Heid Jerstad visits the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan in search of temples, politics and the truth behind Gross National Happiness
Young people these days are cynical, they say. The time of utopias is gone, wars continue, democracy becomes meaningless as political parties converge, religion is outdated and commerce reigns – so one might as well take that job with Goldman Sachs. But rather than give up on modern life entirely, throwing yourself into a completely alien culture and discovering a different, alternative way of life could be just what you need to regain some of your interest and faith in the world around you.
This summer my normally stingy college granted me five hundred pounds towards making a six-day trip to Bhutan. This Tibetan Buddhist kingdom locked between India and Chinese Tibet set up a monarchy in 1907 and has ruled itself since, with India as its main trading partner and mentor. Wherever we went roads were being built by Indian workers with whole families splitting stones or shovelling gravel – and an Indian army soldier keeping an eye on them. I never actually took photos of this (being slightly nervous about what the army might think) but the sight of these low-caste women, teenagers and old men doing such backbreaking work as we drove by in our huge Toyota made me wonder why they didn’t use road machines. (I only discovered later that it is in an attempt to employ the poor, as was done in post-1929 America.)
Before this trip was suggested to me I hadn’t actually heard of Bhutan. This says a lot, as I did an option on the Himalayas last Michaelmas and studied Tibetan when I was 16. In my defence, tourism in Bhutan has been heavily controlled and gaining access to the country is difficult. A visa can only be obtained through an agent, and visitors can only travel in a group with a guide and driver. There are beneficial side effects to these limitations too; much of the detrimental impact tourists have had on countries nearby (notably India and Thailand) has so far been avoided in Bhutan – there is a complete absence of beggars, for example.
Being a Buddhist country, all sentient life (and it is oddly evocative of Star Wars to hear men in robes talk of sentient life) is taken seriously – numerous stray dogs roam the streets without fear and the driver of our large SUV would always brake so as not to harm a bird or cat. Whether it really is compassionate to let animals live when they are obviously starving or ill is unclear to me, though dogs near monasteries always looked healthy and well-fed.
The importance of religion is immediately evident once you arrive in Bhutan. Whilst visiting Taktsang, the Tigers Nest, a temple complex situated more than half a kilometre above the bottom of the nearby valley, we met two middle aged ladies with their sleeping bags and food on their backs who were planning to walk up and around the auspicious mountain, sleeping outside if need be. Pilgrims must be the original backpackers and these ones were very cheerful, if rather out of breath.
So what of the population? Nobody actually knows how many people there are in Bhutan. Apparently (according to Wikipedia) the two million estimate given by CIA Factbook is inflated, invented because of a belief that nations with under a million people were not allowed to join the UN. The real number is probably closer to seven hundred thousand. There is a huge economic divide between the well-off urban population and the farmers who use traditional but labour-intensive methods on steep and remote fields. They seem to have found this situation acceptable until the arrival of satellite television in 1999, Though certain un-Buddhist and immoral channels were banned after a few years (MTV and wrestling – schools had seen a marked increase in violence) villagers still have access to a multitude of channels which of course make it clear to them what they are still lacking in thier lives, and shows a world where leisure seems to be the norm. New problems such as lack of family time and teenage drug abuse are side effects of this exposure, we were told.
The educated youth flock to the few emerging towns, attracted by the Bollywood glamour and high-status government jobs. But there are not enough of these to go around resulting in educated unemployment, while migrant workers from India provide manual labour. One industry that is supporting increasing numbers of young people is domestic film production, which is doing a thriving trade, having pushed Bollywood out of the competition in Bhutan without financial support from the government. We were guests of a filmmaker to see an unusually dark film about a curse, charmingly shot with cowpats littering the background, endless romantic songs and dance scenes and a dramatic suicidal ending.
I went to Bhutan primarily to assist my father in preliminary research for a documentary film on Gross National Happiness (GNH), a fascinating concept which is officially a policy of Bhutan. Unsurprisingly, measuring the happiness of an individual or population is far from easy. Various books have been written and studies done on the subject but it remains elusive, certainly in terms of national policymaking. Conclusions reached concerning money and happiness never seem to translate into social policy. For research, we visited the Bhutan Studies Centre, established to do cross-sectoral research (i.e. think holistically about what each ministry has separate responsibility for) which is working on GNH. The only women there were secretaries, so I felt a little out of place, receiving endless snacks and tea while the scholars explained their work to my father. They are halfway-through their mammoth survey (although the results are yet to be processed) with around half of nine provinces covered. The 123 page questionnaire is delivered personally by the researcher and takes up to 8 hours per person. The idea is to discover what aspects of life are important for people’s happiness. For instance, would they prefer their virgin forest to be cut down and sold (likely to cause erosion and farming problems) if it meant they could build a secondary school in the valley or would that be a lower priority than increasing crop yields or developing cash crops? After all, the importance of crops in Bhutan should not be underestimated – there is even a large market in Japan for certain Bhutanese mushrooms which resemble Viagra.
The reason this research into national happiness needs to be done now is that the first ever national elections are scheduled for spring 2008. The theory is that the data should inform the incoming government on what areas are important to the people. Most of the duties of the king have already been delegated to a national assembly and cabinet of ministers and his powers will no longer be absolute when the democratisation process is complete. In fact, the coronation of the Oxford-educated crown prince (currently acting fifth king) will probably take place after the election, on a date to be decided by astrologers. The forming of political parties is becoming increasingly common, with educated individuals choosing to leave their jobs in the civil service or the media to become involved in politics. This phenomenon has resulted in an interesting situation in which only three ministers have chosen to stay out of the party system to rule the country until the election. Our meetings kept getting cancelled or delayed because the person we were supposed to meet had decided to enter politics.
We talked to the election commissioner (who had just received registration applications from the two main parties) about these issues and discovered an astonishing fact. Having only been there a few days, enjoying the food and friendliness I had not completely realised that Bhutan is not a Shangri-la, a Tibet that was never assimilated, a land of spirituality and utopia. Despite the many water-turned prayer-wheels, the harmonious coexistence of regional administration and monasteries in the same building complex and the picturesque architecture and national dress, it is a country with very real peculiarities and problems. In fact religion brings its own problems when Western-style politics are on the agenda. Islam is not the only religion which has a ‘democratic problem.’ In Ladakh, the partly Buddhist region of Jammu, and Kashmir, India, they have experienced this with their Hill Council. A few Rinpoches (high lamas, sometimes reincarnated) got into politics and won landslide elections, not for any particular policy but simply because of the respect the population had for them. What the commissioner in Bhutan told us (and there was even a leaflet explaining this) was that all robed (religious) persons would be excluded from any political activity whatsoever, including voting. Religion, apparently, is ‘above’ politics. Taken at face value this does reduce the validity of the Bhutanese political system, but perhaps it is a necessary measure. One wonders what the reaction would be like in Russia or Italy were priests to be denied the vote.
After the election it will probably take some time before anything becomes clear concerning the success of their democratisation project. The apparent lack of corruption and the revenue from abundant hydropower are positive clues to what has so far been and looks like continuing as a success story. I would certainly be up for a heated discussion on humans being incapable of trying for something better. But then again, I am an optimist.