Outline for this Section:
- Climatic Conditions
- Political system
- Arts and Crafts
- Food and Drinks
- Traditional Dress
- Spirituality and Wellness
Bhutan is a small sovereign kingdom in the Eastern Himalayas between India and the Tibetan autonomous region of China. The total land area is approximately 38,394 sq. km and it lies within the parallels of 26 45’ and 28 15’ north latitude and 88 45’ and 92 10’ east longitude.
With a dynamic topography of high mountains and deep valleys, the altitude ranges from 300 metres in the south to 7,300 metres in the north. Many of the peaks are over 23,000 feet (7,000 m) above sea level. The highest snow peak is Gangkhar Phuensum, which at the height of 24,835 feet (7,570m), is one of the highest unclimbed mountain in the world
Bhutan experiences varied climates depending on the altitude. To the south it is hot and humid, while the Himalayan mountains to the north are under perpetual snow. Rainfall can differ within relative short distance due to rain shadow effects.
Archeological evidence indicates that the country was inhabited as early as 2000 BC. The early inhabitants were followers of Bon, an animistic tradition that was the main religion of the region before the advent of Buddhism. In the 8th century AD, Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan by Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rimpoche).
The Drukpa Kagyu school of Mahayana Buddhism was introduced in Bhutan by the Buddhist teacher Phajo Drugom Zhingpo in the 13th century AD. Since then many other saints and religious figures have helped shape Bhutan’s history.
A significant period of Bhutanese history was ushered in by the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel from Tibet in 1616 AD. Until then Bhutan was ruled by numerous clans and noble families each vying with each other for supremacy or greater power. Zhabdrung unified the country, established a theocracy and set up a dual system of religious and secular government.
After the demise of Zhabdrung, the country was torn with civil strife. This came to an end when Gonsar Ugyen Wangchuck, was elected by popular consensus as the first hereditary King (Druk Gyalpo) of Bhutan in 1907.
Since then there have been five hereditary kings. The present king, His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck is a dynamic and benevolent monarch who is affectionately referred to as the ‘people’s king’. He became king with the voluntary abdication of his father, the fourth king, in 2006. The formal coronation was held in 2008.
The Bhutanese monarchs have all been well loved by the people and the establishment of the institution of monarchy has ushered in unprecedented peace and prosperity for the nation.
Bhutan’s political system has transited to a democratic constitutional monarchy with the gradual handing over of the governance by the throne to the people. In 2008, the country successfully held its first parliamentary election and became the world’s youngest democracy.
The parliament comprises of two houses, the National Council (upper house) and the National Assembly (lower house). The elected government serves for a term of five years. The country is divided into twenty administrative units called dzongkhags. The larger dzongkhags are further subdivided into sub-districts called dungkhags. Villages are grouped to form an administrative unit called gewog and administrated by a gup who is elected directly by the people.
The country has a population of close to 750,000 people, most of whom live in scattered villages across the mountain slopes. There are three main ethnic groups – the Sharchopas, the Ngalops and the Lhotsampas. This ethnic diversity of the people has resulted in a mosaic of cultures, lifestyles and languages. There are as many as 19 different dialects languages. Dzongkha is the national language of the country. English is the medium of instruction in schools and is widely spoken.
The Bhutanese people are generally friendly and fun loving. Being hospitable is second nature and it is common for people to pick up conversations with strangers as though with old friends.
There is no rigid class system in Bhutan and social and economic opportunities are not affected by rank or birth. Bhutanese women enjoy equal rights and opportunities as men.
Bhutan has witnessed rapid economic growth over the last five decades registering an average growth rate of 7% per annum in the last decade. This was mainly due to the commissioning of the hydropower projects. As of 2015, the country’s per capita income stood at US$ 2,532.
Although Bhutan is predominantly an agrarian economy, since 1980 the percentage share of primary sector to GDP has been declining and the share of the secondary and tertiary sector has been increasing. Hydropower is the main driver of economic growth in Bhutan. Tourism, in the service sector, is also one of the main contributors to the national revenue and foreign currency earnings.
This is an indication of a gradual transformation of the economy from primary sector to the secondary and tertiary sectors like manufacturing, energy, construction and services. The diversification of the economy is being pursued through the development of skills and higher value added economic activities.
Bhutan’s trade is heavily concentrated in the region. India continues to remain the largest trading partner accounting for more than 80% of Bhutan’s total trade, although the share of trade with other countries has grown over the years. Bhutan has free trade relations with India and preferential trade agreement with Bangladesh. It is pursuing negotiations for preferential / free trade agreement with Nepal and Thailand.
Bhutan is a member of the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC).
Bhutan is the last bastion of the Mahayana form of Buddhism in the world today. In the 8th century AD Guru Padmasambhava introduced Buddhism to the country. This was subsequently promulgated by various other religious figures who visited Bhutan. The dominant sect that came to be established in the country was the Drukpa Kargyu sect of Mahayana Buddhism which is now the official religion of Bhutan.
Religion plays an important part in the lives of the people. Prayer flags fluttering in the wind, chortens (stupas), monasteries and twirling prayer wheels are a very common sight. Religion permeates all strands of secular life and this has brought about a reverence for the land and its well-being.
Preservation and promotion of culture is one of the four pillars of Gross National Happiness (the guiding development philosophy of Bhutan). It is an integral aspect of Bhutan’s development and all policies and
programs are formulated in a way that ensures that they do not negatively impact on culture.
