In April 1987, Jigme Singye Wangchuck—the young monarch of Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan nation sandwiched between the muscular shoulders of India and China—was being interviewed by the Financial Times. Asked about Bhutan's development, which was moving at a snail's pace compared with Nepal's and Thailand's, Wangchuck offered a reply that instantly entered the annals of Bhutanese legend. "Gross National Happiness," he declared, "is more important than Gross National Product."
King Wangchuck's remark galvanized his people, who were already seeking a way to reconcile their deeply held Tibetan Buddhist beliefs with the obsessive materialism of the postindustrial world. And it sparked a debate about an issue that Americans, despite the promises made by the Declaration of Independence, have never quite understood. What is happiness, and how does a government cultivate this elusive state in the hearts and minds of its citizens?
INTO THE LAND OF THE DRAGON
Bhutan is about a third the size of Nepal, which lies due west, just beyond a sliver of India. Buddhism arrived there in the seventh century, around the same time it reached Tibet. (Padmasambhava, the great Tantric mystic whose esoteric teachings mesmerized Nepal and Tibet, is also revered in Bhutan.) Some of the early settlers who traveled from Tibet to Bhutan called themselves Drukpa, or "dragon people," and the name Druk Yul (Land of the Dragon) is what ethnic Bhutanese still call their country.
Bands of warrior monks swept through the region until the 17th century, when a powerful Drukpa abbot who called himself Shabdrung ("at whose feet one submits") seized control. Shabdrung drove out a wave of Tibetan invaders, crushed an internal rebellion by competing lamas, and began the process of unifying Bhutan. Under Shabdrung, the Drukpa built fortresslike monasteries called dzongs—massive citadels that still serve as Bhutan's religious and administrative centers.
To enter this timeless land—and this is only my second time in more than 20 years of travel in Asia doing so—I take a short but spectacular flight between Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal) and Paro, where Bhutan's only airport is located. After less than an hour, the Druk Air jet drops over thickly wooded foothills and lands at the airstrip, 7,300 feet above sea level. Despite their proximity, Nepal and Bhutan are worlds apart. Landing in Bhutan, I'm astonished anew by the sylvan mountains, sweet air, and effervescent rivers. It's a far cry from the Kathmandu Valley, which in the dry spring lies beneath a pall of pollution, surrounded by deforested hillsides and toxic, anemic streams. Most dramatic of all is Bhutan's relative emptiness: The nation's total population (as of 2002) is less than 700,000, compared with 25 million for Nepal.