Forgotten in the land of GNH?


“Tsig zi tenpey lopen la, lama daktu ma zin na, Khi ye kewa ngabja lang.”

“If you do not consider a teacher, even if he teaches only four sentences, as a lama, you will be born as a dog for the next five hundred lives.”

This is the land of Bhutan. At least that was Bhutan when I was a little girl. This was one of the very first Dzongkha (national language) quotes that I had dedicatedly memorized with a fervent belief and I did not spare any opportunity to cite it if any of my classmates attempted to speak a word against a teacher. And it was not just I; every student had a favorite quote. Words of wisdom darted back and forth amongst us, the aspiring Bhutanese philosophers. Locked in our own little world in the Himalayas, we were ourselves Plato, Seneca, Descartes and Locke, all living under the same roof of our school.  Little did we know that Bhutan was awakening from her medieval slumber; and with every yawn, these little philosophers retreated, their principles threatened by the complexities of modern times.   Modern Bhutan soon debuted in the ballroom of the world with a new philosophical song of Gross National Happiness. The states with their guardian angel, the United Nations, stood mesmerized by the grandeur of Bhutanese thoughts. A land that discounted gross domestic product in favor of national happiness! Even the United States of America expressed sighs heavy with nostalgia and envy – pursuit of happiness? Bhutan introduced Gross National Happiness as good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation – the four pillars that put materialistic progress into shame and doubt. The greatest of the democracies and republics gasped in adoration.  Donors oohed and funders aahed. The song continued. The four pillars fleshed out into nine domains, i.e. psychological well being, health, use of time, community vitality, education, culture, ecological diversity, governance, and standard of living. The only low note to the song was how to measure this subjective and abstract concept of happiness. Then came the knights in shining armor to the rescue of this beautiful maiden nation. Yes, scientists, from the western world with their ivy-league prestige, came forward stating that happiness could be measured. Thus, the nine domains conveniently gave birth to a total of 33 indicators. For example, the telltale signs of psychological well being are life satisfaction, positive emotions, negative emotions and level of spirituality. Likewise, each domain is allocated their own indicators. Now, like the solitary reaper’s song (William Wordsworth), you do not have to understand it to be magically falling in love with it. You will fall in love with the philosophy of Gross National Happiness even if you are not sure to whom the happiness belongs – it is such a happy philosophy. But if you really want to understand it, you can. Like any other program, measurable goals have been planned, objectives have been outlined and concrete results are recorded. The indicators give an index, which is said to be the exact measurement of happiness. Happiness in Bhutan lies in the shelves of the Gross National Happiness Commission’s offices and the archives in libraries of Bhutan Studies Center. Happiness in Bhutan also lies in the everyday Bhutanese news and stories. You are the auditor, you are the monitor – you can choose where to look.

Headlines such as “200 households, 100 jerry cans, one trickle for a spring,” “Like fields, a diet deprived of greens,” “Hospital short of 29 drugs,” “6,129 tail away from Govt. Schools,” “Cuts like a knife”, “Half those held are minors” frequent Bhutanese media, indicating something amiss in the actuality of Bhutanese progress. As in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, are all the states and the United Nations singing along with the beautiful song of gross national happiness? Are the developed states so sick and tired of their own materialistic abundance that they now long for more simplistic lives? They choose to hold onto Bhutan as a compensation for what they miss. Exotic and euphoric!  But do they not hear the cries of women in the land of snow and waterfalls fighting for a jar of water? Do they not see that the Himalayan lush is not providing enough food for the Bhutanese children? Do they not know that while they have selection of brand names, Bhutanese patients do not have basic drugs? Do they not calculate that 6,129 out of 10,190 students in the nation will not even go to preparatory college? But still they continue to applaud and encourage. Gross National Happiness! And Bhutan, gleaming in pride, spends more money and time in developing more intricate methods to doctrine Gross National Happiness. I am sure that His Majesty, the Fourth King of Bhutan, developed the four guiding pillars for the people, but not for the government to dogmatize it. The laws of the land should be guided by this benevolent principle and proper caution should be taken so that the principle is not forced into becoming law. Imposed happiness cannot bring happiness. Romanticized happiness will wear off when the embers of romance are burnt out.

