Chopra, "Bhutan is certainly quite accessible for tourists, but perhaps cannot be described as affordable back-packer country. A minimum charge of $200 or more per day applies to tourists, though not for Indians. This makes travel to Bhutan more special and exclusive. Also the pristine environment is better maintained."

Bhutan is one place where the Indian passport enjoys an advantage over American or other nationalities.

"Between Bhutan and India there is free movement of people between our two countries," says Penjo. "We have large number of Indian tourists visiting Bhutan throughout the year. The favorite time of the year is during the summer months when it is much cooler in the mountains." Indian nationals do not pay the normal $200 daily tourist tariff.

2007 marks a century of monarchy in Bhutan, but since it is considered an inauspicious year under the Bhutanese calendar, Bhutan is holding off celebrations until 2008. The crown prince will become the fifth dragon king in 2008.

Sonam Wangdi (standing) and members of his family in Sakteng Valley
The year will be open house in Bhutan, with visitors to Bhutan given an opportunity to experience the real Bhutan through the centenary program of "Meet the Bhutanese." They will be able to experience places generally closed to tourists and see the people and the policy of "Gross National Happiness" up close.

"This ancient land has made a quiet decision to enter the modern age. It has emerged from its chrysalis to spread its wings in new dimensions, to give itself a new kind of freedom," says Chopra.

Will Bhutan retain its balance between ancient and modern and achieve the maximum GNH? Only time will tell.


"As an Indian I have been brought up amid diverse religions. Rites, rituals, ceremonies and ancient traditions thrive in spite of burgeoning modernity. But the colonization of India has undoubtedly impacted her culture; it has guided her priorities and the direction of development. Bhutan, however, was never colonized. In comparison with India, Bhutan is still a wild flower with its roots deeply embedded in its spiritual soul."

Serena Chopra,
Bhutan: A Certain Modernity.


Travel and visa details can be found at www.tourism.gov.bt and information on foreign direct investment from the government website at www.mti.gov.bt as well as from the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry www.bcci.org.bt.

Bhutan is accessed through internationals airports in Bangkok, Thailand, Delhi and Kolkata in India and Kathmandu, Nepal


It's All About GNH

Currency: Ngultrum
National Language: Dzongkha
Capital: Thimphu
Population: 634,982
333,595 males,
301,387 females.

Subscribe to comments feed Comments (1 posted)

tshering April 12, 2013 at 1:58 AM
Yangchen Wangchuk is the sister of Dasho Sangay Wangchuk. Dasho Sangay Wangchuk is married to Princess Ashi Chhimi Yangzom Wangchuk. Dasho Sangay Wangchuk can be called a member of the Royal Family by marriage but that doesnot make his sibilings or family a part of the Royal Family. If that is so, soon there would be more Royalty in Bhutan than Indians. lol. The amount of publicity the Riverview Family goes to try and link themselves with the Royal Family is just ridiculous
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Travel | Arts & Entertainment | Magazine | March 2007

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