ANY of us who must live in this hectic, heartless, modern world sometimes dream of a land that is different. Then come with us to a country that has things money cannot buy.
Crystal clear streams tumble down from majestic mountains, and the air is charged with the scent of exotic trees, herbs and flowers. The inhabitants are content, for their land is without crime, without dire poverty, without the threat of famine and without war. They are at peace with the world and one another.
Everyone has work. Men can be men. Women are happy to be women. Children are respectful. Delinquency is unknown.
Maybe such a land exists only in our dreams. Maybe it is Bhutan.
With other members of the Plain Truth editorial staff, I was able recently to spend a week in this fascinating little Himalayan kingdom. It was an unusual opportunity, as only about 2,000 people are invited to visit Bhutan each year. For centuries Bhutan was literally a forbidding mountain kingdom. It is only in the last few years that it has opened its door, warily, to the outside world.
We think Plain Truth readers would like to share our experience, since even a brief visit to Bhutan gives the thoughtful traveler a glimpse of the world as it was yesterday. And a hint of what it may be like tomorrow!
A Place That Is Different We approached Bhutan by air. Until 1983 the only way in was by jeep along a winding road from the plains of northern India. To fly is quicker, but no less spectacular. The little Dornier 228 aircraft took 1 1/2 hours to fly from Calcutta, across the impoverished plains of Bangladesh and into the majestic foothills of the Himalayas. Bhutan literally comes up to meet you, for this is one of the most mountainous countries on earth. Eighty percent of the land is more than 6,000 feet high.
As the plane made its final approach to Bhutan's only airport in the Paro Valley, it had to wind its way through the mountains. Beneath us (and sometimes above), little houses perched impossibly on narrow ledges, and precipitous slopes had been carefully terraced into improbable rice fields. The Indian pilot landed carefully and on schedule, and when the little airplane's engine shut down, total stillness enveloped us. Here indeed was a place that is different.
We were introduced to Kinley Dorji, the man who would be our host. He was a friendly, educated young man who spoke flawless English.
The first two days of our visit were spent in the Paro Valley. Paro is one of the country's two main centers of settlement — densely populated by Bhutanese standards, a quiet rural village by nearly everybody else's. Neat little farms dotted the floor of the valley, surrounded by small fields of red rice, wheat, corn (maize) and vegetables — especially peppers.
The people were harvesting their grain, carefully, with hand scythes. One woman straightened her back and proudly showed me the fruit of her labors — an armful of golden wheat.
With gestures, I asked if I could take her photograph. She beckoned for me to come into the field, then rebuked me sharply. I had accidentally trodden on the heads of some harvested wheat lying on the ground. In Bhutan, grain is to be respected. This harvest is the result of months of diligent labor. Only an ignorant Westerner, whose daily bread comes from a supermarket, would tread so thoughtlessly on it.
I apologized profusely, and her flashing smile showed that I was forgiven.
Not far away, her husband was making mud bricks to repair the farmhouse. Bhutanese houses are a masterpiece of design — cool in summer, warm in winter — roomy and serviceable, and yet beautifully designed to blend with their environment. They are elaborately decorated — as was nearly every building in Bhutan — with traditional designs. We never saw an ugly one.
I thought of my own modest but nevertheless complicated home in California. It's comfortable enough when everything is working well, but how helpless we are when it isn't. Many so-called civilized people are just an extension cord away from the Stone Age. What artificial lives we have to live!
Because real estate prices have skyrocketed, owning even a modest home has become an impossible dream for many in the industrialized world. They must settle for a few rented rooms in an apartment block. Contact with nature is restricted to a parakeet or hamster in a cage, and a few plants putting up a brave fight against pollution on the balcony, while the changing seasons are marked only by spring or fall sales at the shopping mall.
I admired this self-sufficient little Bhutanese family, as she gathered their food and he built their home. If they envied me, an alien from the frantic, materialistic, progress — mad and pleasure — crazy world outside, they didn't show it.
Kings and Priests For centuries Bhutan kept to itself in its Himalayan hideaway. It signed a treaty of perpetual peace with the British Empire — which it renewed in 1949 with India. The British learned to respect the tough and independent Bhutanese.
Henry Bogle traveled to Bhutan in 1774, and gave this account of the people. "The more I see of the Bhutanese, the more I am pleased with them. The common people are good humored, downright, and I think, thoroughly trusty... they are the best built race of men I ever saw.
