Published: March 2008 Bhutan
Bhutan's Enlightened Experiment
Guided by a novel idea, the tiny Buddhist kingdom tries to join the modern world without losing its soul.
By Brook Larmer

First come the high clear notes of the ceremonial trumpet. Then the Buddhist pilgrims, gravitating toward the sound. The sun has slid behind the mountains looming over Thimphu, capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, and the day’s final ritual is set to begin. Along the edge of the crowd, in pageboy haircuts and tattered robes, stand peasants who have traveled three days from their remote villages on their first visit to the big city, likely the only capital in the world without a traffic light. Near the center of the plaza clusters a group of Buddhist monks, arms linked, their betel-nut-stained teeth matching their burgundy robes. Together the monks and peasants and townspeople press forward to catch a glimpse of the main attraction: a small boy standing in the center of the circle, his bright orange shirt hanging down to his knees.

As the beat accelerates, the boy—seven-year-old Kinzang Norbu—hurls himself to the ground, spinning on his back so fast that he dissolves into a saffron blur. The crowd, steeped in the ancient mysticism of Bhutan, land of the flying tigress and the divine madman, might wonder if Norbu is the whirling reincarnation of a Buddhist saint. But the boy is channeling another, more mystifying world. Blasting from the speakers is not a Buddhist incantation but the opening riffs of Shakira’s risqué pop anthem, “Hips Don’t Lie,” piped in from a sleek white Macintosh laptop. And when Norbu twirls to a stop in a no-hands headstand, his shirt rides up to reveal his homage to global youth culture: red Nike high-top sneakers, baggy Adidas sweatpants, and a temporary tattoo that spells out, in jagged English letters, the name he and his homeys have adopted—“B-Boyz.”

When the song fades out, Norbu struts away with an impish smile and a crooked-finger gang salute. His fellow B-Boyz whistle and cheer. The monks break into befuddled red-tooth grins. And the sun-burnished peasants? They just gape at the boy. If he were a masked festival dancer, spinning toward enlightenment, they might understand. And yet, for all the mutual incomprehension, the moment still binds them together. For in one mind-bending performance, Norbu has captured the essence of a country that is attempting the impossible: to leap from the Middle Ages to the 21st century without losing its balance.

For more than a thousand years, this tiny realm—known by locals as Druk Yul, “land of the thunder dragon”—has survived in splendid isolation, a place the size of Switzerland wedged into the mountainous folds between two giants, India and China. Closed off from the outside world both by geography and deliberate policy, the country had no roads, no electricity, no motor vehicles, no telephones, no postal service until the 1960s. Even these days, its mesmerizing landscape evokes a place that time forgot: ancient temples perched high on mist-shrouded cliffs; sacred, unconquered peaks rising above pristine rivers and forests; a timbered chalet inhabited by a benevolent monarch and one of his four wives, all sisters. No wonder visitors can’t resist calling Bhutan the last Shangri-la.

But even Shangri-la must change. When King Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne in 1972, Bhutan suffered from some of the highest poverty, illiteracy, and infant-mortality rates in the world—a legacy of the policy of isolation. “We paid a heavy price,” the king would say later. His father, Bhutan’s third king, had begun opening up the country in the 1960s, building roads, establishing schools and health clinics, pushing for United Nations membership. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck would go much further. With the self-confidence of a ruler whose country has never been conquered, he has tried to dictate the terms of Bhutan’s opening—and in the process redefine the very meaning of development. The felicitous phrase he invented to describe his approach: Gross National Happiness.

For many Bhutanese, this idea is not merely a marketing tool or a utopian philosophy. It is their blueprint for survival. Guided by the “four pillars of Gross National Happiness”—sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance—Bhutan has pulled itself out of abject poverty without exploiting its natural resources (other than hydropower, sold to India as Bhutan’s main source of foreign funds). Nearly three-quarters of the country is still forested, with more than 25 percent designated as national parks and other protected areas—among the highest percentages in the world. Rates of illiteracy and infant mortality have fallen dramatically, and the economy is booming. Tourism is growing too, though strict limits on new construction and a daily tax of up to $240 a visitor keep out the kind of backpacking hordes that have trampled Nepal.

