- Bhutan is a landlocked country comprised of mountains and forest offering all its beauties of the Himalayas. Nestling in the heart of the Himalaya and protected by a complex of high mountains and deep valleys, Bhutan is certainly one of the most mysterious countries in the world. Impenetrable jungle to the south and daunting ranges of snow-capped mountains to the north have always barred access to the remote valleys of the kingdom. In spite of many incursions by both Tibeto-Mongol troops and the armies of the British Empire stationed in India, the country has not been colonized since the 8th century. Bhutan has therefore kept alive its extremely rich heritage, doggedly maintaining its distance from the modern world, proud of its own values and traditions.
- The origin of the name Bhutan is still a mystery. It may be derived from the Sanskrit bhu-uttan, meaning “the high country” or the Indian word bhot’anta, referring to those regions that border Tibet. It may also mean “the country of the Bhotias”, in reference to a Tibetan people who settled in the foothills of the Himalayas.
- The people themselves call their country “Druk Yul”, the land of the Dragon, or more exactly the land of the Drukpas who forged its unity in the 17th century. The Drukpas, a branch of the kagyupas, took their name from the monastery of Druk, founded in 1189 by Tsangpa Gyare at a spot near Lhasa where legends say a dragon appeared.
Bhutan at a Glance
- Total Area: 38,394 square kilometers (300 km long, 150 km wide).
- Location: Landlocked between China (Tibet) and India.
- Altitude: 100m above sea level in the south to over 7,500m above sea level in the north.
- Longitude: 88 45’-92 10’ East.
- Latitude: 26 45’-28 15’ North.
- Population: 745,153 (2014); 387,(520 male and 357,633 female).
- Life Expectancy: 68 years (Male 68, Female 69).
- Language: Dzongkha is the national language. English is spoken in the main towns, and it is the medium of education in secular schools while Chokey, Classical Tibetan is used in the traditional and monastic schools. Locals are also familiar with Hindi and Nepali.
- Political System: Democratic Constitutional Monarchy.
- State Religion: Drukpa sect of Kargyupa, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion. Hinduism is the second dominant religion being most prevalent in the south regions. Both religions co-exist peacefully and receive support from the government. Christians and non-religious communities account for less than 15 of the population.
- Capital: Thimphu.
- Time: 6 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, half an hour ahead of Indian standard Time.
- Exchange rate: 1USD=Nu 62 (Ngultrum).
- Forest Coverage: 72.5% of the total land area.
- Cultivated area: 7.8% of total land.
- Literacy Rate: 63%.
- Country Code: 975
- National Animal: Takin (Budorcas taxicolor).
- National Bird: Raven (Corvus corax).
- National Flower: Blue Poppy (Meconopsis simplicifolia).
- National Tree: Himalayan Cypress/Bhutan Cypress (Cupressus torulosa), grows up to 45m.
- National Sport: Archery
- The northern region of Bhutan consists of an arc of glaciated mountain peaks with an extremely cold climate at the highest elevations. Most peaks in the north are over 23,000 feet (7,000 m) above sea level with the highest point being Gangkar Puensum, which has the distinction of being the highest unclimbed peak in the world, at 24,835 feet (7,570m).
- The black Mountains in the central Bhutan form a watershed between two major river systems: The Mo Chhu and the Drangme Chhu. Peaks in the Black Mountains range between 4,900feet and 8,900 feet (1,500m-2,700m) above sea level, and fast flowing rivers have carved out deep gorges in the lower mountain areas. Woodlands of the central region provide most of Bhutan’s forest production. The TOrsa, Raidak, Sunkosh, and Manas are the main rivers of Bhutan, flowing through this region. Most of the population live in the central highlands.
- In the south, the shiwalik hills are covered with dense, deciduous forests, alluvial lowland river valleys, and mountains up to around 4,900 feet (1,500m) above sea level. The foothills descend into the subtropical Duars Plain. Most of the Duars is located in India, although a 6-9 mile (10-15 km) wide strip extends into Bhutan. The Bhutan Duars is divided into two parts; the northern and the southern duars. The northern duars, has rugged, sloping terrain and dry, porous soil with dense vegetation and abundant wildlife while the southern duars have moderately fertile soil, heavy savannah grass, dense, mixed jungle, and freshwater springs. Mountain rivers, fed by either into the Brahmaputra River in India.
The climate in Bhutan varies with altitude, from subtropical in the south to temperate in the highlands and polar-type climate, with year-round snow, in the north. Bhutan experiences four different seasons: summer, autumn, winter and spring. Western Bhutan has heavier monsoon rains, southern Bhutan has hot humid summers and cool winters while central and eastern Bhutan is temperate and drier than the west with warm summers and cool winters. The northern region has severe alpine climate and is perpetually under snow. Rainfall can differ within relatively short distances due to rain shadow effects.
