Bhutan is a small landlocked nation in the Eastern Himalayas. It is situated between the Tibetan autonomous region of China to the north, the Indian states of West Bengal to the west, Assam to the south and Arunachal Pradesh to the east. The total land area is 38,394 square kilometers and it lies within the parallels of 26 45’ and 28 15’ north latitude and 88 45’ and 92 10’ east longitude.
The country has a varied range of landscapes from subtropical plains in the south to the Himalayan snow peaks to the north. Many of these peaks are over 23,000 feet (7,000 m) above sea level. The highest 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 Shabdrung 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. Shabdrung unified the country, established a theocracy and set up a dual system of religious and secular government.
After the demise of Shabdrung, 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.
BHUTAN’S DEVELOPMENT PHILOSOPHY
Bhutan has a unique approach to development which stresses that development must contribute to the maximization of Gross National Happiness (GNH) not Gross National Product alone. The concept of GNH was espoused by the fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, soon after ascending the throne in 1972, to emphasize that the happiness of the Bhutanese people should be at the forefront of all development activities.
GNH indicates that development has many more dimensions than that associated with Gross National Product and that it should be understood as a process that seeks to maximize happiness rather than simply economic growth. It places the individual at the center of all development efforts and recognizes that the individual has material, spiritual and emotional needs.
The four pillars of GNH are sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; conservation of the environment; preservation and promotion of culture and good governance.
Bhutan’s unique application of a consolidated and integrated approach to development has gained much international attention and in recent years there have been numerous initiatives around the world to incorporate happiness as an alternative means to development.
Bhutan has witnessed rapid economic growth over the last five decades registering an average growth rate of 7% per annum in the last decade. In 2007, Bhutan was one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with an annual growth rate of 19.7 percent. This was mainly due to the commissioning of the hydropower projects. As of 2008, the country’s per capita income stood at US$ 2,152.
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) and has taken steps towards accession to the WTO.
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.
The Bhutanese population is composed of three main ethnic groups. The Sharchopas of Eastern Bhutan are considered to the earliest inhabitants of Bhutan and are of Indo-Mongoloid descend. The Ngalopas migrated from the Tibetan plains and live mostly in western Bhutan. The Lhotsampas, who are mostly of the Nepalese origin, settled in the southern foothills of the country in the early twentieth century.
This ethnic diversity of the people has resulted in a mosaic of cultures, lifestyles, languages and belief systems. In a country of a little over 600,000 people, 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 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.
The Bhutanese people are very pious and religion plays an important part in their daily lives. 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.
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.
FOOD & 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 national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, which literally means the language of the Dzongs (fortress). The two other important languages spoken by the people are Sharchopa, the language spoken in eastern Bhutan (‘sha’ meaning east) and Nepali, spoken in southern Bhutan. There are as many as nineteen major dialects that have survived in the country, resulting from the geographical barriers between the isolated valleys. English is the medium of instruction in the schools and is widely spoken.
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.
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).
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.