On the eve of the millennium, in 1999, Bhutan granted its citizens access to television—the last country on the planet to do so. (The Internet trickled in the same year.) Euphoria reigned in the towns as the outside world in all its garish glory beamed into shops and living rooms. Pulling the lid off Pandora’s box, however, raised concerns. What happens, after all, when an isolated, deeply conservative society is suddenly exposed to gangsta rapper 50 Cent and the World Wrestling Federation? Such questions carry extra weight in a vulnerable nation of 635,000 people, half of whom are under 22 years old.

Now comes the daring culmination of Bhutan’s experiment: the move to democracy. Never before, say Bhutanese officials, has a beloved monarch voluntarily abdicated his throne to give power to the people. But in 2006 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck did just that, setting up an unusual convergence of events in 2008: a coronation (the fourth king ceremoniously hands over the raven crown to his 28-year-old son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who will serve as a constitutional monarch); a centennial celebration (the monarchy’s hundredth birthday was in 2007, but a royal astrologer deemed this year more auspicious); and, most important, the formation by this summer of the country’s first democratic government.

The real test of Gross National Happiness, then, is just beginning. Bhutan’s new civilian leaders will face a raft of challenges, not least of which is a public that remains enamored of its kings and skeptical of democracy. The outside world peers in, wondering if this once forgotten Himalayan nation might help answer some of humankind’s most vexing questions: How can a society maintain its identity in the face of the flattening forces of globalization? How can it embrace the good of the modern world without falling prey to the bad? And can there ever be a happy balance between tradition and development?

A shaft of morning light slants across the ancient temple floor, illuminating an elderly woman kneeling before a pillar of stone and 108 kernels of corn. The pillar is the most sacred relic in Nabji, a village tucked deep into the Black Mountains of central Bhutan, beyond the reach of roads and electricity. Legend holds that a small depression in the stone is the hand­print of the Guru Rimpoche, the eighth-century mystic who arrived in Bhutan on the back of a flying tigress to spread a Tibetan form of Tantric Buddhism. And the kernels of corn? They are the calculus of devotion. Each time the gray-haired woman named Tum Tum prostrates herself, she slides one of the 108 kernels (a sacred number) across the floor. In three months she has moved the kernels 95,000 times—1,000 prostrations a day—and will continue until she reaches 100,000. “Sometimes I get so tired I fall over,” says Tum Tum, whose knees have left grooves in the floorboards. “But I won’t stop. This is our tradition.”

Few places on the planet can be more rooted in tradition than rural Bhutan. Nearly 70 percent of the population lives in villages like Nabji, cradled by virgin forest and vertiginous mountains, six hours on foot from the nearest road. Nabji’s terraced fields are empty today. It is a holy day on the lunar calendar, and the rough-hewn villagers circumambulate the temple in their finest robes—bright floor-length kiras for women, patterned knee-length ghos for men. The only signs of modernity are two solar panels installed on the temple roof to power a wireless telephone—and they don’t work. Nabji’s farmers put their faith in another kind of wireless communication: the prayer flags fluttering in the cypress trees above. “Every time the wind blows,” says Rike, a former village headman, “it takes our prayers straight to the heavens. No machines required.”

A sense of humor, even mischief, runs through Bhutanese Buddhism, whose earthy exuberance differs sharply from the ethereal calm of the better known Theravada Buddhism. The profusion of deities and demons can leave other Buddhists dazed. Sexual imagery also abounds, reflecting the tantric belief that carnal relations can be the gateway to enlightenment. Nobody embodied this idea more provocatively than the 16th-century lama Drukpa Kunley, better known as the Divine Madman, who remains a beloved saint in much of Bhutan. Carousing across the countryside, Kunley slew demons and granted enlightenment to young maidens with the magical powers of his “flaming thunderbolt.” To this day, many Bhutanese houses are adorned with his sign of protection: an enormous painted phallus, often wrapped in a jaunty bow.

But flaming thunderbolts have not warded off change. Nabji’s primary school, established almost a decade ago, is part of an educational revolution that has lifted Bhutan’s literacy rate from 10 percent in 1982 to 60 percent today. The clinic next door is part of a push that has raised life expectancy nationwide from 43 years in 1982 to 66 today and, during the same span, reduced infant mortality from 163 deaths per thousand to 40. Nabji has no full-time doctors. Yet the day after the temple ceremony, three physicians from the district hospital in Trongsa hiked across the mountains to immunize the village children.

