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Why the world books a holiday in Bhutan

By Claude Arpi
Last updated on: November 11, 2016 18:20 IST
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'When you want to cross a street in Bhutan, cars invariably stop to let you go.'
'Coming from India, it is a pleasant surprise.'
Claude Arpi, who spent 10 days in the Land of the Dragon, tells us how Bhutan is different from the rest of the world.


IMAGE: Chele La prayer flags swaying in the wind. All photographs: Smiti and Claude Arpi

Coming back to India can be a rude shock after a sejour in Bhutan.

At Delhi international airport's immigration, after scanning my OCI (Overseas Citizenship of India) card, the officer suspiciously looked at it, again and again, trying to tally the data on his computer with the one on the card.

It took a long time, not a word, not a smile. Though the conscientious officer was doing his duty, a human touch was missing.

A couple of hours earlier, I had left Paro airport in Bhutan where the staff was all-smiles.

It had been the case during the last 10 days in the Land of the Dragon (Drukyul), today celebrated the world over for having invented the concept of Gross National Happiness.

It is true that Bhutan's culture, based on Buddhist values, is not entirely geared towards 'normal' development, which is often fuelled by greediness and in any case a constant increase of the 'domestic product'.

The term Gross National Happiness was coined in 1972 by Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who turns 61 today, November 11.

It was a stroke of genius, from a monarch who saw the future of humankind, or perhaps the dead-end of the current system.

Today, the Himalayan nation might not be a world decider like the US, China or India, but it is more and more cited in global fora.


IMAGE: Butter lamps being prepared to be lit in Punakha.

Though the definition of Happiness might differ, the tiny nation has made the concept of 'global happiness' something worth studying.

Several Bhutanese think-tanks such as The Centre for Bhutan Studies & Gross National Happiness Research are doing just this.

Established by Bhutan's council of ministers in 1999, the centre's objective is to 'conduct evaluative studies on existing programmes of the government and providing feedback on the basis of which the royal government can improve programmes and policies.'

The aim is to bring Happiness into governance.

The West has often a difference approach to Happiness.

Earlier in 2016, data collected by the UN from people in 156 countries, surprisingly ranked Bhutan a lowly 84 in the list of happy nations. Different variables were used.

The fact that Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Finland were the five toppers shows that the criteria were based on Western values. It is a great pity!


IMAGE: For centuries, the concept of 'happiness' has been central to the Indian and Himalayan culture.

Can you believe that China is listed 83, just before Bhutan (while India is ranked 118)?

In the Western approach, each country is also compared against dystopia, a hypothetical nation characterised by human misery, oppression, disease, overcrowding and pervasive fear, a place where everything is wrong.

Dystopia is the opposite of utopia, synonymous for an ideal society with no crime or poverty.

The fact remains that the UN has begun studying the concept of Happiness which for centuries has been central to the Indian and Himalayan culture.

In Bhutan, this concept translates into governance.

A small but telling detail: When you want to cross a street, cars invariably stop to let you go. Coming from India, it is a pleasant surprise.

If not Happiness, this might be called 'coolness' or 'easy-goingness', but such details do contribute to a more relaxed atmosphere.


IMAGE: A local with the Tibetan prayer wheel.

The Gross National Happiness is based on the four pillars: Sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and establishment of good governance.

GNH has officially been incorporated to Bhutan's five-year planning process, which guides the nation's economic development.

What is striking when one visits Thimphu the capital or any other 'big' city is the cleanliness of the environment.

The Himalayan rivers are uncontaminated (rafting is such a delight in Punakha), the air is not polluted, the cities and villages are empty of plastic and garbage (unlike Tamil Nadu where I live).

There is no need of a Swachh Bhutan campaign.

This can be seen at the national level too.

In an oped in Kuensel, Bhutan's national newspaper, Annette Dixon, vice- president of the World Bank for South Asia wrote: 'Bhutan declared in 2009 that it would remain carbon neutral and has made the most ambitious pledges on cutting emissions at COP21.

'But staying neutral as emissions from industry and transport rapidly rise will not be easy,' Dixon warned. 'It will require aggressively finding ways to grow economically in a carbon neutral or reduced way.'


IMAGE: The Punakha suspension bridge.

As the world starts looking back at the mess it has created, many believe that 'after all, this GNH was perhaps not so naive.'

At the end of the recent COP21 Paris Conference, the European Union acknowledged Bhutan's 'extraordinary ambition' in addressing climate change by signing a 'declaration', which recognises 'Bhutan's unique situation as a land-locked and least developed country with a fragile mountainous environment.'

Today Bhutan is often cited as an example to follow.

A few months ago, Tshering Tobgay, Bhutan's prime minister, gave a inspirational TED talk at Vancouver, Canada.

Tobgay spoke with great eloquence of the special culture of the Land of the Dragon, its concept of Gross National Happiness, climate change, environment and free education for all.

'Of the 200-odd countries in the world today,' he said, 'it looks like we are the only one that's carbon neutral. Actually, that's not quite accurate. Bhutan is not carbon neutral. Bhutan is carbon negative.'

'But it is our protected areas that are at the core of our carbon neutral strategy,' the 'Happy' prime minister asserted. 'Our protected areas are our carbon sink. They are our lungs.'

'Today, more than half our country is protected as national parks, nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries.'

During his talk, Tobgay said through the biological corridors 'our animals are free to roam throughout our country.'

With 'development' becoming the universal god, can society remain 'happy'?

Bhutan seems decided to show the way though it does not mean that some Bhutanese are not dreaming of acquiring an SUV or a bigger vehicle.


IMAGE: Tourists stop to soak in the view of the hills.

With Bhutan becoming wealthier, will Happiness be consigned to the backstage for the sake of greater 'wealth'?

It is certainly an issue.

The tourism industry is partly responsible for fuelling the 'race for wealth' though based on a 'high value, low impact' policy, 'profit' remains the main engine of growth.

Many in Bhutan are conscious that the nation is facing a hard choice. Kuensel suggests, 'While Bhutan's economy continues to grow and mature, different forms of economic system must be explored, studied and debated.'

While the capitalist economic system works on 'profit', it creates jobs and brings necessary tax revenues, does it automatically create Happiness?


IMAGE: The Haa Valley.

On the last day of my visit I trekked up to the picturesque Taktsang Gompa (or Tiger's Nest), the monastery complex, hanging on a cliff side of the upper Paro valley.

The gompa was built during the 17th century on the spot where the Swat-born Guru Padmasambhava meditated for three years, three months and three days with his consort Yeshe Tsogyal.

Paro Taktsang is one the 13 Taktsang caves which were blessed by the Master of Supreme 'Sukh'.

While my legs were experiencing dukh trying to reach the cave, I was wondering how Padmasambhava would have seen the GNH criteria.

He had no social security, no WiFi, no means of transportation (except for levitation or on a back of a tigress), no house (though the Taktsang has breathtaking views), but his cave is still charged with happiness.

Whether the traditional contentment can be experienced today is another question.

But it is important to think about it... and to act.

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Claude Arpi