Kingdom of Bhutan
HISTORY : Mystery surrounds Bhutan's distant past, as priceless irretrievable documents were lost in fires and earthquakes. In the 8th century CE, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava or second Buddha) made his legendary trip from Tibet to Bhutan on the back of a flying tigress to subdue the evil spirits who hindered Buddhism. An after defeating them, he blessed them as guardians of the doctrine. Introducing Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan. Taktshang or Tigers Nest in the Paro Valley is where he landed and remains one of most sacred places in Bhutan.
It is believed that the name Bhutan is derived from the Sanskrit 'Bhotant', meaning 'the end of Tibet', or from 'Bhu-uttan', meaning 'high land'. Historically the Bhutanese have refered to their country as Druk Yul, 'land of the thunder dragon'. Bhutanese refer to themselves as Drukpa people.
Guru Rinpoche (Precious Master) is the father of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Tantric Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Bhutan. Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a tibetan lama of the Drukpa School, arrived in Bhutan in 1616 CE. He introduced the present dual system of religious and secular government, creating and building the system of Dzongs through out Bhutan. Shabdrung unified the country, and established himself as the country's supreme leader and vested civil power in a high officer known as the Druk Desi. Religious affairs were charged to another leader, the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot of Bhutan). For two centuries following Shabdrung's demise, civil wars intermittently broke out, and the regional Penlops (governors) became increasingly more powerful. This ended when an assembly of representatives of the monastic community, civil servants and the people, elected the Penlop of Trongsa, Ugyen Wangchuck, the First King of Bhutan in 1907-1926. The monarchy has thrived ever since, and the present Fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck (1972 to present), commands the overwhelming support for his people.
GEOGRAPHY :The Kingdom of Bhutan lies in the Central Himalayas, between Tibet to the north the Indian territories of Assam and West Bengal, to the south and east, and Sikkim to the west. The Kingdom has a total area of about 47,000 square kilometers. Located in the heart of the high Himalayan mountain range, Bhutan is a land-locked country surrounded by mountains. The sparsely populated Greater Himalayas, bounded to the north by the Tibetan plateau, reach heights of over 7,300 meters (23,950ft.), and extend southward losing height, to form the fertile valleys of the Lesser Himalayas divided by the Wang, Sunkosh, Trongsa and Manas Rivers. Monsoon influences promote dense forestation in this region and alpine growth at higher altitudes. The cultivated central uplands and Himalayan foothills support the majority of the population. In the south, the Daurs (the gates) Plain drops sharply away from the Himalayas into the large tracts of semi-tropical forest, savannah grassland and bamboo jungles.
PEOPLE : Early records suggest scattered clusters of inhabitants had already settled in Bhutan when the first recorded settlers arrived 1,400 years ago. Bhutan's indigenous population is the Drukpa. Three main ethnic groups, the Sharchops, Ngalops and the Lhotsampas (of Nepalese origin), make up today's Drukpa population. Bhutan's earliest residents, the Sharchops (people of the east) reside predominantly in eastern Bhutan. Their origin can be traced to the tribes of northern Burma and northeast India. The Ngalops migrated from the Tibetan plains and are the importers of Buddhism to the kingdom. Most of the Lhotsampas migrated to the southern plains in search of agricultural land and work in the early 20th century.
Bhutan's official language is Dzongkha. The current population is approximately 750,000. Given the geographic isolation of many of Bhutan's highland villages, it is not suprising that a number of different dialects have survived. Bhutan has never had a rigid class system. Social and educational opportunities are not affected by rank or by birth. Bhutanese women enjoy equal rights with men in every respect. To keep the traditional culture alive Bhutanese people wear the traditional clothing that has been worn for centurys. Bhutanese men wear a gho, a long robe tied around the waist by a small belt called kera. The women's ankle length dress is called a kira, made from beautifully colored and finely woven fabrics with traditional patterns. Necklaces are fashioned from corals, pearls, turqoise, and the precious agate eye stones which the Bhutanese call 'tears of the gods'.
