Welcome to The Kingdom of Bhutan
The tiny Kingdom of Bhutan lies hidden in the folds of the eastern Himalayas sandwiched between the two giant countries of India in the south and China in the north. With a total area of 38,398 sq kilometers, approximately the size of Switzerland, Bhutan lies between 88° 45′ and 92°10′ longitude east and 26°40′ and 28°15 ‘ north. It is a mountainous country except for a small flat strip in the southern foothills. In the north we border with Tibet, the autonomous region under China, the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and in the south with the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal.
Bhutanese economy is characterized by its small size given its small population size. With the majority of the Bhutanese people illiterate and residing in rural areas, about 31% of the population still lives under poverty line. However, in general all Bhutanese have a shelter and are self – sufficient to a large extent. With rapid modernization the living standard of the people has also stared to grow in the recent years and every village have now access to basic amenities such as Schools, Basic Health Units, feeder roads and electricity. Plans are also underway to connect even the remotest villages with a good net work of telecommunication and mobile phones.
Bhutanese economy is dominantly agrarian. With a bulk of the population being farmers, agriculture is the main stay of their sustenance followed by a large extent with animal husbandry. Animal products such as cheese, butter and milk not only form a major diet for the farmers but also contribute to their income. With many farmers groups and cooperatives being encouraged by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest, people have been encouraged to set up cooperative stalls where they can easily market their farm products.
The main crops are rice, maize, wheat and buckwheat while cash crops are predominantly potatoes, apples, and citrus such as oranges, cardamom, ginger, and chili. With the setting up of a fruit based industry in the capital, farmers from the nearby areas are able to market their fruit products and thereby earn additional revenue.
Given the rich bio-diversity, Bhutanese have also been able to tap the forestry resources. Cane and bamboo works therefore form a source of income. Various cane and bamboo products now find their way into the market that is usually bought by the urban dwellers and the tourists.
In the recent years, however, a major contributing factor to the Bhutanese economy has been the tourism industry. Since its opening in 1975, the country has made significant expansion in tourism industry. It not only generates the much needed revenue for Bhutan, but to an extent has been able to create employment for most Bhutanese graduates and the educated lot.
But undeniably, the power sector has been the biggest contributor to the Bhutanese exchequer. The Chhukha Hydro Power Corporation, the Tala Hydro Power Corporation, the Baso Chu Hydro Power Corporation and the Kurichu Hydro Power Corporation under the umbrella of Druk Green Power Corporation are some of the mega projects that churn out about 1500 MW of power, most of which are exported to our neighboring country India. With abundant water resources, Bhutan still has the capacity to generate about 30,000 MW of electricity.
Another sector that contributes to the revenue is the contribution from the manufacturing sector. With the industrial sector established in Pasakha, some of the small scale industries that have cropped up are cement plants, calcium and carbide, steel and Ferro silicon, coca cola and also wood based industries. As a result of the economic development, with US $ 1,321, today we have one of the highest per capita incomes in South Asia.
Besides others that Bhutan can offer to the world, is its pristine environment that is almost intact. Our ecosystem is rich and diverse, because of its location, great geographical and climatic variations. Bhutan’s high, rugged mountains and valleys boast of spectacular biodiversity, earning it a name as one of the world’s ten most important biodiversity hotspots.
Recognizing the importance of environment, conservation of its rich biodiversity is one of its development paradigms. The government has assured of maintaining 60% of its forest resources for all times to come through the recently enacted law passed by the National Assembly. As of today, about 65% of the total land area is under forest cover and about 26% of the land area fall under the protected area. The protected area comprises of four parks that is designated as home for the wild life sanctuaries.
Culture and Tradition
While Bhutan is definitely one of the smallest countries in the world, yet the cultural diversity and its richness are profound. As such strong emphasis is laid on the promotion and preservation of its rich cultural diversity. It is believed that ensuring protection and preservation of our unique culture would assist in protecting the sovereignty of the nation.
Birth –The birth of a new born baby is always welcomed heartily. Bhutanese value children as progenitors of future and therefore does not discriminate between a girl child and a boy child. Mothers are always looked after carefully and because of the strong belief, outsiders and guests are kept at bay for the first three days as it is believed that the house is polluted. On the third day after the child’s birth, a short purification ritual is performed after which the outsiders pay visits to the new born child and the mother. Gifts are offered ranging from dairy products to cloth and money.
The child is not immediately named as naming a child is always the prerogative of a highly religious person. The mother and the child also visits a local temple to receive blessings from the local deity (natal deity) and the name associated with the deity is given. In some cases, the child is given the name of the day on which the child is born. Based on the Bhutanese calendar, a horoscope is written that details out the time and the date of the birth, various rituals to be performed at different time in the life of the child and to an extent predicting his future.
