John Wehrheim traveled through many districts in Bhutan, where he captured the stories and images of the kingdom and assembled them into the book "Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness." Wehrheim visited Neylu in 2004 and photographed a person named Kinley burning dung.
Land of happiness
Take a wild guess: Who governs themselves based on "gross national happiness"?
If you thought it was Disneyland or Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, you're not even in the ballpark.
This is no fantasy: The Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, which until recent decades has consciously closed itself off from the rest of the world, quantifies itself this way, in stark contrast to the more commonly used measure of gross national product. The perspective makes the kingdom somewhat of a paradox: philosophically ancient yet ahead of its time, naive yet wise almost beyond conception.
A young woman dances in Thimphu in 2005, above.
Author and photographer John Wehrheim captures in picture and prose the landscape, lifestyle and people of the country in "Bhutan: The Hidden Lands of Happiness," a coffee-table book that was produced after 15 years and 1,700 miles of travel across the mountainous kingdom.
Wehrheim says the royal government practices what it preaches: The king and his son live as "inner people" (as opposed to the materialistic "outer people"), concerning themselves with spiritual development. Father and son live in a remote forest, in cabins smaller than homes of the average Bhutanese. The Philosopher King, as the elder monarch is known, is currently transitioning his people from monarchy to liberal democracy. Gross national happiness serves as guideline for the shift.
Young monks congregate at a prayer wall in Dechen Phodrang in 2002.
"The book offers a glimpse of an alternative way of seeing the world," Wehrheim says. "What I want to communicate most of all is the spirit of happiness and contentment."
The obvious question, however, is whether Bhutan can sustain its unique value system as it engages more and more with the rest of the world.
Footprints are worn into the floor from prostrations at the Chozo Lhakang altar in Lunana.
"Time is different there. Bhutanese villagers are very rich in time and try to live each day with delight," Wehrheim says. "Can they keep their generous lighthearted ease in a world where ... everything has a price?"
Book signings and other events
Featuring John Wehrheim:
» Thursday: Reception and book signing, 1 to 5 p.m., Robyn Buntin Gallery, 523-5913. Exhibition continues through March 28.
» Saturday: Book signing, 1 to 3 p.m., the Academy Shop, Honolulu Academy of Arts, email@example.com
» Sunday: Book reading and signing, and screening of Wehrheim's film, "Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness," 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Honolulu Design Center, 630-9184.
» Also: "Bhutan: The Hidden Lands of Happiness" is for sale for $65 at the Academy Shop, Robyn Buntin Gallery, Borders on Kauai and at Serindia.com.
A Buddhist monk flips through television channels in Punakha in 2004, presenting a striking contrast of traditional and modern images.