The dragons smile

Print edition : May 09, 2008

As Bhutan shifts from monarchy to democracy, it has made the concept of Gross National Happiness its guiding principle.

in Thimphu

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

THIS is a historical year for the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. As the tiny, beautiful country celebrates the centenary of its monarchy and the coronation of the Fifth King, its people were gently ushered into a new political system of constitutional democracy. What is most remarkable is that this historical change was steered by none other than the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuk himself.

It was not without trepidation that the Bhutanese people went to the polls for the first time in their lives and elected a representative government headed by the political party Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT). They now have their own draft Constitution, and a Supreme Court. However, even as Bhutan struggles with the uncertainties precipitated by such change, it remains determined to hold on to the values and priorities that have so long kept it unique in a rapidly changing world.

Located in the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is bounded by China in the north, and the Indian States of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Assam and West Bengal in the east, west and south respectively. The landlocked country has a population of just 6.7 lakh. A sovereign and self-sufficient nation, it remained virtually unknown to the outside world for much of its existence until the mid-20th century. As a result, its rich culture and scenic beauty remained almost untainted by external influences.

Between the 8th and the 17th centuries, Bhutan was a region of small independent rural communities, where Buddhism was beginning to take root. Around 1616, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan by birth, established a notion of nationhood in the region through a firm structure of dual administration headed by the Chief Abbot of the Buddhist clergy on the one hand and a secular head on the other. However, it was only from 1907, with the establishment of a hereditary monarchy under the Wangchuk dynasty, that Bhutan found political stability and approached the modern age with measured steps, all the while keeping its traditions and unique culture intact.

While the First and Second Kings, Ugyen Wangchuk and Jigme Wangchuk respectively, consolidated the nation under absolute monarchy, it was the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk who introduced the concept of modernisation in the 1950s that led Bhutan to open up to the world by joining the United Nations in 1971. The Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, took up the threads of reform from where his father had left. Early in his reign, a process of decentralisation began, paving the way for the countrys transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional democracy.

In November 2001, he initiated the process of drafting a Constitution for the country, and in 2002 introduced adult franchise in local elections. As part of the move towards democracy, he announced his decision to abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. The Crown Prince ascended the throne in 2008, but as a Constitutional Head.

Western Bhutan: The Paro valley, which is the entry point for air travel, lies at an elevation of 2,280 metres in the western part of the country. The river Paro runs through the heart of the town, and snow-capped mountains overlook the hills surrounding it, giving the quiet sleepy town of Paro a breathtaking beauty.

Places to visit there include the Paro Dzong, which is also the district court; the National Museum housed in a round fortress called Ta Dzong; the ruins of the Drugyal Dzong, a 17th century fortress built to commemorate the victory over Tibetan invaders and which got destroyed in a fire in 1951; and the Tigers Nest or the Taktshang, one of the most popular spiritual heritage sites perched on the rockface of a cliff 900 m above ground.

Barely one and a half hours drive from Paro is Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan since 1961. With a population of around 100,000, it is the largest town in the kingdom. Located at an elevation of 2,320 m, Thimphu has many interesting places to attract tourists. There is the Textile Museum, the Folk Heritage Museum, the Trashichho Dzong, the National Memorial Chorten (a stupa dedicated to the Third King of Bhutan), colourful markets, numerous monasteries and also a beautiful nunnery. The district of Thimphu stretches beyond Dochu-la, the first mountain pass in the western part of the country, on top of which are 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens with colourful prayer flags draping the ridges.

Across the Dochu-la lies Punakha, Bhutans ancient capital, situated in a fertile valley at an elevation of 1,300 m. The meandering trail of a gentle river in the verdant valley leads to the Punakha Dzong, a fortress constructed in 1637, and the second of its kind to be built in Bhutan. It continues to serve as the winter residence of the clergy and the Chief Abbott. Located at the fork of two rivers, the Punakha Dzongs architectural brilliance is stunning.

Though it was destroyed by fire and glacial floods over the years, it has been meticulously restored and stands as a grand example of Bhutanese craftsmanship. The sub-tropical climate of the Punakha valley is conducive for the cultivation of foodgrains, vegetables and fruits.

To the south of Punakha, at an elevation of 1,350 m, is the valley of Wangduephodrang. The Wangduephodrang Dzong sits majestically on a steep ridge overlooking the highway that branches out to the south and east of the country. As the National Highway heads towards Trongsa in Central Bhutan, a slight deviation from below the Pelela Pass leads to the valley of Phobjikha, where the rare black-necked cranes have been spending their winters for centuries. The Gangtey Gompa Monastery, built in the 17th century, is also located in the Phobjikha valley.

Central Bhutan: A four-hour drive down the national highway from Wangduephodrang takes one to the central district of Trongsa, the ancestral home of Bhutans royal family, and from where the first two kings ruled their kingdom. The imposing Trongsa Dzong at the centre of the valley has temples, labyrinthine corridors, offices, and the living quarters of the monks. The entire structure was restored from dilapidation in 2004. It is there that the popular Trongsa Tsechu (festival) takes place between late November and early December.

