B H U T A N: Is Gross National Happiness a seductive slogan or a pioneering ideology?
THIMPHU, Kingdom of Bhutan â€“ People are killed every day in the struggle to replace tyrants with freedom. But in
this Himalayan kingdom, wedged between global giants India and China, a place where demons and spirits still roam
and fairytales are still told, an absolute monarch recently imposed democracy even though his subjects begged him to
maintain his arbitrary rule.
Anomalies are not unusual in this quirky little nation where Vajrayana Buddhism and secular powers share
government, where birth and marriage certificates are a recent novelty and separations are usually settled amiably
since there are few lawyers to litigate. Everyone here wears skirts, the knee-length gho for males and the ankle-
length Kira for women, the compulsory dress at work, in school, at official functions and to enter a temple or
government building. This is a country where education and health care is free for every citizen and villagers pay no
tax, where the official ideology is neither socialism nor capitalism but a home-spun policy of Gross National Happiness
(GNH) a policy no one in the kingdom can accurately define though everyone will tell you how it is supposed to work â
€“ for them.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is certainly no Shangri-La though sometimes it feels as if the country had been left in a time-
warp in the Himalayan foothills, too poor in resources to be bothered, too inaccessible to be conquered, too complex in its Buddhist-
Shamanic faith for missionaries and so reclusive everyone almost forgot it existed â€“ until its sweet innocence lit a beacon for a new
kind of world order.
That happened after its visionary king, the one who forced democracy on his subjects, also coined the
revolutionary economic slogan: â€˜Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.â€™
And that did it.
The message caught the imagination of modern philosophers and seekers for new ways to save the world from itself.
Within a few years Bhutan became a mini-laboratory for academics and amateur theoreticians, for meddlers and visionaries
searching for a third way between neo-liberal free market capitalism and defunct communism, an economic policy that would no
longer subjugate social progress to consumerism â€“ but work the other way round; that would stop privatisation of common or
public property; a policy that would spread profits instead of concentrating them among a few; a new doctrine that would save the
polluted planet, reduce mental depression, the suicide rate, narcotics and anti-depressant drug abuse, obesity, all of it connected,
so researchers found, to more and more unhappiness.
In 2006 Business Week magazine claimed Bhutan was the happiest nation in Asia.
The first of several international seminars on Gross National Happiness (GNH) was held in Thimphu in 2004 hosted by the
Centre for Bhutan Studies. Eighty-two participants from 18 countries came and forty-two erudite essays on the subject have since
been published in a massive volume entitled â€˜Gross National Happiness and Development.â€™ Its contents read like a modern â
€œI accuseâ€� about the way the world is run today.
The researchers concluded the global economy today is led by a young and immature nation, the USA. Like most
young people, so the findings go, the U.S. culture values physical beauty, physical strength and youth. More mature
cultures value the elderly, wisdom that comes from a life well lived, peaceful coexistence and inner rather then outer
Conclusion: â€œWhat is seen as American culture is not a product of the American people but an artificial
consumer culture foisted on people through advertising and the mass mediaâ€¦.â€�
In this miserable world of ours industrial systems harvest food products days or weeks before they mature. This deprives the
consumer of vital nutrients. Worse, artificial flavouring, colouring and chemical preservatives are added to add shelf life and
compensate for loss of taste and flavour. But the worst part of our economic boom is the systematic loss of varieties of our natural
food, replaced by bio-engineered crops grown with the help of massive herbicide spraying. This earns bio-seed and herbicide
producers billions of dollars in annual profits but impoverishes our physical well-being.
Bhutan, where obesity makes a rare appearance, still has all its food chain in tact.
Another conclusion: â€œThe human ability to think has made humans the least intelligent creatures on the planet since
they destroy their life support system and make themselves unhappy. Other creatures act on intuition and always do the right thingâ
€¦â€¦traditional cultures like Bhutan that value contemplation have greater access to this intuitive wisdom, the wisdom of nature.â€�
But what did all these academic analysis really mean to the Bhutanese?
