About Bhutan

About Bhutan:The most plausible explanation for the origin of its term is attributed to Sanskrit “Bhot-Ant” meaning end of Tibet. Today the kingdom of Bhutan is popularly known as “Druk Yul”, the land of the peaceful dragon to its inhabitants who remained isolated from the rest of the world for the best part of its long and interesting history. This small country cradled in a secluded corner of the eastern Himalayas is bounded by two gigantic neighbors China and India. The stark and daunting insurmountable chain of Himalayan peaks on its northern fringes separates it from the Tibetan region of China and dense impenetrable tropical Jungle of the foot hill in the south criss-crossed by turbulent rivers flowing through them sets it apart from the plains of Bengal and Assam in Eastern India. In spite of such formidable natural barriers, this fabled realm of the mountain gods has lured scores of mystic philosophers and adventurers in the quest of “Shangri-La”, a mythical paradise hidden in the deep recesses of the Himalayas. Snuggled in the very bosom of the mightiest mountain range on earth, Bhutan has truly lived up-to its unblemished reputation for providing spiritual and earthly visions of the legendary abode of eternal peace and tranquility to all who seek the blissful joys of heaven on earth. Identified as one of the ten-bio diversity hotspots in the world, Bhutan is fast gaining prominence as an exclusive travel destination combining the best blends of the exotic aspects of the nature and culture co-existing in perfect harmony. The significance of this providentially preserved natural wonderland has led environmentalists to declare Bhutan a World Ecological Heritage site that generates significant contributions to maintain the highly vulnerable environmental balance in south Asia. Find more about bhutan below.

about-bhutan : Image displaying a ruler settlement in Bhutan

History of Bhutan

For the early explorers and envoys of the British government who ventured into this fabled land, it was Bootan, their reports ringing with strength and marvelous name rendered in imaginative phonetic spellings the ancient Buddhist writers called their fertile neighbor “Lho Mon” or “Mon Yul”, Paradise of the South, Land of the Mons. To the inhabitants it is not Bhutan at all, but Druk or Druk Yul, Land of the thunder dragon. From the available “Namthar” and artifacts surviving in a few ancient monasteries, the prehistoric era of Bhutan can still be traced to somewhere between 500 and 600 A.D. As a landlocked country, the history of Bhutan has always been influenced by its geography. Bhutan’s historical legends, however, begin with the visit of Guru Padmasambhava, who is believed to have come from Tibet in 747 A.D.

From then on, the Buddhist faith has played a large part in shaping the course of this country’s history. Although Bhutan was not unified under a central authority until the 17th century, evidence strongly suggests that it had existed as an independent entity from at least the 7th century on. Its formidable geographic boundaries kept it free of foreign authority and allowed it to develop a strong degree of common identity despite the ethnic and linguistic diversity of its inhabitants. The 17th century witnessed the unification of Bhutan under the charismatic  Ngawang Namgyal who took the honorary title of Shabdrung. In 1865, the Penlop of Tongsa named Jigme Namgyel became the strong man of Bhutan and bequeathed his son Ugyen Wangchuk that position. And then comes a series of rulers under whose guidance Bhutan has grown from strength to strength.

The ancient history of Bhutan is shrouded in mystery. Most of the documents were either lost or perished in devastating earthquakes and fire. Whatever documented evidence that have survived in some of its Dzongs, pertains to the establishment of a dual System of Government by the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, who unified the country under the folds of the Drukpa School of Mahayana Buddhism in the 17th Century. Bhutan entered into a period of conflict and turmoil for the next couple of centuries. The “Penlop” self styled governors of different regions were constantly engaged in incessant fighting against one another in a bid to exert their political influence over the territories of their rivals in a bid to expand their sphere of control. Prominent among them were the Tongsa and the Paro Penlops, the two most powerful clans who exercised equal control over each half of the territory of Bhutan; other regional powerful families tended to side with one or the other. At the end of the 19th Century, Tongsa Penlop, who controlled central and eastern Bhutan, defeated the Paro Penlop, who controlled the western province, in a historic battle fought in the plains of Chamlingthang in Thimphu. The victorious Tongsa Penlop Ugyen Wangchuk was unanimously elected King of unified Bhutan by the representatives of the powerful clergy, civil servants and prominent members of the society. Sir Ugyen Wangchuk was accorded with the title of Knight Commander of the British Empire for his tacit powers of negotiations and tactful diplomatic skills. This visionary leader of the Bhutanese people further strengthened the country by laying the foundations of a strong central authority that has governed the country ever since. His successors have provided a stable and progressive system of government to the country.

Geography of Bhutan

Bhutan is located between 88°45’and 92°10′ longitude east and between 26°40′ and 28°15′ latitude north in the eastern part of the Himalayan range. The country is land locked between China in the north and India in the East, West & South. Bhutan has an approximate area of 47,000 sq.km, and is a mountainous country that stretches from the foot hill in the south to the towering peaks of the inner Himalayas in the north with varying climatic conditions ranging from the hot and humid tropical type sub-temperate and alpine.

