Day 3: Trongsa to Bumthang – Festivals & Gross National Happiness concept

Festivals in Bhutan have a reputation for being joyous affairs filled with vivacious colors, music and dancing. Locals and tourists alike always dress their finest clothes. It is believed that everyone watching a Tshechu is blessed. The focal point of any festival is the dancing. Most dances have specific spiritual significance and are performed by monks in bright costumes. In between religious dances are folk dances, but in general religious dances are much more enchanting to watch.

We were lucky to visit Bumthang during Domkhar Tshechu. Unlike other big festivals held in Dzongs, the small scale of Domkhar Tshechu gave it a much more friendly and intimate vibe. It also allowed us to freely move around and mingle with the locals as we wished. Reading about Gross National Happiness makes me realize that attending festivals in Bhutan is a great way to understand this unique concept. Read ‘Invoking happiness: the sacred festivals of Bhutan‘ for more detailed explanations.

And here are 5 interesting facts you should know about GNH:

  1. Happiness in GNH is not only about subjective personal feelings, it is also about caring for your community and being in harmony with nature. This approach is a major difference from the Western concept of being ‘happy’. When I think about it, as a Buddhist Kingdom it totally makes sense why Bhutan government designs GNH in such perfect agreement with the Buddhist principle of the oneness of self and environment.
  2. GNH is a multidimensional concept with 9 domains, 33 clustered indicators comprising of 124 variables (definitely no ‘simple happiness’ here). The 9 domains or big building blocks of GNH are psychological well-being, living standards, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience. As such, some GNH indicators are based on daily acts as mundane as sleeping, and as noble as social support (i.e: volunteering and donating). Attending festivals and other community activities is one of GNH indicators (socio-cultural participation).
  3. There are 4 different levels of happiness based on GNH Index. Three cut off points are used to define whether a person is deeply happy, extensively happy, narrowly happy, or unhappy. A key goal of the government is to improve the situations of ‘not-yet-happy’ people (i.e: narrowly happy or unhappy). I find it very surprising that only 41% of Bhutanese population were happy while the other 59% were not-yet-happy in their 2010 GNH survey. The majority (48.7%) were narrowly happy. But again, think about it, if everyone is already blissfully happy, what if left for the government to do?
  4. Actually Bhutanese government sets very high cut-off points for all indicators. Hence it is quite difficult to get a high GNH Index. If we use the same cut-off points for other countries, I doubt if any country would score higher than Bhutan. Let’s take culture as an example. One of its indicators is on people’s interest and knowledge in 13 arts and crafts of Bhutan (weaving, painting, carpentry, embroidery, carving, sculpture, casting, blacksmith, bamboo works, goldsmith & silversmith, masonry, leather works, and paper making). A person must possess at least 1 of these skills to be considered ‘sufficient’. That’s tough!!! And guess what? 62% of Bhutanese are sufficient in this category, unbelievable!
  5. Bhutanese people are most sufficient in value (their attitude to 5 destructive actions – killing, stealing, lying, creating disharmony in relationships, and sexual misconduct –> no surprise as they are mostly Buddhist) and least sufficient in knowledge, but it is not ‘knowledge’ as we (or at least I) understand. The 5 knowledge variables included in this indicator are knowledge of local legends and folk stories, knowledge of local festivals, knowledge of traditional songs, knowledge of HIV-AIDS transmission, and knowledge of the Constitution. I felt super inadequate when I first read about this indicator. I can be considered ‘highly educated’ but I am definitely insufficient when it comes to understanding my country’s own history, culture, and locality 😦 This again demonstrates point #4 of how difficult it is to score high on GNH.

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We watched folk dances performed by local women.

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Locals gathered to watch the festival together

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Dance of the Stags

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The local kids were so cute, I took lots of photos of them

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Love the costumes and masks

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Atsaras are clown figures at the festival. They entertain the crowd with their clumsy dances, vulgar jokes, and their wooden phallus. Some also collect money from spectators, but I’m not sure if this is part of the tradition.

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It was so weird to see so many dogs lying on the ground near the dancing courtyard

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This kid tried to mimic the dancers. He was hilarious to watch.

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The mask dance

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This family was very friendly. I stood next to them during the festival, and took tons of photos of the 4 kids. The mothers even let me take their kids on a short walk to the back yard.

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Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds

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The Black Hat Dance

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Locals watching the festival

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I befriended another group of kids at the festival. They somehow got hold of a toy camera, and took turn to play with it.

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