The Royal Queen Mother of Happiness
Photo Source: Bhutan
By Debra Nicholson, Official Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
Imagine a country that measures “Gross National Happiness (GNH),” rather than “Gross National Product.” What a cosmic reorientation of governmental priorities that would generate!
Surprisingly, such a country exists.
Bhutan. Or, Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
A champion of this happiness-oriented country is Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. Not only does Her Majesty advocate for Bhutan in international circles (for example, she was Chief Patron of the Smithsonian’s Folk Life Festival of Bhutan in Washington, DC, in 2008), but she also commits time and energy to facilitating national happiness through a variety of important activities and programs in Bhutan.
The idea of Gross National Happiness is predicated on King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s 1974 coronation philosophy that Bhutan’s economic development should exercise a fine balance between tradition and modernization, in the belief that increased material wealth does not automatically bring happiness. Therefore, care should be taken to respect Bhutan’s cultural heritage, to evenly distribute prosperity, to conserve its “biodiversity hotspot” status, and to provide responsive participatory governance, as it is now a constitutional monarchy (Wangchuck 18).
The Royal Queen Mother’s dedication to her husband’s GNH principles has quite impressively informed her public life. In 2001, at the age of 47, she undertook what would be the first of many tours around her country to discover, observe, and question Bhutan’s citizens about their needs and concerns. This was no easy task. Bhutan’s geography, with its eastern Himalayan mountain peaks, and its deep gorges created by fast-running rivers, make road construction a challenge. It is said that the longest stretch of straight road in the country is the Paro Airport runway (Wangchuck 10)! The tours became adventures in walking or riding horseback.
Her visits to remote traditional villages throughout the country sparked a desire to create a non-governmental organization in 2003, the Tarayana Foundation, which would serve to bridge the gap between these isolated communities and national initiatives. Tarayana focuses on four areas: community building, basic needs and services, education, and enhancing income-generating activities. Its overall goal is to promote self-empowerment and community service.
Conservation is one of Bhutan’s top governmental priorities, as it is home to 200 species of mammals, 770 species of birds, and 5,000 species of plants (Wangchuck 68). The country’s goal is to maintain 60% forest cover and 26% of it land in national parks and protected areas, to support its position as a global diversity hotspot. Many of Tarayana’s projects pursue green technologies such as micro-hydro power and eco-san toilets.
In addition to facilitating social and conservation services on the ground, Her Majesty promotes Bhutan’s quest for happiness through literary pursuits. She has written Of Rainbows and Clouds: The Life of Yab Ugyen Dorji as told to his Daughter (1999), a family history; Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan (2006), part history, personal memoir, and travelogue; and Dochula: A Spiritual Abode in Bhutan (2015). Her captivating descriptions of Bhutanese life and its breathtaking landscapes are irresistible. (Sign us up!) She is also the Chief Royal Patron of Mountain Echoes: A Literary Festival, held in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, since 2010, where international luminaries gather to discuss literature, arts, and culture.
She is the Honorary President of Sherubtse College, Bhutan’s oldest institution of higher learning, whose mission is to provide GNH-inspired higher education in the Liberal Arts and Sciences.
In order to demonstrate respect for, and to preserve, Bhutan’s rural heritage, Her Majesty initiated the establishment of the Folk Heritage Museum in Thimpu, also known as Phelchey Toenkhyim, in 2001. She has acted as Chief Patron to the Ministry of Agriculture since 1999, supporting farmers and their very real challenges.
Not only does the Royal Queen Mother promote Gross National Happiness through the activities of the Tarayana Foundation, conservation, literature, folk life, and higher education, she supports the pursuit of Bhutan’s Buddhist religious philosophy. In 2003, she conceived and supervised the construction of 108 chortens at Dochula Pass to comfort citizens during a time of national difficulty.
For the Queen Mother, the pursuit of Gross National Happiness is not a platitude. She has devoted her life to Bhutan’s happiness, and set a remarkable example of how a nation can balance political and economic development with cultural heritage and personal fulfillment.
She’s practically a patron saint.
Wangchuck, Ashi Dorji Wangmo, Queen of Bhutan. Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan. New Delhi: First published in Viking by Penguin Books India, 2006.
© Debra Nicholson
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