- Very little is known of prehistoric Bhutan, however, stone implements and megaliths marking places of worship or hunting grounds indicate that people lived here at the end of the Neolithic period, around 2000 BC. During the first millennium BC, nomadic tribes of Indian or Tibeto-Mongol origin appear to have mixed with these peoples.
- The early inhabitants were followers of Bon, an animistic tradition that was the main religion of the Himalayan region before the advent of Buddhism. Drimed Kuendhen (skt. Ve-santara) was among the first inhabitants, who were exiled to Bhutan with his wife and two children from India.
- The advent of Buddhism in the 8th century by the Tantric saint Padmasambhava, popularly known as Guru Rinpoche or the Precious Master, introduced Buddhism. Since then, Buddhism has played a predominant role in shaping the social, political, economic and cultural evolution of the country. Lamas or Buddhist teachers and local nobility established their own separate domains throughout the country.
- The second period of Buddhist expansion took place after the arrival of certain great religious teachers in the 13th century. These included Phajo Drugom Shigpo (1208-1276), a Tibetan lama who came from Kham. He founded Tango monastery and began to spread the doctrine of the Drukpas in the western part of the country. Another venerated lama was Longchen Rabjampa (1308-1363), a nyingmapa master who settled in the Bumthang valley.
- In the 17th century, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a leader of the Drukpa Kargyu School of Buddhism arrived in Bhutan, He consolidated the country under a unified power, constructed several important Dzongs (fortress), monasteries, and religious institutions and firmly established the foundations for national governance and the Bhutanese identity that he came to be known as the founder of Druk Yul as a nation.
- After the death of Shzbdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the country was torn by civil strife until 1907 when Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck was unanimously elected by all the regional governors and the central monastic body to be the First Hereditary King of Bhutan. The establishment of monarchy ushered in an era of peace and stability and most significantly reunified the country under a central authority. It also set in motion a process of contact with the outside world and laid foundation for the country as a modern nation state.
- Over the years, the Kings of Bhutan have taken the country and its people into the 21st century, transforming a subsistence farming society into a modern nation. Bhutanese people are now on the path to democracy, a revolutionary move initiated from the throne, the fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. But monarchy remains the soul of the Bhutanese nation and will continue to be a vital institution in a rapidly changing society. The Kings of Bhutan are known for their selflessness, dynamism, farsightedness and love for their people. The institution of monarchy has attained its highest level. The King is the primary symbol of national unity, peace and harmony. Today Bhutan is a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy.
The state religion of Bhutan is the Drukpa sect of Kargyupa, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism. Ever since the introduction in the 8th century, Buddhism has shaped the nation’s history and played a vital part in the life of its people. Bhutanese language and literature, arts and crafts, drama, music, ceremonies and events, architecture, and basic social and cultural values draw their essence from Buddhism. Just as the Kingdom’s history is characterized by religious landmarks, the influence of religion is highly visible in everyday life. Hundreds of sacred monasteries, stupas, religious institutions, prayer flags and prayer wheels mark the countryside, providing a strong infrastructure and atmosphere for the teachings of their living faith.
- Bhutan is a mosaic of cultures, lifestyles, languages and belief systems. In a country with a population of just over half a million, as many as 19 different dialects and a few languages spoken. This is attributed to the fact that in the past, Bhutanese communities settled in the valleys with limited communication. It is for the same reason that the sense of individuality and independence emerges as a strong characteristic of the people.
- The Bhutanese are, by nature, physically strong and fiercely independent with an open and ready sense of humor. Hospitality is an inbuilt social value in Bhutan. People wear colorful dresses, the men wear a Gho, a long robe tied around the waist by a slim fabric belt, or Kera. Kira, the main garment of the women is an ankle length wrap-around dress secured by a belt around the waist, and fastened at the shoulders with silver brooches called Koma.
- There is no rigid class system in Bhutan and social and educational opportunities are not affected by rank or birth. Bhutanese women enjoy equal rights and opportunities as with men. Both men and women are free to choose their partners for marriage and both can initiate a divorce.
- Monks are held in great respect and play an important part in community life. Representatives of the monk body are present at all important occasions. In the past, it was compulsory for one from each family to enter the monastic order, a custom that is less prevalent today.
