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About Bhutan

Bhutan, the land of the Thunder Dragon, is a tiny landlocked Himalayan kingdom in South Asia with an ancient Buddhist culture that is steeped in myth and mystery.

About the size of Switzerland, Bhutan is about 300 kms wide and 150 kms long as the crow flies and home to some of the highest virgin mountain peaks in the world.

Wedged between China to the north and India to the south, Bhutan is one of the smallest countries in the world, but it has an amazing diversity of flora and fauna that most parts of the world are bereft of.

Layap Lady

This is because Bhutan has been able to keep pristine and intact its natural environment. The rugged landscape and pristine environment make Bhutan a natural tourist destination.

More than 70 percent of the country is under forest cover within which reside more than 200 species of mammals, close to 700 species of birds including the rare and endangered such as the royal Bengal tiger and the White bellied heron.

Bhutan is an ancient land and it began the process of modern development such as building roads, schools, and hospitals only in the 1960s.

The first official tourist arrived in the mid 70s.

Bhutan follows a policy of “high value low impact” tourism, which basically means that the industry must be environmentally friendly and socially and culturally acceptable. The policy has helped promote Bhutan as an exclusive destination, which it is in every sense of the word.

Bhutan has around 19 spoken languages but English is widely spoken since it is the medium of instruction in schools. Bhutan is still largely an agrarian society with close to 60 percent of the population engaged in agriculture and rearing of livestock.

Home to a population of around 700,000 friendly people with deeply held spiritual beliefs, Bhutan is still a mystery to most people around the world. It is a land of legends, Yeti folktales, Buddhist spirit, peace and tranquility.

Today, after more than 50 years of planned development to modernize the economy and move away from its geographic isolation, Bhutanese are embracing modernity while fiercely protective of its age-old traditions, values and identity.

History of Bhutan

Tiger's Nest

Bhutan’s early history is sketchy. Much of what existed as records were destroyed in fire disasters that have plagued the country’s past.

Bhutan’s most recent history generally is considered to begin with advent of Buddhism following the visit of the great Indian tantric master, Guru Rinpoche, in the 7th century. 

One of the most iconic images of Bhutan today is the Taktshang monastery or the Tiger’s lair, which hangs to a sheer cliff, 900 metres above the valley floor in Paro. It is Bhutan’s most famous tourist destination site.

According to Bhutanese historians Phajo Drukgom Shigpo (1184–1251) established the Drukpa Kagyu school, the dominant Buddhist sect in the country.

Between the 11th and 16th century, tertons (treasure revealers) discovered sacred texts believed to be buried by Guru Rinpoche to be discovered at a predestined time in the future for the propagation of Buddhism.

In 1475, Terton Pema Lingpa unearthed a terma from Membartsho lake in Bumthang. Pema Lingpa is a key figure in Bhutanese history.

Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594–1651), Bhutan’s founding father, arrived from Tibet in 1616. He gave Bhutan its political, religious and cultural identity.

After Zhabdrung’s death the country descended into a period of internal strife for the next two centuries as local chieftains fought for supremacy. During this period the Bhutanese fought several wars with the people of Cooch Behar and British India.

Bhutanese PaintingThe Trongsa penlop (governor), Jigme Namgyal (1825–82), emerged as the most powerful chieftain in Bhutan towards the end of the 19th century. In 1865 Bhutan signed the treaty of Sinchula after losing a major battle to the British who also took control of the southern plains referred to as the Duars where major tea plantations were initiated by the British.

Bhutan crowned Ugyen Wangchuck, the son of Jigme Namgyal, as its hereditary ruler on 17 December, 1907.

Bhutan reinforced its position as an independent state when it signed a treaty with independent India,in 1949, similar to the 1910 treaty signed earlier with the British.

During the reign of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, Bhutan started planned  modern development in 1960 with technical and financial assistance from India.  In 1962, Bhutan joined the Colombo Plan and in 1971 the Universal Postal Union. 

KingJigme Dorji Wangchuck established the National Assembly, the High Court. abolished serfdom, reorganised land holdingsand established the Royal Bhutan Army and police force in the 1950s.  

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne in 1972 at 16 after his father died suddenly. He continued the programme of modernisation and stressed on economic self-reliance.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated the throne in December 2006 in favour of Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, his eldest son, and ushered the transition to a democratic constitutional monarchy.

In March 2008 Bhutan held its first general elections and its second elections in July 2013.

