King of Bhutan on Coronation Day ©Solange Hando
On his coronation day in 2008, the young King of Bhutan repeated his father's pledge to ensure gross national happiness for his people. Income will be a contributing factor but preserving the indigenous culture comes top of the list.
Buddhist Shrines in Bhutan ©Solange Hando
Tantric Buddhism is the cornerstone of Bhutanese society, infusing every aspect of daily life, praying, prostrating, offering donations to the monks or performing good deeds, such as helping to build shrines, repair a temple or paint a sacred icon, for no financial gain.
Here, Buddhism is a happy religion. Life is a gift and the best way to show one's appreciation is to enjoy it, as long as you respect all living things.
Bhutanese Farmer ©Solange Hando
Life may be hard at times but doing your work as well as you can is considered an act of worship, a way of expressing gratitude for the gifts bestowed by nature, good harvests, healthy children and so much more.
Ploughing the fields, weaving, teaching or or cooking, work is a chance to earn merits for the after life.
Weavers in Eastern Bhutan ©Solange Hando
Closely linked to religious teachings, respect is deeply engrained in Bhutanese society, from extended families to village elders, from dignitaries and monks to the highly-regarded royal family.
Women are equal to men though expected to care for their children, education and healthcare are free, including contraception, and smoking has been banned to ensure a better environment for future generations.
Bhutan ©Solange Hando
Caring for the environment ranks high across the kingdom and children are encouraged to do so from a young age, whether it's cleaning their classroom at the end of the day or picking up litter. There are no plastic bags and visitors are expected to take theirs home when they leave.
True to Buddhist principles, most Bhutanese are vegetarians so hunting and fishing are almost non-existent, though cattle is reared for milk. Trees can be felled only for essential use within the country and where energy is concerned, the accent is on sustainable sources, solar power and above all hydro-electricity fed by mountain streams. India, Bhutan's greatest ally, provides the know-how and finance then buys surplus at preferential rates.
As a result of its eco-friendly policies, Bhutan claims a rich bio-diversity, over 5000 species of plants, myriad mammals ranging from tigers to snow-leopards and over 600 species of birds, including the endangered black-necked cranes wintering in protected areas.
Shrine in Eastern Bhutan ©Solange Hando
But who knows what the future may hold?
Things are certainly changing in Bhutan: the first elections saw the' traditional' party win every seat except two but in 2013, the opposition gained power. Yet, the Bhutanese are confident that as long as they keep their culture alive, the country's gross national happiness will endure.
Officially, Bhutan comes second on the world happiness scale, after Costa Rica, but having visited both countries, my vote definitely goes to that tiny kingdom tucked away in the Himalaya.