Nabji’s isolation diminishes by the day: The booms reverberating across the valley are the sounds of a road being blasted through the forest several miles away. A rotating crew of 15 villagers from Nabji contributes labor, hauling 150-pound bags of plastic explosive up the mountain slopes. The new road won’t reach Nabji for another year or two, but when it arrives, electricity, television, and commerce will follow. Some elders worry that Nabji’s innocence will be lost. But the younger villagers prefer listening to Karma Jigme, a 26-year-old painter in baggy NBA-style shorts who recently returned to Nabji after five years working in the towns of Paro, Punakha, and Trongsa.

Jigme’s tales from the modern world have all the magic of Bhutan’s traditional legends. The first time he saw television, he says he hid under his bed, fearing that the angry pro wrestlers on screen “would jump out of the box and hurt me.” A bigger shock came when he and his crew were repainting Taktshang Goemba, the famed Tiger’s Nest monastery above the Paro Valley. Perched on a plank of scaffolding some 2,500 feet up the cliff face, Jigme heard a deafening roar and then, not 300 yards away, “I saw a house in the shape of a fish flying through the air.” The airplane terrified him so much he almost tumbled off the platform.

Life in Nabji brings no such drama. Jigme toils long hours in his family’s rice and potato fields, earning extra cash painting traditional scenes on village houses—including, yes, a few thunderbolts. He needs the money to buy an ox. But what he really wants, he says, “is a Nokia.” It doesn’t matter that, for now, mobile phones don’t work in Nabji. He just wants a little piece of the modern world.

Tshewang Dendup owns the only denim gho in existence. He also plays a mean air guitar, hangs a Che Guevara poster in his living room, and often wears his hair so long he pulls it back into a ponytail. A rebel in the making? Not quite. Dendup, 38, runs the news department at the government-financed Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), the country’s only television station. The son of a weaver and a lay Buddhist priest, Dendup strives to balance tradition and modernity. “If we only had the old, we’d still be cocooned here, left out of the wider world,” Dendup says. “But if we only had the modern, we would have lost our culture. We need both to survive.” He’s confident that technology and tradition can blend, citing the CD player he bought for his father, who had never seen such a gadget before and who now pulls out the machine to play sermons and chants for his guests.

Cultural vitality resists easy measurement. Is it a zero-sum game, in which every Britney Spears video signifies an irretrievable loss, sending Bhutanese traditions one more step toward extinction? Or is it more like three-dimensional chess, a complex arrangement in which Buddhism and Game Boys can live side by side?

If optimists like Dendup are right, Bhutan’s emergence is invigorating local culture. As modern communications spread—28 percent of households now own a television, 11 percent a cell phone, about 3 percent a computer—citizens are connecting with each other as well as the rest of the world. This is no small achievement in Bhutan, whose only cross-country road is so slow, narrow, and sinuous that it takes three days to traverse the 150 miles (as the raven flies) from east to west. Villagers separated by mountains now share the experience of watching their national TV network. New radio stations, such as Kuzoo FM, bring young people together to talk about music, culture, and modernization. In 2006 the king even allowed two independent newspapers to emerge as alternative voices to Kuensel, still seen by many as the official mouthpiece.

The local music and film industries have also flowered. Two decades ago Bhutan had never produced a feature film. In 2006 this tiny nation released 24 films, perhaps the highest per capita rate in the world. Is it coincidence, or karma, that the film director leading the way is considered the reincarnation of a 19th-century Buddhist saint? Khyentse Norbu, one of Bhutan’s most revered lamas, makes movies that explore the playful encounters of tradition and modernity. He followed his surprise hit about soccer-loving monks, The Cup (1999), with a Bhutanese tale, Travellers and Magicians (2003), casting the hip journalist Dendup as a restless bureaucrat. “Movies,” says Norbu, 47, “are our modern-day thangkas”—the ancient Tibetan religious scrolls adorned with colorfully illustrated stories. “Rather than fear modernization,” he says, “we should see it as a tool that can help us express our culture more powerfully.”

Bhutan’s traditionalists, however, see a darker force at play: the invasion by a materialistic global monoculture that is eroding their values. The government has banned channels deemed harmful, including MTV, Fashion TV, and a sports channel that featured violent wrestling spectacles. Sonam Tshewang, a junior-high teacher in Thimphu, believes something vital has already been lost. “Some kids have become so Westernized that they’ve forgotten their own cultural identity,” he says. One girl in his class even changed her name to Britney.

