Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La
To an outsider, the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan may look and feel like a living, breathing time capsule of an era more than one hundred years past. In a country with a population of about 750,000, quite a few things stand out: no one has a surname in Bhutan, only those of royal lineage; every citizen follows a dress code and code of conduct called Driglam Namzha; the architecture is colorful and eye-catching, all buildings constructed in the traditional Bhutanese style.
The world’s youngest democracy, Bhutan transitioned to a constitutional monarchy in 2008 when it held its first elections. The Dragon King himself is also young – his mid-thirties. However, in a country where modernization seems to be moving forward at a steady pace, the protection of culture and traditional values remains a high priority for the people of Bhutan. It’s no secret that Bhutan has earned the reputation of a remote, sublime paradise: the “last Shangri-la.”
If you find that you don’t know much about Bhutan, it’s not by accident. Technologically, Bhutan was completely detached from the rest of the world up until the late 20th century. The country’s first radio broadcasting service was established in 1973; Bhutan became the last country in the world to introduce television when it did so in 1999, and Internet service was established only in 2000. There is such a strong emphasis on protection of cultural values that the king was worried too much modern technology would lead to an erosion of these traditions.
Induction into the Information Age seems to be treating Bhutan well as it becomes the new player in luxury tourism. Still, the small kingdom is notably isolated, landlocked between the two world powers of China and India. For the longest time, foreigners were not allowed within its borders: only in 1974 was tourism established in Bhutan. There is only one international airport, located in the city of Paro, and visas are required to enter the country. Special permits might be required to visit locations outside of the two main cities of Thimphu and Paro, or to enter Buddhist temples. Though these are usually handled by tour operators, it still takes a very purposeful traveler to set sights on Bhutan.
Gross National Happiness
It is hard to talk about Bhutan without mentioning Gross National Happiness, which catapulted the country onto the international stage. The term was coined in 1972 when Bhutan’s fourth king, His Royal Highness Jigme Singye Wangchuck, made a declaration: “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” The concept grew into an actual index, and a multi-layer survey was developed, making Bhutan the only country in the world to officially measure happiness using GNH—though efforts towards more holistic development approaches that include happiness as a measurement have been gaining momentum in other countries.
The GNH Index covers nine different domains:
- Psychological Wellbeing
- Standard of Living
- Good Governance
- Community Vitality
- Cultural Diversity and Resilience
- Time Use
- Ecological Diversity and Resilience
Bhutan has certainly come out well using GNH, though recent years have seen a shift in the government’s agenda from the promotion of GNH to a focus on the wellbeing of citizens. There can obviously be no perfect formula when it comes to calculating the welfare of hundreds of thousands of citizens, but Bhutan certainly seems to have special insight into creating sustainable peace and contentment among its people.
Predominance of Buddhism
Perhaps part of the contentment found in Bhutan might be attributed to the spirituality of the citizens themselves. Buddhism is the official religion of Bhutan, with somewhere between two-thirds and three-fourths of the citizens practicing; the second-most popular religion is Hindu. The traditions of Buddhism can be seen physically throughout Bhutan in the form of beautiful temples, stupas, and monasteries, the most famous of which is the Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Taktsang Lhakhang), a breathtaking temple that clings to a the side of a cliff in Paro Valley. Steeped in folklore, the monastery is said to be the location where Guru Rinpoche, the founder of the Bhutanese sect of Buddhism, flew to on the back of a tigress, later meditating in an interior cave.
What Buddhism means for the citizens of Bhutan is a prevailing spirituality not often found in the Western world. Culture and religion are the foundations of communities found in cities and villages. Annual religious festivals called Tschechu Dzongkha are held in cities across the country, and though they are social gatherings that garner significant commerce, they are spiritual in tradition. Masked dancers perform the sacred Cham Dance and large tapestries called thongdrels, said to cleanse the viewer of sin, are unfurled. There is a strong connection between culture and religion and the Bhutanese citizens, a connection kept alive and celebrated though these festivals. Perhaps that is why pride in these traditions comes so naturally to the people of Bhutan.
No tobacco, no plastic bags, no mountain climbing. There are many restrictions when it comes to the protection of Bhutan’s natural landscape, and with very positive results. The country is listed as a biodiversity hotspot, counted among 234 outstanding eco-regions around the world for its protection of natural wildlife, with almost half of the country’s land labeled as protected area. Bhutan also claims to be the only carbon sink in the world, absorbing more CO2 than it emits. This can be attributed to two factors: nearly 70% of Bhutan is forest, and Bhutan’s largest export is hydroelectric power.
Almost 70% of Bhutan’s population lives in rural areas; farming and agriculture makes up the most significant portion of the economy, and traditional farming practices resonate culturally through these communities, making environmental protection even more vital.
Again, part of this dedication to environmental protection might come down to the spirituality of the nation. The world’s tallest unclimbed mountain, Ganghkar Puensum, is located in Bhutan and remains untouched because it is seen as sacred; the sum of Bhutan’s relationship with its landscape is reminiscent, not unintentionally, of the Buddhist idea that human beings and nature coexist through a symbiotic relationship. This commitment comes with a reward in the form of a lush and thriving landscape.
It would not necessarily be true to say that Bhutan is in a time warp, or trapped in time. Rather, it is living out its own history and culture concurrently with a process of steady modernization. Visitors will still feel as if they have travelled back in time, like they are in another age entirely; that is part of the purposeful mystery of the kingdom itself.
But there are few words that can ever accurately describe a nation so rich in tradition: the only real way to understand might be to visit it for yourself!