Marriage –Arranged marriages were popular just a few decades back. Normally, people married among the relatives. Cross-cousin marriage is a popular tradition amongst the people of eastern Bhutan. This is now becoming unpopular among the literate mass and most of the marriages take place on their accord depending on their choice.
Marriages are simple affairs and are kept low-key. However, elaborate rituals are performed for lasting unions amongst the bride and the bridegroom. As the religious ceremony comes to an end, parents, relatives and the friends present the newlyweds with traditional offerings of scarves along with gifts in the form of cash and goods.
In the western part of Bhutan, the husband goes out to the wife’s house after marriage while the practice in eastern Bhutan is that the wife usually accompanies the husband. The newlyweds may also choose to live on their own. An accepted norm of the Bhutanese way of life is divorces that carry no ignominy or disgrace and in most instances they move on with a new life partner.
Funeral –Death signifies re-birth or a mere passing on to a new life. In keeping with the traditions, elaborate rituals are performed to ensure a safe passage and a good rebirth. Important days such as the 7th day, 14th day, 21st day and 49th days are earmarked where prayer flags in the name of the deceased are erected and rituals performed.
The deceased are normally cremated while the southern Bhutanese bury and the Brokpas chop off and feed them to the vultures. Elaborate rituals are also conducted on the death anniversary with erection of prayer flags. The relatives and people of the locality come with alcohol, rice, or other sundry items to attend these rituals.
Bhutanese Dress –A distinctive feature of the Bhutanese is their dress that has evolved over the years. The Gho or the dress worn by the Bhutanese men reaches just till their knees while Kira, the dress worn by women reaches till their ankles. The Gho is folded and tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as Kera and the pouch that is formed is used for carrying small articles such as wallet, mobiles and Doma, the beetle nut. Traditionally it was used for carrying bowls and a small dagger inserted in between as was the custom then.
But the dress for the tribal and semi nomadic people like the Bramis and Brokpas of eastern Bhutan are generally different from the rest of the Bhutanese population. The Brokpas and the Bramis wear dresses woven either out of Yak or Sheep hair.
In keeping with the tradition, it is mandatory for all Bhutanese to wear scarves while visiting Dzongs and other administrative centers. The scarf worn by men is known as Kabney while that of women is known as Rachu. The scarves worn are different in color and signify their status or rank. While the general Bhutanese men wear scarf that is white in color, the King and the Je Khenpo or the Head Abbot wear yellow scarves. The ministers wear orange scarves while the Judges wear green and the district administrators wear red scarves with a small white strip that runs through. The Rachu is hung over their shoulder and unlike scarves worn by men does not have any color attached to it. They are usually woven out of raw silk with rich patterns.
Eating habits –Traditional Bhutanese eating habits are simple and generally eat with their hands. The family members eat sitting cross legged on the wooden floors with food being first served to the head of the household. It is usually women who serves food and in most cases the mother. Before eating, a short prayer is offered and a small morsel placed on the wooden floor as offerings to the spirits and deities. With modernization, eating habits have changed and in urban areas, people usually eat with spoons and make use of dining tables and chairs.
Traditionally dishes were cooked in earthenware’s, but with the easy availability of imported pans and pots, the use of earthenware’s have been replaced. Usual meals consist of rice, a dish of chili and cheese known as Ema Datshi, pork or beef curry or lentils.
Festivals –Bhutan is rich in cultural diversity and this richness is further enhanced by the variety of festivals that is being observed. Every village is known for their unique festivals though the most widely known is the Tshechu. As the Tshechu begins, the villagers and the general populace dressed in their finery congregate in the temples and monasteries to witness these festivals. Tshechus are usually occasions to mark the important events in the life of the second Buddha, the precious Indian Tantric master known as Guru Rinpoche or the Precious Gem. Various mask dances are performed together with songs and dances for three days. It provides the villagers with a respite from their hard day’s labor and to catch up with their family and friends. People share their food of Red rice, pork and Ema Datshi and drown themselves in the revelry of their traditional wine known as Ara.
Flora and Fauna
Physically, Bhutan can be divided into three zones: Alpine Zone (4000m and above) with no forest cover; the Temperate Zone (2000 to 4000m) with conifer or broadleaf forests; and the Subtropical Zone (150m to 2000m) with Tropical or Subtropical vegetation. Because of its wide altitudinal and climatic range, the flora and fauna is diverse and rich.
Forest types in Bhutan are Fir Forests, Mixed Conifer Forest, Blue Pine Forest, Chirpine Forest, Broadleaf mixed with Conifer, Upland Hardwood Forest, Lowland Hardwood Forest, and Tropical Lowland Forests. Almost 60% of the plant species that is found in the eastern Himalayan region can be found in Bhutan as well.