From his office at the national Dzhong, the classical fort-monastery housing government and Buddhist hierarchy, Home
Minister Minjur Dorji runs the police, the army, immigration and the department of culture. He leaned back and chuckled at the
question: â€œHappiness to me is when all my departments function well, which means everyone is content.â€�
Attorney General Puntsho Wangdi, 41, has his own priority: â€œMy happiness is when the crime rate stays low, like 180
petty crimes for the whole of last year and not one premeditated murder.â€� His wife, Bhutanâ€™s favourite folksinger, Lhamo
Dukpa, has another version: â€œFor me happiness is when I see the joy in the face of my audience, when I reach out to other
people in friendship, when they reach out to meâ€¦.â€�
Dr Pema Trinley, vice-chancellor of the University of Bhutan feels the kingâ€™s GNH policy has caused more fuss abroad
then at home. â€œAt the beginning we thought happiness would be better roads, electricity for everyone, more gadgets, more
entertainmentâ€¦.but we soon found out there is more to happiness then conveniences and goods. Now we try to maintain the
spiritual. Opening up the country has brought in many positive things but also much negative. In fact our surveys found rural people,
the ones living a simple life in the old-fashioned ways, are far happier then our â€˜modernâ€™ people in the citiesâ€¦..people in the
Haa Valley, one of the poorest and most isolated of our regions, were the most content people in Bhutan our survey found.â€�
There are those who feel if Bhutan had desired to retain its legendary happiness, its pristine environment and its affable
character it should have kept its door shut tight to the outside world. But the outside world was not to be denied. By 1999 the
telecommunication revolution had left its imprint on people returning from abroad, mainly neighbouring India. So the king and his
cabinet (with the consent of the Buddhist hierarchy) allowed access to internet, mobile phones and cable TV. Over the years they
gave permits to two TV stations (one of them government run) and seven newspapers to supplement the Kuensel, the quaint state-
run daily that had supplied one-track information for Bhutanâ€™s 700,000 citizen ever since anyone remembered.
â€œReporters are still new to the profession and they donâ€™t verify the facts,â€� lamented Pek Dorje head of the
Centre for Media and Democracy. â€œAnd our new radio stations just play music. They donâ€™t educate people with information.
But then we are still in the process of educating our media,â€� she added.
While academics from all over the globe racked their brains how to save the world with GNH, the country that
started it all was already rapidly mutating. Bad road manners are common now. So is timber-smuggling of the once
sacrosanct trees. It is not unusual to see bodies, dead-drunk on Arra (the national beverage made of fermented wheat
and yeast) lie prone on the roadside. At night young people change out of their ghos and kiras and don blue jeans, T-
shirts, jackets with popular U.S. logos, spike and tint their hair and head in swaggering groups to strobe-lit discos and
a night of dancing and making out. They communicate on mobile phones, pay mobile phone fees cheaper then
anywhere else in the world and keep up contact with one another and the outside world through a score of new
Internet cafes, if they cannot already afford their own computer.
â€œI canâ€™t wait to get home from school and change out of my heavy kira into my jeans. Theyâ€™re so much more
comfortable. And then I get on my mobile and organize my friends for the evening,â€� said Soname, a teenage girl in Paro,
summing up general sentiment among her generation.
â€œItâ€™s irreversible,â€� admitted Minister Dorji: â€œWe canâ€™t stop it and we donâ€™t want to. We just
have to try and maintain our own culture and trust in our people. We will not make the mistake of sacrificing everything
to modern culture. We will select.â€�
He is an optimist.
It is true, Bhutan, isolated for centuries, still does not trust the governance systems of an outside world whose democracies
and consumerism local leaders see as flawed, whose mass movement of people Bhutan wants to avoid and whose emphasis on
economic growth the kingdomâ€™s leaders say benefits only a few. But it will be difficult to retain the pristine beauty and innocence
of a country now opened to a modern world that does not see Bhutanâ€™s lush high altitude forests with their moss-covered tree
trunks as animate spirits to be cherished but considers them a lucrative commercial potential not just for logging but to build five star
tourist resorts. (Already five Amankora resorts: Price: $950-1,000 U.S. a night)
Here monasteries and temples seem tossed into the sky by magic, emerging like fairytale apparitions after steep hour-long
climbs, nestled against mountain cliffs or perched on mountains tops, some over 3000 meters above sea level. Yet in the deep
gorges where the towns sprawl it rarely snows and the gurgling streams with their rapids are rich with trout that no one fishes
because fish are among creatures not to be consumed. Yaks and shaggy ponies carry burdens on treks as old as local history and
the few asphalted artery roads wind on forever. The straightest stretch of road is the one that runs along the runaway at Paro airport
from where daily flights snake around mountain slopes a stoneâ€™s throw away, straining to gain altitude while in the distance snow-
smothered Mt Everest and K2 watch from above the clouds.