Culture of Bhutan

Culture of Bhutan

Bhutanese culture is deeply influenced by Buddhism so religion and culture are not two distinct and separate identities in Bhutan.

The expressions of Bhutanese culture can be seen in its architecture, textiles, art and craft, elaborate ceremonies and festivals, languages and everyday life of the people.

Bhutanese people have deeply held religious beliefs like the law of karma and the cycle of rebirth. Visiting temples and monasteries that dot the rugged Himalayan landscape, to offer prayers and butter lamps, is an integral part of Bhutanese life.

Its architectural influences can be traced to Tibet, from where Buddhism came to Bhutan, but with a distinctive Bhutanese style that has evolved over the centuries.

Bhutan’s artistic tradition is best reflected in the Zorig Chusum or the 13 traditional arts and crafts, which include calligraphy, painting, sculpture carving, applique, pottery, smithy and masonry among others.

Bhutanese wear the national dress at schools, government institutions and when visiting temples and monasteries and on formal occasions. The male dress is known as Gho, which is like a flowing robe hiked up to the knee and held at the waist by woven belt.

The female dress is known as the Kira. It is an ankle length dress and consists of a fabric in a rectangular piece that is wrapped and folded around the body and held at the waist by a cloth belt. The kira is worn with a wonju and outside jacket known as tego.

Like many Asian cultures some of the prominent cultural traits are close knit and joint families and respect and obedience to elders.

In the western districts the wealth and property of the family is passed on to the daughters while the sons are required to make their own living.

Archery is the national sport and matches are more of a social occasion than a competition. Other traditional sports that Bhutanese play during holidays are Khuru (dart) and Dego.

Rice is staple diet in the southern and western regions. People in the central and the northern regions also cultivate wheat, buckwheat, barely and maize.

Bhutanese also consume a good quantity of dairy products and enormous amounts of chilies. In fact, Ema Datshi (which means chili and cheese,) is regarded as the national dish, which a few brave tourists try out at least once to get the full flavour of Bhutan.

Red Panda in BhutanBhutan and its Ecology

With its environment pristine, intact and protected Bhutan is, by all accounts, an ecological wonder in a world that is being ruthlessly ravaged for material prosperity.

The Buddhist view of the interdependence between man and nature and the need to revere the diversity of life has guided Bhutan to maintain and respect its natural environment.

This makes Bhutan one of the best examples of sustainable eco tourism and a natural paradise.

Buddhist principles Langur of Bhutancontinue to inspire modern day government policies and today more than 70 percent of Bhutan is covered by forests of which a substantial portion is made up of national parks, protected areas and wildlife sanctuaries.

Preservation of the environment is also in keeping with Gross National Happiness, Bhutan’s overarching development philosophy, of which one of the pillars is preservation of the environment.

Bhutan’s Constitution mandates that the country maintain a 60 percent forest cover for all times to come.

Within its forests and other eco systems dwell close to 700 species of birds, 200 species of mammals such as the Golden Langur and White Bellied Heron and more than 3,000 plant species.

The following is a brief introduction to some of the country’s national parks and protected areas.

JIGME DORJI WANGCHUCK NATIONAL PARK

This park measures 4,329 sq.km and spreads into the western districts of Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Gasa. Takin, Snow Leopard, Musk Deer, Serow, Himalayan Black Bear, Wild dog, Leopard, Red Panda, Wild Cat, , Sambar, Barking deer, Pika and Blue Sheep inhabit the park.

ROYAL MANAS NATIONAL PARK

This parks measures 1,023 sq.km and joins the Manas National Park and Tiger reserve in India to the south and the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Park in the north.

Rhino, Asian Elephant, Water Buffalo, Bengal Tiger, Leopard, Golden Langur and more than 362 avian species have been recorded in the park.

JIGME SINGYE WANGCHUCK NATIONAL PARK

This 1,400sq.km park serves as a protection to the Black Mountain Ranges that form a natural dividing line between the east and west of the country.

Tiger, Black Bear, Red Panda, Langur, and close to 500 avian species dwell in this park.

Phobjikha valley, one of the two roosting grounds for the endangered Black necked cranes, is within this protected area.

PHIBSOO SANCTUARY

The 278sq.km park was created in 1974 to protect the country’s Sal forests. The park is habitat of Chital deer, Elephant, Guars, Tiger, the Golden Langur and Hornbill.