The masked dance of Bhutan.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Bumthang, the spiritual capital of Bhutan, is also located in the central part of the country. At an elevation of 2,600-4,000 m, Bumthang has numerous monasteries and spiritual sites, and is considered to be the repository of Bhutanese mythology and history. The famous temples in Bumthang include Kurjey Lakhang, associated with Guru Rinpoche, who brought Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet; the eighth century Jampey Lakhang; and the Jakar Dzong. The valley itself, with its fields of barley, buckwheat and apples looks like a beautiful painting. Its local festivals provide an insight into the culture and spirit of Bhutan.

Eastern Bhutan: The uniqueness of Eastern Bhutan arises from the fact that it is the land of the Sharchops, with their special culture and language and talent for weaving. It is in this part of the country that Trashigang, the largest district of Bhutan, is located. The Trashigang Dzong, perched atop a steep hill above the Sherichu river is another example of the strategic role many of the monastic fortresses of the country played in the olden days in keeping out enemies. A half-an-hours drive from Trashigang is Kanglung, the new town that has grown around a college.

Southern Bhutan: A six-hour journey by car from Trashigang is the small border town of Samdrup Jongkhar. This warm south-eastern town is a favourite destination for bird-watchers. To the south-west is the bustling trading hub of Phuentsholing. It is also one of the most well-traversed land routes into Bhutan from India.

Though both Buddhism and Hinduism are practised in Bhutan, the majority of its people are Buddhists. Buddhism plays a very important role in the lives of the Bhutanese, and its influence is evident throughout the country in the form of stupas or chortens and monasteries and religious emblems. There are more than 10,000 chortens and over 2,000 monasteries in the kingdom. Some are national treasures such as the Tigers Nest.

Most Bhutanese homes have a special room for prayers, known as chosum. However, it is a liberal country and its tolerance is evident in the newly framed Draft Constitution, which has incorporated Freedom of Religion as a fundamental right of the people (see interview with the Chief Justice of Bhutan on page 45). The Middle Path and the concept of Gross National Happiness are prime factors in the Bhutanese way of life.

When King Jigme Singye Wangchuk stated that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product, he was not dismissing economic development, but merely putting into perspective the ultimate goal of any civilisation or people.

The Bhutanese people take the measure of happiness around them very seriously. For them, GNH is an enlightened path to progress, a lesson learnt from the mistakes that more advanced countries have made in their path to development. It is drawn from the Buddhist teaching that happiness has no external source, but is drawn from within an individual. As Bhutan shifts from monarchy to democracy, it has made GNH its guiding principle; it is embedded in all governmental policies, plan documents and laws.

If smiling faces and cheerful disposition of the people of a country are any indication of their level of contentment, then Bhutan is a happy country. Distinct as the Bhutanese people are in their language, attire and culture, they are tolerant, affable and polite. In fact, in a survey conducted in 2006 among foreign tourists in Bhutan, more than 75 per cent of them used the word friendly when asked to describe Bhutan in two or three words; 73.7 per cent described it as beautiful.

The Bhutanese people are very comfortable with their culture and are not easily swayed by the changing fashions of the world around them. It is not that Thimphu is bereft of a nightlife there are at least 10 discotheques and nightclubs here nor that the Bhutanese youth are impervious to the latest fashion. But the majority of the Bhutanese men prefer to wear gho, their traditional long robe tied around the waist by a cloth belt called kera, and the women seem most comfortable in their brightly coloured kira.

Agriculture and livestock rearing are the principle occupations of the people, contributing to about 45 per cent of the national income. The farms are, however, small and cut into terraces. Forestry accounts for 15 per cent of the GNP and industry and mining about 10 per cent. The main export earnings of Bhutan, however, are from the sale of hydropower to India and the inflow of foreign tourists.

The architecture of its buildings is one of the most distinctive features of the kingdom. Massive Dzongs with their walls sloping upward, the ancient monasteries, and humble farm houses dominate the countrys landscape. Each valley in Bhutan retains its own architectural character in terms of the type of building material used (ranging from mud to stone), and the special ambience of its most famous monasteries and Dzongs.

The Buddhist festivals or Tsechus are a sure draw for tourists. Tsechus are celebrated in honour of Guru Rinpoche, the saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan and the Himalayan world. They are held in almost every district and bring hundreds of Bhutanese people together in a spirit of festivity and deep faith.

One of Bhutans most famous masked dances is Drametse Ngacham. This dance form was supposed to have been conceived by the grandson of one of Bhutans most revered saints, Pema Lingpa, during an intensive meditation session around 500 years ago. Though this dance is widely performed in all parts of the country, its choreography differs from place to place.

Bhutanese food is as unique as the country and its people. Chilly is an inseparable ingredient in a traditional Bhutanese dish. The national dish of Bhutan is ema datshi. Ema means chilly and datshi means cheese.

The national sport of Bhutan is archery and archery competitions are common throughout the year. In fact, it is more than just a sport for the people. A competition at the village or district level is a festive occasion accompanied by dancing, singing, eating and drinking. Other traditional sports include digor a variation of shotput and wrestling. International sports like table tennis, football and volleyball are also very popular.

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