When Bhutan’s queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck stepped on the stage earlier this year to light the inaugural lamp for the country’s first literary festival, she was not marking just the official opening of a book festival. She was marking a new step forward for Bhutan.

In Bhutan, it is oral tradition—not the written word—that links the centuries. Books are not read for pleasure; they are holy texts to be worshipped, taken out of monasteries and temples on occasion, paraded through towns as part of a shared heritage.

For the love of it: Traditional Bhutanese archery is more of a circus than a cold, competitive sport, with rival teams being allowed to jeer at each other. R Ian Llyod / Masterfile

This festival of words signalled the new direction Bhutan is seeking, an opening up of borders both physically and in the realm of ideas. After being shut off from the world, the world’s newest democracy is saying: We are relevant not because we are a giant economy or military power, but because we stand for a unique way of life.

To travel into Bhutan, deep into the heart of a new nation with an ancient history, is to discover that uniqueness. But there’s another journey that Bhutan is making as it emerges from seclusion, walking the fine line between tradition and change.

Encircled by the Himalayas, squeezed between India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, Bhutan has existed in lofty isolation. Guru Padmasambhava apparently first arrived here in 747 AD on the back of a flying tiger, landing on a cliff in Paro valley, where now rests the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Change is felt acutely because Bhutan has hyper-compressed into 10 years what other countries have taken a hundred years to unravel. Television arrived in 1999; the first roads were built in the 1960s; and until the 1950s there was no hospital or school. Even today, Bhutan has only 12 colleges for its 634,982-strong population, 56% of which is below 24. Bhutan’s elite goes abroad to study. Tshering Tobgay, the opposition leader, has a master’s from Harvard. The Queen Mother’s daughter, Sonam, has a law degree, also from Harvard, and is her country’s first constitutional lawyer. The prime minister studied in India.

Transition: (clockwise from top left) In Bhutan, books are worshipped rather than read for pleasure. Stuard Ward / Thinkstock; King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is committed to democracy. Wikimedia Commons; and the stunning Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Douglas J McLaughlin

When information secretary Kinley Dorji returned from Stanford with a journalism degree, he discovered there was not a single newspaper in Bhutan. So he started his own. Today, Kuensel is one of five newspapers which exist alongside the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS). But their competition, says Dorji, remains rumour and gossip. “This is a small country. Not only do we know who is sleeping with whom. We also know who will be sleeping with whom."

Bhutan is determined to locate its own groove. New words in Dzongkha, the national language, pop up every day, such as num du (sky boat) for airplane. Namgay Zam, a BBS producer, explains how contestants on Music Spotlight, an English language programme modelled on American Idol, used to warble bad Elton John covers. Today, many contestants write original lyrics—in Dzongkha. “It’s cool to use the national language," Zam says.

Bhutan does things its own way. Mountaineering is banned and its highest mountain, Gangkhar Puensum, at 7,570m, remains the highest unclimbed peak in the world. “The mountains are the abodes of our gods," explains Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, head of the Center for Media and Democracy. “We asked ourselves ‘Do we want to have people trampling over our sacred spaces?’ and we decided that we did not."

Nowhere is the tension between tradition and modernity more amusingly palpable than in the country’s most beloved sport, archery. At the Changlimithang stadium, Paro United battle the Destroyers at opposite ends of a 140m-long range. Archery, Bhutan-style, is more circus than sport. Competing teams are encouraged to jeer each other. When an arrow comes close to the bullseye, celebratory song and dance is followed by swigs of rice whisky.

Standing guard: Druk Wangyal chortens at Dochula Pass.

A few miles away, Bhutan’s Olympic hopefuls are training, and not finding the switch to cold modern sport easy. “Archery is in our blood," says Tshering Chhoden, the first Bhutanese woman to make it to the second round at Athens 2004. Yet Bhutan has never won a medal at the Olympics. “When we play, it is to enjoy ourselves and have fun," she says.

It is tempting to see Bhutan as a idyllic Shangri-La, a mythical place of unparalleled beauty. Seventy-two per cent of the country is covered by forest. The country’s main earnings come from the export of eco-friendly hydropower. And there is an ethereal lightness in walking through a capital city that has no traffic signals and where residents are being trained to use zebra crossings.

But there is a dark side. Years of insularity have led to a closing of identity that can verge on the xenophobic. In the 1800s, people from neighbouring Nepal moved to the mosquito-infested lowlands of southern Bhutan. These ethnic Nepalis were known as the Lhotshampa, or people of the south. In the 1980s, the Druk majority forbade the use of Nepali language in schools and enforced Druk dress codes and customs. Under new eligibility requirements for citizenship, many ethnic Nepalis were disenfranchised. And when the Lhotshampas began to organize themselves politically, leading to large-scale protests, the government retaliated by passing a decree: Those who could not prove residence since 1958 were deported. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 100,000 ethnic Nepali people lost their homes in this ethnic cleansing.

Bhutan remains selective about who it lets in. Since the arrival of the first tourists in 1974, the country has followed a high-value/low-volume policy. By law, tourists (not Indians) must spend a minimum of $200 (around Rs9,340) each day; next year, this will go up to $250. It’s a policy that keeps out backpackers.