And who will keep the romance kindled? No, not the likes of the 6,129 whose faith in their future has dimmed because neither their test scores meet the required minimum to continue their education in government schools nor their bank balance is bountiful to get into private institutions. Let us say that 100% college admission, 100% employment, running taps in every Bhutanese homes, might be a far fetched dream for a newly developing country, but we can begin with what is achievable. Cultural preservation. At least the government seems to have realized that cultural preservation is not enforcing mundane practice like hairstyle uniformity or shying away from modern technology like they did in the 1980s. However, the recognition of cultural values is fast disappearing. Culture is time relative and will change, but values define culture. We do not walk forward with both feet forward – the one in back propels the front. Bhutan in a hurry to modernize has forgotten to recognize the past. If the future torchbearers of this philosophy are not taught to look back to the roots, Bhutan’s tomorrows will be devoid of heritage and moral foundation. But if the romance can be kept continually glowing, it can be sanctified to eternal bliss. For this, a good practice by the government of Bhutan would be encouraging, instead of mere preaching of this profound philosophy.

In this light, I put forward a proposal. In doing so, I will go back to the quote that I have in the beginning of my paper. Teacher (guru) meant everything for my parents too; so much so that I remained nameless for months after my birth until my parents could arrange a travel to Kathmandu, Nepal to visit my father’s lama, His Eminence Dudjom Yeshey Dorji. I carry the privilege of being their first born and receiving the highest form of Buddhist blessing, my name from my Guru of my guru, my father, Lopen Jampel Dorji (Lopen means teacher).

Lopen Jampel Dorji (as he was reverently referred), my apa (father) passed away when I was hardly ten years old. He was the first Dzongkha lecturer at Sherubtse, the first college of Bhutan and then the only college.  Many of us who studied in Bhutan know that Dzongkha instructors’ roles do not end in the classrooms. They are beacon of Bhutanese culture and tradition and it is through them that the students understand the core meaning of being Bhutanese. As the first ever Dzongkha lecturer of the country, my apa shouldered these responsibilities until his last breath.  He died young, leaving behind his widow with four children. That was thirty years ago.  He is long dead, long forgotten.

Yet who can console the pangs of emptiness that haunt me every single day? How can someone be forgotten so easily? That someone who was a teacher! The pioneer of Dzongkha language! That teacher in the land of Bhutan! The sustainer of Bhutanese values!  I am in denial that the land of Gross National Happiness has forgotten its first teacher. How can I accept that the nation who claims that its cornerstones are built upon the promises for promotion of development, cultural values, good environment and good governance has forgotten the very first promoter of these core values? I try telling myself that my apa cannot be forgotten. He will not be forgotten. His students are now ministers who lead the nation, parliamentarians who author government policies and diplomats who champion national progress through Gross National Happiness.  It is Bhutanese culture to recognize and respect their teachers.  Without missing a day, I check The Kuensel online. With a childlike expectation, I wait to see a headline with my apa’s name. How many new colleges and schools have been built since he passed away in 1981? How many new buildings in Sherubtse where he taught? It would not take much to name a school after my apa. I comfort myself that my apa’s students are honorable students of a respectable teacher. They are engaged in the process of nation-building, but they surely must remember their old Sherubtsean days. Father William Mackey (a Canadian Jesuit who arrived in Bhutan in the early 1960s) earned a name, “The Son of the Nation” after receiving the Druk Thugsey (soul-son of Bhutan) award for his contribution in education. I remember Father Mackey coming to our house (we lived in a teacher’s quarter in Sherubtse College) almost every evening to discuss matters with my apa. How could a foreigner accomplish such great feat without a support from a local? The significance of endorsement needs no explanation in the world we live now. If Father Mackey brought western education to Bhutan, my apa nurtured acceptance in the Bhutanese minds. If Sherubtse was a blossoming center of Bhutanese education, my apa was the gardener who day and night without complaints saw to it that no hail, no snow damaged the tender buds. If my judgment is vague because it was so long ago and I was very young, Lyonpo Sonam Tobgay (Supreme Court’s Chief Justice), Lyonpo Minjur Dorji (Home Minister), Lyonpo Zangley Dukpa (Health Minister), and other veterans of the nation should definitely be able to correct me. I have clear memories of them sharing close relationship with my apa and they would definitely have clearer vision than I do.