Bhutan has a population of roughly 700,000 comprised of three main groups, the Ngalongs in the north western part, Sharchops in the eastern part and Lhotshampas in the south. They are collectively called the Drukpas, who speak Dzongkha the national language of Bhutan.

Bhutanese People & Way of Life

The inhabitants of Bhutan are a peace loving and god fearing people who have consistently imbibed the values of Buddhism into their everyday lives. The Bhutanese civilization has nurtured a unique culture famous for its rich and vibrant forms of dance, costumes, architecture, arts & crafts distinguished by their expressions in bold vivid colors and intricate designs. The Bhutanese society is inculcated with a strong sense of discipline, duty, and integrity. Adherence to the cardinal principals of Buddhist philosophy like non-violence and compassion towards all sentient beings is firmly instilled in them. Their belief in the doctrine of “Karma” motivates them to accumulate as many virtues possible in their present lives to lessen the degree of suffering to their souls in their next births. All their actions are defined by the teachings of Buddha who advocates virtuous living as the path to the attainment of “Nirvana”, a state of non suffering and eternal bliss.

An unshakable conviction in the ethos of Buddhist belief has enabled the inhabitants of Bhutan to live in close communion with nature. Love and respect for nature is inherent in every Bhutanese who for generations have accepted the endowments of nature with remarkable complacency. Creation bears religious significance, as life is held secret. All living things are considered precious embodiments of life while nature is venerated as the source of all life. This traditional reverence for nature coupled with a need to compensate nature for all its bounties has helped in preserving state of its intact natural environment.

Above all, the inhabitants of Bhutan are cheerful, jovial and pious. These simple people have endeared themselves to thousands of visitors by their lavish and overwhelming hospitality, vivacious sense of humor, genial warmth and naivety. Every single moment spent with them are cherished by tourists who keep coming back for more.

Religion in Bhutan

Being the only country in the world to adopt Mahayana or Tantrik Buddhism as its official religion, Bhutan is purported to be the last bastion of the Vajrayana Strain of Mahayana Buddhism that lays fundamental emphasis in births and rebirths. Venerated spiritual masters have magical powers that help them to reincarnate themselves time and again to provide divine guidance to their followers. The country is awash in an aura of spiritual ambience and mysticism that pervades every aspect of the day-to-day life and strange customs and traditions of the people. Religion here is a way of life for the devout people who diligently perform elaborate rituals and conduct religious ceremonies with much fervor. Ancient monasteries dedicated to various saints and spiritual masters are full of meticulously preserved religious relics believed to possess divine powers. Legends of mighty conquest by the good against evil forces repulsed back into hell are regaled through dance, drama and music, which are a source of divine inspiration that helps the people to keep their faith alive. Festivals that commemorate these fateful events are held annually on special occasions throughout the country. During such festivals, the protecting deities who guard against evil are invoked to ensure that the good shall prevail for eternity.

Every settlement has a Lhakhang (temple) that serves as a central place of worship. People regularly visit them to offer prayers as an intrinsic part of their religious obligations.

Buddhism is said to have been introduced in Bhutan by Padma Sambhabava or Guru Rimpoche (precious master), the patron saint of Bhutan. Also called the second Buddha, he introduced Tantrik Buddhism in Tibet and Bhutan. He is therefore, considered to be the founder of the Nyingmapa School. In course of time, Tantrik Mahayana Buddhism became the dominant religion of Bhutan as some of the most celebrated saints of the Vajrayana strain like Pema Lingpa and Milerapa extensively traveled and preached in Bhutan.

Religion holds sway as a factor of prime importance in the everyday lives of the people of Bhutan from being a vital force behind providential condiments that shapes the history of this country. Its influence is conspicuous in almost all facets of Bhutanese life style like architecture, arts & crafts, culture & tradition, virtually every aspect of the Bhutanese way of life even to the extent of governing the behavior and attitude of the Bhutanese society at large. Religion is also a crucial factor that has sustained their will to remain united as a nation of one people “The indomitable Drukpas”, who have always fiercely guarded their independence and have never been subjugated by any foreign power. The people of Bhutan are called Drukpas after the Drukpa Kagyu linage that they inherited as a legacy of Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel, a great religious teacher and head of the Drukpa School of Mahayana Buddhism. Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel was also a statesman par excellence; he united the whole country under a strong central authority in the 16th Century and ruled Bhutan as its spiritual and temporal head for many years. He is credited with establishing a transparent system of governance introducing reforms and building impressive structures called “Dzongs” (fortresses) at strategic locations to quell internal rebellion and serve as fortress in times of war. During times of peace they were centers of administration and religious headquarters housing important members of the clergy, monks and soldiers. These Dzongs are of immense relevance even today.

