Bhutan is an exotic country located in Asia between China and India, a tiny sovereign nation with reigning Kings and Queens, ancient fortresses, monasteries and temples perched all around, with its people holding strong cultural values and practicing age old traditions in their daily lives.
The people of Bhutan live as one in harmony with nature. Bhutan guards itself only to keep at peace its people and enjoy the bountiful natures gift of clear skies, fresh crisp and pollution free air, clear glacial fed waters, unprocessed food that’s freshly cooked, and a small population that knows how to be content with what we have.
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Head Of State: His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck ( Fifth Reigning King )
Head Of Government: Doctor Lotay Tshering. Prime Minister
Government Type: Democratic Constitutional Monarchy
National Day: December 17, 1907
Bhutan’s Area: 38394 sq. km
Population : 727,145 (2017) As of NSB
Altitude: ranges from 240 meters to 7550 meters above the sea level.
Capital of Bhutan : Thimphu
Local Time: Six hours ahead of GMT and half an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time.
National Sport: Archery
National Tree: Cypress
National Flower: Blue Poppy
National Bird: Raven
National Animal: Takin
Democracy was forced onto the people of Bhutan.
The world recognizes Bhutan today as a democracy. But that was not how it always was. For 100 years, until April, 2008, the country was ruled by the Wangchuck monarchical dynasty.
What distinguished Bhutan’s democratic transition was that, unlike in most countries where democracy has been achieved through revolution, this change was initiated by the Throne.
The people did not want it as they had been more than happy with the monarchy. But it was the King’s belief that the monarchy system of government was inherently flawed as too much depended upon a single individual.
The political change was not a sudden one either. Rather, it was a gradual, deliberate process engineered by His Majesty the Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It began in the early 80s when He instituted the Dzongkhag Yargey Tshhogchungs (DYTs), the development committees in the districts. This was followed a few years later with the Geog Yargey Tshhogdes (GYTs), which were the development committees in the counties that made up the districts. The people elected its members, some of whom were further elected to form the DYTs. Then, elected members from the DYTs went on to represent the people in the National Assembly, the country’s parliament or supreme legislative body.
The true altruism of His Majesty became clear in 1998. In a world where political leaders vie for every bit of power they can grab, the Fourth King dissolved the existing Cabinet and devolved his executive powers to a new Cabinet of ministers elected by the people.
It was at about his time that He began a process of drafting a new constitution to democratize Bhutan. More than 30 other constitutions were studied before the draft constitution that evolved was taken by Him and the then Crown Prince (now His Majesty the Fifth King), Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, to public meetings with the people. Every clause in every article of the constitution was discussed, and amended where deemed necessary.
Bhutan’s King and Queen
(Photo Courtesy: The Queen of Bhutan)
In the first democratic election of 2008, the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (People’s Development Party) won a landslide victory over the People’s Democratic Party.
The institution of the monarchy continues to exist. Even though the King rules in a capacity more titular than de facto, He remains the most respected and, indeed, most beloved personality to the Bhutanese people.
GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS
Yet another unique facet to Bhutan is that socio-economic developments aim to achieve not increased GNP (Gross National Product) but increased GNH (Gross National Happiness). In fact, economic development is merely one of the four recognized ‘pillars’ of the GNH model.
GNH was the brainchild of His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who used Bhutan’s late modernisation as a position from which to learn from the mistakes of other countries. One of His conclusions from modern world history was that societies everywhere were losing touch with spirituality and tranquillity.
In the early 80s, the King articulated the GNH concept to stress that economic success was necessary but it alone was did not promise that a society would be content. It was not a means by itself but a means to a greater end. The GNH concept recognizes that the ultimate goal of development should be to create an environment where it is possible for people to realize happiness. This stands in contrast to the ideology of most governments and institutions as well as academia which remain indifferent to happiness, considering it a utopian issue.