Father Mackey must have appreciated my apa’s influence in his success. His wish was to be buried in Sherubtse where my apa was cremated. Sadly for both these sons, there is no tombstone in Sherubtse that mark their lives. Father Mackey never got his wish granted, and as for my apa, they build a hostel over his cremation ground immediately after a year, and therefore annihilating whatever little consideration he had received. Even then, in the mind of an eleven year old, I wished that they had left that sacred ground untouched. I would rather have had a tree planted in the place than a concrete building.  Thirty years have passed, but it is not too late to honor my apa. My request is supported by the principles of Gross National Happiness. This is not materialistic happiness. This is the value I want to pass on to the future generation. This is cultural preservation.  This is Gross National Happiness!

If it sounds selfish for a daughter to be proposing recognition, I am selfish. If seeking recognition for what my apa deserves is emotional attachment, I am emotional. If it is foolish to care for matters that have died with time, I accept to be called one. If my expressing concern for my motherland is considered intrusive, I would rather be one. I would rather not remain silent than suffer in the silence. For a good end, I would rather be a harsh critic than a passive onlooker. If you feel the slightest offense in reading my well-wished thoughts, you need to read again. In the bitterness lies the kernel of truth. There is no denying that I am my father’s daughter, there is no denying that I am my father’s student, there is no denying my Bhutanese blood: the truth is painted in my name. I will always remain a daughter of the land where emotions rule – the land where gross national happiness overshadows gross domestic product!

(Based in Georgia, Atlanta, the writer can be reached at [email protected])


  1. Yeshey Baineee,

    Congratulations for the article.

    What a great piece! Love, respect, culture, history, literature, criticism, a lesson, an appeal – all rolled into one. Amazingly powerful.

    A ‘must read’ for all those youngsters who wish to earn a piece of Bhutan; and some of the values we cherish as Bhutanese.

    In the task of nation building, education is often hailed as the first tool. So, as a nation builder, your dad, and our ‘Lopen’ deserves a higher respect than those ministers.

    Erecting a concrete building (hostel) is GDP, not GNH? What a conflict in Bhutan’s message of ‘happiness’?


  3. In my opinion,i feel that its a genuine issue. The government of Bhutatn should be able to give Lopen Jampel a good recognition as he was a pioneer of Bhutanese education. I strongly support the writer’s claim and encourage her to follow up until the message is heard by the Government of Bhutan. I wish you a good luck let your claim be fulfilled.

  4. RP Dai: Thank you for your comments. Your words of appreciation mean a lot to me.

    Khatiwada Dai: Your comments gave me much joy. My apa’s student’s voice echoes the voice of my apa. Thank you. I will appreciate if you can share any memories of those early Sherubtse days with me.

    Ratna Bhai: Your suggestion is a powerful one and I will keep that in mind. Thank you.

    Thank you all very much for the outpourings of appreciation and support. Thank you for the encouragement that I do very much need. I will try to reply all the emails that I have been receiving in response to my article. I definitely need more feedbacks and suggestions.

    I also thank BNS for allowing the use of your portal to express my thoughts.

  5. Congratulation to Miss Yeshey Pelzom for writing such a truthful and moving article on RGOB’s rhetoric about GNH and the ground reality in Bhutan.Do not feel secluded, we all are making a great effort to bring about changes in Bhutan ie,democracy in real sense there by be able to give due respect and recognition to nation building departed great souls.Let us all keep going.

  6. “Tsig zi tenpey lopen la, lama daktu ma zin na, Khi ye kewa ngabja lang.”

    “If you do not consider a teacher, even if he teaches only four sentences, as a lama, you will be born as a dog for the next five hundred lives.”


