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On Bhutan’s 113th National Day, a Tribute to the Architect of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness

The 113th birth anniversary of Bhutan’s modern nation-state, December 17, 2020, is an excellent time to reflect on the enlightened leadership of the kingdom’s fourth ruler, sometimes called the “Illustrious Fourth” for his exemplary, epoch-making reign lasting from 1974 to 2006. Bhutan Himalaya’s Travel Programs Coordinator, Karma Dorji, shares his account of traveling with the King and the lessons learned along the way. He reflects on what enlightened leadership looks like, a thing so rare and precious in these days of coarsening global politics.

December 17, 2020 - 113th National Day of Bhutan


Text by Karma Singye Dorji, with photos from official and royal archives

Bhutan’s Fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck (center), with traditional Bhutanese elders.

During the decade that was the 1990s, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck took many intense and strenuous tours—some lasting months—across Bhutan’s 20 remote and challenging districts. It was a tour de force of government planning and reviews, based on the King’s philosophy of Gross National Happiness, that ultimately led to much of the prosperity that Bhutan has seen in the 2000s. Much of the travel involved driving across the bumpy and often dusty roads in rugged four-wheel-drive Toyota Landcruisers. Still, it was not unusual for the King to sometimes walk several days to communicate the finer points of the government’s aims to Bhutanese citizens in the smallest, most remote villages of the kingdom.

The King made sure every leading government official walked with him on those treks to the farthest corners of the land. There, the King asked each of his officers to tell the people what they would be doing to improve living standards in that region. Every woman, child, and man could then ask the King and his ministers any questions they had, make suggestions, and participate in the overall decision-making process. In this way, His Majesty ensured that abstract notions of progress and development addressed real grassroots concerns and remained grounded in the people’s welfare and happiness, which was his leadership’s highest goal, his Gross National Happiness philosophy in action.

Out in the rural districts of Bhutan, the King loved personally serving his people a royal lunch, one of the many ways in which he bonded with his citizens.

Often, in some far-flung valley rimmed by inaccessible and rugged peaks, as the royal entourage settled in for the night, the last lamp extinguished would be the one in the King’s modest cottage or tent. On one of the tours to Bhutan’s most extensive and most impoverished districts, several demanding issues came up for discussion. The King could have easily told the people they would receive a proper response from the royal secretariat later as he was keeping a rigorous schedule. No one would have questioned the decision. Instead, His Majesty worked with his ministers and planning officers to revise the plans for the next three days before offering it to the people again. In this way, the Father of Gross National Happiness made sure the people understood that every single farmer or villager gathered there mattered in their King’s eyes. He made sure they understood that they were as crucial to the task of nation-building as any influential desk-bound official or bureaucrat.

This photo, taken during an unguarded moment in the mid-1990s, has appeared many times in Bhutanese and international media. For Bhutanese citizens, it came to represent the way in which the King cared deeply for his people.

In those days, months, and years, His Majesty traveled unceasingly, covering an untold number of kilometers crisscrossing the country, stopping to speak to every farmer or villager who waited by the road to petition him. Those of us who traveled with him were flabbergasted by the slow progress on the road. His Majesty must be exhausted! we often heard the hushed voices say in the King’s entourage. And yet, we never saw a glimmer of irritation, never saw the King hurry. No government can keep moving forward in this painstakingly deliberate way, we thought. Yet, as time has shown, it was not just the right way but the only way to forge Bhutan’s unique path without losing sight of either the people’s needs or the nation’s Buddhist principles of compassion, tolerance, peace, and harmony for all.

When most countries ranked their achievements by producing material goods, His Majesty taught the Bhutanese nation that the accurate measure of success should be the people’s well-being and happiness. He showed the Bhutanese people and the world that spiritual well-being matters just as much as material progress. He led the Bhutanese nation by example to believe that real social growth comes only when material and spiritual development happens holistically. Embedded in his idea of Gross National Happiness was his recognition that the heedless and hedonistic pursuit of purely economic goals, to the exclusion of human well-being, runs counter to truly lasting happiness, whether it be national or personal. Therefore, the work of building a happy nation must include equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and the establishment of good governance, he often said.

The young king, during his coronation ceremony in 1974.

In a move so selfless it caused his cabinet to plead with the King to reconsider his decision, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck left the Bhutanese people with the reins of government firmly in their hands. Announcing his decision to step down in December 2006 and empower the kingdom’s new parliamentary democracy and constitution, His Majesty reminded the Bhutanese people that the power to shape Bhutan’s future lies not with leaders but with the Bhutanese citizenry. “In taking note of the progress that our nation has made over the past 34 years,” said the King. “I would like to state that whatever we have achieved so far is due to the merit of the people of Bhutan.” This kind of selflessness is the truest mark of a courageous leader. It contradicts the many examples worldwide of politicians desperately clinging to power to further personal gains, even those who profess to be living in the world’s so-called stable and functioning democracies. In these troubling times, we see how people’s power can be overtaken by corrupt politicians and interest groups that seek to steer governments for their selfish ends. Bhutan’s fourth king has shown that true leaders can act out of the highest morality, integrity, and selflessness. That is a tremendous legacy for Bhutan and the world at large. Not satisfied with paving a unique roadmap to happiness for Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck empowered and nurtured a people ready to reap the benefits of peace, liberty, justice, and well-being.

The Fourth (right) & Fifth (left) Kings of Bhutan, during the 2004 official ceremony for the Fifth King’s appointment to the position of Choetse Penlop, the governorship of Bhutan’s culturally significant central Trongsa region.

The Fifth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, now carries this torch of progressive leadership into the 21st century. Following his father’s footsteps, the young King ensured a smooth transition to Bhutan’s new parliamentary democracy. Like his father, he has trekked to every remote village, every far-flung home, in every single district across the rugged Bhutanese landscape, listening to the people and studying their needs. Proving he has the same selfless DNA, the fifth King educated citizens from all walks of life about their rights and responsibilities under the new constitution framed to support and strengthen the people’s participation through the principles of Bhutan’s unique parliamentary democracy. With the same commitment, compassion, and concern for the people, the young King provides a moral beacon for the kingdom. While the vision came from the father, the son continues to shape Bhutan’s continuing evolution in the new century. The progressive changes in the Bhutanese government are, therefore, the shared legacy of two kings. In Bhutan, we raise prayer flags to carry our highest aspirations for peace and the cessation of suffering for all sentient beings out into the world. May the ripening blessings of these two Bhutanese kings soar on these flags and reach all nations around the world!

The Fifth King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (center, yellow sash), carries the enlightened leadership of Bhutan into the 21st Century.


Parts of this essay are excerpted from Karma Dorji’s 2008 book Dreaming of Prayer Flags: Stories & Images from Bhutan, with impressionistic photography by Sandy Shum. Dreaming of Prayer Flags is shipped worldwide from To purchase an autographed copy of the book, please email the author directly using the contact form at: (Please type signed book under email subject.)