Bhutan – The Dragon Kingdom

Situated between two gigantic civilizations, China to the north and India to the south, Bhutan is a country of about seven hundred thousand people in the eastern Himalayas with a unique national identity. The success of its state building process ensured that Bhutan remained independent from any foreign influence, including British imperialism, despite its location in a sensitive geo-political region.

Bhutan, like many similar kingdoms in the Himalayas, is said to be in what is called the Tibetan cultural sphere of influence. However, at the turn of the 20th century, most of these countries started to falter as the great Tibetan myriarch itself showed signs of weaknesses.

Bhutan continued to strengthen itself through this turbulent period, and today when all the others have fallen, Bhutan stands as the last remaining Vajrayana kingdom in the Himalayas, the rest having been subsumed either by China or India.

Fast Facts

Country name: Kingdom of Bhutan
Capital city: Thimphu

Location: Southern Asia, between China and India

Language: Dzongkha, English, Sharchogpa, Nepali

Religion: 
75% Mahayana Buddhism
20% Hindu
5% others

Population: 
716,896 (July 2012 est.)

Land: 38,394 sq km
Land boundaries: 1,075 km

Border countries: 
China 470 km
India 605 km

Time: 6 hours ahead of GMT

Government: 
Democratic Constitutional Monarchy 

Present King: 
Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk

Medieval History and State Formation

Bhutan’s recorded history dates back to the eighth century when the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo built two of his proverbial 108 temples in Bhutan. Later in that century, the Indian saint Guru Padmasambhava came to the country on invitation of a local king. It is said that through the display of his grandeur in restoring the health and prosperity of the King, the whole kingdom became his field of conversion. Buddhism was introduced with all of its accompanying value system among the people. 

However, it was not until the seventeenth century that Bhutan emerged as a unified state. The charismatic Tibetan religious hierarch Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel introduced a system of dual religious and secular rule which stressed the on wellbeing of all sentient beings. Thus a theocracy was for the first time established in the first half of the seventeenth century. The first state laws introduced in the country were credited to him or his immediate successors. These laws were based on the sixteen pure human conducts according to the Buddhist way of living. The country was named Drukyul (land of the thunder dragon) after the Zhabdrung’s tradition of Tibetan Buddhism which was called Drukpa (the Dragon tradition). 

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Culture

Much of the success in maintaining its independence despite the limited nature of its defensive forces owes to the fact that Bhutan had a vibrant culture of its own which was distinctive from any other. Based on wisdoms passed down through centuries of its existence as an independent country, the proud and stoic Bhutanese people developed their own unique language, customs, etiquette, dress and culinary flavours. Simple, and yet vibrant at the same time, these elements ensured that the Bhutanese were a class apart from any of the competing parties at all times. The point of most interest today is the way in which the Bhutanese have been able to preserve and promote this age old way of life in this time of unitary modernization where the need for material advancement is fast dissolving the vast variety of cultures into tasteless homogeneity. Bhutan today has a living culture that pervades all aspects of life including governance.

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Religion

It was in the 8th century during the three visits of Guru Rinpoche alias Padmasambhawa that Buddhism began to take firm roots in Bhutan. Till the visit of Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century, the people of Bhutan were practicing animism that they referred to as Bon. His first visit was on his mission to treat the gravely ill Sendha Gyab, the king of Bumthang (central Bhutan) in 746 A.D. His visit led to the propagation of the Nyingmapa (the ancient or the older) school of Tibetan Buddhism.

The second visit was from Tibet across the high frozen passes through Singye Dzong in Lhuntse (northeast Bhutan). From Singye Dzong, Guru, in his wrathful form of Dorji Drolo flew to Taktsang in Paro (western Bhutan) on the back of a tigress, who was actually his consort, Tashi Khyeuden. He meditated there for three months and subdued the demon. Today this place is considered one of the sacred places in Bhutan. His third visit was not very significant as it was just to put in exile Khikharathoed, the Dog mouth and goat skull king who was anti-Buddhist.