  7. Dear Ms Pelzom,

    You can become a great writer in future . No doubt. And you have the skills enough to write and make up stories enough to defame the RGoB at a time when it enjoys a greater height of world recognition for preserving and promoting human values and national identities through a profound national philosophy of GNH–now gaining global recognition. If you must express your grievances then please make an effort to visit your motherland and establish your root and national identity as a true Bhutanese or at-least write to the National papers not in such as this: BNS–it’s a paper that grows […]

  8. “at-least write to the National papers not in such as this: BNS”- Tshering Nyueldrup

    Tshering, you are an idiot. Do you know, most of our national papers promotes and escalate every breath of Wangchuck’s and his government. All our media from papers to FM station are driven by Wangchucks. While, BNS have has been run by our exiled Bhutanese, no government involved.

    Next, you are still promoting RGoB, where our government used to say- “we have full-fledged Democracy, no king interference.” Then how come RGoB ? No doubt you might be the grand son of JIgme Wangchuck.

    Oh! by the way, Congratulation to Miss Yeshey Pelzom. You are a true, unbias, and courageous daughter of Druk.

    Remember, if a king goes for horse riding, it will be a huge news in our national media, but the contribution of great Lopen like Jampel are still underestimated. Shame on you- Tshering Nyueldrup.

  9. Ganglapong:
    First of all, thank you for acknowledging me as “A DAUGHTER OF FIRST DZONGKHA LECTURER”. Seondly, the word “zi” is published incorrectly, may be due lack of phonetic symbol reader. Anyway, if I translated wrong, I will make sure that that does not happen again. I will contact you and you can lend me your expertise. I do not feel that because I am a daughter of Dzongkha lecturer, I should be perfect in the language. I wonder what would happen to the world if all the children only emphasized on learning what their parents know.
    Thirdly, I do not think you understand what I am trying to say in the article. My article is meant for people like you who do not understand the intrinsic values of GNH. GNH is all about respect and love; GNH is all about patience and tolerance. GNH is not understanding/listening to only what you want to understand/listen. GNH is also learning to seek truth. GNH is not mocking “HAHAHAHA” without first looking within yourself. Remember that there is meaning even in the buzz of a bee, the gushing of a river…
    Lastly and most important of all, I do not seek recognition for my own self (another reason for you to read my article with open mind and critical thinking). I am very happy with who I am. I am talking about my apa, even that in the context of GHN. I regret to say that your “CHOESHAM” is too small a place for my apa, and even if you beg to keep his name as a “TAEN”, I will not be able to do so. He is in me – I treasure him.

    Tshering: Thank you for your generous words. May your words come true. However, I am sad that you feel that I am “defame[ing] the RGoB”. I am just asking everyone, including the RGoB, to be a little cautious. I am not at all against the philosophy of GNH – I just feel that much is being forgotten in the process of systemizing GNH. In regards to my publishing in BNS, I feel that BNS is accessed by the Bhutanese diaspora, both within Bhutan and abroad and therefore I would get good feedback from fellow Bhutanese like you (another reason not to think that I am defaming). I am trying to float my opinion amongst the Bhutanese. I am touched by your asking me to come to Bhutan and establish myself as a true Bhutanese. Please, accept my sincere thanks for your warm gesture of brotherhood and kind act of a true Bhutanese. I think that care and concern for one’s motherland is nurtured in one’s heart, irrespective of where one lives.

  10. Ms. Yeshey-
    I hope your Dzongkha proverb is not intended for Bhutanese audience but to Nepalese who are resettled in third country. Otherwise, it is a big joke. I believe, in your fervent memorization effort of this particular quote, your apa, as Dzongkha lecturer had tried correcting you when you mis-quoted.

    First of all, it is not “Tsig Zi” but “Tsig chig”. So, it should be “tsig chig tenpai lopen la” Second, your translation of ‘tsig zi’ is a mistake -‘tsig zi’ means four words, not four sentences.

    Whether or not you like it, the philosophy of Gross National Happiness is prospering -internationally. The fact that the world leaders have unanimously adopted Bhutan’s proposal to include happiness as UMG reflects that happiness is what human beings pursue at the end of the day.

    Had you not eloped with a person who upraised against the government and brought about chaos in the country, you would have realized the actual benefits of GNH. And, you could have had the avenue to create conducive environment for your father’s recognition. Not that it is not, I believe your apa will find peace in heaven if you set your greet aside. It is one of the variables of the GNH.