WAY OF LIFE : While urban settlements have sprung up with the process of modernization, the majority of Bhutanese people still live in small rural villages. An agricultural based economy, small family farms are the predominante way of life and the farmer the most common occupation. As the altitude rises crops give way to cattle and yak breeding. Large herds grazing in the high pastures.
The Bhutanese diet is rich in meat and poultry, dairy, grain (particularly rice-red and white) and vegetables. Emadatse (chili pepper and cheese stew) is considered the national dish with many interpretations to this recipe throughout the country. Poulry and meat dishes, pork, beef and yak, are lavishly spiced with chilies, and it is common to see bright red peppers drying on rooftops in the sun. Salted butter tea, or suja, is served on all social occasions. Chang, a local beer, and arra, a spirit distilled from rice, maize, wheat or barley, are also common and widely favored. Doma or betel nut, is offered as a customary gesture of greeting. The Bhutanese way of life is greatly influenced by religion. People circumambulating the chortens with prayer beads and twirling prayer wheels are a common sight. Every Bhutanese home has a special room used for prayers, a chosum.
Many eastern classics and books of wisdom have referred to the Himalayas as the abode of the gods and home to the immortals. These descriptions did not stem merely from the majesty and grandeur of the natural surroundings but perhaps alluded to a special environment where communion with the divine was possible through contemplation and meditation. And so since time immemorial, ascetics, scholars, philosophers and pilgrim have been drawn irresistibly to these remote and rugged mountains in their personal search for wisdom, inspiration, solitude and happiness.
BHUTAN is a country nestled in the eastern Himalayas. The country has been visited by a great many saints, mystics, scholars and pilgrims over the centuries who not only came for their personal elucidation, but blessed the land and its people with an invaluable spiritual and cultural legacy that has shaped every facet of Bhutanese lives. Visitors and guests to the country will be surprised that the culture and the traditional lifestyle is still richly intact and at the degree to which it permeates all strands of modern day secular life. From the traditional woven garments to the prayer flags on high mountain slopes, from the built environment to the natural environment, from the religious mask dances to the folk dances, this cultural heritage is proudly evident and offers a unique cultural setting.
THE BHUTANESE have treasured their natural environment as it is seen as a source of all life and the abode of the gods and spirits. Buddhism has been the predominant religion since the 7th century and has inculcated deeply the value that all forms of sentient life, not just human life, are precious and sacred. Given such a prevailing ethos which respects the natural environment, it is not surprising that the Bhutanese have lived in harmony with nature and that the nation has its environment still pristine and intact today. 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-systems harbours some of the most exotic species of the eastern Himalayas with an estimated 770 species of birds and over 50 species of rhododendron, besides an astonishing variety of medical plants and orchids. Bhutan also has a rich wildlife with animals like the takin, snow leopard, golden langur, blue sheep, tiger, water buffalo and elephant.
IT IS TO SAFEGUARD this rich natural environment and culture, that the country has consciously adopted a controlled tourism and development policy. In 1997, just over 5,000 tourists entered the country and the numbers in the coming years are not expected to increase greatly. For the few who do travel to Bhutan, there are a wide variety of activites-from the Snowman trek to kayaking down the Mochhu; from witnessing the colorful festivals in the fortresses to the panoramic mountain flight on Druk Air.
NATIONAL SYMBOLS OF BHUTAN : The rectangular national flag of Bhutan is divided diagonally and depicts a white dragon (druk) across the middle. The upper part of the flag is yellow, representing the secular power of the king, while the lower part is orange, symbolizing the Buddhist religion.
The national emblem, contained in a circle, is composed of a double diamond-thunderbolt (dorji) placed above a lotus, surmounted by a jewel and framed be two dragons. The thunderbolt represents the harmony between secular and religious power. The lotus symbolizes purity; the jewel expresses sovereign poer; and the two dragons, male and female, stand for the name of the country which they proclaim with their great voice, the thunder.
