An unforgettable visit to the majestic Bhutan
In a small village surrounded by the vast Himalayan ranges, there lived a family which was boycotted by the entire village. People in the area would even refuse to eat food or drink water served by them, accusing them of practising witchcraft. This pushed the family to a life of seclusion.
One fine day, the king of the nation arrived at their door. He ordered the owner of the home to serve food to him and expressed his desire of spending a night at their home. The news of the king’s arrival spread like wildfire. A sizeable crowd of loyal citizens tried to dissuade their king from risking his life, but the latter refused to give in to their advice. He had a meal with the family and spent an entire night with them.
The king is still alive and continues to rule his kingdom. The cursed family has once again been accepted by the community.
This isn’t a grandma’s tale, but an incident that took place in Bhutan. The king in question is King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. This young ruler of the Himalayan state is a modern man. He wants the people of his nation to be free from superstitions and outdated practices.
His majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is devoted to his country, takes pride in its culture, history, heritage and people. The people of Bhutan adore him. His charm is not just amongst the Bhutanese, but anyone who meets this modern king is deeply impressed with his calm demeanour and foresight.
I met King Wangchuck in Thimphu earlier this month. I went to Bhutan as a member of a delegation of the Indian Women’s Press Corps. Our visit was organised by the Government of Bhutan and the Indian Embassy. The delegation was led by Neerja Chaudhary, political editor of the ‘Indian Express’, with Geeta Shri, senior journalist ‘Outlook’ as her assistant. The team included Manjari Chaturvedi from ‘Navbharat Times’, Bhasha Singh from ‘Nayi Duniya’, two senior freelance journalists Bhagyalakhsmi and Usha Mahajan and ‘Sahara Samay’s’ young journalist Shilpa.
We were eager to meet the king. Sensing our keenness Ambassador Pavan Verma made some discreet efforts.
On October 8, we were enjoying an elaborate lunch hosted by Kinsley T. Wangchuck, Director Department of Information and Media at Motithang hotel. Our host announced he had a surprise for us. In a short while, somebody from the King’s office arrived to escort us in a mini-bus. We were expected at the King’s office in 10 minutes.
Although we had set aside a pair of formals for this visit, there was no time to get into them. Nevertheless we were determined not to let any disappointment mar our joy of meeting the king.
Once we reached the King’s Secretariat, we were asked to deposit our cameras, phones and handbags. The grandee wood and stone building made in ancient Bhutanese architectural style was breathtaking. The beautiful silk hangings and Buddhist paintings added to the splendour. We had hardly waited for 5 minutes, when the King met us.
We climbed a wooden staircase leading to the King’s court. An attendant slid the curtain to usher us in. This room had a silk curtain designed in Bhutanese style. One could also see His Majesty’s silver throne which was adorned with Bhutanese style flower designs and dragons.
The moment we entered this room we were mesmerised by the beautiful architecture. Finally, His Majesty marked his presence with a cherishing smile and greeted us.
He possessed all the qualities a young man would have and more. He chose to sit with us and not on his throne thereby proving that he intended to be a good host. This room had Bhutanese style settees and tables. It was dominated by a large Buddha sculpture bathed in the soft glow of an oil lamp.
During our conversation, the King shared his experience about his visit to Kolkata and also inquired about our tour.
Although my inquisitiveness seemed to have no limits, somewhere the chat had to end. It was surely a once in a lifetime experience to sit and chat with someone who is so full of compassion. The trip gave me more than what I expected.
At a time when the entire world is obsessed with growth, Bhutan has developed its own model of growth namely Gross National Happiness (GNH), which is unlike the GDP of other nations. It is based on the parameter of happiness and peace of Bhutan’s common man. This model sees to it that moral values and culture are not eclipsed by material growth. I was so impressed by the development paradigm of Bhutan that I could not resist asking a few questions to the King.
The world measures development by GDP. How acceptable will your concept of GNH be to the Youth?
Rash development is accompanied by several ills. Economic development boosts per capita income, gives rise to huge industries and augurs materialistic luxuries. It also adversely impacts human relationships and moral values. The highly developed world has all the luxuries, but is lacking in human warmth. Our particular model of development will ensure the continuation of our culture, environment, natural resources and priceless heritage. I want my country to be happy, I want my people to be prosperous, but not at the cost of tampering with nature, polluting the environment. I firmly believe GNH will be successful and Bhutan will be a role model of development to the rest of the world.
But how will Bhutan keep pace with the world? What will your economy depend upon?
Bhutan has so many rivers. We are in collaboration with India on several hydel projects. By 2020, Bhutan will be providing electricity to India. We have plans to develop education, health and organic agriculture. We are going to start world-class schools and universities and will be home to high quality health services.
Bhutan is a beautiful country with immense potential for tourism development. Will you open doors to the world? What is your future tourism policy?
Bhutan was earlier known as the hidden kingdom. We opened our doors to world tourism in 1974. It is true that a big chunk of our revenue and foreign exchange comes from tourism, but our tourism policy is well thought out. Ours is a high value, low volume model. We don’t want the back-packers. We encourage tourists who respect our culture and are sensitive to environment. We request every tourist to be sensitive to our society, culture and environment. Our government is committed to supporting all Bhutanese citizens in safeguarding their self respect and heritage. We do wish to let the world see our rich, ancient culture, but the emphasis is going to be on high value, low volume tourism. At present we have 72% of the land covered with forests and we have a policy that 60% of the area has to be preserved as forest at all costs.
Democracy is in its infancy in Bhutan. The country became a democracy in March 2008. What is the future of democracy here? Was the shift to the democratic model of governance a pre-emptive measure?
No, Bhutan has always maintained its unique identity within the Asian continent. My father, the fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was a man of foresight. He had decided to hand over the reigns to the people but we developed our own model of democracy. The transition to democratic model of governance was peaceful. I am confident democracy will develop its roots in the near future and I will be able to retire in 20 years.
That means your successor has to be ready. You are the most eligible bachelor. When will you marry?
I am no more an eligible bachelor. I will get married soon (As told by unconfirmed sources, the King has plans to marry in January-February 2011).
Will you marry within the Royal family?
Bhutan has no such condition. We can marry the person we love. My three sisters had love marriages. None of them has married people from the royal family.
What are your hobbies?
I am a very romantic person. I love nature, reading books, painting, cycling for miles and hitting the gym.
You have lived in India for long. Which Indian cuisine do you like?
I like South Indian food, dishes cooked in coconut, idli, dosa, pani-puris and of course gulab jamun. I am a competent cook myself. I go to tiny hamlets, visit my people and at times cook for them. I once cooked a meal of Kevadasi (potatoes cooked in cheese) and rice for a family in a remote village and then enjoyed the food with them.
You must have watched Indian films?
I love Bollywood films. I recently watched `3 Idiots`.
Who is your favourite actor?
Amitabh Bachchan, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan; all three are my favourites.
What about the actresses?
Kajol is my favourite
If you hadn’t been the King, who would you be?
If not a King, I would have been a teacher. Teachers have a significant role to play in the society.
You are not yet 30. People of your age are not calm. You are very mature for your age.
I am what I am because of my parents. My parents have instilled good values in me. I was told that it is more important to be a good human being rather than being rich. It was because of their upbringing that I can empathise with my fellow human beings.