Yet Bhutan is neither the legendary retreat of Western fantasy nor the last unspoiled Himalayan hideaway. Its problems,
like AIDS (allegedly imported by Indian truck drivers) are similar to ours, though still on a smaller scale. And the country is rapidly
catching up with the rest of the world now the doors have opened to information from the global mass media, the scourge of our
consumer society according to the researchers of GNH. The first fraudulent pyramid schemes have been uncovered and someone in
government scammed money off the health budget.
Bhutanâ€™s time-warp is running out.
But masked Buddhist saints and ancient demon-spirits still dance side by side in ritualistic tsechus, the annual festivals,
mimicking battles between good and evil where good always wins. And no one here embarks on any important enterprise without first
consulting a monk-astrologer. Marriages are still mainly free unions and a shortage of lawyers and laws makes divorces and
separations still amiable by necessity; children are accustomed to run into or live with half brothers and half sisters and in general at
least one child in a rural family is sent off to become a monk. The send-off age is six followed by eights years in elementary â€˜monkâ
€™ school, eight years as an apprentice monk in Bhuddist colleges and a university, all isolated monasteries on mountain tops,
before the final three years are spent in meditation in a cell. Only then is the graduate ready for higher rank, teaching posts or the
ultimate goal - enlightenment.
There are 6,000 monks in Bhutan, all with a monthly stipend from the government.
Then there is the exalted figure of the abdicated king who may have envisaged the demise of his own monarchy in an era
when not only tyrants but monarchs are bowing to the desire for freedom and a say in government. In 2008 when he was Bhutanâ
€™s fourth King (The monarchy was founded in 1907) Jigme Singye Wangchuk decreed general elections for an upper and lower
house of parliament. He then abdicated and retired to his simple home turning the new constitutional monarchy over to his eldest
son, fifth king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, a bachelor now aged 31 with a MA in politics from Oxford. Before he abdicated the
king supported a constitution that allowed his successor-son only one legal wife, thus avoiding a repetition of the ten children his
father sired from the four sisters he married. (The ex-king lives alone, his four wives around the other side of a mountain).
For Bhutanese feminism the 2008 constitution struck an important blow. Today each Bhutanese male may
marry only one legal wife, instead of living with any number he was able to support in the past. And there are laws now
about paying alimony. This curb on free-wheeling male libido may have prompted a delegation of 400 village elders to
try and persuade the king to rescind his decision to abdicate, forget about democracy and leave alone polygamy. In
public the elders argued the advent of democracy would bring â€˜doubt, uncertainty and confusionâ€™ to the
kingdomâ€™s common people who were accustomed to obey royal edicts and in the habit of rejecting alien ideas with
the pat excuse: â€˜Our king wouldnâ€™t like it.â€™
But the king remained firm.
He argued absolute power should not be in the hand of one person. His statesmanship had already become legend in the
region. He had obtained autonomy from Bhutanâ€™s powerful neighbour India which has always considered this kingdom as a de
facto protectorate and a buffer against further Chinese expansion in the Himalayas after Beijing annexed Tibet in 1959. Today India
maintains a sizeable military presence in Bhutan, mainly stationed along the border with Tibet. The king told the elders: â
€œDemocracy is best introduced at a time people enjoy peace and happiness when the kingdomâ€™s security is assured and
economic opportunities are growing.â€�
So democracy reluctantly came to Bhutan, though with a few hiccups.
