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Making Happiness And Well-Being A National Priority

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here's another nation celebrating a new leader. Bhutan today held lavish ceremonies as it crowned a new king. In his latest letter from South Asia, NPR's Philip Reeves says Bhutan's monarch may have something to teach America's president-elect.

PHILIP REEVES: It took the royal astrologers a couple of years to make up their minds. They wanted the stars and the heavens above their tiny mountain kingdom to be in exactly the right position. Finally, they settled on the eighth day of the month of the earth male rat, or as we know it today, Thursday, November the 6th.

King JIGME KHESAR NAMGYEL WANGCHUK (Bhutan): (Bhutanese spoken)

REEVES: Today, the crown of the Kingdom of Bhutan was laid on the head of this man, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. Like Barack Obama, he's young, just 28 years old. Obama will govern the world's most powerful nation. The new king leads one of the world's smallest and weakest. Bhutan's tucked high in the Himalayan Mountains between two mighty giants, India and China. It calls itself the Land of the Thunder Dragon. The Land of the Thunder Dragon is only a shade larger than Maryland and has an eighth of the population.

For centuries it was completely isolated. Even now, it interacts cautiously with the outside world. Cable TV, the Internet, and mobile phones were introduced less than a decade ago. Tourism is restricted. Only one airline carries visitors into Bhutan. This is state-run and has just two planes. Although Bhutan has some of the world's highest mountains, those visitors can't climb them. There's an ancient belief among the Bhutanese that gods reside on the mountaintops. The government thinks it's best to let sleeping deities lie.

Bhutan's new king was educated in the U.S. and at Oxford. He's been performing the monarch's duties for a while. This is because two years ago, after three decades on the throne, his father abdicated. The father, who's 52, quit because he felt it was time for a change. He also scrapped the monarchy's absolute powers. His son, as the new king, answers to parliament and to a constitution that sets a retirement age of 65 for politicians, including the monarch.

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: Barefooted performers rehearse their steps for the festivities to the sound of cymbals and other traditional instruments. During the next few days of celebrations, the people of Bhutan will dance on the streets, just as many people in America danced yesterday. They'll hold archery competitions. They'll eat their national dish, yak's cheese and chilies. There'll be chanting by Buddhist monks. The temple bells will ring. The king will go around with a kettle, dispensing to his subjects shots of fiery local spirits.

We know what those subjects will be wearing. Even on normal days in Bhutan, national dress is compulsory during working hours. For men, that means either going to the office in what looks like a bathrobe, or risking a fine. That may sound pretty draconian, and also just bizarre. But for all its remoteness, Bhutan believes it has something to offer the world in this time of crisis. In the next few days, it'll quietly use its brief moment in the spotlight to advertise what it calls gross national happiness. This is a concept pioneered by the new king's father. It's the belief that there's more to a country than economic growth and that issues like the environment and spiritual and mental wellbeing matter just as much to people. President-elect Obama might want to take note. Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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