"The simplicity of their manners, their slight intercourse with strangers, and strong sense of religion preserve the Bhutanese from any vices to which more polished nations are addicted. They are strangers to falsehood and ingratitude. That and every other species of dishonesty, to which the lust of money give birth, are unknown. Murder is uncommon, and in general the effect of anger and not covetousness."
That is still an accurate description of the Bhutanese today.
In the days when Bogle visited Bhutan, the country had a two-tier system of government. Power was shared between the Shabdrung — a religious leader — and the Debs, who managed the civil and temporal affairs. Government was administered through a chain of dzongs. or fortified monasteries. In time of peace, these great buildings were a focal point for spiritual and temporal authority. When danger threatened, the dzongs became formidable and impregnable fortresses.
Power was consolidated in a line of hereditary kings in 1907, when Sir Ugyen Wanchuk was crowned. He died in 1926, and was succeeded by his son, Jigme Wanchuk, who reigned until 1952.
The third hereditary ruler, Jigme Dorji Wanchuk, reigned from 1952 to 1972. He was a man of clear vision and great foresight. During his reign, Bhutan began to edge its way cautiously into the 20th century. Roads were built, where before there were only winding yak trails. Schools and hospitals were opened, and departments were established to modernize farming and animal husbandry. Some small-scale industry was begun.
Bhutan has a major resource in its fast flowing rivers. Two hydroelectric power stations provide electric power for the Paro Valley and the capital, Thimphu. Bhutan is also in a position to export surplus hydroelectric power to its neighbors.
Bhutan's king, Jigme Singye Wanchuk, has continued his father's policy of careful modernization. He and his advisers know that if the nation plunges headlong into modernization, the values of the traditional way of life would be destroyed.
Bhutan's rulers have realized that their country has missed three centuries of progress. They have also had the wit to see that some of that progress was well worth missing.
Foreign aid from friends is received with gratitude, but Bhutan has refused to mortgage its future with massive debt. The government prides itself on paying all its bills on time.
Guardians of Tradition The Bhutanese have preserved their unique form of government, in which religious and temporal leaders work together to administer the nation's affairs.
One morning Kinley Dorji drove us along a winding road through the Paro Valley to the Druk Gyel Dzong. This dzong once guarded the valley from Tibetan marauders from the north. They invaded several times, but they never got past Druk Gyel Dzong.
Now the Tibetan frontier is closed and the dzong is in ruins, a victim of a fire in 1952. It was not rebuilt. But most of the old dzongs still function as civil and religious administration centers and thus still guard the nation from new enemies.
These enemies are ourselves, or rather the world we have created. The most dangerous natural enemies of the Bhutanese are greed, corruption, crime and the decline in values that seem to go hand in hand with material development.
The Bhutanese have been careful to maintain the role of religion. Religious and civil affairs remain inseparable — administered as they are from the same buildings, the dzongs. Buddhist monks and elected authorities share the burden of government.
Most problems and disputes are resolved at the community level, by local elders selected on merit by the people. More significant problems can be referred up through the levels of government to the Royal Advisory Council and the King himself.
The system works well, and there is a tradition of respect and confidence between the governors and the governed. Officials we met were often surprisingly young men who understood that their education placed an obligation on them to be servants of the people.
The Buddhist faith is woven into the fabric of all aspects of life in Bhutan. At Simtokha Dzong on the outskirts of Bhutan's little capital, Thimphu, we saw teenagers diligently learning the intricate dances that are performed at the festivals. At a chhorten, or shrine, in town, we met old people who come each day to pray for the welfare of all mankind. "It is their job," Kinley Dorji explained. "They can no longer work in the field, but they are still useful."
The Bhutanese have placed a high priority on education, and schooling is available for most children. The language of instruction is English — which explained the excellent English spoken by many of the children we met.
The national language, Dzongkha, is being upgraded to embrace modern terms. "But we don't want it to become contrived or ridiculous," explained Kinley Dorji. "We don't mind borrowing a foreign word if there is no sensible way to express something in Dzongkha."
I asked him what the Bhutanese word for pollution was. "I think we'll have to use your word for that," he answered, adding, "but I hope we'll not need it."
