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