By Shyamola Khanna*
Less than 50 years ago, the mythical mountain kingdom of Bhutan had opened its doors to the world; till then it had remained a small feudal kingdom ruled by a ‘divine’ king who ensured that his people were comfortable in their simple pastoral lives, lived according to the tenets of Buddhism, which is the national religion and has been a way of life there.
In 1971, Bhutan rejected the principal of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of the development of progress in the tiny nation of just about 700,000 people. The fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined the phrase Gross National Happiness (GNH) in 1972. The phrase represented the effort to build an economy based on Buddhist spiritual values to protect Bhutan’s culture, instead of western material development gauged by gross domestic product (GDP).
When you step into the international airport at Paro, you are given a royal welcome by your host; a white silk scarf round your neck and a warm ‘tashi delek’, which means different things at different times, is spoken to you- ranging from ‘welcome’ to ‘blessings’, and finally when it is time to leave, it could also mean ‘goodbye’!
The air is pure and clean and even though there is a pause in our journey, because there is a breakdown on the hill roads, we cannot but enjoy and savour the beauty of the place. We notice a group of smart young policemen who have come in to sort out the road mishap. The drivers are rightly scared of the police (unlike in other places where a few rupees in hand work miracles) and within ten minutes we are free to move on. The two vehicles have been asked to appear at the local police stations.
At Paro, when you pause to hear the gurgling stream, it gives you a hint of the serenity surrounding you—and then it hits you. The sounds of the city have been left far behind and your silence-starved soul can actually identify the prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. Suddenly you can recall the ‘Brook’ and the ‘Lark’ and all those wondrous words of poet laureates who painted those gorgeous word pictures. How did that happen?
We see a bunch of uniformed kids celebrating a cook-out on the banks of the stream. There are some teachers there and I head towards them to remind them to clean up after their cook-out is done. Their teachers tell me they are gathering their waste in one place and whatever we see outside, will be picked up before they go. How is it that this tiny nation has such conscientious kids and teachers?
When we go to our hotel, we find a lot of bustling activity. Apple-cheeked petite little girls who could not possibly be more than 14-15 years old carry tables and chairs to the first floor to make arrangements for our dinner later in the evening. But where are the boys? I ask the manager. He admits that the boys are not half as hard working as the girls – which is true of most places in the hills. After all that hard work, it is amazing to find that the smiles on the faces of the girls has not dimmed while they serve our dinner, pour our drinks, provide the twigs and wood chips for the bonfire outside. Quietly, I ask one of the girls her age—she says she is 24! And a mother of a four year old son!
At Thimphu, the capital city, we are treated to some of the traditional dances. All of them are about animals and people living together in harmony. The boys do these vigorous dances with animal masks – very colorful and brisk. The girls dance in gentle synchronized steps, which once again, make you feel the inner beauty of them all.
The current king is a young man who married a very pretty commoner and has recently had a baby. Although he lives in the palace, he comes out to play football and cricket in schools with kids and adults. He is there for award functions, opening ceremonies and other public functions and the people love it. The driver of our coach was trailing behind an SUV with some royal insignia on the rear. I asked if that was the king. It was not, but yes it was someone from the royal family, so you did not overtake because you granted them that respect. Truly old world and very charming!
We have that in the armed forces in India – if you see a gold star on the real number plate, and you see a head with a peak cap inside, the left rear seat, please know that you do not honk and you do not overtake. Respect for the rank – but then the civilians do not understand that!
I come away from Bhutan with a calm glow in the region of my heart – wish I could live the rest of my life in this beautiful peaceful place – maybe the last proverbial Shangri La!
Can I leave my stresses and my anxieties at the borders before I enter here and become a Bhutanese in thought and in principal? Will I be able to smile at strangers and share my inner radiance and spread joy?
To a city-bred soul this then is the true meaning of the Gross Happiness Quotient – where the simple joy of ‘being’ comes to you from every common citizen; you do not have to search for it.
*Shyamola Khanna is an Indian writer. She can be reached at: [email protected]