Bhutan boasts of about 300 species of medicinal plants and about 46 species of rhododendrons. Some common sights for the visitors are the magnolias, junipers, orchids of varied hues, gentian, medicinal plants, daphne, giant rhubarb, the blue poppy which is the national flower and tropical trees such as pine and oaks.
A wide range of animal could also be found frequenting the jungles of Bhutan. Some high altitude species are the snow leopards, the Bengal tigers that are found at altitude ranging 3000 to 4000 meters, the red panda, the gorals and the langurs, the Himalayan black bear and sambars, the wild pigs and the barking deer, the blue sheep and the musk deer. In the tropical forests of Southern Bhutan one can come across the clouded leopards, the one horned rhinoceros, elephants, golden langur that is unique to Bhutan, the water buffaloes and the swamp deer.
Bhutan also has a great variety of bird species. It is recognized as an area of high biological diversity and is known as the East Himalayan ‘hot spot’ situated as it is at the hub of 221 global endemic bird areas. The recorded number of bird species is over 670 and there are chances that this number could still go up.
In addition, 57% of Bhutan’s globally threatened birds and 90% of the country’s restricted rare birds are dependent on forests. Bhutan has about 415 resident bird species. These inhabitant birds are altitudinal refugees, moving up and down the mountains depending upon the seasons and weather conditions. Of about 50 species of birds that migrate in winters are the buntings, waders and ducks, thrushes and the birds of prey. Some 40 species are partial migrants and they include species such as swifts, cuckoos, the bee-eaters, fly catchers and the warblers.
Bhutan is also home to about 16 bird species that are endangered worldwide. These include the White bellied heron, Pallas Fish eagle, Blyth’s King fisher to name a few. Phobjikha valley in Wangdue Phodrang and Bomdeling in Trashi Yangtse are also two important places in Bhutan that is visited by the endangered Black Necked Crane.
As one of the ten global hotspots Bhutan is all set to preserve and protect the rich environment through environmental organizations.
Mahayanna Buddhism permeates and inspires all of Bhutanese life. Religious structures and prayer flags dot the landscape and nearly every home has an altar where families worship daily.
Aside from visiting some of the more than 2,000 temples and monasteries, a major attraction for tourists is attending one of the Tsechus. These occur in different parts of the country throughout the year. In contrast with many other countries, Bhutan’s ceremonies are not relics of the past – performances now geared primarily for tourists – they are still important aspects of on temporary life. Be sure to plan your trip around one of these colorful and mystical experiences.
Art and Architecture
Your cultural tour may showcase the country’s magnificent architecture and arts and crafts which form a significant part of the Bhutanese identity. The architecture is striking especially so when you learn the neither blueprints nor nails are used in construction. State buildings and homes alike have distinctive white mud walls supported by heavy timber frames and punctuated with arched trefoil windows. The wooden beams are painted with elaborate symbolic earth-toned designs. Dzongs (fortresses), Lhakhangs (temples), Goenpas (monasteries), Chortens/Stupas (religious monuments) and houses all reflect this special architecture.
Bhutan is justly proud of its vibrant heritage in arts and crafts. There are thirteen traditional crafts: painting, carpentry, carving, sculpture, casting, blacksmithing, bamboo work, gold and silver smith, weaving, embroidery, masonry, leather work, and paper-making. Music and dance are also part of the traditional arts and passed down through generations. In Thimphu, you can visit a school where talented young people study for seven years to become experts in traditional crafts.
Bhutan is linguistically rich with over eighteen dialects being spoken in the country. The richness of the linguistic diversity can be attributed to the geographical disposition of the country with its high mountain passes and deep valleys that contributed to their survival.
The national language is Dzongkha, which is the native language of the Ngalops of western Bhutan. Dzogkha literally means the language spoken in the Dzongs and administrative centers of Bhutan.
The other major languages are the Tshanglakha and the Lhotshamkha. Tshanglakha is the native language of the Tshanglas of eastern Bhutan while Lhotshamkha is spoken by the southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin.
Other dialects spoken are the Khengkha spoken by the Khengpas of Central Bhutan, the Bumthapkha spoken by the Bumthaps, the Mangdepkah spoken by the inhabitants of Trongs and the Cho Cha Nga Chang kha spoken by the Kurtoeps. The Sherpas, Lepchas and the Tamangs in southern Bhutan also have their own dialect. Dialects that is on the verge of becoming extinct is the Monkha and the Gongduepkha.
Political system of Bhutan
The political system of Bhutan has evolved over time together with its tradition and culture. From a fragmented and a disoriented rule of the different regions by chieftains, local lords and a clan based rule, today we have a parliamentary democracy in place.