Culture in Bhutan is a living phenomenon. Day to day rituals, traditional arts and crafts, festivals, ceremonies, values systems all hold deep significance for the Bhutanese people and it is these values that define them.
Religious festivals known as ‘Tsechus’ and ‘Dromchoes’ symbolizing amity, peace and compassion, are held annually in different parts of the kingdom at different times of the year. These colorful festivals are a time for people from various walks of life to congregate, dressed in all their finery in a spirit of festivity, celebration and deep faith.
During the festival, rare and sacred masked dances, sword dances and many rituals are performed. In addition to mask dances, community folk dances and songs are also performed. Spiritual in nature, Tsechus are held on auspicious days (on the tenth day of the Bhutanese month) and last up to four days. The most popular festivals are the Paro Tsechu (March/April), Thimphu Tsechu (September/October) and in Bumthang(October).
Apart from tshechus, there are numerous folk festivals on a smaller community scale that provide fascinating insight into local beliefs.
Arts & Crafts
Traditional arts and crafts are an integral part of Bhutanese culture. Known as the Zorig Chusum, the thirteen traditional crafts include shinzo (woodwork), dozo (stonework), jinzo (clay crafts), lugzo (bronze casting), parzo (wood, slate and stone carving), lazo (painting), shagzo (wood turning), garzo (black smithy), troeko (silver and gold smithy), tsharzo (bamboo and cane crafts), dhezo (paper making), thagzo (weaving) and tshemzo (tailoring).
Food and Drinks
Bhutanese food is a tantalizing blend of hot Himalayan flavors. The Bhutanese diet is rich in meat, diary, grain (particularly red rice) and vegetables. Emadatse (chilli and cheese stew) is a very popular dish. Most dishes whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian are lavishly spiced with chilli. Salted butter tea (suja) is served on all occasions. Chang, a local beer and Aara, a spirit distilled from rice, maize, wheat or barley are widely favored. Doma or betel nut is offered as a customary gesture of greeting. Restaurants also offer a range of Continental, Chinese and Indian cuisine.
Liquor is easily available in bars with the exception of Tuesday (dry day). The legal drinking age is 18 years old and above.
The Bhutanese are fond of wearing colorful clothing. The traditional dress for men is known as ‘gho’. It is a long stitched robe that is pulled up to knee length and tied in place at the waist by a hand-woven belt. The traditional dress for women is called ‘kira’. It is a long woven material draped around the body over a ‘wanju’ (blouse) and held in place at the shoulders with silver clasps. A woven belt holds the material in place at the waist. A ‘tejo’ or blouse, often made of brocade, is worn over the dress. The traditional dress is worn for all official occasions.
The Bhutanese architecture is unique and has distinctive features. Whether it is the Dzongs (fortresses), the chortens (stupas), monasteries, houses or traditional cantilever bridges, each has its own well-defined architectural character.
A unique feature of the Bhutanese Dzongs is that many of them have been built without any plans or drawings, and in the olden days they were built without any nails. The traditional Bhutanese houses are also very distinctive. The materials used for building range from mud blocks, rammed earth, stone and now concrete in the urban area. The slate and timber shingle roofs of the past are now giving way to the modern CGI sheet roofing. The traditional Bhutanese houses painted with soft earthen colors and colorful traditional motifs, along with the beautiful arched wooden window frames, blend harmoniously into the natural landscape of the country.
Archery, the national sport of Bhutan, is a popular sport among the Bhutanese people. Other traditional sports include Degor (Discus), Pungdo (Shot put), Khuru (Dart), Soksum (Javelin), Keshi (Wrestling).
International sports such as soccer, basket ball, volleyball, tennis, table tennis, golf and cricket are gaining increasing popularity.
Bhutan has a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Conservation efforts are at the heart of the development strategy and the constitution of the country itself has mandated that 60% of the land must be under forest cover at all times. At present it is estimated that 72% of the land is under forest cover. More than 26 percent of the land is under protected area and about 9 percent of the land falls under biological corridors so that the wild life sanctuaries and nature reserves connect protected areas.
The Bhutanese forests comprise of a remarkable variety of fir, mixed conifers, temperate and broadleaf species. There are 7000 vascular plants, 360 orchid species, over 50 species of rhododendrons, and other rare and endemic species, including over 500 species of medicinal plants and orchids.
The country has been identified as one of the 10 biodiversity 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 which include the plumage, the Himalayan griffin, the unique high-altitude wader, the ibis bill, the hornbill, barbets, sunbirds, fulvattas, yuhinas, cuckoos, and many more.
The endangered Black Necked Cranes also migrate to Bhutan from Central Asia during the winter. Other endangered species that are found in Bhutan include the monal pheasant, peacock pheasant, raven and the Rufous-necked hornbill.
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.
Along the southern border, the narrow tropical and subtropical belt supports the Asiatic elephant, greater one-horned rhinoceros, gaur, wild water buffalo, hog deer, tier, clouded leopard, hornbill, trogon and other mammal and bird characteristic of indomalayan species.
Spirituality and Wellness
In today’s fast paced modern life, it is important to find time and space to look within oneself and find the inner peace and strength. In Bhutan, the close connections between man and nature and the harmony both within the community and with the environment has created a place of deep spirituality and this has shaped the value system of the Bhutanese people. Both the inner and the external environment of the individual and community are nurtured towards finding peace, harmony and a deeper meaning to life.