Bhutan is one of the few magical countries left on earth. What particularly attracted us to visit it, is the fact that this is the country that invented the idea of Gross National Happiness – but more about this later.
About the size of Switzerland, this Himalayan kingdom is a country of mountainous forests, riverine valleys and only 700,000 people, steeped in Buddhist mysticism. A huge contrast to China and India which surround the land-locked country. The people are essentially the result of mixing Chinese and Indians over the centuries, including a strong Tibetan influence.
The mountainous terrain has long restricted travel and in fact the various local fiefdoms which made up the country were only united under a single king in 1907.
A policy of isolation continued until 1961, when it was replaced by a policy of controlled development that saw the gradual modernisation of the country, with the first paved roads, national currency, schools and hospitals being introduced.
Road travel remains challenging with landslides caused by earthquakes and the summer monsoon being common. In fact our progress by car was impeded by the results of a major earthquake in the week just before our arrival.
But hikers and trekkers are rewarded, by breathtaking scenery, warm, friendly people who have a charm, simplicity and sense of courtesy which has been lost in the rest of the world. It’s probably like Nepal in the era of Edmund Hilary, before that country lost its way politically and its trails became tourist highways.
The three hour drive from the capital Thimphu to Punakha had breathtaking views. Punakha is also home to one of the country’s most famous Dzongs – a fortress combining a monastery, temples and public administration buildings.
First built in 1637, crossing the bridge over the river to enter the Dzong is to be welcomed into a world of exquisite calm and meditative peace. It was the site of the Royal Wedding last week, preparations for which were being made as we toured the building.
The most spectacular one day walk in Bhutan is the 5 hour round trip from Paro up to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which has been built impossibly on a ledge up a steep mountain.
The King’s mother is a regular pilgrim to the Monastery and we met her as she and her entourage swept past us on our climb up.
A remarkably charming and attractive woman, the former Queen stopped to chat for about 10 minutes and reinforced the country’s commitment to the more holistic notion of development encompassed by the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH).
Above all it was to see this idea in action, an idea that had great intuitive and emotional appeal to us, that had led us to Bhutan.
In the early 1970s the country’s fourth King accelerated modernisation and for the first time allowed tourism. To guide Bhutan’s modernisation policy, the King introduced the concept of GNH. Drawing on core Buddhist and humanistic values, it emphasises that economic growth is a means to more important ends, rather than being an end in its own right.
A framework has been developed to guide policy decision making, that places real value on things such as cultural heritage, health, education, good governance, ecological sustainability and diversity. Individual wellbeing is given great importance and this is defined holistically, rather than in narow commercial terms. The Bhutanese have shown remarkable foresight given the avalanche of research on happiness and wellbeing that has since emerged, highlighting the wisdom of their approach.
The Centre for Bhutan Studies, set up by the government is doing considerable work on developing measures to underpin GNH and the GNH Commission, chaired by the Prime Minister, screens all new policy proposals for their impact on GNH. With the benefit of international collaborators, eight general contributors to happiness have been found: physical, mental and spiritual health, time-balance, social and community vitality, cultural vitality, education, living standards, good governance and ecological vitality.
Bhutan’s Prime Minister’s speech to the United Nations last month was on the topic of happiness and its relevance to economic policy. It’s a speech worth reading for its clarity and inspiration. But are people happier as a result of all of this? While Bhutan’s economy has been growing well over the past few decades, it remains a relatively poor country, though one spared the abject poverty still evident in parts of India. But according to psychologist Adrian White of the University of Leicester, who produced the first ever ‘world map of happiness’Bhutan ranked eighth out of 178 countries. And it is the only country in the top 20 happiest countries that has a very low GDP.
The King showed not only insight, but also humility when he recognised that ‘Monarchy is not the best form of government because the king is chosen by birth and not by merit’ and decided on a transition to a democratic, constitutional monarchy. This culminated in his abdication in favour of his 26 year old son in 2006, followed by parliamentary elections and the first executive government, headed by the Prime Minister.
The new King has become hugely popular, as was evident in the public warmth which bathed his recent wedding to his 21 year old sweetheart. The joy shown in the ceremony reflected the sense of joy in this country as a whole.
Click for The Happy Kingdom Part 2