 Bhutan Ecology & Environment

Bhutan revels in an astonishing wealth of nature’s bounty that encompasses a bewildering Diaspora of flora and fauna harbored in a resplendent verdure comprising of the most alluring vistas in all of the Himalayas. With over 70% of its area under forest cover, Bhutan is a vast repository of an exotic variety of flowers, rare orchids, medicinal plants and highly prized mushroom, fascinating animals and over seven hundred species of birds and a myriad variety of butterflies add splashes of glorious colors to enhance the splendor of its grand locales. The pristine wetlands of Bhutan are favorite roosting grounds for several species of migratory birds that flock to it every year. The most notable among them are the exotic Black Necked Cranes, a highly endangered species of which only 5000 are left. A storehouse of prime ecological importance, Bhutan is a veritable treasure trove for die-hard lovers of nature and an adventurers dream come true, a country that offers unlimited scope for making enthralling discoveries and to savor the raw pleasures of interpreting the secret revelations of nature.

Art and Craft in Bhutan

Bhutanese art can be classified into three main categories, painting, sculpture and architecture. One distinctive characteristics of art is that they all have religious theme and don’t serve any aesthetic purpose. They are mostly anonymous since the artists are all monks who look upon these tasks as a part of their religious duties. All art forms are required to follow a set pattern laid down in accordance with the rules of iconography down to the finest details. Paintings are of three types, paintings on statues, mural paintings and Thangkha paintings. Other techniques used in making Thangkhas are embroidery and appliqué. Bhutanese use paintings in different forms to beautify walls, chests, tables, doors, windows and wooden fixtures, etc. used in all kinds of buildings, bridges, etc. A strong Tibetan and Newari (indigenous people of Kathmandu) influence is visible in the style, form and thematic composition of Bhutanese art and architecture. All works of arts are of religious significance and bears testimony to the profound faith the Bhutanese people espouse in their religion.

Traditional Bhutanese architecture is an adaptation of the Tibetan style and layout, which include traits derived from Newari and Chinese concepts, defined by crafted woodwork having designs in rich details are engraved in doors, windows, lattices and frames that support the roof. Solid blocks of wood are used to strengthen and hold the structure in place. Thick wooden planks are arranged neatly on the floors. Masoned stone is used extensively for building walls and pave courtyards. The commonest forms of architecture are the Chortens (stupas) consecrated in memory of the great events in the life of the Buddha. Chortens in Bhutan can be classified into three types large whitewashed stoned modeled after the Baudhanath Stupa in Nepal are found mostly in Eastern Bhutan. In the central part smaller stones Chortens in Tibetan style are predominant. Square shaped Chortens having roofs composed of four slopes with a white red strip decorating the upper part just below the roof are mostly found in western Bhutan. Lhakhangs and Gompas are basically temples, Lhakhang being smaller of simple design usually painted red to differentiate from ordinary houses; Lhakhangs also sport an ornamented of gilded copper. The inside walls are covered by paintings and the hall is compartmented by pillars into an antechamber and prayer room (chesum) with an alter where statues and Thangkhas depicting deities to whom the Lhakhang is dedicated to is kept.

Gompas are larger monasteries that also have cells and service room to accommodate monks who reside in them permanently. They also have multiple temples and structures that serves as living quarters for monks attached to them. Gompas are of two types, the clustered type with one or two temples and small quarters to house the monks surrounding it and the Dzong type, which is built like a fortress. In the Dzong type, the temples are located in the central tower walled in by rose of monk’s cell and service room built all around it.

Carve Sculpture: Examples of rock sculpture and carving is limited to letter carved in bass relief on stonewalls and rocks. However, fine engravings in slate, flagstones carrying inscriptions identifying the figures represented are fine examples of the carving skills of Bhutanese craftsmen. The most beautiful specimen is found in Simtokha Dzong.

Dzongs are fortresses built at strategic locations. They are large and imposing structures with elegant wood works carved in rich detail adorning the lattices in closed courtyards, staircases and enormous frames of solid blocks of wood that support the heavy slate tiles and shingled roofs. Dzongs throughout Bhutan have a similar pattern with a spacious cobbled stoned courtyard with a central tower in the middle. Monk’s cells and administrative offices linked by passages are built into the walls surrounding the courtyards. Dzongs now serve as the district headquarters of administration and house members of the monastic order.

Typical Bhutanese Houses are built of mud blocks in the ground floor and wooden framework in the upper stories. Usually three storied with a staircase carved out of tree trunks used for access to the upper floors. The entire families sleep in the topmost floor; the middle floor is used to store rations for the family and fodder for the animals. The ground floor houses the animals mainly cows, oxen, pigs, etc. Plastered bamboo lathing is used for partition. The roof made of shingle rests on amaze of slender wooden beams arranged side by side across one another supported by larger beams laid on top of the walls.

