State of happiness

Published : Oct 09, 2009 00:00 IST

The Thimphu Dzong, which houses the Parliament of Bhutan.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

The Thimphu Dzong, which houses the Parliament of Bhutan.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

RIGHT from the point where the airplane touches down at Paro Airport, Bhutan comes across as a quaint, magical land, and a little removed from the rest of the world. For long Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, remained a bit of a mystery to the rest of the world. But as the tiny Himalayan kingdom under the influence of its Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, began to modernise itself, gradually opening up to rest of the world, the interest of international tourists in Bhutan began increasing.

Today, the tourism industry is one of the biggest generators of foreign exchange in the country. Bhutans high value, low volume tourism policy, like its other modernisation initiatives, has been carefully planned to avoid the ravages of globalisation. The priorities have been cautiously mapped to ensure a balance between tradition and modernity on the path to progress.

The year 2008 was particularly good for the tourism industry. It saw a 31 per cent increase in tourist arrivals and a 30.2 per cent growth in gross earnings from tourism over 2007. It was in the same year that Bhutan held its first general election to Parliament, a new king (this time a constitutional monarch) Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck was crowned, and the country celebrated 100 years of monarchy.

Interestingly, a survey conducted in 2008 by the Bhutan Tourism Monitor of the Tourism Council of Bhutan showed that the primary information source for visitors still remains word-of-mouth, while culture and nature still constitute Bhutans unique selling proposition. It also asked departing tourists to list two or three key words to describe the country. The most popular responses were beautiful (76.8 per cent) and friendly (75.6 per cent).

However, a trip to Bhutan is not only about sight-seeing in the hills, enjoying the festivals, and visiting ancient Dzongs or fortresses, but about getting a slice of a different kind of life, culture, food and traditions. Even as Bhutan continues in its path towards growth and modernisation, it clings to its traditions and customs, making the country all the more unique, and enhancing the mystique that years of isolation have cloaked it with.

Bhutanese are mostly seen in their traditional clothes. The men wear gho, longish robes secured around the waist by a cloth belt called kera, while the women wear kira, an elegant ankle-length dress made of brightly coloured, fine woven fabrics with traditional patterns. Bhutanese food is also distinct. The staple diet consists of red rice, buck-wheat, maize, pork, beef, chicken, yak meat, cheese and chillies (which are consumed more as vegetables than as a spice).

Thimphu, the capital city, has a singular cityscape. The buildings are more or less of the same size and of similar architecture, with the colour of the roof distinguishing them. Red for government buildings, green for residences and yellow for monasteries.

The uniqueness of the takin, Bhutans national animal, with the body of a yak and the head of a goat continues to baffle taxonomists. Unable to relate it to any other animal, they have put it in a new category Budorcas taxicolor. The takin is closely associated with Bhutans religious history. Legend has it that Lama Drukpa Kuenlay (1455-1529), or the Divine Madman, one of Bhutans favourite saints, was urged by his devotees to perform a miracle. He relented and demanded that he be given a whole cow and a goat to eat. After devouring both, he stuck the head of the goat on the bones of the cow, and upon his command it sprang to life. The animal came to be known as Dong Gyemtsey, or takin.

Fascinating as Bhutan is with its history and myths, its people with their unique philosophy of gross national happiness (GNH), leave a lasting imprint on the minds of tourists. Jigme Singye Wangchuck came up with the GNH concept.

His philosophy, gross national happiness is more important than the Gross National Product, draws inspiration from Buddhist teachings.

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