For a country that eschews modernity, all but bans tourists and sits deep on the list in the poverty stakes, Bhutan should be a global failure. But, as Tatka Zakharova discovers, the country's deep mysticism and holistic approach contribute to something so much more than GDP, GNH, or Gross National Happiness.
The term “gross national happiness” was first used in 1979. Responding to a journalist’s question about the Bhutanese level of GDP, the country’s fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck jokingly remarked: “I have no idea what you are talking about. However, I know a more important thing – GNH, gross national happiness.”
What initially looked like a catchphrase that referred to Bhutan’s desire to thoroughly follow the principles of Buddhism eventually evolved into an entire concept that was recognized by the west and was finally expressed mathematically with their help, estimating the level of its citizens’ happiness, based on nine spheres, 33 indicators, and 124 variables.
The Bhutanese Constitution of 2008 stipulates that the state is committed to creating the conditions for the increase in the indicator of GNH, and the year 2010 saw the publication of a lengthy document titled The GNH Index, which clarified the concept and reported how happy the population of Bhutan was.
Particularly, the document said: “From a holistic perspective, the GNH indicator measures the quality of life more accurately than GDP, and points to the fact that human society develops most effectively when the material and the spiritual components complement and reinforce each other.” The Bhutanese notion of happiness, it went on to say, differed from the Western one in that it was not based merely on momentary feelings and implied the need to take into account the interest of others. According to King Jigme, “True happiness is composed only of serving the people, living in harmony with nature, and awareness of our inner wisdom and the infinite possibilities of our mind.”
An insider's perspective
Kunzang Choden writes children's books, and together with her Swiss husband who came to Bhutan 30 years ago, manages the museum of Bhutanese life and culture located in Kunzang’s ancestral Oygen Choling dzong in the Eastern part of the country, in the Tang Valley.
Alongside the dzong (an ancestral fortress), Kunzang and her assistants have opened a small cafe and a tiny guesthouse that helps generate funds to maintain the museum. Things are going well: it is the only place in the valley that caters to tourists.
At first sight, Kunzang is not very different from her female compatriots of the same age: the same national dress, the same hairstyle and facial features. Yet her look and manner of conversation betray her: higher education, travels around the globe and marriage to a European have left their trace – over dinner she bridged the gap for me between Planet Bhutan and European Civilization.
“The international organizations gave us money and said: go and make GNH measurable,” she explains. “In this way, the first four “pillars” of GNH were determined: sustainable economic development, environmental protection, support of cultural traditions, and effective governance. Then the number of GNH spheres increased to nine, and we no longer understood what was going on.
“What’s really important in the Bhutanese idea of happiness, which is based on Buddhist philosophy, is the word “enough”. These days it is so hard to tell yourself: “enough”. Look at me: I have a wonderful house, and yet I want to build a new one. It is a part of human nature – we always want more. Yet Buddhists believe that we are only guests in this world, and one must know when to stop. In the Western world everything is the other way round: if you invest 100 dollars, you want to get back 200.”
Upholding the GNH pillars
Making money at any cost is not a part of the Bhutanese ethos. Being one of the poorest countries in the world (rated 168th according to the level of GDP by the UN in 2013), Bhutan follows the “do no harm” principle, inventing ways to replenish the budget without compromising the country’s resources, traditions, and culture.
Its tourism policy is a vivid example. About 20 foreigners were invited to the coronation of Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1974. Three guest palaces had been built and about a dozen cars had been imported from the USA for them. After the ceremony, the country had to do something with the empty buildings and idle cars, so allowed students into the country in small groups and charged every one of them $100 per day for food, lodging, guide services, and a car with a driver. This scheme is still at work, although the minimum amount has increased to $200 per day. At first it was met with widespread scepticism. A trip to Bhutan was even dubbed “the most expensive tour to the world’s poorest country”. Yet today, in comparison with the neighbouring Nepal, which arguably suffers from mass tourism (sociological and ecological exploitation), the wisdom of this decision is unquestionable.
In addition, Bhutan consciously refrains from exploiting its shared trump card with Nepal – the Himalayas. After a botched attempt to enlist local farmers as porters – pulling them away from their fields at a critical time in the year, the country completely banned mountain climbing in 2003. Despite the fact it could bring considerable revenues to the kingdom’s treasury.
Additionally the king has a unique approach to managing the country's resources: “As long as the divine Himalayas stand, snow and rain falls, and our forests remain pristine and untouched, the peace and security of our nation is under protection, and the government of Bhutan will keep pursuing this.” According to the Constitution, 60% of the country’s territory must be covered by forest. This provision is conveniently supported by the local beliefs: the people of Bhutan hold forests, rivers and lakes to be inhabited by spirits who cannot be disturbed under threat of a curse, and thus they never pollute the lakes, preserve the forests and try to never raise their voice.
Ushering in a new era
Yet, with all respect to the faith and tradition of their people, since the 1950s the Bhutanese kings have been consistently implementing a policy of democratization and modernization of the country. This was started by the third king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who, in 1953 established the National Assembly for the discussion of issues of national importance and the development of the political consciousness of the people.
Yet the most important changes took place under the rule of the fourth king. In 1998 he withdrew from leadership of the government and delegated the executive power to the cabinet headed by the Prime Minister. That was followed by the work on drawing up the Constitution, which handed the legislative power to a bicameral parliament and prescribed the king to retire at 65. It was adopted in 2008. By that time, the fourth king had already abdicated in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, stepping down from power 14 years earlier than it was officially required.
From a political point of view, the reasons for transition from absolute monarchy to a constitutional one are understandable: the Wangchuck dynasty, which had come to power in 1907, wanted to protect the country from the destruction that the other Himalayan principalities had suffered. Tibet was taken over by China in 1959, and few of its cultural monuments survived. Sikkim, unable to cope with emigration from Nepal, was annexed by India in 1975, and its indigenous population is now in the minority. The kings of Bhutan realized that the only way out was to make the world aware of their country. And the concept of GNH came in very handy.
To die happy
I met three old women sitting on stone slabs in the courtyard of the dzong by the entrance of a small “household” shrine. They were praying, telling the beads, and occasionally exchanging a few words. Ancient, these women were wrinkled like prunes, and looked as though they had been sitting there forever.
Their stories touched me. One had never been married and had no children or relatives, she survived on whatever God and kind people gave her. Another had lost her husband back when she had been young. They had not had any children, and she never remarried. The children of the third woman had grown up and moved away, her husband died, and none of her relatives were near. Thus, the three of them did their best to support each other.
I hadn't anticipated three solitary, old, poor women in the happiest country in the world. But, upon meeting them I expected their stories to be sad. The guide translated that the three of them sat on these stones reciting prayers in anticipation of death, which was about to come to them inevitably, and which they awaited like a welcome guest. They also said that they were generally happy. They could not explain why, but shared their advice on how to be happy – work more and pity oneself less.
At that moment I remembered Kunzang’s words: “The teachers of Buddhism say that happiness is always with you. One is born naked and dies leaving everything behind. Thus, one must be able to be happy with what one has right now. With the simple fact of breathing.”
TATKA ZAKHAROVA was born in the most beautiful city of Russia, St. Petersburg. She spent several years as a PR & marketing communications professional in the hotel industry before her thirst for novelty and the desire for geographical discoveries overtook her passion for hotels. Subsequently she implemented several projects in international travel PR and in 2014 decided to take a sabbatical from Russia, choosing instead, to stay in the Caribbean.