Big and bold ideas are often perceived differently by different people. We make sense of the world and events based on our belief systems, assumptions, worldviews, interests, and on circumstances we grew up with. So, let me share my understanding of this most ambitious and important project of this era – the Gelephu Mindfulness City – a concept like no other.

Let me start by clarifying, what it is not? The proposed Mindfulness City will not be a futuristic metropolis like Dubai or Singapore with megamalls and skyscrapers. The new “city” will be spread horizontally over a large area of 1,000 square kilometres. Farmland, heritage sites, biological corridors, and national parks will all be protected.

There also seems to be a major misconception among the Bhutanese that everything will be taken over and flattened to build this city. That does not seem to be the case either. Investors and institutions, both foreign and local, will be invited to submit their proposals to set up their branches and businesses here, and state land will be allocated according to the master plan. I believe that as much as possible, public infrastructure will be built on government land. If private land needs to be acquired, they will refer to industry best practices to ensure fair compensation.

What is it, and what does it mean for us?

Commitment of our King: The initiative is, first and foremost, a project envisioned by His Majesty the King with the people in mind – especially the youth. It is like an aspiration we have as parents for our children, so that they can live a happy and a fulfilling life. As someone who has taught in colleges and seen the raw talent of thousands of our youth, I have always felt that as a society and as a government, we have short-changed them by failing to create adequate opportunities. This bold initiative will address this shortcoming.

Coming of age: Bhutan has sacrificed a lot for the sake of the planet. In terms of ecological services, when monetised, Bhutan has been contributing something to the tune of US$ 15 billion (GDP is 3 billion). Maybe we leaned a little too much towards environmental conservation and deprived ourselves of the economic benefits and financial stability – something that became apparent during Covid-19. Of course, the new concept is not a U-turn from these conservation policies. It could be characterised as an attempt to find a balance between economic growth, environmental conservation, and cultural heritage.

Gelephu, thus, is a service to humanity that offers a new approach to being and living. It will be a peaceful space in the green Himalayan foothills, with clean water, food and crisp air, and where people meet their souls and add meaning to their lives. It will also be a place to pursue one’s passions, dreams, and career productively.

Common goal. Collective imagination: The Gelephu project has inspired a nation, sparked the collective imagination, and will give the Bhutanese a sense of shared purpose. As a social thinker, I have been lamenting the fact that as a country we have lacked a common goal since the advent of Parliamentary democracy in 2008. As elected governments come and go, we are pulled in different directions.

His Majesty’s royal address at the National Day was the most powerful since the Coronation Address. The scene of youth flashing the lights from their phones and singing a tribute to our King, who was standing in their midst during the National Day Concert is still fresh in our minds. I had the fortune of witnessing something similar again at the consecration of the Water Treatment Plant in Gelephu. This is symbolic of the entire nation that is rallying around our compassionate young King who has unveiled the most courageous leap forward to build a mindful nation based on the timeless values and principles of the Three Jewels.

It looks like the nation has woken up from a long slumber and walked straight into a beautiful vision. There is a lot of work to do. However, as His Majesty has said, “We should worry but we should not doubt” (our intentions or our capabilities).

So, what is our role?

Gelephu is firstly a Bhutanese vision. We need to rally everyone from every corner of the country to solidly stand behind it. People should feel a part of, have a stake in, and believe we will benefit from this endeavour. We need to instil confidence in our youth – the main beneficiary and the builders of this project. To do that, we just need to shower them with love and faith, just as loving parents would do to their children. It means to have their back if they need us, reassure them if they make honest mistakes, and show them that we really care. If we do that our youth will charge uphill for us.

The obvious question then is, do they deserve our love and faith? You bet they do. Let’s not forget their service to the nation during Covid-19. While leadership mattered, our Desuup volunteers patrolled the borders in the scorching Sun, distributed food and essentials to our doorsteps, and stepped up when the country needed them the most. What more do they have to prove?

Finally, we need to share our enthusiasm with the world and invite them in, provided they share the same beliefs.

Will they come though?

How do we attract investments and residents into this place? What is the pitch? How do we characterise this new “city”?

World over, especially after Covid, people feel the urge to slow down, even quit the rat race, return to nature, live a more meaningful life, or escape to a faraway place that welcomes them – even for a few days. Perhaps Gelephu can be such a place – a beautiful spot in the Himalayas framed by the living Edens of the Royal Manas National Park and Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary, that enables green, healthy and sustainable living.

To add to that would be the traditional wisdom of life based on Buddhism – a 2500-year-plus timeless insight into one’s purpose and the meaning of life. The enduring values and wisdom offered by a place where deer and elephants run in the wild, can be attractive to a world that is torn apart by war, hatred, greed, pollution, traffic, malls and materialism. This is something that only a few places on earth can offer.

Travelling with a group of lamas and Rimpoches for a few days in the vast plains of Gelephu visiting the proposed sites, I had to keep pinching myself to check if I was dreaming. A couple of times as I whizzed past the areca trees and paddy fields, I had a feeling of being in a parallel matrix. This is what attracts me to this project, and what will attract them. It has sparked something in me.

So, will they come? To paraphrase a line from one of my favourite films, Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come. In this movie, the main character, a farmer facing foreclosure, instead imagines a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield where his idols, including his father, could come and play despite being long dead and gone. He suddenly hears a voice, “If you build it, he will come”. The farmer builds the baseball field and the ghosts of these players, including his father, do appear and play. The moral of the film is, if you believe in what you do, the impossible will happen.

In conclusion – the golden thread

The project is, however, more than just a fancy airport and mind-blowing infrastructure. To me, it is the idea and the intent behind it, which we need to ponder upon as a country. It is about thinking loud and doing things differently without the trappings of bureaucracy, petty-mindedness, or the “third-world” mentality. It is about being brave and imagining big, but always with the greater good in mind – country and humanity. This is what a friend of mine views as the golden thread of this new vision.

In one of my essays I characterised Gelephu as a train station like the one in Sergio Leone’s film, Once Upon a Time in America, where no trains arrive.

Now the trains are finally coming to Gelephu – both physically and metaphorically.

Contributed by

Dorji Wangchuk (PhD)

Professor, Writer,