Bamboo Handicraft: The Bhutanese people have developed and mastered the art of producing certain items, which mostly include article of daily use, fashioned out of wood and bamboo. Besides silversmiths, goldsmiths and painters all other articles are made by the peasants themselves in their spare time for their personal use and are usually not meant for the market. However, some may sell it to augment their income. Each region has their specialties. The best place to shop them is Thimphu, where some shops stock variety of handicrafts, which is sold to tourists and local people alike. A list of items which are likely to be found are lacquered wooden plates, bowls and receptacles which may be pain or lined with silver. Bamboo and rattan wares like baskets, conical hats, quivers, mats and bamboo cylinders pierced with a hole for carrying alcohol. Painted wooden masks, carved folding tables, painted in rich colours, cosmic designs and wall panels.

Hand made Bhutanese paper is also very popular among locals and tourist alike used for calligraphic and gift-wrapping. Cards, envelopes, and lampshades fashioned out of it are much in vogue.

Women weaving Textile: Bhutanese women are excellent weavers who produce sophisticated fabrics from cotton, silk, yak hair and wool. The art of weaving is highly refined and the fabrics usually come in catchy colours and interesting patterns. The weavers usually use vegetable and mineral based dyes prepared by them. The hand woven fabrics of Bhutan are prized for their quality, original geometrical designs, patterns and authenticity. Bags, purses, jackets, shirts and caps are very unique and attractive.

Archery, National Sport of Bhutan

The Bhutanese are a sport loving people who have a long tradition of holding organized competitions in indigenously developed sports like Archery, Degor and Khuru. Wrestling bouts and sporting activities like jumping, marathon running, climbing and shows of strength like lifting & throwing weights and breaking wooden objects are quite common. Archery the national sport of Bhutan is the most popular sport that is keenly patronized by all sections of Bhutanese society, irrespective of their age or status. The form of archery played here is quite distinct in characteristics from other variations of the sport adopted elsewhere.

Unique features of a typical archery match in Bhutan: It is contested by two teams each comprising of 11 members each on a range measuring approximately 120 Mtrs. multicolored flat board about 3 feet in height that serve as targets, are propped up on the ground on each end of the range. The archers cluster at a time at each end and take turns to shoot a couple of arrows each aiming to hit the target at the other end. Whichever team gains 33 hits first is declared the winner. Most archery matches are followed by a banquet hosted in honor of the winning side by the losers. The women folk too make their presence felt by singing and dancing along side in order to cheer up the morale of the team they support. Khuru is another dart like game played outdoors similar to archery where the targets are placed around 20 feet apart. Degor is another traditional sport that involves throwing a round flat stone of a certain weight thrown by the hand in which the hand does not rise above the shoulders. To get it as close as possible to a small stick driven into the ground.

Form of Government in Bhutan

Bhutan has constitutional democratic form of government, with His Majesty the King as head of state and the democratically elected Prime Minister as the head of the government. People play an important role in determining the policies of the government through representatives directly elected by them to voice their wishes and promote their welfare. The mechanism of government functioning is highly decentralized down to the village level. Matters pertaining to development involve the people themselves who participate actively in schemes devised and initiated by the government agencies. The state takes care of the health and welfare of the people by providing them with standard medical facilities and quality education free of cost.

The “National Assembly”, which represents people at the primary level, is responsible for formulating national policies through resolutions passed by it during their parliament sessions held at Thimphu. The National Assembly meetings are presided over by the Speaker and attended by cabinet of Ministers, Members of Parliament, Members of National Council, Civil Servants, Members of the Clergy and Business Community.

Debates on issues of national importance and welfare of the people are deliberated upon and resolutions formulated by the unanimous consent of the members of the assembly are passed in these meetings. The resolutions are then further scrutinized by the members of the National Council before being presented to the King for his consent.

The Prime Minister and a council of ministers are elected by the Members of Parliament to the cabinet.  The ministers who are allotted different portfolios are accountable to the cabinet; they supervise the efficient functioning of various government department and government institutions upon the advice of members of the National Council, who are also elected by the people to provide a vital link between the people and government.

The Civil Servants who ensure the smooth functioning of the government machinery are selected on the basis of merit through aptitude tests conducted and evaluated by the RCSC (Royal Civil Service Commission).

Judiciary of Bhutan

Bhutan has a system of codified laws that guide the judges who dispense justice to the people. Village headmen have the authority to try minor offenses; a Drangpon (judge) is in charge of providing justice at the district level and the High Court in Thimphu at the national level who deal in more serious cases; the Supreme Court is the highest court of review and interpreter of the constitution with Chief Justice and five Drangpons (Associate Justices). The ultimate power of pardon is vested with the King who can give a final verdict after consultations with the Supreme Court.

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