Author: Ken Haigh
Publisher: The University of Alberta Press
Book Review by: Deekay Daulat

Bhutan is a tiny country of less than 15,000 square miles with a population of around 715,000 people. The total gross domestic product is only around $4 billion and the average annual per capita income is around $5,600. Almost two of every three people (63 percent) work in agriculture, and most of the rest (31 percent) are in the service sector, with only 6 percent in industry.

Its northern neighbor is China and to its south is India. It ranks anywhere from No.105 to No.116 in GDP rank among 195 countries of the world, depending on which of four lists you are looking at, whether it is that of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the CIA World Fact Book or the Penn World Table.

Comparatively, its neighbor India has an area of 1,269,210 square miles, a population of 1.270 billion, a GDP of almost $2 trillion and an average annual per capita income of $1,455 on a nominal basis and almost $4,000 based on purchasing power parity.

The king of Bhutan (and I suppose also its people) are not as much concerned about the country’s gross domestic product or gross national product as they are about their gross national happiness!

Here is a passage about that term and its origins from Wikipedia:

“The term “gross national happiness” was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, the charismatic Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who opened Bhutan to the age of modernization soon after the demise of his father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. He used this phrase to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values.

“At first offered as a casual, offhand remark, the concept was taken seriously, as the Centre for Buddhist Studies, under the leadership of Karma Ura developed a sophisticated survey instrument to measure the population’s general level of well-being.”

This book Under the Holy Lake by Ken Haigh underscores the fact that generally the Bhutanese people are focused on happiness and they (or at least most of them) realize that it does not come only from accumulating money and material goods.

And I would dare say that they are not out there “seeking” happiness. Instead, they’ve simply decided that they are already happy, and nothing and no one can take that away from them. While I profess I do not know Buddhism, I believe that belief system professes that happiness is a state of being rather than a state of doing.

This book is a memoir of a brief period in the life of Ken Haigh, who after obtaining a degree in English literature went, under the auspices of WUSC (World University of Canada) to spend two years (1987-89) in a small, remote Himalayan village in Khaling in eastern Bhutan to teach English to students at a school there that had been established by Canadian Jesuits. He found his students very polite and eager to learn.

He stayed in a small cottage next to an old Buddhist monastery living a very simple life, far removed and different from the busy life he lived in Canada. His neighbors were warm and friendly to him. Where Ken lived was a peaceful, calm place almost untouched by modernization, surrounded by lush valleys and some of the highest mountains on earth.

Not all was fine and dandy though, for Ken in that Bhutan interlude in his life.

There were times when he got tired of having to deal with the lack of telephones, and the presence of leeches, rats and wild dogs. He also hated the frustrating language barriers, the exhausting hundred-mile treks, his terrifying near-death experiences on steep mountain roads, the monotonous diet, and times he fell sick.

But he learned to deal with these and other problems and shortcomings. He slowly began to accept them and adapted to the traditions and ways of living which initially had given him culture shock.

But Ken Haigh finally found peace in Bhutan. He writes in his Preface after he had returned from Bhutan: “And yet for me, there is only one place: a green valley in the eastern Himalayas, resting under the influence of a holy lake and an ancient tree, a place that for two short years I called, however mistakenly, my home – a place called Khaling.

Ken Haigh is a graduate of Queen’s University and the University of Western Ontario, where he studied English literature, education and library science. Ken has also taught in China and the Canadian Arctic. He lives in Clarksburg in Ontario, Canada

Click on this link if you want to view this UTube video on Bhutan, its people and culture: