Celebrating Unity on Bhutan's 113th National Day

On the 113th birth anniversary of Bhutan’s modern nation-state, December 17, 2020, Bhutan Himalaya’s Travel Programs Coordinator, Karma Dorji, reflects on the Triple Gems of King, Country and People.


December 17, 2020 - 113th National Day of Bhutan



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Text by Karma Singye Dorji, with photos from royal media archives


A temple wall mural tells the story of the Four Harmonious Friends in Bhutan's capital, Thimphu.

Bhutanese children learn from their earliest days the parable of the Four Harmonious Friends.


In the story, Elephant, Monkey, Rabbit, and Phoenix go searching for the fruit of immortality. They each separately find the tree on which the magic fruit grows but cannot reach the high branch on which it hangs. Realizing this, they decide to work together:

  • Elephant stands under the tree.

  • Monkey climbs on his back.

  • Rabbit jumps on Monkey.

  • Phoenix roosts on Rabbit, putting the topmost animal within reach of the immortality bestowing fruit.

But Phoenix, and here’s the real lesson, instead of immediately ingesting the life-giving fruit—think of it as, say, a potentially life-saving vaccine—passes it down to Rabbit. Rabbit sees Phoenix’s selfless example and gives it to Monkey, who hands it down to Elephant, the one holding up the entire Musicians-of-Bremen-like structure. The Elephant takes a bite of the immortality giving fruit (or receives the prophylactic vaccine in the comparison above) and shares the rest with the other animals, and they all live harmoniously ever after.


This founding principle of Harmony in the culture ensures Bhutan’s success in protecting its people from the pandemic’s worst effects.




Photo: Royal Media. Their Majesties the Fourth (Left; yellow shoulder scarf) and the Fifth (Right; yellow shoulder scarf) Kings of Bhutan with the Health Minister (in front) and the Prime Minister (in the rear).

Bhutan’s latest coronavirus figures tell an incredible story: 439 confirmed cases, 408 recovered, 31 active (and under strict observation and quarantine), zero deaths from the pandemic. It is a stunning feat for a small and under-equipped nation.


And even though the future remains uncertain, the kingdom’s 113th National Day, December 17, seems an appropriate time to pause and reflect on this remarkable achievement. Like the Four Harmonious Friends of old, the Bhutanese Monarchy, Government, and people continue to preserve the values of trust, harmony, and cooperation in their collective action against the pandemic. Trust between the King, the Government, and the People of Bhutan is the three-layered national shield, the three-level deep force-field of goodwill and good luck that protects this precious corner of the Himalayas still.


Instead of a potential descent into chaos, fear, incompetence, and finger-pointing, there is the quiet leadership of two living Bodhisattva Kings. That leadership is buttressed by a government that seems made for the hour—led by a Prime Minister who is a practicing medical surgeon and a Health Minister who is a graduate of the renowned Yale School of Public Health—and a population that believes in the King and their Government.


His Majesty the King confers with His Holiness the Je Khenpo, following state prayers conducted for lives lost around the world to Covid-19 in May. Photo: Royal Media.

On this day’s national celebration, Bhutanese people should be justifiably proud of the strength, grace, and resilience of their social norms and values. Bhutanese society’s three foundational pillars, what they know as Tsawa Sum, or the kingdom’s soul principle, continues to hold the nation on a steady course despite the rough seas ahead.


The Fourth and the Fifth Kings of Bhutan, the father, and the son, tour the kingdom’s most vulnerable areas listening to the people as they have for decades now and quell their fears. For, here, by their sheer physical presence, albeit masked and socially distanced to demonstrate by example, they communicate as no amount of televised statements could have done, the courage, will, and the resolve of the government to slow and, if possible, stop the spread of the pandemic.

Through honest assessments in national addresses watched by an entire nation in lockdown, His Majesty, the Fifth King, outlined the hard work and sacrifices needed, delivered the unvarnished, un-sugar-coated truth. It was the honest, steady voice of leadership, devoid of empty promises of miracle turnarounds, fantasy dreams of quick fixes, or a “duck-for-cover-and-hope-for-the-best” approach. It was the quiet voice of reason and the reassuring pledge that the nation would face this challenge together united as one.





His Majesty the Fifth King (front) fords a river on a tour to secure the border regions against potential coronavirus infiltration. Photo: Royal Media.

The Fifth King's Royal [People's] Welfare Fund, called the Kidu Foundation in Bhutan, provides unemployment relief to people who are currently out of a job because of the pandemic. The fund includes donations and contributions from ordinary Bhutanese people from all walks of life.

Under His Majesty, the Fifth King's guidance, the Prime Minister's office established clear guidelines for preventing the virus's spread. The Health Ministry began putting out regular updates to keep the citizens informed and managed the population's anxieties with clarity. Social media updates from both the Health Minister and her ministry appear regularly, informing the public. The official website and media channels of the Health Ministry continue to provide up-to-date information about the situation in the country, as does the Prime Minister's Office. A contact-tracing app has been built domestically and applied, creating greater transparency and efficiency in tracking the virus.


It is important to remember that the secret to success in what has otherwise been a devastating year is the sacred bond of trust between the King, the government, and the people of Bhutan.


In their deepest, darkest hour of spiritual need, the Bhutanese people often turn to the 'Three Jewels': the Buddha who taught the way; the Dharma, which codifies those teachings; and, finally, the Sangha or monastic community which practices the Buddhist path. In the hour of Bhutan's secular need arising from the pandemic, it is not unlikely for the Bhutanese people to invoke another kind of holy trinity: the harmony of King, Country, and People.


Heartfelt wishes for a Happy National Day to all Bhutanese living in the country and overseas!



The National Flag of Bhutan flying high in the central valley of Gangtey, Bhutan. Photo: Karma Dorji

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Karma Dorji is Bhutan Himalaya's Travel Programs Coordinator and the author of Dreaming of Prayer Flags: Stories & Images from Bhutan, with impressionistic photography by Sandy Shum. Dreaming of Prayer Flags is shipped worldwide by Amazon.com. To purchase an autographed copy of the book, please email the author directly using the contact form at: https://www.bhutanhimalaya.com/newsletter (Please type signed book under email subject.)


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