National Day is celebrated on December 17 and commemorates the ascension to the throne of Ugyen Wangchuck, the first king of Bhutan.
The national flower is the blue poppy, found in the high altitudes. The national tree is the cypress, which is often associated with religious places. The national bird is the raven, which adorns the royal crown. It represents the deity Gonpo Jarodonchen, one of the most important guardian deities of Bhutan. The national animal is the takin, an extremely rare bovid of the ovine-caprine family. Found in heards in the very high altitudes (13,000 ft and over), living on a diet of bamboo.
GOVERNMENT : The form of government in Bhutan is as unique as the country. It is the only Democratic Monarchy in the world. His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck is Bhutan's fourth king. A very special man who has kept the culture and traditions of his county intact while listening to the voice of his people. One of the six development goals HM King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has expressed is: People's participation and decentralisation in the government.
Inherited from Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel's administrative system of the 17th century.Bhutan is divided into 20 Dzongkhags (dzong districts or states, see map above), each with its own elected 3 year representative, a Dzongdag (district chief). In 1988, four Dzongde (zones) were set up as administrative units between the district level and the central government. A group of four districts make up one zone, which is headed by the Dzongde Chichab (Zonal Administrator) with authority over the district chiefs in the area. All districts are divided into blocks, administrative units that include several villages. At the block level, government orders are transmitted through an elected representative the Gup (village headman).
The Tshogdu, or National Assembly has 154 members who fall into 3 catagories. The largest group with 105 members are the Chimis. Representatives of Bhutan's 20 dzongkhags. The regional monk bodies elect 12 monastic representatives who also serve 3 year terms. Another 37 representatives are civil servants nominated by the king. They include 20 Dzongdags, (district administrators or mayors): The old term for Dzongdag is Penlop (Governor), the first king was the Penlop of Paro and Thimphu) ministers, secretaries of various government and other high ranking officials. The Tshogdu meets in Thimphu twice each year and is presided over by an elected speaker. The speaker may also call special sessions during emergencies. The Tshogdu body passes all the kingdom's legislation by a simple majority vote.
ALL AROUND THE KINGDOM
Bhutan has three regions that are open to visitors. These three regions are distinctly different due to the prominent north, south mountain ranges that separate each area resulting in different topographical features. Follow the links below for a virtual tour and history of the regions.
Western Bhutan: Western Bhutan is comprised of the Ha Valley at 8860ft. (recently opened to limited travel), Paro Valley at 7200ft., Thimphu at 7500ft. the Punakha Valley and Wangdue Phodrang at 4200ft., separated by high passes or "La": Cheili La (3780m, 12,402ft.), Dochu La (3050m, 10,007ft.), Pele La (3300m, 10,825ft.). Western Bhutan is known for its stunning scenery with rice paddies and orchards cascading down magnificent mountains, the pristine rivers that flow through the main towns of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha, and unique two-story houses with brightly painted window designs.
Central Bhutan: The Black Mountains separate Western Bhutan from Central Bhutan. This region includes Trongsa and the rich broad valleys of Bumthang including Chumey, Choekhor, Tang and Ura valleys. The passes crossed are Yotang La (3400m, 11,155ft.) Ura La (3250m, 11,155ft) and Thrumshing La (3800m, 12,465ft.). Central Bhutan is known for its buckwheat and apple production, its sturdy stone houses, and its plethora of monasteries. Its the ideal place for walking due to its broad valleys and sloping mountains. The beauty of the Bumthang valley is legendary.
Eastern Bhutan: This region comprises Mongar, Lhuentse, Trashigang and Trashi Yangste. Passes crossed are Rodang La and Narphung La both at much lower altitudes than Western and Central. The forests dissipate and the altitude is lower. The warmer climate is suitable for growing corn, rice, wheat, potatoes and surprisingly lemon grass. Eastern Bhutan is known for its stunning hand-loomed textiles and the weavers are all masters of the supplementary weft-weave technique. Eastern Bhutan is the least travelled area of the country.