GNH is Bhutan’s own unique model of sustainable development, a manifestation of Bhutan’s collective social and cultural consciousness. It therefore seeks economic development but not at the cost of corrupting administration, degrading one’s natural environment or diluting cultural values. Good governance, environmental preservation and promotion of cultural are thus the other three pillars of the GNH model.
Think of it this way. In, say, the United States, the sale of food grain and the sale of firearms are both considered good as they both contribute to the Gross Domestic Product. The Bhutanese will sell food grain as well but will not sell guns because a firearm carries too many associated costs that outweighs its material value. No surprise then that use of plastic bags and the sale of tobacco are prohibited in Bhutan.
The GNH ideology has generated a great deal of interest in some countries, one of which has drawn up a similar model that social scientists call “subjective well-being.”
The tourism policy is unique as the country itself. Bhutan recognizes that tourism promotes understanding among peoples and builds friendship based on appreciation and respect for different cultures and lifestyles. Bhutan also understands that tourism is an important means of achieving socioeconomic development for developing countries like itself.
Yet the dominant belief among the people, the government and even those in the tourism industry here is that the nation must not be blinded by the lure of tourist dollars as has happened in our neighbouring countries. Unregulated and inexpensive tourism draws more foreign exchange but brings with it many costs that are not immediately tangible. No amount of money is worth its irreparable damage to the local environment and, more significantly for Bhutan, to its indigenous cultural practices and values.
Bhutan’s geographical location between the world’s two most populous countries makes it especially vulnerable to cultural domination. With little military or economic power, the only way Bhutan safeguards its sovereignty is by brandishing a distinct national identity forged from strong cultural practice. Bhutan’s very future depends on the strength of its culture.
It is on the basis of such concerns that Bhutan’s tourism policy makes it mandatory for all tourists to pay a Sustainable Development Fee of USD$ 200 per person per night. This tariff ensures that the tourists who do visit are responsible and well-meaning enough to contribute and take positively from Bhutan. It also imposes an automatic ceiling on the number of visitors to the country so that foreign dilution of Bhutanese culture is, in effect, kept manageably low.
Bhutan’s tourism policy has changed post pandemic year 2022. The country is undergoing a bold change to become stronger economically without losing its unique identity steeped in rich cultural heritage, while striving economically a better change. Thus Bhutan on the whole is going to “Believe” that Bhutan will gain immensely from the changes it is making.
It recognizes that infrastructure and resources in tourism are limited, and is founded on the principles of sustainability, economic viability, environmental soundness and cultural acceptability.
REGIONS AND CLIMATE
Bhutan is a small, landlocked country but, even within its limited latitude, it features a wide range of altitude. From the Greater Himalayan peaks that stretch to over 7,000 meters above sea level, the land drops dramatically to fertile valleys in the Lesser Himalayan central belt, and continues on to the foothills in the south a few hundred meters above sea level sometimes as low as 200 meters above sea level.
Except for a few nomadic settlements, few people live above the treeline. The bulk of the people populate the hills and valleys of the central region which is divided in a north-south direction by the Wang Chhu, Punatsang Chhu, Mangde Chhu and Kuri Chhu rivers. The southern foothills, which form the industrial belt, drop sharply away from the Himalayas into large tracts of semi-tropical forest and grassland. This belt and the central uplands are arable but most of these lands are either forested or inhabited. About a decade ago, only seven percent of Bhutan remains cultivated.
Bhutan’s marked range of altitude obviously allows a marked range in weather as well.
The north is perennially covered with snow. Weather in the western, central and eastern Bhutan (Haa, Paro, Thimphu, Trongsa, Bumthang, Trashiyangtse, Lhuentse) has often been compared to cold European weather. Winter lasts here from November to March. Wangduephodrang and Punakha are exceptions as they are in lower valleys where summer is relatively hot but winter is mild. A typical hot and humid subtropical conditions envelop southern Bhutan.