For a start this little country, the size of Switzerland, specifies tourists must spend a minimum $200 a person per day
because, as Home Minister Minjur Dorji bluntly told me: â€œWe donâ€™t want the country overrun by backpackers.â€�
The minister also accepts charges his nation is an â€˜elitist societyâ€™ because its constitution allows only university
graduates to stand for parliament. For its first election three years ago the election commission disqualified the Bhutan Peoples
Party (BPP) which presented itself as â€˜the party of the downtroddenâ€™ with the official excuse that the majority of BPP members
were â€˜school dropouts without a clear ideology, vision or mission.â€™
The first election in 2008 brought to power the party which had adopted the monarchist colour of orange and had made
its slogan the kingâ€™s policy: â€˜Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.â€™ The
outmanoeuvred opposition, headed by an unpopular royal uncle, gained only two seats in the 47-member parliament. The royal
uncle was not elected.
The kingdom desires neither dropouts as MPs nor backpackers as tourists.
Since tourists have to spent a minimum $200 a day during their visit, five star resorts with 500 to 1,000 dollar a night
accommodation abound in this rather modest little country. This year alone 27,000 tourists visited Bhutan, flying into the Land of the
Thunder Dragon on the national carrier DrukAir from Bangkok, Calcutta or New Delhi. The nationâ€™s ambitious target for next year
is 100,000 tourists which means revenue from tourism could exceed Bhutanâ€™s other revenue spinner - hydro-electricity exported
exclusively to India.
In his office at the government Dzhong Minister Dorji brushes aside charges his countryâ€™s democracy is not quite
democratic. He believes his country is forging its own democratic version.
â€œWhen you want to be a leader you need the potential for that responsibility. You need a basic education. Too many
people misrepresent themselves. We have seen this negative influence (of uneducated members of parliament) in India and other
countries. Why should we copy it? What we see in the West is not the best of democracy, is it? Look at the money pumped in to elect
leaders in the U.S. Our election campaigns are State-funded. No private campaign funding is permitted. This gives our candidates a
level playing field.â€�
(Right now the Bhutan Election Commission is auditing the campaign funding of each political party after it became
apparent the funds they spent in the 2008 election exceeded their allotments.)
Minister Dorji is just as frank about backpackers: â€œTourists get value for their money in Bhutan. We donâ€™t want
backpackers to destroy our culture.â€�
And like every official in this country he is vague and woolly about the 100,000 Nepalese who claim they were kicked out
of the country following riots for autonomy in Southern Bhutan, an uprising allegedly supported by Maoist rebels from Assam. The
100,000 have been waiting for a decade in U.N. refugee camps on the border for an inter-nation committee to settle the legitimacy of
their claims to Bhutanese citizenship. Ironically those Nepalese (now referred to as Southern Bhutanese) who remained in Bhutan
today make up the bulk of the countryâ€™s manual labour force. Yet each one can only obtain a work permit if police certify their
families and relatives were not involved in the separatist conspiracy. Fear of terrorism and the spectre of racial discrimination is now
an issue here.
â€œWe tried to stop them (the Nepalese) leaving in the first place. The king even appealed to them. Itâ€™s a lie that we
confiscated their property. We have the documents to prove they sold them. But we are willing to negotiate their return,â€� the
On Dochu-La pass, some 25 kms east of the capital, the kingdom built 108 chortens (stupas) in 2005 as atonement for the
killing of Assam rebels during a fierce flush-out operation by Bhutanese forces. Not far from the pass which is on the main road east
to the old capital of Punakha a mandatory police checkpoint ensures travel agencies present the restricted travel permits for
foreigners going east or west in Bhutan. These checkpoints are the reason no $200-a-day tourist can go far in the country without a
guide and a travel permit that only a tourist agency can procure.
If the positive PR image of Bhutan does not quite live up to reality these days there is still something
endearing about a country whose people always smile, readily chat, are always polite and try to be happy, a country
where a big news item this month was the governmentâ€™s decision to provide cheese-making equipment to nomadic
yak herders in the Haa Valley so they can make a living in winter and will not have to slaughter their animals for meat.