Lowering the minimum daily spending will make Bhutan “a cheap destination", says Tashel Laglenpa, a tour operator. “It won’t be long before our youth adopt their (the tourists’) way of life. Our culture, our tradition is the main binding force of our independence."

The words culture and tradition resonate through the country. Traditional architecture is enforced by law, and school uniforms include the traditional long skirt or kira for girls and thegho, a kimono-style costume pulled up to the knees, for boys. Yet tattoos are sported, ears are studded, hair is spiked.

New Bhutan is bursting out of Norzin Lam, Thimphu’s main street. Here you find green chillies, a staple vegetable, sold alongside potatoes, handicrafts and fabric. Here you find the country’s stock exchange, where stocks are traded on four computers twice a week. There are karaoke bars, a Planet Gym, and a T-shirt hangs in a store with a marijuana leaf drawn across it. “Fuckin’ magic", it reads. “You can’t be down when you are high." Above the T-shirt rests a sign: “Long Live Our King".

Monarchy in Bhutan follows a secular, not ecclesiastical, strain. There is no concept of a divine right to rule. The rule of the Druk Gyalpo (dragon king) dynasty goes back a hundred years to Ugyen Wangchuck, a powerful governor of the central region who was in 1907 elected by the power elite to be the first hereditary king.

It is the fourth king, K-4 as he’s known, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who is Bhutan’s great modernizer, credited with fast-forwarding his country into the 21st century. K-4 worked out his country’s draft constitution, travelled with it to his country’s 20 districts and explained to people concepts such as democracy, elections, political parties and opposition.

Thirty-four years into his reign, in 2006, K-4, then 53, unexpectedly abdicated in favour of his eldest son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, a 30-year-old Oxford University graduate. He is his country’s most eligible bachelor, but the constitution demands he marry a natural-born Bhutanese citizen. Should he reign long enough, he will have to step down at 65.

K-5 waited nearly two years for his official coronation; no auspicious date could be found. Meanwhile, the country charged ahead with its plans for democracy, a planned process that started in the early 1980s. “Elections are not new to my country," points out member of Parliament Sonam Kinga. People had been voting in local elections for 40 years. But to introduce the concept of a national election, it was decided to first hold mock elections. Four dummy parties were put up and each given a colour: red, yellow, blue, green. When the results of this faux election were declared, the yellow party—the colour of Buddhism and the monarchy—had won. “It was," says Kinga, “a vote for continuity and against change."

In the real election, the results were as non-contentious. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa swept 45 of the 47 seats. The opposition People’s Democratic Party had two.

Happiness is Bhutan’s best-known export. Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s concept of gross national happiness (GNH) has a complex set of indicators, including the four pillars of a happy society—sustainable economy, culture, environment and good governance—and the nine domains of well-being, including health, education, living standards, community vitality and psychological well-being. To this empirical soup add 72 indicators among them feelings of selfishness and jealousy, compassion and frequency of prayer and meditation.

No one in Bhutan seems sure of when GNH became the guiding philosophy but, according to Kinley Dorji, this was the king’s retort to journalists who, during a trip to Havana in 1979, asked him about Bhutan’s gross national product. “Oh," said the king, “in Bhutan we have a more important indicator of progress. It’s called gross national happiness."

At the literary festival, Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley was at pains to explain happiness. “We are losing our humanness to become robots programmed to be productive through endless labour so as to earn to consume more and more without satisfaction."

Because happiness is serious business here, the Centre for Bhutan Studies is carrying out a survey on GNH. With a sample size of 6,000 people across the country, the 43-page questionnaire includes such queries as: What are your main sources of stress? Have you ever seriously thought of committing suicide?

Change is never always for the better. Alcoholism is perhaps endemic in a country where even the poorest brew their own liquor. According to a health ministry survey, there are 793 bars in Thimphu. This works out to one bar for every 28 youths aged 15-24.

Drugs are the new addiction and the first rehab centre came up three years ago. Divorce rates are up, with roughly 700 cases pending in the courts. The chief causes? Alcoholism, infidelity, domestic violence, incompatibility. Crime is reportedly rising. “One can’t walk the streets alone even at 7pm these days," a woman shopkeeper says. But to place things in perspective, Kuensel’s crime reports recently included one “shocking" incident where schoolboys threw stones at their teacher’s house because he had enforced a haircut.

Underlying fears of change, however, lies a strong foundation of confidence. “Democracy is failing in many parts of our region," says Kinley Dorji. “In Bhutan, despite the magnitude of change, one thing remains unchanged. It is our goal for happiness."

For many Bhutanese there is no contradiction between tradition and change. Kunga Tenzin Dorji, 36, lead singer of the country’s best-known rock band Who’s Your Daddy, says he is concerned with globalization’s tendency to breed clone cultures. “Our kids are learning from Internet and TV. They want McDonald’s and other brands."

How will it be met? Can it? In Bhutan the belief persists that the Bhutanese way of life will help tide over change and keep new generations anchored to tradition. This is a happy nation, determined to remain happy.

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