THRUMSHINGLA NATIONAL PARK

This 768sq.km park protects the fir and chirpine forest in the districts of Bumthang and Mongar. This park is one of the best sites for bird watchers.

BOMDELING WILDLIFE SANCTUARY

This 1,545 sq. km sanctuary in Trashi Yangtse, eastern Bhutan, serves as habitat of Tiger, Leopard, Blue Sheep, Snow Leopard, Red Panda, Black Bear and many avian species. The Black Necked Crane roost here during winter.

SAKTENG WILDLIFE SANCTUARY

The mystical Yeti, the abominable snowman, is said to roam the areas of this sanctuary in remote northeastern Bhutan. Brokpas, a nomadic community that rear yaks, live within this sanctuary.

TORSA RESERVE

The 664 sq.km reserve falls in the district of Haa where the Amochhu river flows from Tibet into Bhutan. The park was established to preserve the Alpine forests of the region. This reserve does not have any human habitation.

People of Bhutan

Bhutanese Woman

Bhutan has three major ethnic groups: the Ngalongs, Sharchops and the Lhotshams.

The Ngalongs and Sharchops are of Mongolian stock while the Lhotshams are of Indo Aryan origin.

The Ngalongs who speak Dzongkha, the national language, inhabit the western districts and are believed to be of Tibetan origin.

The Sharchops who inhabit the eastern districts speak Tshangla and are believed to be of Tibetan Burmese stock.

The Lhotshams who occupy the southern belt migrated to Bhutan in the early part of the 20th century from the neighbouring regions across the border.

They speak lhotsamkha (Nepali) and are Hindus by faith unlike the rest of the population who are mostly Buddhists.

Besides Dzongkha, Sharchop and Lhotsham, Bhutan has at least 16 other languages spoken by different communities across the country. Scholars contend that these languages developed as communities settled in the river valleys and movement was minimum because of the extreme mountainous terrain.

The rugged environment that compelled communities to be self sufficient, has also cultivated a strong sense of independence among the Bhutanese people. But most things are done together as community.

Bhutan also has several small remote communities that differ from the mainstream population.A Bhutanese Girl

These include the Doyas in the south, the Layaps in the north-west, the Monpas of central Bhutan, and the nomads of Merak and Sakteng in the eastern Bhutan.

Bhutan is still an agrarian society with more than 60 percent of the population engaged in agriculture and livestock rearing for a living.

In general Bhutanese hold strong spiritual beliefs and generally spend free time on auspicious days visiting temples and monasteries and offering prayers for universal harmony.

Traditionally, marriages happen without much fanfare and young men and women generally choose their partners. In recent years, it has become a trend to hold formal wedding celebrations.

Women who are divorced are not ostracized by society and generally remarry. Grand parents play an important role in bringing up children and passing on age-old values to a new generation.

Bhutan Arts & Crafts

Bhutanese Textile

Bhutan’s distinct arts and crafts embody the country’s ancient heritage that was once part of a Himalayan Buddhist civilization that spanned deep into central Asia. 

It can be seen in intricate textile weaves to the awe-inspiring centuries old fortresses that command hilltops to the finely crafted wooden bowls and baskets.

The colours used are natural, which blend into the rugged mountain surroundings, and the shades represent religious undertones with deep meaning and significance.

The style can be traced to Tibet and for a lay visitor it can appear the same but a distinctive touch has developed over the centuries, influenced by culture religion and the environment, to emerge as uniquely Bhutanese.

Bhutan’s thirteen traditional arts and crafts (Zorig Chusum) include Paper Making, Woodwork, Sculpting, Bamboo Work, Weaving, Painting, Carving, Stonework, Casting, Tailoring and Embroidery, Wood Turning, Black-smithy and Ornament Making.

The government has established two institutes in the country to preserve and promote the 13 traditional arts and crafts that continues to thrive today as in the past.

Different regions in the country are well known for specific arts and crafts. In the central region, the district of Zhemgang stands out for its unique bamboo weaves such as the Bangchu, which in the old days served as tight fitting portable lunch box.  Today, its use has grown to serve as a bamboo bowl to display or hold items from pens to chocolates.

The central region of Bumthang is famous for its yathra, a vegetable dyed wool textile, a heavy thick material with dark shades that serves multiple uses.

Bhutanese Wall PaintingThe village of Khoma in Lhuentse is home of the pure silk Kishuthara weave, which every Bhutanese woman hopes to own to be worn during special occasions. Wearing a Kishuthara in Bhutanese society is making a statement of status and etiquette.

