Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon

An Interview with Queen Mother Sangay Choden

When I first travelled to Bhutan with a client to explore the possibility of creating an eco-luxury resort, I found forests of Rhododendron trees in blooms, vistas over untouched valleys to the snow-capped Himalayas beyond and poetic mosaics of rice fields following the contours of the land. I met a people proud and respectful of their cultural heritage and protective of their natural environment. I had the privilege of being invited to visit the Textile Museum founded by the Queen of Bhutan, which is a perfect reflection of Bhutan’s desire to preserve and promote its unique national characteristics.

Bhutan, revered by its inhabitants as Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon, is a small mountainous kingdom the size of Switzerland, nestled at the foothills of the Himalayas between India and China. Also called “Land of the Sacred Spirits”, its unspoiled spectacular landscape is fiercely protected by the monarchy and the newly democratically elected Parliament. A visit to this mystical place is carefully tailored by mandatory tour guides and only high-end hotels are allowed to offer lodging. Zorig Chosum, the national craft school allows young Bhutanese to learn the 13 sacred crafts of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. Through education of its denizens and through luxury tourism Bhutan hopes to protect the fragile balance between tradition and modernity, between urbanization and natural heritage, between cultural preservation and globalization.

BB had the immense honour to interview Her majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck about her beloved country.

BB: Your Majesty, Bhutan is a truly unique country which many call the last Shangri-La or a living Eden. Part of this comes from the breathtaking & untouched landscape and part from the beautifully preserved culture and traditions of its people. What are for you some of the most special attributes of Bhutan?

HM: Bhutan has been blessed in many ways as you have mentioned, with a pristine natural environment, a unique cultural heritage and a vibrant society. Amongst our many blessings is the special relationship its people share with our monarchs and the unique political system.

Bhutan has very recently emerged from its self-imposed isolation and has seen unprecedented peace, growth and development under the visionary leadership of Their Majesties the Kings in the past few decades. His Majesty the 4th Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favor of his eldest son His Majesty the 5th Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck and also introduced democracy to Bhutan in 2008 when the first democratically elected government was instated after a nationwide election.

In an age where many countries In the region and beyond have seen much civil unrest and strife to attain and uphold democracy, Bhutan’s transition to a democratic form of government from a monarchy was very peaceful as it was gifted to the people by the king. Many were unsure of this transition and there was some resistance from the people but because of the confidence and faith that we have in our kings on their far sightedness and good judgement, general acceptance prevailed.

This is the greatest example of a benevolent ruler who has sacrificed everything for the well being of his people, and in return the people hold the monarch in very high regard with an almost a god-like reverence.

BB: We hear that you are at the heart of a foundation to help women in Bhutan. Can you tell us more as to how it came about, its mission and achievements?

HM: I have been actively involved In promoting social causes, especially In the fields of health and education.

Understanding the constraints and opportunities in the social sector I recognize the importance and the need to ensure that education and empowerment of women are an integral part of the overall social and economic development process.

In January 1999 I consented to become the United Nations Population Fund’s Goodwill Ambassador in Bhutan. In this capacity 1 have conducted many advocacy campaigns for health services ranging from safe motherhood to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS. I have travelled the country extensively, visiting distant villages and numerous schools that dot the valleys of Bhutan. It was during these tours that I made a commitment to help the disadvantaged women and adolescents.

This commitment to the nation is now being realized through RENEW (Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women) which is an organization dedicated to the empowerment of vulnerable women of our society so that they can emerge as socially and economically independent members of their communities. The organization was conceptualized in the year 2000 and formally established in the year 2004.

RENEW actively promotes gender equality through every aspect of its work. RENEW is constantly exploring and testing new ideas to find meaningful ways to nurture, support and empower women and girls, especially those who are victims of, and/or survivors of violence in any form. Counselling, temporary Shelters, legal assistance and need-based provision of vocational training in selected skills and microenterprises as a way of providing opportunities to help transform the lives of many women, are some of the core services that RENEW currently offers to its beneficiaries.


BB: Can you share with us a moment or a story which has touched you especially in relation to the Foundation and its work?

HM: My advocacy tours around the nation as the UN FPA Goodwill Ambassador has provided the forum for discussion and interaction with women from all walks of life. Each journey and every village I have visited left a lasting impression on me and when I return home, I come back with a renewed sense of purpose and increased determination to address the needs of the various communities I had visited. I have always believed that the woman is the backbone of every family. She is a mother, a daughter and a wife; she takes care of the family, works in the fields and tends to the livestock. If the woman is healthy and happy the family is happy. This belief drives me to address the needs of the women that I have met and spoken to in informal settings; where they were brave enough to open their hearts to me and relate their personal stories of hardships, endurance and hope.

BB: Do you see the concept of Sustainable Luxury as being beneficial to your country, its environment and its people?

HM: Bhutan as a country is a staunch advocate of sustainable development which is one of the guiding principles of our development policy. Bhutan’s whole development paradigm is based on values propounded in our Gross National Happiness vision which was conceptualized by His Majesty the 4th Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck. This development policy is based on the four pillars of preservation of our natural environment, promotion of our cultural and traditional values, equitable and sustainable development and good governance. His Majesty envisioned Bhutan’s growth to be measured not by Gross Domestic Product but by the happiness and contentment of his people which would translate to Gross National Happiness.

BB: How do you define luxury for yourself?

HM: Luxury for me is being at peace with oneself, as a happy and productive individual. I also believe that it is a luxury to be in a position to help people who are less fortunate.

BB: How do you define Sustainable Luxury?

HM: Sustainability over the recent years has become a catch phrase in many economies worldwide. In my opinion, sustainable luxury can be defined as an intelligent and practical use of resources to meet human requirements, so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come.

BB: What projects do you have for the future of your foundation or of Bhutan?

HM: Besides RENEW, my other interests include the promotion and development of Bhutan’s textile heritage. I established the textile museum in 2001, which is a national centre where Bhutanese textiles are collected and documented, preserved, interpreted and displayed to international standards. In a building which is a blend of tradition with the modern, the finest examples of woven, embroidered and appliquéd textiles are displayed alongside relevant production techniques where both Bhutanese people and visitors can learn more about the vibrant, living textile arts of Bhutan. The Textile Museum is also a centre for research into the complex history of the nation’s textiles.

Building on the success of the Textile Museum and with encouragement from well-wishers, I established the Royal Textile Academy in 2005, as a centre for training in weaving design and the production of Bhutanese textiles.

The Academy will also offer scholarships and internships in conservation and museum studies, while expanding the work of the Textile Museum in collecting and documenting important textiles as well as developing exhibitions for local and international venues. The prominently located complex in Thimpu, the capital, will also house a conservation centre and facilities for workshops, study groups and lectures where weavers can meet together with people of all walks of life that are drawn by an interest in the textile heritage of Bhutan.