Letter from Bhutan

Individual humans are capable of measuring and attaining happiness—but can whole societies do the same? In the January/February 2014 issue of Orion, Gretchen Legler travels to the tiny country of Bhutan to learn about a revolutionary experiment in putting people before profit. Below is a visual tour of people and places from her story “The Happiness Index.”

This monk is practicing for an upcoming tsechu, an annual Buddhist festival that includes masked dance dramas, feasting, and ceremony. Here, practice is held in the stone courtyard of Punakha Dzong, a magnificent example of traditional Bhutanese architecture, located at the confluence of the Mo Chhu (Mother River) and the Pho Chhu (Father River). Tsechus and other religious events are a constant in Bhutanese life.

Tsechus are also a chance to buy cheap plastic toys at makeshift fair tents. Plastic knick-knacks are relatively new to Bhutan, as is television, which some fear is introducing young Bhutanese to a new romance with violence.

One of the indicators of well-being in Bhutan’s Happiness Index is cultural literacy, measured in part by whether citizens are adept at indigenous crafts, such as weaving textiles, carving, painting, dancing, or playing a traditional Bhutanese instrument. This weaver lives in Khoma, a village in western Bhutan that produces some of the most elaborate and expensive weavings used for kiras, traditional dress for women. A national dress code keeps weavers of traditional textiles in business, but more young people eschew ghos and kiras for jeans and t-shirts.

Radical hospitality is part of Bhutanese life. The ritual of hospitality requires that you wait to be asked three times—the first two times you politely decline, the third time you accept. We are drinking chai made with yak milk, black tea and sugar, served to us by Kelzang Om, the wife of Pema Khandoor. They had just that week moved to their summer home in the high mountains above Jangothang, along with their sixty-plus yaks. Their dark tent, stretched over a circular wall of stone, is made of yak hair that lets in light, but swells when wet to keep out rain.

Bhutan’s signature national dish is chilis and cheese, or ema datse, served with rice. These women are planting rice in the valley of Wangdi. Despite the dominance of agriculture, Bhutan still has a hard time feeding itself—it imports vegetables, rice, and meat from India, which adds to a growing imbalance of imports and exports, creating rising indebtedness to its giant neighbor.

Its GNH vision notwithstanding, Bhutan has its own set of serious civil-rights issues. This masked worker is a member of the country’s National Work Force, which consists of many people of Nepali descent who are discriminated against because of their Hindu religion and impure Bhutanese bloodline. Some construction workers also come from India, working in miserable conditions and living in roadside shanty towns. Bhutan’s queen of letters, Ashi Kunzang Choden, the country’s first English-language literary voice, wrote movingly about the road workers in her novel Circle of Karma.

Bhutan’s challenging geography has kept this never-colonized country isolated from the rest of the world. Its inspirited landscape, a Bhutanese friend told me, is dense with dieties that, like the mountains, have warded off invaders–during an ill-fated skirmish with the British in the late nineteenth century, local dieties in the guise of mosquitoes turned back the enemy.

Gretchen Legler teaches creative writing at the University of Maine, Farmington. Her nonfiction books include All the Powerful Invisible Things: A Sportswoman’s Notebook and On the Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. She lives in rural Maine.