Phajo Drugom Zhigpo’s arrival to Bhutan in 1222 is another landmark in the history of Bhutan. He introduced the Drukpa Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Further, his sons also worked in spreading the tradition of Drukpa Kagyu school,especially in western Bhutan. In late 14th Century, lama called Longchen Rabjampa and Terton Pema Lingpa from Nyingma school also contributed to flourish Buddhism and established many monasteries mainly in central Bhutan.

One of the greatest historical figures of Bhutan is Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (Tibetan lama) who came to Bhutan in 1616 after a conflict with the King of Tsang in central Tibet. Besides unifying Bhutan, he also strengthened the Drukpa Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Today, Drukpa Kagyu school is the state religion of Bhutan. However, people also widely follow Nyingmapa and Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism as well as Hinduism.

Besides Guru Rinpoche, Phajo Drugom Zhigpo, Longchen Rabjampa, Terton Pema Lingpa and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, many other lamas had also contributed to the propagation of Buddhism in Bhutan.

It is a country where Buddhism is still vibrant and alive. The Dzongs, monasteries, stupas, prayer flags, and prayer wheels punctuate the Bhutanese landscape. The chime of ritual bells, sound of gongs, people circumambulating temples and stupas, fluttering prayer flags, red robed monks conducting ritual, among many others are all living case in point to reveal that Buddhism is an essential ingredient of Bhutanese life.

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Society

The Bhutanese society is free of class or caste system. Slavery was abolished by the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck sometimes in the 1950s through a royal edict. Though, few organizations to empower women have been recently established, in general the Bhutanese have always been gender sensitive. In general ours is an open and a good-spirited society.

As is the case elsewhere, living in a Bhutanese society generally means understanding some basic norms like Driglam Namzha, the traditional etiquette. This is a norm which desires that the members of the society conduct themselves in harmony and in a similar manner. For instance, wearing a white scarf when visiting a Dzong, monastery and offices where national flag is hoisted, letting the elders and the monks serve themselves first, offering felicitation scarves when someone gets a promotion, greeting the elders or senior officials before they wish you, etc. are some simple manners that synchronizes the society.

Normally, greetings are limited to saying Kuzuzangpo amongst equals. For seniors and elders, the Bhutanese bow their head a bit and say kuzuzangpola. But, the western way of shaking the hands has caught on people of urban areas.

The Bhutanese are also fun-loving people. Dancing, singing, archery playing, stone pitching, partying, social gatherings etc. are common things that one observes. Visiting friends and relatives at any hour of the day without any advance notice or appointment clearly depicts the openness of the Bhutanese society.

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The Dynasty Period

In 1907, through the submission of an oath of allegiance by the monastic community and the people of Bhutan, the Wangchuck Dynasty came into being with the enthronement of the first King of Bhutan Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck. This brought in a new wave of consolidation of the Bhutanese statehood and identity. The highly visionary Monarch helped Bhutan retain its status at a time when the British Imperial forces in India were pushing the borders with annexation in mind. He also introduced a series of reforms that directly led to the greater prosperity of the people. Successive monarchs of the dynasty has since then brought unprecedented peace, harmony and happiness in the country, thus endearing themselves to the people. 

The fourth King who ruled from 1972 to 2006 has been able to redefine the role of a king. Through the national policy of Gross National Happiness, his single minded pursuit has been the happiness of his people. His selfless dedication to the people’s cause is best seen in his systematic introduction of democratic culture in the Bhutanese psyche during his reign. In handing over the governance of the country to the people, His Majesty expressed his satisfaction at being able to restore what belonged to the people exactly one hundred years after it was put in the care of his forefathers. As the last of his legacy, he abdicated out of his freewill, thus setting an example in leadership not known to exist anywhere else. The institution of the Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), safeguarded by the constitution, is today seen as a unifying force among the sometimes disparate interest groups that can emerge in a democratic setting.  

