Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La

This is purely a academic work and already a published work in 'The Drukpa' sometime in May 201o issue (i dont remember exactly :P)


Shangri-la is a utopian concept. It is the idea of an imaginary distant society in which everyone works well with each other and is happy. This is true in Bhutan. Bhutan is a distant Himalayan land which has been unexplored by the outside world. The pristine environment, preservation of Tibetan’s Buddhist culture and a strong sense of spirituality are the factors that labels Bhutan as the last Shangri-La. It has a spiritual atmosphere where war and sickness are non-existent and where there is no real concept of the passage of time. This essay discusses as to how and why Bhutan can be referred to as the last Shangri-La.

Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan Buddhist kingdom sandwiched between the two giants, China and India in the Asian subcontinent. The land of the thunder dragon, the dragon king and happiness for all are too amusing a syllable to the outside world. The Himalayan kingdom is considered as some fairy tale land in the 21st century where perfect bliss and contentment exist. This notion has reached further heights with the introduction of the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as the development philosophy. People live in peace and harmony, governed by the principle of moderation and isolated from the corruptions of civilization.

Bhutan is a real Shangri-La of legend, preserve of Himalayan culture and an ecological paradise (Langley, 2008). In its entire history, Bhutan opened her doors for the first time to the outside world in the early 1960’s. Until then, Bhutan was a country enshrouded in mystery, untainted by foreign influence or international trade. When the world was at wars, Bhutan was unheard of to the world outside. This is because the strategic location of the country in the heart of the lofty Himalayas made it unfeasible for foreigners to tread into the country. Moreover, the Bhutanese people were always suspicious of foreign influence. 

Until 1999, there was no television and internet in the country and it can be virtually said that the Bhutanese were shunned by the outside world. Bhutan then was a paradise hidden from humankind. Shangri-la is a haven of peace and tranquility and the world-weary diplomats find Bhutan as that haven for a getaway from their hectic life. Williamson (as cited in Fisher & Tashi, 2009, p.325) said ‘avarice, crime, poverty and begging’ were conspicuously absent in Bhutan. She described it as ‘a true Shangri-la.’

Bhutan is the supposed setting for James Hilton’s classic novel, Lost Horizon (1933) which introduced the world to Shangri-La, a lush, changeless world where no one grew old and the people lived according to the guiding principles of the high lama. Since time immemorial Bhutan has been unified by the great Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to whom Hilton refers to as the ‘high lamasery.’ Here, books, music and meditation become the foundation to conserve the frail elegancies of a dying age. Remoteness, seclusion and peacefulness create a certain tranquility and timelessness in Bhutan.  

“Bhutan is a nation full of promise and potential. We have the security and confidence of our own culture and traditions…” (His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (as cited in Wangchhuk, 2008, p.35). His Majesty believes and is convinced that Bhutan’s rich culture and tradition will continue to strengthen the unique national identity in the years ahead. What has sustained Bhutan is its vision to be a self-reliant country where its rich legacy of culture and tradition are intact and people live in harmony with nature and the environment. 
It is the best place in the Tibetan world to see traditional-style architecture with sloping roofs; distinctly Bhutanese in design (dzongs).

Bhutan went green and stayed green long before environment became a priority elsewhere on the planet. It is a country to protect some of the planet’s last green remaining forests with the loveliest mountains on earth. Bhutan has one of the richest biodiversity in the world with about 3,281 plant species per 10,000 square kilometers and has been declared as one of the ten global biodiversity ‘hot spots’ (Introduction to Bhutan, 2010).Bhutan’s system of national parks and wildlife preserves cover over 25 per cent of its total land area which is far more than neighboring India’s and China’s, both implicated in large-scale environmental degradation. Bird-watchers love Bhutan which has over 700 bird species recorded, and botanists are thrilled by Bhutan’s range of unusual flowering species.

FRONTLINE/ World (2002) reported that Bhutan is a country with no traffic lights and no fast-food chains. It has more monks than soldiers. It may be the only country in the world to measure GNH. The active monasteries with a rich tradition, imparts spiritual training to monks. Before the introduction of the western education in Bhutan, monastic education was compulsory where every child from a family has to be sent to the monastery. Today also we see many such schools across the country.  It may take another decade or so for Bhutan to come up with traffic lights and fast-food chains. This makes Bhutan unique from rest of the world. 

Bhutan is the first nation in the world to ban tobacco in December 17, 2004. Ireland and Norway followed suit. Plastic bags are also banned. Already acclaimed as the last Shangri-La,Bhutan moved towards a more eco-friendly nation with these bold step.
According to Tenzin (n.d) culture constitutes 75 per cent of the total tourism business and it is the third largest foreign exchange earner. Culture is the foremost reason for tourists visiting Bhutan. Her strong policy of preservation of culture has become her strength to avoid outside invasion. That is why Bhutan has never been colonized like so many other countries. Bhutan did not have to go through anarchy and bloodshed unlike many other countries to transit into a democratic state and thus have become the youngest democracy in the world.

Though termed as the last Shangri-La, Bhutan is fast on the road of   modernization and. It is the fastest urbanizing nation in South Asia. However, GNH being the main development philosophy plays a vital role in balancing the acts of modernization, urbanization and spiritualism. Although the winds of globalization have started sweeping in, Bhutan will always remain as the last Shangri-La because of its stringent policy of environmental and cultural preservation.


  1. A beautiful essay! Enjoyed reading it. It portrays Bhutan very precisely and beautifully. Keep posting.. :)

  2. Glad that you enjoyed it :)
    Keep visiting!!!!


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