The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 21 June 2018

Treasures of the Thunder Dragon

A Portrait of Bhutan

by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, Queen Mother of Bhutan

Bhutan is that little country in the Himalayas, tucked between China and India, but also almost Nepal and Myanmar. It is famous these days for its measure of Gross National Happiness as the counter to the world's typical attention to Gross National Product. What does that mean? Simply put, the idea is to maximize quality of life for as many citizens as possible, by creating an environment that sustains them, including such things as the natural environment, health care, sanitation, food safety, and other measures. Does this make Bhutan the Happiest Country on Earth? That's the publicity, but life tends to be more complex. Nevertheless, theirs is an experiment in social well-being that they do take very seriously. Other nations could learn a thing or two about it. After all, one can see by the example of the USA that mere wealth isn't necessarily the road to happiness.

This nation, which is about the size of Switzerland and with about a tenth the population, is in the process of being discovered. As recently as the middle of the 20th century, it was sequestered from the rest of the world, and only began opening up in the 1960s. Television and the internet weren't permitted until the late 1990s. Since then, modernization has moved ahead rapidly. The monarchy (the youngest in the world, having only been established a century ago) devolved to a constitutional monarchy, and regular national elections have taken place for the first time in the past several years. Anthony Bourdain's last TV show was filmed there.

There are a few good books about Bhutan. They tend to quickly go out of date due to its rapid changes. One almost prefers to turn to the travel books that stay current year to year. Still, it is good to have a basic overview of the nation from one for whom it is her native land. This memoir was written in 2006 by one of the Queen Mothers of Bhutan. She and her three sisters are the wives of the previous king, and thus mothers to the current reigning monarch. (Polygamy and polyandry are traditional in Bhutan but have been fading in recent decades.) In her role as queen, she came to know the more remote parts of her small but diverse nation through many often gruelling journeys across its mountainous landscape. The book relates her encounters with the conditions and cultures of the various tribes and nationalities that make up Bhutan. She also grew up in a time in which there were few roads accessible to motor vehicles, and we read of long journeys on horse and yak to high and remote altitudes. Along the way, the queen tried to bring some assistance to her people, by way of supplies, seeds for new crops, and even solar panels. She encountered various forms of poverty, from ill health to out-of-wedlock births to old age, and eventually formed a foundation that set out to provide relief to those in need. The book is a bit of a travelogue as well, as we learn about the cultures and natural environments that lie between the southern lowlands and some of the highest mountains in the world.

What results here in this engaging volume is an overview of Bhutan, some of its history and some of what it is going through as it transitions to a modern 21st-century nation. As an advocate for her own people, the queen mother skirts some of the political and social challenges the country has encountered along the way, and details of its modern political history may be best sought elsewhere. But as an introduction to Bhutan and its people, few works feel as immediate and intimate as this one.

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See Also: [A Splendid Isolation, by Madeline Drexler] [So Close to Heaven, by Barbara Crossette] [Beyond the Sky and the Earth, by Jamie Zeppa]

[Other Books about Buddhism, Tibet and the Himalayas]

[Other History and Memoir]

[Other books by Women Authors]