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The National Language

Variants of Dzongkha clubbed together as Ngalongkha is believed to be the native dialect of the people inhabiting the western valleys of Bhutan from time immemorial. After promulgation of the Bhutanese state under the enlightened leadership of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, Dzongkha became the working language of the officials in the Dzong, a circumstance from which the current name of the language derives. The language in a big way fostered the growth of the Drukpa identity in Bhutan which was consciously constructed as a parallel entity to the overarching Tibetan cultural influence at a time when Bhutan’s relation with Tibet was not always amicable. 

However, the modern impetus on promoting Dzongkha as our national language came with the great political upheaval in our region in the middle of the twentieth century. Caught between the aggressive Chinese revolutionaries in the north and the expansionist territorial consolidation of India towards the south, Bhutan knew that it had to be different from any of the other countries like Sikkim who had to revert to their supposed myariach states in the form of these two countries. So, while Bhutan’s national identity always grudgingly depended on the Tibetan model, we had to imbibe it with sufficient local characters to justify our claim to a sovereign nation state. Thus, for the first time, a drive to promote Dzongkha as a written language took place. Official correspondence and educational teaching was conducted in a written form of Dzongkha. 

Dzongkha was a natural choice as the national language since it could both match the classical standards of the Tibetan language and was sufficiently different as to be considered an independent lingua franca. Since then, successive generations of our kings have been the greatest exponents of the language and Dzongkha can now rightly be called the King’s language in Bhutan.

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Festivals

One of the most colorful festivals in the Bhutanese calendar is the Tshechu performed in all the Dzongs and in many monasteries and temples spread throughout Bhutan. Tshechu is a mask dance festival to commemorate the events in the life of Guru Rinpochoe who is revered as the second Buddha in Bhutan. There is also a display of Thongdrol, large scroll paintings of deities and saints which have the power to liberate people from sin that they had committed just by seeing it. People gather from all walks of life to witness this significant event. There are many other festivals distinct to different villages which are mostly animistic in nature performed by mediums. The festivals are moment for social get-together where people wear their finest clothes and jewelries.

Tsechu

Classical dances in Bhutan are reflected in the religious mask pageants and ritual dances. With the introduction of Buddhism in the 8th century AD by Guru Padmasambhava from Tibet, ritual and mask dances gained roots in the Bhutanese system as part of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. With the birth of the great Terton (treasure revealer) Pema Lingpa in the 15th century, the mask dances in Bhutan took firm roots and gained an impetus as part of the Bhutanese cultural life. The Ter Cham (treasure dances) and Pe Ling Ging Sum were the most famous of the dances that still continues to this day. In the 17th century with the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal from Tibet, the mask dances further gained importance. Many new dances were introduced. The Puna Domchoe was introduced in Punakha Dzong as accompaniment to the prayers to the protector deity Pel yeshey Gonpo (Mahakala). Je Kuenga Gyeltshen, the reincarnation of Jampel Dorji also introduced a dance in honour of Pelden Lhamo (mahakali) in Trashichhodzong. Some of the celebrated dances are Zhana cham or the Black Hat dance, the Degyed cham or the Spirit dance, the Shinje cham or the Yamaraja dance, the Durdag cham or the Dance of Shamashan Lord and the Guru Tshengyed or the Dance of the Eight manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava.

The religious dances are symbolic and have a common theme to destroy or trample the evil spirits. The swords of the dancers symbolize cutting through ignorance while the drums drive away all malevolent evils and demons. Witnessing the dances is believed to remove sin and take one closer towards attaining nirvana or enlightenment.

Dances are performed annually in all important Dzongs, temples and in monasteries and usually lasts for three to five days. The occasion is known as Tshechu as they are normally performed on the 10th day of the months and is an occasion for the village people to gather round and partake in the festive occasion. Dressed in their finest clothes the village people and their families mix around and be a part of this grand spectacular occasion reveling in their packed lunches and ara.

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Environment

Within an area of 38,394 square kilometers, Bhutan enjoys a great ecological diversity. Its total land area is spread roughly over 170 km north to south, and approximately 300 km east to west. Altitude varies from below 200 meters in the southern tropical region to over 7500 meters above sea level in the northern alpine region. Forest is Bhutan’s largest renewable resource and the most dominant land cover measuring 72.5 percent of the country’s landmass. 

