The deep forests and the vibrant art and craft traditions are key to happiness in Bhutan

“So, is everyone in Bhutan a happy person?” I pose this question to Sonam Choden, Senior Forest Officer with Nature Conservation Division in Bhutan's Ministry of Agriculture. Sporting a broad grin, Sonam says, “Oh yes, we are. As compared to others, I feel we are happier than others because our quality of life is much better. We try and strike a balance between our materialistic needs and our spiritual world. Forests play a central role in our lives.” In this small Buddhist country, the government measures progress not by Gross National Product but by the yardstick of Gross National Happiness.

Sitting amidst the photographs, posters, maps of her native country, Sonam points out that preservation of culture and environment are the two important pillars of the strategy the Bhutanese Government bases its governance on. The other two are economic growth and development and good governance.

In the sixth annual festival of the India International Centre in New Delhi, “The IIC Experience”, which celebrates and pays tribute to the rich ecosystems of the forest, Sonam and her compatriots have brought a gamut of experiences to give a glimpse of the philosophy which rules their lives. The photographs — divided as forest for livelihood, forest for food and medicine, forest for home and energy and bio-diversity — depict the country's thick green cover. With 72 per cent of the country under forest cover, it qualifies to be the highest in Asia. .

The exhibition takes the viewers into the subtropical forests situated in southern Bhutan through the images of Royal Manas National Park — which is home to the takin, Bhutan's national animal, black necked crane, red panda — and the blue pine forests of the temperate regions in the Ha, Paro and Thimpu valleys, besides the evergreen oak forests. Also on display are a host of forestry products. Alongside are live demonstrations of some of the Bhutanese craft traditions by artisans. While specially-abled Pema Tshering is showing how to carve, albeit with his feet, since he is confined to a wheelchair, Chimmi Yuden is weaving the special ‘kushuthara' weave meant to be worn on exclusive occasions like weddings and Tseshu, the annual festival. Pema, who is a shazo or woodcarver, is giving a demonstration of how to make wooden bowls and wall-hangings bearing popular symbols from Buddhist iconography. “Tshering is a good example of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness policy. He works with the National Institute of Zorig Chusum which means arts and crafts,” says Sonam.

Royal Academy of Performing Arts, Bhutan

Accompanying the craftsmen came a bunch of artistes from the reputed Royal Academy of Performing Arts, Bhutan, who presented the dance drama “Milarepa and the Hunter”. It which was first showcased in the 16th SAARC Summit in April 2010 in Thimpu. The story of Jetsun Milarepa, the cotton clad yogi, a great Buddhist master who lived in the 14th Century and how he brings changes to the hunter and his companions through the melody of his religious songs, was demonstrated through traditional mask and folk dances.

In accordance with the Government's policy to promote culture, The academy, established by Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in 1954, has been actively preserving and promoting the Bhutanese art and culture.

“The academy has 67 trained professionals on its pay roll who every year trains locals in all the 20 districts of Bhutan in different forms of music and dance to perform in the Tsechu festival. The festivals are festival is organised by the Government through the year. “There are more than 200-300 forms of dance and music and all of them have roots in Buddhism. For a couple of years now, we have been focusing on dance-dramas.”

(The exhibition is on at IIC, Lodi Estate till October 27)