Thangkha painting and statue making are specialized divine skills that continue to be in high demand with Bhutanese society’s deep-rooted spiritual beliefs.

The arts and crafts contribute toward the socio-economic need of the people and as an additional source of income for skilled artisans all across the country. That it continues to thrive today is demonstration of an enduring tradition reflecting the values and beliefs of an ancient Himalayan Buddhist society.

Climate of Bhutan

Snow-caped Mountain

Bhutan experiences all the four seasons – spring, summer, autumn and winter – but weather conditions can change dramatically within a short time because of the mountainous terrain and variation in altitude as one moves from a valley to a mountain pass and then to the foothills, bordering the Indian plains.

Bhutan’s altitude varies from about 300 meters above sea level and goes as high as 7,000 meters where the Himalayan peaks form a natural boundary at its northern frontiers.

Within this altitudinal range are three broad climatic zones: the subtropical south, the temperate zone in the central region, and the alpine regions in the north.

Winters are generally dry and cold in the central regions and the higher altitudes remain covered in snow. Summer is characterised by heavy Green Paddy Fieldmonsoon rains, often blocking highways, the made means of travel in the country. The southern foothills get hot and humid.

Spring and autumn are the best seasons to visit Bhutan. It is the time when major religious festivals take place and the weather is marked by blue skies and plenty of sunshine making it a good time to go on treks to base of mountain peaks and glacial lakes.

Spring is generally marked by a profusion of colours as wild flowers blossom and the hillsides turn green. The forests become a magical sight with the close to 50 species of rhododendrons and other exotic species in full bloom. The spring season falls between March-end until early June before the skies get heavy with the monsoon rains.

Another good time of the year – autumn – begins from September, and lasts until the early November. The Thimphu Tshechu (festival) generally falls in autumn when the countryside is a shade of gold with the ripening paddy harvest.

TEMPERATURE CHART FOR BHUTAN

Average Temperatures In Celsius Degree (High/Low)

Month Paro Thimphu Punakha Wangdue Trongsa Bumthang Mongar Trashigang
January 9.4/-5.8 12.3/-2.6 16.1/4.2 17.0/4.3 13.0/-0.2 10.8/-5.1 15.5/8.2 20.4/10.5
February 13.4/1.5 14.4/0.6 19.6/5.3 19.0/7.8 13.9/0.4 10.0/-1.4 15.9/8.3 21.7/11.5
March 14.5/0.6 16.4/3.9 21.2/9.2 22.8/10.4 16.7/4.4 16.2/3.5 20.0/11.6 24.8/14.4
April 17.6/4.6 20.0/7.1 24.4/11.9 26.2/12.9 20.1/6.6 18.7/3.9 22.8/14.0 28.3/17.0
May 23.5/10.6 22.5/13.1 27.2/14.8 29.1/17.7 21.0/11.6 21.3/9.5 25.1/17.4 30.0/20.6
June 25.4/13.1 24.4/15.2 31.2/19.5 29.2/20.1 22.2/13.6 22.5/13.5 26.1/19.5 30.7/22.6
July 26.8/14.9 18.9/13.4 32.0/21.6 18.4/16.2 25.3/15.3 14.1/10.9 16.1/15.8 31.5/23.1
August 25.3/14.7 25.0/15.8 31.4/19.8 29.1/20.0 23.8/15.0 23.0/13.7 25.4/19.6 30.2/22.7
September 23.4/11.7 23.1/15.0 29.9/20.0 27.5/19.1 22.6/14.2 21.6/12.1 24.7/19.4 30.0/23.9
October 18.7/7.4 21.9/10.4 27.8/18.9 26.1/14.7 21.8/11.7 19.5/5.9 22.7/15.8 29.1/17.7
November 13.9/1.4 17.9/5.0 22.3/13.0 22.6/9.6 19.8/6.4 16.1/-0.5 19.9/11.2 26.1/13.6
December 11.2/-1.7 14.5/-1.1 15.0/7.9 19.1/6.3 18.2/2.5 12.3/-2.3 15.7/9.5 23.0/11.6

Economy of Bhutan

Tourist in Bhutan

The Bhutanese economy is still a developing one with agriculture employing 60 percent of the total population and development activities dependent on donor funding.

As of 2014, its GDP was estimated at USD 1.88 billion.

