Queen Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck is one of four sisters who married Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan's former king, who abdicated in favor of his eldest son a few years ago.
Today, the queen mother, a youthful 55-year old, embodies her country's efforts to reap the benefits of modernity while protecting its traditions.
Over tea and steamed dumplings in her palace in Thimphu, Queen Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck recently spoke about the perils of television, her pilgrimage to Memphis and Gross National Happiness, the country's guiding philosophy.
I also had the great opportunity of going to Memphis, where I stayed at the Heartbreak Hotel. I went there with my daughter, right after her graduation from Harvard Law School in 2007. Graceland appeared much, much smaller than I had expected it to be as a child. Nevertheless, Elvis loomed large. I also saw the jumpsuits he looked so wonderful in when he went on stage. On his bookshelf I also noticed a copy of Hermann Hesse's "Siddhartha," which is about the Buddha. I liked that.
I have walked the length and breadth of this entire nation, from its plains to some of its most inaccessible mountain areas. If I had to choose my single favorite place in Bhutan, it would have to be the Jigme Dorji National Park, named after the third king. This park is home to the national animal, the takin, the national flower, the blue poppy, and is home to our most pristine lakes and virgin peaks. In the park I also went on the Snowman trek, one of the toughest treks in the world.
It's important to have festivals like Mountain Echoes that bring together Bhutanese and Indian authors and that give us the opportunity to celebrate our shared culture.
It is possible to speak of a pan-Himalayan culture, especially from a religious perspective. We have to remember Buddha's Indian origins. Here in Bhutan we have thousands of pilgrims going to India's Bodh Gaya every year.
Bhutan was never really forbidden. We were just isolated, by choice. That's one of the reasons we have so much of our culture and heritage still intact. We began being "unforbidden" when we started building motorways in the early 1960s. That's when we opened up physically. It was around then that I saw my first motor vehicle. Until then the only mode of transport was horseback, for those who were lucky enough to have horses. Others had to walk.
I think the Internet and mobile phones are wonderful innovations. Now, television is another story altogether. It has its benefits but it has even more negative side-effects. Families spend less time together and our youth sometimes pick up bad habits. We have over 100 channels and there is so much out there. We have one main Bhutanese channel, BBS, the national broadcaster, and, besides a few small private channels, the rest are all international. You have the good channels, like CNN and BBC, but then you have others, too.
The outlook of our youth is changing and I'm worried we'll just become part of the global culture and pay less attention to our own. We are very small, very fragile and we need to pay the biggest attention to the preservation of our culture and heritage, which is very unique.
We can preserve our culture through Gross National Happiness, which is enshrined in our constitution. One of the principles of GNH is to protect our culture, our heritage and our environment—something the government is doing in so many ways. For instance, through the promotion of our own movies, and our own songs and dances. We also have to wear our traditional clothes when visiting government offices, among other things.
I don't think there will ever come to a point when we have to restrict our country's exposure to global media. I don't see this as something our country would ever do. Putting restrictions on something like that would be fundamentally wrong. But what we can do is keep our culture alive within our country and make young people proud of their heritage. I was a young person once upon a time, and we all go through phases of fascination and experimentation. Then what happens is that you get older and come closer to home. We are trying to keep that home intact