  11. Didi,

    It looks that we have missed your creations in the past. Indeed, that you BNS for reaching out to writer like Yeshey, or vice-versa. BNS leaders like me can’t wait to read series of articles from you. Can you also explore real situation of our women didi?

    All the best,

  12. The writer has excelled outstanding with her presentation. Congratulations for that. Expecting to read more articles. I am sure several have liked your beautiful skills of expression. This is how we identify a woman leader in the community. We miss you here in Bhutan a lot. Thank you bhutan news service for carrying this master piece.

  13. Tika and others,

    Your suggestion to get this published in leading newspapers is great. However, no papers here in the country will carry this piece since we have just so-called papers ! I wonder how many such good stories this writer has in her minds.

  14. Lotus Flower:
    Thank you for taking time to go through every word of my article and that too with great attention. I appreciate your keen eye and your explanation of the quote. However, my article is not about me learning proper Dzongkha grammar. If you have read it correctly, I was quoting it from the perspective of a young girl learning her first Dzongkha quote. I could have researched or asked for translation help from Dzongkha experts if I wanted to. I am sure that you and I both agree that a teacher’s value is not measured by the number of words or sentences he/she teaches. Thus, we do not have to dissect the quote word by word to get the essence of it. Anyway, now with your helping me to correct the quote, any reader who did not understand before is clarified.

    As you have done with the good critiquing of my quote, why don’t you explain “the actual benefits of GNH”. Give your readers, including me, more insight to this philosophy. This is your chance to offer clarification and an opportunity to teach what you seem to know about GNH. Do not spend your energy on trying to ridicule me. Please be reminded that by focusing your criticism on my personal life, you are instead giving me much importance. This is not about me.

    I will keep repeating that this article is not about defaming or not liking the philosophy of GNH. I am trying to say that much is being forgotten in the process of systemizing GNH; too much effort and time that can be well used toward the betterment of the country is being spent on publicizing GNH. I am asking the Bhutanese to think out-of-the box. A lotus flower (the real flower, of course) is a symbol of purity even if it flowers in the muddy waters; we do not have to go announcing to the world about its purity; everyone accepts it. In my opinion, GNH should be used as guiding principles, but effort should be made to educate people and that can be only achieved through enough good teachers. And this will happen only when students wanting to be teachers know that they will be appreciated and not forgotten. If this happens, the wind will carry the aroma of GNH to the world.

  15. Readers:
    Thank you for your comments and feedback. Your words of appreciation and encouragement are very valuable. But more than that I welcome productive criticism that would enhance both my writing and thoughts. I look forward to discussions that are thought stimulating from which we all can learn something, but I will ignore comments that relate to trivial issues like grammar, typos and spellings. Thinking outside of our comfort-zone can be difficult, but let us refrain from being harsh to each other and diverting to personal attacks. I know that we are all new in our attempt to question conventions and beliefs, but let us try to do it without losing respect to each other. Let us try to keep in mind that these discussions are not about who amongst us is the loudest. As much as it is for expressing one’s opinions/feelings, it is also about listening to others. Now let me stop from sounding like a typical mother and instead thank everyone and wish you all the best.

  16. Yeshey Bainee,
    The arcticle is very well written. Lopon Jampel deserves the recognition. I am fortunate to be one of the pupils of Lopon Jamphel in late seventies. I adore him for his simplicity and humbleness. The arcticle will be eye opener to the policy makers who were his pupils at that time.

    Purna Chettri,MD.

  17. BNS, Please scan the comments to avoid filthy,foul, unacceptable words before it’s published.( Request)
    My suggestion; Please kick out *****JEYGUTOK ******from this discussion forum asap.

    My expectation was so high and lost over the times, although it’s emotional parts.

    Bhutanese preferred overriding phrase of Gross National Happiness, a national objective for
    the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance is back part of the coin in the hand of government that foreigners enjoy reading without knowing the real fact citizens are going through.
    Some villages still don’t have water supply, irrigation system, elementary school, health center and so on. But Minister himself shows smiles in the UN events stating his citizen are over done with happiness of all aspects.
    Ask how many high level officers( government employee) are not having citizenship rights. Don’t bring up people of other class. Bhutan should better spend on giving citizenship education to the loyal citizens of the country. Solve the problem of undocumented citizens. Do not deprive the rights to have citizenship and passport for those lived in Bhutan for generations. Equality is the main source of happiness and there is much differences between smiles out of heart and forceful muscle tension in the facial area.

