The stunning differences between Bhutan and Nepal are not accidental. More than any of its South Asian neighbors, Bhutan has cultivated an obsessive nationalism, driven by a powerful suspicion of change. In some ways, it seems more like a pristine religious retreat—or an exclusive country club—than a sovereign state.
This mind-set became plainly visible in the late 1980s, when King Wangchuck's government, which viewed the exploding Hindu-Nepali population in the country's south as a threat to Bhutan's Drukpa identity, took desperate steps. It mandated a dress code, requiring men and women to wear the traditional robelike gho and kira, respectively, during business hours and to formal occasions. Walking the streets of Thimpu, Bhutan's rustic capital, I feel like I'm on the set of Star Trek—an episode in which the crew members find themselves on a planet of seemingly docile, pajama-clad strangers. Bhutanese adults caught in T-shirts are fined or forced to spend a week on a work squad.
Also in the late '80s, Dzongkha was made Bhutan's official language, and Mahayana Buddhism its official religion. Taken out of context, these policies could be read as fascistic. But when one looks around the region—at Tibet's brutal occupation, Nepal's mindless development, and India's religious strife—Bhutan's efforts to homogenize its national identity make sense. All figure into King Wangchuck's grand experiment to maintain his country as a close-knit community and attain the enlightened goal of Gross National Happiness.
THE FOUR PILLARS OF HAPPINESS
On the outskirts of Thimpu, along the banks of the river, an unmarked stucco house stands between an overgrown yard and a small lumber mill; it's the Center for Bhutan Studies. I climb a short flight of dusty cement steps and arrive at a wooden doorway, blocked by a hanging Tibetan carpet. Lifting the heavy curtain, I gape in amazement. Within is a high-tech lair filled with computers and earnest researchers, one of whom, a man named Sonam Kinga, steps forward to greet me. Kinga is dressed in a smart black and white gho. His oval eyeglasses are perfectly matched to his handsome, symmetrical face. He speaks fast, putting a neat frame around the abstract notion of Gross National Happiness.
"Happiness is beyond measurement," he allows. "It's an ultimate state that we are working towards. But there are means that take you there. And it's those means that can be quantified." The center, Kinga says, has used Buddhist principles to identify four specific "pillars" upon which Gross National Happiness rests: good governance, cultural preservation, environmental conservation, and economic development. Each of these, he admits, has qualities that have never been—and can never be—quantified, but each can be analyzed objectively.