- Unlike many countries, traditional arts, age-old ceremonies, festivals, social conduct and structures are not remnants of a bygone age. Traditional arts and crafts are still practiced as they were done hundreds of years ago. Vibrant festivals are celebrated and social principles like the Driglam Namzha (age old etiquette and code of conduct) are still evident because they continue to have a special significance in the daily lives of the people.
- Bhutan’s traditional culture is alive in its performing arts, such as dance and music, which are an integral part of religious ceremonies. In addition, secular performances such as dance, songs, traditional instrumental music, a drama based on biographies of religious personalities hold a special place in the lives of the people as they play an important role in national, village, or domestic functions and festivals. Bhutan’s textile tradition has, in recent years, gone international. The distinct technique, color and style of indigenous Bhutanese weaving being increasingly appreciated by textile specialists, collectors and users.
- Traditional Bhutanese food always features spicy red and green chilies, either dried or fresh. Most Bhutanese love eating spicy food, the national dish, ema datsi, a dish of ema (chili) cooked in datsi (cheese), is favorite among Bhutanese and a growing number of foreigners.
- Rice is the staple diet of Bhutan, and Red Rice (Brown) is said to contain protein in itself, which is grown extensively in the western regions of the country. Other diets include Buckwheat in central Bhutan, and Corn (Maize) in the far east. Hotels usually offer Bhutanese, Continental, Chinese and Indian cuisine.
- Meat is imported from India, there are no slaughter houses in Bhutan (it was banned by the Chief Abbot t, as killing is against Buddhism). But meat is available and vegetarian meals are optional in every restaurant. Meats are cut into thin strips and dried in the sunlight or dried over smoke in the kitchen area.
There are two main tea served in Bhutan, the traditional tea Sujha (butter tea with salt), which is more like a soup than tea, and the other tea is Nga-jha (milk tea with sugar), which must have been introduced along with developments in the country.
- Liquor is easily available in bars with the exception of Tuesday (dry day). The legal drinking age is 18 years and above. There is quite a good number of Bhutanese beer’s to choose, ranging from mild to strong, namely the Druk Lager (5% of alcohol), Red Panda (5% alcohol), Druk Supreme (5% alcohol),Druk 11,000 (8% alcohol). But the authentic Bhutanese drink is the Ara, distilled from fermented grains (rice, wheat, barley, corn and buckwheat), which can have 45% of alcoholic contained, this is for the stronger Bhutanese. We also have Red and White Wine from Bhutan.
- Apart from the home brewed one’s we have imported wines, whiskey and brandy. They come with a high tax.
- *Note: Do not take any Alcoholic drinks for the first few days after arrival, let your body be acclimatized, then you can break one.
Architecture is also a significant feature of the Bhutanese identity. The characteristic style and color of every building and houses in the kingdom is a distinct source aesthetic pleasure. Dzongs (fortresses), Lhakhangs (temples), Goembas (solitary places), Chortens (stupas), Palaces, traditional bridges and vernacular housing that can be seen across the countryside from the diverse but harmonious architectural expressions of the cultural heritage and living traditions of the Bhutanese people. The unmatched combination of engineering skill and aesthetic beauty is reflected in all structures. Traditional shapes, colors and patterns are Bhutanese architecture in a class of its own. Among the diverse architectural expressions of the country, the castle-like Dzongs, with their massive stone walls, large courtyards and beautiful architectural details and galleries built on a grand scale without the help of any drawings and constructed entirely without a single nail represents a unique architectural marvel.
Arts and Crafts
- The most exciting and vital aspects of the Bhutanese traditions and heritage are found in its art and crafts. Much of Bhutan’s spiritual and intellectual life is manifested through its arts. Bhutanese arts are not primarily concerned with abstract concepts of “beauty” (that may appeal to few), but with the interpretation of values and beliefs that are held by the vast majority and which embody the eternal stream of life or consciousness. It is a subjective process deeply imbued with a strong sense of mortality, with many art forms epitomizing the eternal struggle between forces of good and evil.
- Bhutanese art and crafts, particularly those that are religious in their thematic content follow strict iconographic rules. Merit can be gained only if the prescribed rules are strictly followed. The use of creative energy is used mostly in secular artistic ventures. Zorig chusum or the 13 aspects of Bhutanese arts and crafts include shingzo (woodwork), dozo (stonework), jinzo (clay crafts), lugzo (bronze casting), parzo (wood, slate and stone carving), lhazo (painting), shagzo (wood turning), garzo (black smithy), treko (silver and gold smithy), tsharzo (bamboo and cane crafts), dhezo (paper making), thagzo (weaving) and tshemzo (tailoring).
- The skills of Bhutan’s craftsmen,working with bronze, silver and other fine metals, is seen in myriad ways; statues of deities, doors and pillars of temples, bells, trumpets, swords, tables, rich boxes (chest) and jewelry.
