The last 20 minutes of our June flight into Bhutan’s only airport was a surprising lesson in the maneuverability of a large, passenger jet aircraft. As our Airbus A139 made its descent, we entered a series of valleys, banking steeply this way and that, hemmed in increasingly tightly by mountains on either side, until, at an elevation of no more than a couple of hundred feet, the aircraft turned hard to the left, rounded a spur and quickly leveled out.
The airstrip lay just beneath us, but suddenly, without warning, we pulled steeply up and ascended at a rapid rate: The plane had come in too fast to land. After flying some distance and looping back around, one pair of the only eight pilots in the world trained and certified to land at the Paro International Airport (and who, incidentally, have a 100-percent safety record), successfully negotiated the twisting route this time, and we touched down on one of the world’s highest and shortest jet runways and took in our first glimpse of this tiny Himalayan nation. Most of us on the plane, including myself, my wife, Amy Allocco of Elon University, and Profs. Rachel Scott and Rosalind Hackett of the University of Tennessee’s Department of Religious Studies, had come to Bhutan to present research at the 4th Conference of the South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture and Religion, sponsored by the International Association of the History of Religion and hosted by the Royal University of Bhutan. With 230 scholars specializing in religions of mountainous regions planning to attend, this was the largest international gathering ever permitted into Bhutan, a country that has long sought to protect its way of life, its environment and its astonishing biodiversity by keeping the rest of the world at bay. It has, for centuries, remained inaccessible by both geography and design.
In 2008, however, its young king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, declared Bhutan a democracy and thereby abdicated most of his actual authority, although he remains head of state and a much revered figure, probably more so for this bold and selfless move on behalf of the Bhutanese people. Since then, this deeply Buddhist society has slowly been experimenting with how to engage the rest of the rapidly globalizing world while safeguarding its cherished traditions.
Bhutan continues, however, to maintain strict control over its borders, an outgrowth of the decree of the king that the preservation of culture and tradition was one of four primary national objectives whose overall purpose is the promotion of the happiness of the Bhutanese people. What the king coined “Gross National Happiness” has become the measure by which all national policy is judged. Its name is intended to strike a contrast between Bhutan’s course for improving the quality of life of its people and those measures guided by such narrow and purely economic measures as Gross Domestic Product. GNH, as it is widely known, is determined by specific indicators intended to gauge the overall well-being of the people. These indicators include good governance, environmental protection, financial security, time use (work-life balance), psychological well-being, cultural preservation, health and education. Gross National Happiness is now a global concern, with the 5th international conference dedicated to the idea just concluded in Brazil.
As a specialist in Hindu religious traditions, I have traveled throughout South Asia and spent substantial amounts of time in India, but Bhutan was culturally unlike anyplace I had ever been. We spent eight days in Thimpu, the nation’s capital and, at roughly 80,000 people, Asia’s smallest. We found the people immensely proud of their national heritage, its Buddhist values, and their careful, calculated entry into the modern world. The distinctive national dress, consisting of a robe with a belt called a gho for men and an ankle-length dress called a kira for women, made of finely woven cotton or wool, is still widely worn. While there is a construction boom underway in Thimphu, all buildings must conform to traditional architectural styles, producing a bustling city of exclusively pagoda-like structures. We counted ourselves terribly fortunate not only to be welcomed to observe and discuss the changes underway there, but to be honored by the Bhutanese government’s decision to waive the tariff of $200 per day assessed of foreign visitors designed to prevent the environmental damage and unwelcome cultural influences that massive tourism has introduced in places like neighboring Nepal. As we came to learn, the young Bhutanese parliament had debated our conference’s request to come to Thimphu and determined that this opportunity for the professors and students at Bhutan’s Royal University to work with some of the world’s best known experts on religion fostered GNH’s goal of furthering education in Bhutan and granted us the visa waivers.
My emerging sense of who the Bhutanese are was finally fully cemented by a simple and unself-conscious act near the end of our stay. One of the many student volunteers assisting our group had taken to helping one elderly conference participant from India, who walked only with difficulty, in and out of busses and up and down the long, difficult staircases that lead to temples. When my wife said to him, “You have been very kind to that man,” he shrugged and dismissed our attempt to thank him for his service, saying only, “that’s Buddhism.”
There are many ways in which I will now have to revise some of the courses I offer most frequently at Maryville College. Although I have long taught and written about religion in the modern world, my experience in Bhutan will, I hope, allow me to present to my students (many of whom go on to work in such fields as law, public policy, non-profit administration and ministry), an emerging consensus from the developing world that religious or ethical values and economic development can complement one another in ways that benefit society as a whole.
My courses on the politics and culture of South Asia and World Religions will now have to reflect the presence and potential importance of this very distinctive place. I will make it clear to them that the outcome of Bhutan’s experiment with how to be a part of the modern world while preserving the best of one’s heritage remains to be seen. What is clear at this moment, however, is the people of this tiny nation fully intend to show the rest of the planet that it can be done.