Bhutan’s biodiversity wealth includes 5,603 species of vascular plants including 579 wild orchids, 46 rhododendrons, over 300 medicinal plants and at least 30 bamboo species. Bhutan also has close to 200 species of mammals including the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris), Snow Leopard (Unicia uncia), Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens), Takin, (Budorcas taxicolor),  Golden Langur (Trachypithecus geei), Asiatic Elephant (Elephus maximus), and the Himalayan Musk Deer (Moschus chrysogaster leucogaster). Bhutan also has 678 recorded species of birds.

To protect the country’s natural environment from over-exploitation in the future, the Constitution of Bhutan states that 60% of the country should be preserved under natural forest cover for all times to come. Today more than 50% of the country falls under national parks and protected areas with limited or no human activities. 

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Climate

Bhutan`s climate ranges from tropical in the south, to temperate in the center of the country, to cold in the north. Weather can vary dramatically from place to place, day to day or even within the same day. In the Thimphu and Paro valleys, daytime temperature in winter averages 20° Centigrade during clear winter days but drops well below freezing during the night. 

Mid December to early January can be beautifully clear and dry in Western Bhutan. Fluctuations are not so dramatic in summer and daytime temperatures often rise to 30° Centigrade.The Punakha and the central valley tend to be warmer. The high mountain peaks are snow covered through the year and the mountain passes, especially Thrumshing La (between Bumthang and Mongar), can be treacherous during winter. Thimphu and Paro have light snowfall in winter, and once in a while comes a heavy snowstorm.

The rain laden monsoon winds hit Bhutan from late May to early October. Valleys in the inner mountains receive less than 800 mm of precipitation annually, while the lowlands receive as much as 5,500 mm. The views of the Himalayas are completely obscured by clouds and rain from May to August. The spectacular rhododendrons bloom in the verdant valleys in this season. Autumn, October and November, is mild and “fall colours” are dominant. Spring is multihued and can only be compared to an artist’s palette.

Best time to visit

Spring and autumn are the best seasons to visit Bhutan, particularly the months of October and November, when the skies are clear and you can get stunning views of the mountain peaks. For those who wish to catch a Bhutanese festival, especially the masked dance of the monks, the months to be there are October and March.

Flora & Fauna

The three climatic zones of the foothills, central Himalayan valleys and the high Himalayas makes Bhutan’s natural heritage more rich and varied than other Himalayan regions. In historical records, the kingdom is referred to as the “Southern Valley of Medicinal Herbs”, a name that still applies to this day. The country’s flora consists of over 7000 species of plants, including the rare Blue Poppy which is also the national flower. Bhutan also has a reputation for being a birdwatcher’s paradise with over 675 species of birds including the endangered Black-Necked crane. Because of the deep traditional reverence, which the Bhutanese have for nature, the kingdom is one of the leading countries in environmental conservation. Over 70% of Bhutan’s land area is still under forest cover. Many parts of the country have been declared wildlife reserves, and are the natural habitats of rare species of both flora and fauna.

Textile

The Bhutanese national dress is a knee length robe for men and ankle length cloth draped around the body for women. Fitted with boots, belt, and a range of other traditional accessories and fineries, the costumes help show the natural grace of the human body. The dresses and their accompanying accessories come in a myriad of traditional designs, shades and colours. They can also be made from various textile materials ranging from raw and fine silk, to coloured terry cotton. To meet the endless demand for traditional textiles, the country has many cottage industries specializing in their production. Women, the traditional artisans specializing in these craft weave on their own at homes. Bhutan’s national academy for textile and its sister museum has also been opened. As traditional dresses have to be worn on all formal occasions and as these dresses are in any case the preferred wear for the strongly loyal Bhutanese populace, visitors will be pleasantly surprised by how traditional dresses have become convenient and trendy business wears in Bhutan today.