- Wooden crafts include a wealth of items from bowls to finely worked bamboo hats, baskets, butter containers, bows and arrows.
- The government’s policy is to maintain 60% of the land under forest cover at all times to come. The present ratio is higher , with a remarkable 72.5% of the country covered in forests of fir, mixed conifers, temperate and broadleaf species. Bhutan’s forests also have 7000 vascular plants, 460 orchid species, 46 species of rhododendron, and other rare and endemic species,
- including over 500 species of medicinal plants. Flowers being rare and therefore considered very valuable in the European Alps such as Edelweiss grow in thousands in Bhutan. It is a true biodiversity haven for nature lovers and specialists that Botanists consider the whole country as one beautiful park.
- Bhutan has been identified as one of the 10 bio-diversity hotspots in the world, harboring an estimated 770 species of birds including a great variety of endangered species like the black-necked crane, the monal pheasant, rufous-necked hornbill.
- Bhutan is also home to more than 200 species of mammals, blessed with abundant and pristine habitats and protected by law. Some of the endangered species of mammals include the Tiger, snow Leopard, Red Panda, Golden Langur, and Bhutan Takin.
- Bhutan is known for its wintering populations (about 350 birds) of the vulnerable black-necked crane in the valleys of Phobjikha, Bumdeling and Gyetsa.
- Bhutan is a country of festivals. The most important are the religious dance festivals, known as Tshechus, which are held in different districts, at specific times during the year. It is celebrated for three to five days. These festivals are held to honor Guru Rinpoche (the saint who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan and the Himalayas) to commemorate his great deeds. Rare dances and sword dances are performed in the courtyards and temples of the Dzongs. The origin of most of the dances can be traced beyond the Middle Ages and are only performed once or twice a year. Each dance has its own significance and is performed by monks and villagers dressed in bright costumes. Many visitors come to Bhutan to witness these festivals held annually throughout the country. The most popular for tourist are those held in Paro during spring, Thimphu and Bumthang in autumn. The Tshechus are important religious festivals and it is believed that by attending them one gains merit and blessings. People dressed in their finest clothes come to attend the festival with picnic lunch, it is time for merry making and get-together (for relatives and friends).
- Each valley has its own special celebrations and guardian deities. The high point of the year is the Tshechu-a religious dance festival held in their honor. The Tshechu at Bumthang is well-known for taking place almost entirely during the night and containing exciting fire dances which are intended to help the childless women at the festival conceive during the forthcoming year. Tshechus attract crowds that sometimes travel from remotest of the villages. In a swirl of colors, the gods and demons of Buddhist mythology come to life. The colorful ceremonies, religious theatre and exorcism ritual, are the most striking testimonies to the deep-rooted faith of Bhutan’s society.
Traditional sports and games form a crucial part of Bhutanese national culture. The people of Bhutan are sports lovers. Traditional games and sports such as Degor (a game of stones), Pungdo (Shot put), Khuru (Dart), Soksum (Javelin), Keshi (Wrestling) and Archery form an integral part of Bhutanese life.
Archery, the national sport, remains the favorite sport and absorbing pastime both for young and old alike. The bow and arrow play an important role in many Bhutanese myths and legends, images of gods holding a bow and arrow are considered especially favorable.
What perhaps started as an equipment to threaten enemies in the ancient times, archery now is a great competitive and recreational sport in Bhutan. In the past, people practiced archery to train and prepare themselves for wars, for skill formation.
Archery was declared the National sport in 1971 when Bhutan became a member of the United Nations. Bhutan also maintains an Olympic Archery Team. Archery tournaments and competitions are held throughout the country. Archery is played during religious and secular holidays in Bhutan, local festivals (Tshechu) between public, ministries and departments and the regional teams. Archery is usually played between two teams consisting of 11 or 9 players each. The targets are placed at 140 meters apart, players on either side teases and taunts each other’s while one shoots. The teammates perform a celebratory slow motion dance and sing along to praise the archer whenever he makes a hit on the target.
Women dressed in their finest clothes act as cheerleaders, they also tease the opposing team members and distract them while they aim for the target. They dance and sing between play. No major national or local holiday or festive occasion is complete without an archery game. Archery is considered to be an art, mastered to attain physical dexterity, mental strength and above all, the highest spirit of competition.
The international sports, such as football (soccer), basketball, volleyball, tennis, table tennis and cricket are becoming popular. The country has been sending competitors to the Olympics and the Asian Games ever since Bhutan joined the international Olympic Committee and the Olympic Council of Asia.