Since Bhutan embarked on planned development in the 1960s to modernise the economy, it has made huge strides in improving the lives of the people by investing in health and education.

The country has also invested heavily in harnessing its hydropower potential to generate much needed revenue for social welfare programmes and reduce dependence on donors.

Electricity is Bhutan’s number one export. It sells its surplus generation to its southern neighbour, India, Bhutan’s most important development and trading partner.

Several hydropower projects are under construction today and the target is to export at least 5,000 MW of power to India by 2020.

Harnessing of clean and renewable hydropower energy has also led to industrial development along the southern belt, close to the Indian border and markets, and in electrifying the interior districts and far flung villages.Farming in Bhutan

Besides hydropower, tourism is another important industry in terms of generating employment and bringing additional revenue for the government and rural communities. It is the number one hard currency earner for the government.

But Bhutan is looking at hydropower to be engine of growth in the future by harnessing its potential of around 23,000 MW of clean, green renewable energy.

This is in keeping with the country’s overall development philosophy of gross national happiness (GNH), which gives paramount importance to protection of the natural environment and sustainable economic development.

The GNH philosophy attempts to strike a balance between material and spiritual needs and create the conditions where citizens can pursue happiness.

It does not say that economic development is bad but that it must not come at the cost of the natural environment and culture.

As Bhutan builds its economy problems of unemployment, poverty and rural urban migration are beginning to emerge. Unemployment is highest among the youth and 12 percent of the population live in poverty, mainly in the rural areas.

Environment of Bhutan

Blue Poppy

Bhutan is perhaps one of the few countries in the world that has always prized its natural environment and protected it long before the world started making a clamour over its widespread exploitation and destruction.

This priority to preserve the natural environment is enshrined in Bhutan’s development philosophy of Gross National Happiness, with one of the four pillars being preservation of the environment.

Today, more than 70 percent of the country is covered in forests within which thrive an astounding diversity of flora and fauna and untouched eco systems.

This respect for the natural world comes from the Buddhist understanding of the interdependence between man and nature. Mountain climbing is not allowed because Bhutanese believe it is abode of gods and lakes and water bodies are not to be polluted because deities reside in them.

Bhutan’s Constitution explicitly states that the country must maintain a forest cover of a minimum of 60 percent for all times to come.

More than 26 percent of the country is made up of national parks and protected areas that are linked through biological corridors to allow the undisturbed movement of wild animals from one area to the next.

Bhutan’s commitment to preserve the natural environment is so strong that it often comes in conflict with development plans such as building roads and infrastructure.

At the 15th UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009, Bhutan declared that it would remain a carbon-neutral country.

The commitment to protecting the environment has resulted in a natural paradise with clean fresh mountain air, crystal clear mountain streams and dense untouched forests that are home to an amazing variety of birds, plants and animals.

This is the reason why Bhutan been identified as one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots.

Religion in Bhutan

Guru Rinpochey

Bhutan is predominantly a Buddhist kingdom. This is reflected in the thousands of monasteries, temples, stupas and prayer flags that mark the country’s rugged and beautiful mountainous terrain.

More than 70 percent of Bhutanese follow either the Drukpa Kagyu lineage or the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.

The country’s monk population of around 8,000 is higher than the country’s standing army.

The Lhotshampa communities, who inhabit the southern foothills bordering India, follow Hinduism. Christians are present in small numbers and generally among the Lhotsham population.

The southern regions have numerous Hindu temples and a Patshala catering to the study of Sanskrit. The construction of the first Hindu temple in the capital, Thimphu, began toward the end of 2012 funded by the government.

According to the Constitution, Drukpa Kagyu is the state religion of Bhutan and Buddhism is the country’s spiritual heritage. Religious institutions and personalities bear the responsibility of promoting the country’s Buddhist heritage.Religion in Bhutan

Religion and politics are separate according to the Constitution and religious personalities and people registered with religious institutions do not have a right to vote. This is to ensure that religion is above politics.

The constitution guarantees religious freedom and Bhutanese citizens can follow any faith they want proselytization is not permitted.

Bhutan has a religious organisations Act (2007), which aims to protect the country’s spiritual heritage. All religious organisations are required to register with the regulatory authority created by the Act. The authority has the responsibility of managing and regulating religious organisations expect the central monastic body.

In managing the religious organisations, the authority must do so to promote the values of peace, non -violence, tolerance and compassion. Religious organisations are required to be transparent and respect indigenous customs, identity, culture and values.