This is a country that wept with compassion but still jailed a 25-year-old Buddhist monk for three years after he bought
tobacco on the black market without paying the obligatory tax; a nation which proudly proclaims itself as â€˜The Land of
the Thunder Dragonâ€™ but which tourists could easily rename â€˜The Land of the Barking Dogsâ€™ since thousands
of stray dogs roam the urban and rural areas, untouchable by the Vajrayana Buddhist belief, all sleeping in the daytime
and barking wildly at night to defend their territorial claims against other roaming canines. (Tourists are advised to
bring ear plugs though a campaign is now under way to sterilize the dogs.)
What nation can claim it was liberated from wild demons by a Tibetan guru who â€˜conqueredâ€™ Bhutanâ€™s demons
in the time of the shamans after one itinerant Lama complained that while he traversed Bhutan on his way to Tibet each time he
squatted by a tree to relieve himself a demon appeared and chased him away. He remained constipated until he reached
Perhaps Bhutan should convince the demon to return and chase away those rascals who cut down its towering trees today,
Though the guru Rinpoche converted Bhutan to Buddhism the countryâ€™s most beloved religious figure is the irreverent
16Century Lama Drukpa Kunley, venerated as â€˜the Divine Madman,â€™ a kind of anarchic saint whose ribald promiscuity was as
legendary as his miracles and the witty humour he used to deflate the pomposity, the arrogance and the dogmatism inherent in all
religions. Kunleyâ€™s outrageous behaviour, his verses and the fables around his life were written down by his followers as he
travelled across the country using his phallus like a sword to scare away evil spirits, seduce myriads of maidens and married ladies
and teach a Tantric Buddhism that was in stark contrast to the ascetics of the East who have always taught negation of the physical
and its desires.
He wrote â€œIf you think I have revealed any secrets, I apologize
â€œIf you think this is a medley of nonsense, enjoy it.
â€œIf an enlightened perspective is not intuitively grasped
â€œWhat can be gained by a systematic search?â€�
â€œThe fool who knows nothing but prattles constantly
â€œMerely proclaims his ignorance to all.â€�
The legacy of â€˜The Divine Madmanâ€™ lives on in Bhutan.
Apart from his amazing amorous feats the bearded Kunley is credited with a series of miracles, one of them
the creation of the bizarre national animal, the Takin, a bison-like beast he â€˜manufacturedâ€™ by taking the head of a goat and
sticking it into the body of a cow. He is also said to have eaten a chicken then gathered the bones and made the chicken come back
to life, though with only one leg. The other leg was discovered later in the cooking pot. In some areas chicken today are still born
People here still believe in such miracles. Why not? Our Christian faith says Jesus Christ converted water to
wine and stones to bread and resurrected the dead.
In Bhutan phalluses of all sizes, shapes and details are painted on most rural homes, though in recent years a
prudish streak has invested urban citizen who erased the phalluses on their homes. The male genitalia, painted in all its details and
at times in eruption is meant to be a replica of Kunleyâ€™s legendary weapon and is believed to ward off evil and malicious gossip
as well as ensure fornication inside the home is blessed by fertility. Once a new house is completed four wooden phalluses are hung
suspended from its four corners, an antidote against the ravages of the four winds. Unfortunately, so one local newspaper lamented
this month, imported prudishness has crept into rural areas and the man-sized wooden phalluses kept as scarecrows in vegetable
gardens and in orchards are being replaced by traditional â€˜westernâ€™ straw men.
But old beliefs die out slowly. Barren women still make pilgrimages to Lama Kunleyâ€™s Chimi Lhakhang temple
built in 1499 on a hillock near the old capital Pukhara where his dog is also buried in a separate stupa. The women seek the
blessing of the Lamaâ€™s holy water and want to touch the magic wooden replica of the Lamaâ€™s powerful organ. This
apparently works. A monk assured me most of the female petitioners return with gratitude and new-born babies nine months later.
They can then draw from a folder the name of their child â€“ of course, for a small donation.
Many of Bhutanâ€™s venerated abbots and lamas are reincarnated Trulkus. Some reincarnations
were discovered centuries after the demise of the original personage. But no one ever set out to search for a Trulku
of Lama Kunley. Perhaps it was unlikely any reincarnation would be capable to replicate the romantic and miraculous
feats of that impertinent religious rogue who embodied both the devote Buddhist and the free-spirited Shaman, a
duality that still cohabits in the soul of most Bhutanese.