The four seasons in Bhutan have generally been compared to those of Western Europe in terms of conditions and timing. Most tourists visit Bhutan in spring (mid-March to Mid-June) and autumn (mid-September to mid-November) when less rain, mild temperatures and clear skies make sightseeing most pleasant. However, every season has its own charm, like the rains from June till early October, brings in bountiful harvest and lush greens all around.
DZONGS & SACRED SITES
Dzongs are ancient fortresses that serve as civil administration and monastic centres, just as they have for centuries. They were originally built at different times in Bhutanese history by different personalities of note, most notably the country’s 17th century unifier, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. These impressive, imposing architectural marvels, which are repositories of living and medieval art, can be found in every district. The best known of these are:
Tashichhodzong: Literally meaning ‘The Fortress of the Glorious Religion,’ Tashichhodzong sits in the heart of Thimphu valley. Besides housing the offices of His Majesty the King and other important government agencies, it is also the summer residence of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) and the Central Monastic Body he heads.
Punakha Dzong: Built at the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers, this recently renovated structure is where His Majesty the King was crowned in 2008, as was the tradition of previous Kings before him. It is also the site where the Royal Wedding took place in grandeur in year 2011.
Also known as ‘The Palace of Happiness,’ Punakha Dzong also houses the country’s most sacred religious relic, the Rangjung Kharsapani, and is the winter residence of the Je Khenpo and the Central Monastic Body.
Trongsa Dzong: Originally built in 1648, Trongsa Dzong is built on split levels as different historical personalities added sections to it over the years. That is why it is the longest dzong in the country. It was from here that the First and Second Kings ruled the country. The ‘Fortress on the tip of a Conch,’ is thus the ancestral home of the ruling Wangchuck dynasty.
Drukgyel Dzong: ‘The Fortress of the Victorious Bhutanese’ was built overlooking the northern entry into Paro valley in 1646 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel to commemorate his victory over Mongol forces. Its strategic location continued to serve well as it was used to repel a succession of invading Tibetan armies. However, the dzong did not survive a fire that razed it to the ground in 1951.
Lhakhangs are monasteries or temples that, to the foreign eye, resemble dzongs in their architecture but serve purely spiritual purposes. Constructed to mark religiously significant sites or occasions, lhakhangs can be found dotting hillsides all across the country. The most notable lhakhangs are:
Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest): Touted as one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world, Taktsang in Paro is built on the face of a 1,200 meter cliff. The eighth century Buddhist mystic, Guru Rinpoche (a.k.a. Guru Padmasambhava), is said to have landed here on the back of a flying tiger on his second visit to Bhutan. Bhutan’s best known sacred site was completely destroyed by a fire in 1998 but was rebuilt with an urgent government initiative to its former glory.
Kurje Lhakhang: This distinctive temple in Bumthang is built around a cave with a body print of Guru Rinpoche embedded in the wall. The body print is said to be the result to the Guru’s heat emissions when he practiced meditation here on his first visit to Bhutan. It is, as such, the earliest Buddhist relic in Bhutan.
Chimmi Lhakhang: Built on a gentle hillock overlooking the Punatsang Chhu River, Chimmi Lhakhang stands almost five kilometres equidistant from the dzongs of Punakha and Wangduephodrang. It marks the site where the eccentric Buddhist saint known as The Divine Madman, Lam Drukpa Kuenley, is said to have subdued a powerful demoness. Scores of childless couples, even foreigners, are known to visit the temple seeking the saint’s blessings of fertility.
ARTS & CRAFTS
It must be understood that the very idea of art in Bhutan is not interpreted as creative or innovative as it is in the West. All Bhutanese art and craft works are religious, anonymous (paintings, for example, do not carry signatures of the artists) and conform to traditional style. Artefacts therefore possess no intrinsic aesthetic function and are instead seen as tangible expressions of religious faith.
Like most things Bhutanese, indigenous art and craft has existed virtually unchanged in form and method since ancient times, living testimony to the pervasiveness of the country’s traditional Buddhist culture. Artefacts, paintings and structures from two hundred years ago and today are almost indistinguishable. Another striking feature of Bhutanese artefacts is that they are not made specifically for the tourist market but are widely used by Bhutanese in daily life and more direct religious practice.