The first move towards a systematic scheme of governance came in 1616 with the arrival of Zhabdrung Nawnag Namgyal from Tibet. He introduced the dual system of governance with the Je Khenpo as the head of the spiritual and the Desids, as the head of the temporal.
But a major breakthrough came about in 1907 when the people unanimously enthroned Ugyen Wangchuck as the fist hereditary King of Bhutan. He was the man who had proved his mettle bringing together the different Dzongpons and Penlops (governors of fortress) and the much needed stability and peace in the country. Since then, the country was ruled by the successive monarchs of under the Wangchuck dynasty.
With the move to ensure a more democratic governance of the country, the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck instituted the National Assembly (Tshogdu) in 1953. Every gewog had an elected member representing the National assembly. It became a platform where the people’s representatives enacted laws and discussed issues of national importance.
The establishment of the Royal Advisory Council (Lodoe Tshogde) in 1963 as a link between the king, council of ministers and the people was another move towards democratization. It also advised the king and the council of ministers on important issues and ensured that the projects were implemented successfully.
The institution of Dzongkhag Yargay Tshogdu (District Development Assembly) in 1981 and Gewog Yargay Tshogchung (County Development Assembly) in 1991 by the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was another move towards decentralization.
But the devolution of the power of the King in 1998 to the cabinet ministers was the highest form of decentralization. The King, thereafter, began to serve as the Head of the State while the government was managed by the Prime Minister.
In November 2001, on the advice of the Fourth king, a committee chaired by the Chief Justice of Bhutan, was formed to draft the constitution of Bhutan. The constitution was launched in 2008 and with it a parliamentary democracy introduced. The progression from Hereditary Monarchy to that of a Parliamentary Democracy has been gradual from the institution of National Assembly in 1953 to all the decentralization that followed suit. Thus, in 2008 Bhutan witnessed a major shift in its political system with the first elections launched country wide. The Druk Phunsum Tshogpa was mandated by the people to head the new government with a major victory. Today with 45 elected members, Lyonchen Jigme Y Thinley steers the government with just two opposition members from the People’s
The organs of the Bhutanese government comprise of the Legislature, Judiciary and the Executive. The ruling political party, the opposition and the National Council now forms the legislative body.
National Symbols of Bhutan
National Emblem –The National Emblem of Bhutan is a circle that projects a double diamond thunderbolt placed above the lotus. There is a jewel on all sides with two dragons on vertical sides. The thunderbolts represent the harmony between secular and religious power while the lotus symbolizes purity. The jewel signifies the sovereign power while the dragons (male and female) stands for the name of the country Druk yul or the Land of the Dragon.
National Flag –The National flag is rectangle in shape that is divided into two parts diagonally. The upper yellow half signifies the secular power and authority of the king while the lower saffron-orange symbolizes the practice of religion and power of Buddhism, manifested in the tradition of Drukpa Kagyu. The dragon signifies the name and the purity of the country while the jewels in its claws stand for the wealth and perfection of the country.
National Flower –The national flower is Blue Poppy (Meconopsis Grandis). It is a delicate blue or purple tinged blossom with a white filament. It grows to a height of 1 meter, on the rocky mountain terrain found above the tree line of 3500-4500 meters. It was discovered in 1933 by a British Botanist, George Sherriff in a remote part of Sakteng in eastern Bhutan.
National Tree –The national tree is cypress (Cupressus torolusa). Cypresses are found in abundance and one may notice big cypresses near temples and monasteries. Cypress is found in the temperate climate zone, between 1800 and 3500 meters. Its capacity to survive on rugged harsh terrain is compared to bravery and simplicity.
National Bird –The national bird is the raven. It ornaments the royal crown. Raven represents the deity Gonpo Jarodongchen (raven headed Mahakala), one of the chief guardian deities of Bhutan.
National Animal –The national animal is the Takin (burdorcas taxicolor) that is associated with religious history and mythology. It is a very rare mammal with a thick neck and short muscular legs. It lives in groups and is found in places above 4000 meters high on the north-western and far north eastern parts of the country. They feed on bamboos. The adult takin can weigh over 200 kgs.
National language –Bhutan is a multi-lingual society. Today, about 18 languages and dialects are spoken all over the country. The state language is Dzongkha which in the olden times was spoken by people who worked in the Dzongs that was the seat of temporal and spiritual power. Later, Dzongkha was introduced as the national language of Bhutan.
National Anthem –The national anthem was first composed in 1953 and became official in 1966. It is known as Druk Tshenden Kepay Gyalkhab Na (In the land of the Dragon Kingdom, where cypress grows).
National Day –17th December is celebrated as the National Day of the country that coincides with the crowning ceremony of Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck as the first hereditary king of Bhutan, in Punakha Dzong on 17 December 1907. It is a national holiday and every Bhutanese celebrates the day with pomp and festivity throughout the country.