The identity crisis runs deeper than a name change. A cocktail of social pressures is fueling new problems. Youth unemployment is running at about 30 percent in Thimphu, as rural high-school graduates flock to town dreaming of civil-service jobs that fail to materialize. Gangs with names like Virus and Bacteria have formed. Violent crime is still rare, but theft—once absent in a country with few locked doors—is becoming more common, as people covet their neighbors’ mobile phones and CD players.

Drug addiction is also on the rise. Near the entrance to Destiny Club, one of Thimphu’s handful of new discos, three young revelers discuss the virtues of “pig’s food,” a potent variety of marijuana, abundant in the Bhutanese countryside, that is used traditionally as an appetite enhancer for livestock. “Do kids in America also get addicted?” asks the trio’s leader, a 23-year-old with reddened eyes. Thimphu’s drug scene might seem tame by international standards, but this can hardly be the kind of happiness the king envisioned. Ugyen Dorji, a former addict who founded Bhutan’s first drug-rehabilitation center three years ago with the help of the Youth Development Fund, says it reflects “the anxieties of a society in transition.”

For all its rugged independence, Bhutan is plagued by a sense of vulnerability that comes from being the last bastion of Himalayan Buddhism. The others have vanished, among them Ladakh (dismantled in 1842 and later absorbed into India), Tibet (invaded by China in 1950), and the neighboring kingdom of Sikkim. In 1975, just three years after Jigme Singye Wangchuck took the throne at age 16, a rising tide of Nepali immigrants voted independent Sikkim out of existence, annexing it to India. Was Bhutan next? Wangchuck moved to defend Bhutan’s prime asset, its Buddhist identity. “Being a small country, we do not have economic power,” he explained to a New York Times reporter in 1991. “We do not have military muscle. We cannot play a dominant international role because of our small size and population, and because we are a landlocked country. The only factor … which can strengthen Bhutan’s sovereignty and our different identity is the unique culture we have.”

A sensible stance, perhaps, but one that set the monarchy on a collision course with the country’s largest ethnic group, the Hindu Nepalis. Unlike the ruling Ngalong, or Drukpa, in the northwest and the Sharchop in the east—both Buddhist descendants of Tibetans who settled the country centuries ago—the bulk of Nepalis arrived in Bhutan’s mosquito-infested lowlands in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other waves came after 1960, some invited as manual laborers, others crossing the border illegally. The monarchy encouraged assimilation, but the growing Nepali population alarmed the Drukpa elite. After tightening citizenship laws, the king decreed that all Bhutanese must follow the Drukpa code of dress and conduct. Thus began a cycle of protests and arrests that sent tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis fleeing across the border between 1990 and 1992.

Govinda Dhimal was one of them. A devout Hindu, he and his family had lived contentedly in the southern district of Tsirang for more than half a century. But the indignities piled up. Dhimal was required to wear a bulky gho, ill-suited for the subtropical heat. A soldier forced him to erase the Hindu markings from his forehead. When Nepali militants organized protest rallies, the army responded with mass arrests—and Dhimal ended up in jail. Weary and broken, the 69-year-old signed a “voluntary migration form” and fled into the unknown. When he reached the border, in early 1992, he hurled his gho back into Bhutanese territory—the last vestige of Drukpa culture imposed on him.

For the past 16 years Dhimal, now 85, has languished in a United Nations camp in eastern Nepal, trapped in one of the world’s most intractable refugee crises. The governments of Nepal and Bhutan have held 15 rounds of talks, yet not one of the 108,000 refugees has been allowed to go back. For them, and for many of the ethnic Nepalis still in Bhutan (roughly estimated at 150,000), the monarchy’s vigorous promotion of Buddhist culture has been a source of misery.

The overt tensions in the south mostly are gone now. Robust economic growth along with easing cultural restrictions have enabled some Nepalis to build comfortable lives. Many, however, still live on the fringes of society, relegated to manual labor and barred from obtaining business licenses, government jobs, or access to higher education. “We are not treated as equals,” says one Nepali engineer in Thimphu. “If my father died, I would not even be able to give him a proper Hindu burial.”

Across the mountains, sitting in his dirt-floor hut in the UN refugee camp, Dhimal still longs to return to Bhutan, though there is little chance of that now. The monarchy has not budged from its refusal to let the refugees back, and an offer by the United States to admit 60,000 of them—though stymied in early 2007 by violent militants demanding a full return to Bhutan—is regaining momentum. Dhimal’s grandchildren seem eager to start a new life. “We have no future here,” says his 15-year-old grandson, Tek Nath. “I’d like to see what America is like.”