The area of Bhutanese art is so little studied abroad that phonetic conventions for rendering Bhutanese art terminology have not yet solidified. Even the visitor familiar with arts of the Himalayan region may strain to discern the fine differences between Buddhist-inspired artefacts from Bhutan to those from Tibet and Nepal, except to note that the vegetable dyes used in Bhutanese painting are more subdued and earthy. The Bhutanese artisan, of course, will have a lot more to point out.
However, with the new generation, modern art is being practiced too.
This Buddhist art heritage can be encapsulated in 13 forms which are collectively called the Zorig Chusum (the 13 Traditional Arts and Crafts).
Specifically, these are dezo (papermaking), dozo (masonry), garzo (blacksmithing), jinzo (sculpture),kozo (leather work), lhazo (painting), lugzo (casting), parzo (carving), serzongulzo (gold and silver smiting), shingzo (carpentry), thagzo (weaving), tsaazo (bamboo work) and tshemzo (embroidery).
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small sovereign country hidden in the Eastern Himalayan Mountains between the China to the north and the India in the south. The area of 38,394sq km with the longitude of 88, 45’ and 92 10’ east and latitude of 26 40’ and 28 15; in the north. The Kingdom of Bhutan is a Mountainous country from the little above the sea level to High Himalayan Mountains of 7, 600m in the north with varying climatic conditions ranging from hot humid to alpine climate.
The population of the country is 727,145 (2017) As of NSB. Comprising of four main ethic groups namely Sharchop in the eastern region, Kheng in the central and partly in southern region, Lhotshampa in the southern region, Ngalong in the north western regions of the country. These four groups of people become a Drukpa.
In Bhutan you would experience the different types of climatic conditions, depending upon different altitudes and seasons. To the south it is hot and humid, while the up hills and Mountains towards the north are under perpetual snow. Rainfall can differ within relative short distance due to rain shadow effects. We do have four seasons which are Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. The month of July and August is the heavy rainfall and Bhutanese believe that in September there will be a festival called Thrue (blessed rainy day), the rainy season ends. Spring and autumn is great seasons to travel tourist in the kingdom of Bhutan. In winter the temperature drops down to minus because of snowfalls. Days are normally hot or warm and nights are cool or cold depending on the month.
The ancient history of Bhutan is in mystery. Most documents were either lost or destroyed in devastating earthquakes and fire. Whatever documented evidence that has survived in some of its Dzongs confirms the establishment of a Dual System of Government by the Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel who unified the country under the Drukpa School of Mahayana Buddhism. Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel passed away in the 17th century. Although his death was kept secret for many years, Bhutan entered into a period of conflict and turmoil for the next couple of centuries. The “Penlops” that were self-styled governors of different regions were constantly engaged in incessant fighting against one another in a bid to exert their political influence over the territories of their rivals to expand their sphere of control. Prominent among them were the Trongsa and the Paro Penlops, the two most powerful clans who exercised equal control over each half of the territory of Bhutan. Other regional powerful families tended to side with one or the other.
Finally, at the end of the 19th century AD, the Trongsa Penlop who controlled central and eastern Bhutan defeated the Paro Penlop who controlled the western province in a historic battle fought in the plains of Changlimithang below Thimphu. The victorious Trongsa Penlop – Sir Ugyen Wangchuk was unanimously elected the first hereditary King of unified Bhutan on 17 December 1907 by the representatives of the powerful clergy, civil servants and prominent members of society. Sir Ugyen Wangchuk was accorded the title of Knight Commander of the British Empire for his tacit powers of negotiation and tactful diplomatic skills. This visionary leader of the Bhutanese people further strengthened the country by laying the foundations of a strong central authority that has governed the country ever since. His successors continue to provide a stable and progressive system of governance to the country. Today Bhutan is one of the fastest and most rapidly developing nations prospering under the dynamic leadership of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk, and King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fourth and fifth hereditary monarchs of Bhutan, who ruled since 1972 who is well loved and respected not only by the Bhutanese people, but people all over the globe.