Keeping It Simple Bhutan has no reason to industrialize. Life centers around agriculture and the seasons. No other way makes sense in this abundant land. Red rice, beans, corn (maize), peppers and a wide variety of fruit grow plentifully. There is pasture for animals and fish in the rivers. The diet is simple but adequate. The average life span approximates that of the Western world. Heart disease, cancer and the other stress-related health problems are practically unknown.
The Bhutanese show a characteristically practical approach to mechanization of their traditional farming methods.
"We need some tractors, but not too many," explained a superintendent of the country's agricultural experimental station in the Paro Valley. "We ask ourselves — why do we want labor-saving devices? What is wrong with labor?"
But nobody enjoys drudgery. The superintendent proudly showed us a simple tool for weeding rice paddies. With it, one man could do the work of 10, saving hours of tedious work and freeing the farmers for more productive and enjoyable labor. This simple tool is manufactured entirely in Bhutan, and sold at cost (about US $10) to the farmers.
To visit Bhutan, the guide books say, is to step into the past. Maybe. But I wonder if in some ways it isn't also a look into the future.
Many thinkers in the industrialized world have suggested that a return to a less complex life-style would be more satisfying. Alvin Tomer (The Third Wave) and the late Eric Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful) showed how technological advancement need not be incompatible with a less complicated life-style.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with development. God made man to think and grow, and we weren't created to live in a primitive manner. But neither is there anything noble about modern industrial societies with their collapsing values, decaying families, vanishing morals and frustrated, angry, aimless children. Not to forget the nuclear weapons with which the superpowers threaten each other and everyone else. Development has been a very mixed blessing, so far. It is destined to become an unmitigated curse for the world's most "advanced" societies are on a collision course that will bring humanity to the brink of annihilation.
A Glimpse of Tomorrow The Hebrew prophets of the Bible foresaw our tumultuous modern world. They warned that civilization would climax in a time of trouble such as had never been known before. But they saw beyond, to the establishment of the kingdom of God, and a thousand years of peace. The prophet Micah spoke of a calmer, less dangerous age, when every man could "sit under his own vine and fig tree" (Micah 4:4). Isaiah saw a time when the "knowledge of the Lord," would fill the earth like "the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9).
Today, the "knowledge of the Lord" — what there is of it — is bound up in hundreds of different religions, denominations, sects and cults — as often as not at each other's throats. What understanding there is is diluted with error, heresy and superstition.
Much of the original truth including the paramount truth of the purpose of human existence has been lost almost entirely. Today, very few know it — even fewer believe and act on it.
When the real purpose of life comes into sharp focus, a change in the direction of human progress will begin.
Although development will continue in the world of tomorrow, this dehumanizing, materialistic society, based on greed and selfishness, will never be rebuilt. It will become a gentler world, with life centering more around the calendar than the clock. When true knowledge of the purpose of existence becomes common, religion and worship will no longer be something to be squeezed in when and if there is time. A relationship with the Creator God will be a natural and logical part of the rhythm of life. People will want to devote their time to activities that bring lasting — not superficial and temporary — satisfaction.
It will take some getting accustomed to at first. But deep down, many people even now realize that they would be happier in a world like that.
True Riches The Bhutanese have not lost this kind of happiness. But they also know that if they are to survive in this world, they cannot remain a museum. So far this little country has written a remarkable record of a commonsense attitude toward development.
When Bhutan began its modernization program, one of the first steps was to restore Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu as the nation's chief administration center. Whereas some developing nations hired foreign expertise and labor to build showcase government buildings, the Bhutanese did the work with their own hands and in their own unique way.
Tashichho Dzong is a magnificent structure, richly decorated with traditional designs. It was built without imported building materials, even nails. A massive foundation supports sturdy walls. Wooden beams form an intricate network on which the roof is carefully balanced. But what is truly remarkable is that the dzong was rebuilt without blueprints. The people knew instinctively what they needed to do, and the result is a masterpiece of grace and symmetry.
The Bhutanese are now constructing their country like they rebuilt Tashichho Dzong — carefully, thoughtfully, one step at a time. No grandiose top — heavy schemes, but careful development on a solid foundation.
As yet they haven't destroyed their forests. Their water is sparklingly clear and good to drink. Their air is crisp, clean and unpolluted. And they themselves are independent, and content.
The Bhutanese, according to those who reckon only in gross national product, are among the poorest people on earth. But they have the food and homes they need and things that money cannot buy that development, without the guiding hand of God, has stripped from richer folk. Bhutan is a very rich little poor land.