Dhimal is unconvinced. “What would I do there?” he asks. “My home is Bhutan.”

Reverence for royalty runs deep in Bhutan, and few feel it more keenly than a woman named Peldon. She has lived her 41 years in the shadow of the royal family’s ancestral home, Dungkhar, a simple timbered house set in a remote northeastern valley encircled by snow-capped peaks. Peldon, who displays eight poster-size photographs of the kings in her home, has seen the monarchy’s benefits firsthand. Three years ago a road through the mountains materialized, cutting the trip to the nearest town from two days to two hours. Electricity arrived too, enabling Peldon to attend evening literacy classes and to weave kiras late into the night. “Night has turned into day,” she says, “and we owe it all to His Majesty the King.”

Now comes the monarchy’s most unexpected gift—devolution of power to the people—and Peldon finds it hard to accept. Like many Bhutanese, she wept that day in December 2006 when, after 34 years on the throne, Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favor of his son, opening the way for parliamentary elections. Peldon reveres the fourth king as a visionary who has led by example, investing in schools and roads rather than palaces and personal bank accounts. His son and successor, Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, arrived in Dungkhar last year to encourage villagers to vote. Peldon admires the young monarch, but the point of the elections eludes her. “We have a good and wise king,” she says. “Why do we need democracy?”

Rural peasants aren’t the only ones harboring doubts. At a trendy Thimphu nightclub called P. Wang, a trio of power brokers relaxes after a round of golf, singing karaoke and toasting the monarchy. “I don’t want democracy, because it can lead to chaos, like in Nepal or India,” says Tshering Tobgay, a businessman. “But whatever the king says, we must eat—whether sweet or sour, poisonous or delicious.” Even Bhutan’s chief election commissioner concedes that he would prefer not to have elections. “Given the choice, of course, we’d want to continue to be guided by the monarchy,” Dasho Kunzang Wangdi says. So why change? “It’s a simple thing: The king wants it.”

The strongest voice for reforming the monarchy, ironically, has been the king’s. What would happen, he has argued, if Bhutan fell into the hands of an evil or incompetent ruler? He won the argument—as kings often do—but his stepchild, democracy, has had a few wobbly first steps. Even fielding viable candidates has been a challenge, owing in part to the king’s insistence that all aspirants to national office be university graduates—this in a country where less than 2 percent of the people have bachelor’s degrees. Nevertheless, last summer two top government ministers—Jigme Y. Thinley and Sangay Ngedup—resigned their posts to lead opposing parties into the elections.

Whoever becomes Bhutan’s first prime minister this year will likely not deviate from the policy of Gross National Happiness. Ngedup, a jovial former agricultural minister who calls the king’s abdication a “very Buddhist form of nonattachment,” has a special reason to stay the course: As elder brother of all four of the fourth king’s wives, he is the new king’s uncle. Thinley, for his part, is one of the policy’s principal architects and has traveled the globe promoting the happiness gospel. “This idea has captured the imagination of the larger world,” Thinley says. “People are searching for a new definition of prosperity.”

To survive in democratic politics, Bhutan’s next leader will have to make the people happy—and, as the country modernizes, that may hinge on relations with the outside world. Bhutan has forged ties with only 21 countries; the most important is India, which provides military security and buys 80 percent of Bhutan’s exports. Most big powers, including the U.S., aren’t on the list, Thinley says, “because we wanted to avoid becoming a pawn.” The same worry persists as Bhutan moves toward membership in the World Trade Organization. In a globalized economy, no country can fully insulate itself from trade—and, by extension, the WTO. “Our greatest fear,” Thinley says, “comes from the unknown.”

No such fear plagues Kinzang Norbu, the seven-year-old leader of the B-Boyz. The freestyler may have no conception of free trade or globalization—he is only a second grader—but he imbibes them as easily as he does his own Bhutanese culture. A day after his break-dancing performance, Norbu walks home from school in neatly combed hair, buckled shoes, and a sharply creased gray gho. When he arrives home—a basement bar his mother runs, decorated with photos of Bhutanese monarchs next to a mural of another king, Elvis Presley—Norbu changes into a Diesel T-shirt and discusses, in English, the merits of Allen Iverson and Ronaldinho.

His vote for the world’s coolest person? It’s a runoff between 50 Cent and Bhutan’s fourth king. As a child of Bhutan’s great experiment, Norbu sees no need to give up one or the other. Flashing a smile, he says: “I like them both!”