People and their beliefs
The Bhutanese are a peace loving and god-fearing people who consistently imbibe the values of Buddhism into their everyday lives. Adherence to the fundamental principles of Buddhist philosophy like non-violence and compassion towards all sentient beings is firmly instilled in Bhutanese. Prayer flags fluttering in the wind, chortens (stupas), monasteries and twirling prayer wheels are a very common sight, sending the prayers through prayer flags and keeping up an unvarying communication with heaven.
Bhutanese has cultivated a unique culture in to their life, and it is famous for its rich and vibrant forms of dances, costumes, architectures, arts and crafts eminent by their expressions in bold flamboyant colours and intricate designs. Their belief in the doctrine of ‘Karma’ is a motivation to accumulate as many virtues as possible in their present lives to lessen the degree of suffering in their next birth. All their actions are defined by the teachings of Buddha who advocates virtuous living as the path to the attainment of “Nirvana”, a state of non-suffering and eternal bliss. So Bhutanese people are very hospitable and helpful. Love and respect for nature is inherent in every Bhutanese. The generations accept the endowment of nature manifested in notable guardianship. All living things are considered by Bhutanese as precious incarnation of life while nature is adored as the source of all life.
Way of Life
Over 70 % of the population lead an agrarian life style. The people know of real peace, unhampered by the fast life that marks modernity. The Bhutanese society is egalitarian in its disposition. Every inhabitant of the country wears the distinctive national dress that is finely woven from multi coloured, vibrant hued wool, cotton or silk. The men’s attire is called “Gho” and ladies dress is called “Kira”. The form of dress is common to all strata of society. Jewellery is mostly of pearls, corals turquoise, and agate set in well-crafted gold and silver. The Bhutanese diet is rich in meat, cereals particularly rice, vegetables and herbs. Meat dishes, mainly pork and beef, are lavishly spiced with chillies, and it is common to see these bright red peppers drying on roofs in the sun. Salted butter tea is served on all occasions. Chang, a local beer, and Ara, a spirit distilled from rice, maize, wheat or barley, are also favourite beverages. “Doma” or betel nut is offered as a customary greeting.
Archery is the popular national sport played all year round with the traditional bows and arrows. An integral part of most festivities, archery matches are gala affairs with much music, dancing drinking and gaiety.
In Bhutan, the ancient music and dances of the different region have been faithfully preserved. The quite, grace of the folk dances and the drama of the energetic, colourful mask dances will remain one of the visitors most vivid memories.
Bhutan is the only country in the world that practices the religion of Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism today. It was in the 8th century AD that Guru Padma Sambhava introduced Buddhism to the country. Religious festivals known as ‘Tsechus’ and ‘Dromchoes’ symbolizing amity, peace and compassion, are held annually at various parts of the kingdom at different times of the year. These vibrant festivals are a time for the people from various walks of life to come together decent in all their ceremonial dress. The most popular festivals are Paro Tsechu (March/April), Thimphu Tsechu (September/October) and in Bumthang (October). During the festival, rare and sacred masked dances, sword dances and many rituals are performed.
Flora and Fauna
Bhutan has a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Blessed with unparalleled scenic beauty of majestic snow-capped peaks, lush valleys and large zone of virgin forest, Bhutan is home to numerous rare and endangered species of wildlife such as the blue sheep, musk deer, red panda, snow leopard, black bear, golden langur and the unique Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. The endangered Black Necked Cranes also migrate to Bhutan from Central Asia during the winter.
The country has been identified as one of the 10 bio-diversity hot spots in the world and as one of the 221 global endemic bird areas. Its eco-system has some of the most exotic species of the Eastern Himalayas with an estimated 770 species of birds and over 50 species of rhododendron, along with an amazing variety of medicinal plants and orchids.