Food

Bhutan draws its cultural inspiration from Tibet from where Mahayana Buddhism filtered into the lives of the Bhutanese. The Bhutanese culture reflects and resembles the Tibetans in many ways starting from governance to people’s daily rituals. However, if there is one striking breakaway from the overarching Tibetan influence, then it is in the domain of Bhutanese food habit. Unlike the vast Tibetan wasteland plagued by extreme weathers, the fertile Bhutanese river valleys afforded the life sustaining practice of agriculture with the possibility of growing an assortment of food grains, vegetables and fruits. Indeed for most part of its history, Bhutan was a net exporter of food to India in the south and Tibet to the north in particular. This abundance of food ingredients made it possible for people to create a variety of exotic culinary recipes that were uniquely Bhutanese and spicy. Unlike the Tibetans, Bhutanese predominantly depended on high carbohydrate vegetarian diets that helped them to observe the basic tenements of their faith which was non-violence.

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Governance

Since 2008 when the first party-based parliamentary elections were held, Bhutan has been a constitutional democratic kingdom. Bhutan has two elected houses of parliament, the upper house which is called the National Council has 25 members and the lower house called the National Assembly has 47 members. The members of the cabinet including the Prime Minister are appointed from the governing party’s members in the National Assembly. The Kingdom’s Constitution mandates that the sole aim of governance in Bhutan should be to promote those conditions which are conducive for the realization of Gross National Happiness.  

Architecture

One of the most striking physical features of Bhutan is its architecture. Bhutanese architectural forms comprise of chortens (stupas), stone walls, temples/monasteries, fortresses, mansions and houses. The characteristic style and color of every building and house in the kingdom is a distinct source of aesthetic pleasure. What makes the Bhutanese architectural landscape unique is the consistency of traditional designs found in both old and new structures. Thus the ancient fortresses and temples seem to merge with the modern day structures thereby creating a consistency in the architectural landscape.

The dzongs – themselves imposing 17th century structures built on a grand scale without the help of any drawings and constructed entirely without nails – are outstanding examples of the best in Bhutanese architecture. Patterns of rich colors adorn walls, beams, pillars and doors in traditional splendor.

Economy

With only about 700,000 people, Bhutan’s generous total land area provides ample livelihood opportunities. Bhutan today enjoys one of the highest per capita in the region at USD 2,277. On the back of its strong hydropower and tourism sector, Bhutan’s economy continues to see a strong growth. In all respects of human development, Bhutan continues to see strong improvements.   

Foreign Relation

Today Bhutan is an independent sovereign country. Bhutan joined the United Nations in 1972 and has since then become a signatory to all major international organizations with the exception of World Trade Organization which is domestically perceived in Bhutan as being promoting unbalanced trade, an image that makes it contrary to the country’s deeply held value system. Besides, Bhutan has bilateral relations with more than 40 countries all over the world. Bhutan’s leadership and genuine quest for a happy world has resulted in the initiation of happiness resolution titled Happiness – Towards a Holistic Development Approach that was co-sponsored by 68 member countries and adopted by the UN General Assembly in July 2011, and the High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm at the UN Headquarters in New York on April 2, 2012.

Gross National Happiness

Recognizing that everybody’s ultimate aspiration is happiness, and understanding that happiness could not be achieved through a misguided way of life, the Fourth Dragon King of Bhutan propounded a philosophy of living called Gross National Happiness. Happiness and wellbeing in life is best achieved when a person finds true contentment and satisfaction. And these things are best achieved when there is a harmonious balance in life. A life in blind pursuit of material prosperity alone would be a poor compromise on the diversity, beauty and meaning that life could otherwise provide. 

Therefore, when His Majesty set out to develop his country, he made sure that development compulsions did not over shadow the country’s other facets like its environment, culture and governance quality. At the same time, he knew that people will at the end of the day need spiritual nourishment for them to be truly happy. Thus, in developing the country, he made sure that all these aspects were fully in harmony. Decades down the line, the country realized that while the rest of the world is waking up to the limitations of a purely economic model of development, what we pursued as a nation has held us in much a better stead. 

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