    Yeshey Pelzome, I like the approach, contain and main message you intended to pass to the readers. Your article takes a highest place in the history of Bhutan at least for Lopen Jamphel who still lives with us with new underscored and annotated vision for BHUTAN.

    T. Kumar

  18. If you do not revere your teacher properly, as a lama, even if s/he is just a moral educator, then you are bound generations as a dog. This may also mean that you will be cursed to the core. Amazingly eloquent.

    The four chhigs are: (1) Dropa hasa long, (2) Chang shul moenlam tab, (3) Nimar bjawa chhang, and (4) Nael raen fam puen gom.

    I am not very enchanted by this saying because, in the old systems, education has had good and bad parts. The teachers expected students to do everything for them as a return to their sharing of knowledge. The teacher(s) did not care when the students were sick or not doing well. Parents had to come take them home if that happened. There also are stories saying that the students had to satisfy their teacher even sexually. So, living with the guru was a kind of slavery in the name of religion.
    Gyan paney ke liye kya kya karna parta tha. Agar who sab sewayen nahi bhi kar pata to fir gura ka sharap se chir atma kutta ban jata tha.

  19. you are true that Pioneer like your aapa has been forrgotten in the land of GNH. There are other thousands of pioneers too ,who brought Bhutan from stone age to this modern land of GNH. Otherwise, had those pioneers not constructed the roads and other developmental works free of wages then this poor Jigme who claims himself as king in the country would be riding on back of horse. That is why conscious citizens like you and I should knock on the forehead of the regime with bullet so that every contributors will have equal respect and honour in the country governed by the governent of the people,for the people and by the people.

  20. Bongba
    Thank you Yeshey for this article. I enjoyed reading it. May my deep thoughts be with you in this concern.

    As far as a memoir for your renowned dad is concerned, I think any place where people knew him is okay for it. I attended Late loebey’s funeral. Today I do not remember the cremation ground in exactness since it was the first time I visited Kanglung from Khaling. Loebey Jampel was admired and loved by everyone that he worked with. A big crows was expected at his funeral, and the cremation crew tried to arrange a suitable place for it. However, a monument or any other form of memoir on his name was not expected to be erected there. So, I am not surprised that today there is a concrete school building on the ground, but I am truly surprised that there isn’t any memoir anywhere for him; for a great son of the soil who died while serving his country and community.

  21. Yeshey bainee,
    I just saw this article and breathed a fresh air in the daughter of the land of GNH. It was above my expectation that you would one day express your feelings this way to captivate the readers. Amazingly! how the power of Truth can do to the people. May truth prevail (Satyamev Jayate) and the romantic song of GNH may be sung in Sherubtse where I studies with input of music from such an adorable person like you in Georgia. Perhaps, other leaders learn a thing or two from you as to how powerful is it to tell the truth on the face with such eloquence as yours clearly shown in your writings.
    Thank you and God Bless you
    Dick Chhetri

  22. Yeshey Didi Namaskar!
    Your arcticle is very well written and an eye opening for all. I really like the way you corelate GNH and the attrocities of the RGOB. There is no denying the fact that Lopon Jampel deserves the recognition from the government for his extraordinary contribution in cultural preservation and heritage. However, it might not have yet clicked to the RGOB because they do not have time to do such noble works. They are busy in advertising the hollow concept of the so called GNH!
    Bhagirath Khatiwada
    New Hampshire

  23. dear yeshey, as i am also one of the students of Sherubtse, i read ur article with so much interest that i was occupied fully in it. Nicely written. I hope the government takes it positively. But u know the bhutanese government have hatred towards those bhutanese who advises or criticizes them in any way. Not matured enough to take suggestions. Thats the reason we, those inside, cannot voice out in a strong way. I have a fear in me that police might trace me and be arrested for writing even this. but now , may be due to little freedon that is budding, i could write in this web site.
    For your information, to open this site too , i have to hide and read its news. this site may be blocked time and again here.