About Bhutan

Detail Overview of Country Bhutan

Land area: 38,394 square Kilometres

Forest area: 72.5 %

Altitude: between 240metres and 7541metres above sea level

Inhabitants: 634,982

Language: official language “Dzongkha”, English widely spoken

Religion: Vajrayana stream of Mahayana Buddhism (Also known as Tantric Buddhism)

Currency: Ngultrum (equal to Indian Rupee)

Capital: Thimphu

National Tree: Cypress

National Bird: Raven

National Flower: Blue Poppy

National Sport: Archery

National Animal: Takin

Local time: Six hours ahead of GMT and half an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time

Bhutan has journeyed through several phases through history. It was inhabited by humans in early years of history. It witnessed internal strifes, practised Shamanism and then embraced Buddhism. It entered in conflict with the British and then the monarchy itself introduced democratic system in the country. History of the country can be segregated into following phases:

Archaeological Times
Archaeologists have dug out significant number of stone tools and megaliths in Bhutan. This testifies that Bhutan became man's residence in early age of history, probably around 2000BC.

Arrival of Buddhism
Known history of Bhutan commences with the arrival of Buddhism in the country. People of Bhutan followed Shaman traditions before advent of Buddhism. Padmasambhava, who became popular as Guru Rimpoche, is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. Between 8th and 17th century AD, several Buddhist monks arrived in Bhutan from Tibet and its birthplace India. The religion played an important role in bringing the people of the country together.

Emergence as a Country
Till early 17th century, Bhutan was the battleground of warring tribes. Credit of unifying them goes to Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan lama and military leader. Chased by political adversaries in Tibet, he came to Bhutan in 1616. He busied himself with military fortification and built number of fortresses. He introduced cultural symbols and established the dual system of government. Under this system, the power was shared by an administrative leader and a spiritual leader together.

First King
Ugyen Wangchuck, the Penlop of Trongsa, was the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan. He came to power in 1907. He was unanimously elected by the regional governors, the clergy and the representatives of the people to end factional rivalries and unending strife.

Strife with the British
The Bhutanese occupied the Indian kingdom of Cooch Behar in the early 1700s. The Cooch Beharis appealed to the British for help. The British arrived and chased the Bhutanese out. They even attacked Bhutan in 1774 and forced the Bhutanese to sign a treaty. The treaty failed to bring peace between the two and border conflicts continued between them.

As a Modern Nation
King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the third king of Bhutan, initiated landmark constitutional reforms in Bhutanese history. A National Assembly with 150 memebers was established. The country launched its first Five Year Development Plan in 1961 and opened itself to international community.

Bhutanese people can be generally categorized into three main ethnic groups. The Tshanglas, Ngalops and the Lhotshampas. The other minority groups are the Bumthaps and the Khengpas of Central Bhutan, the Kurtoeps in Lhuentse, the Brokpas and the Bramis of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan, the Doyas of Samtse and the Monpas of Rukha villages in Wangdue Phodrang. Together the multiethnic Bhutanese population number slightly more than 6,00,000.

Tshanglas: The Tshanglas or the Sharchops as they are commonly known are considered the aboriginal inhabitants of eastern Bhutan. Tshanglas or the descendants of Lord Brahma as claimed by the historians speak Tshanglakha and are commonly inhabitants of Mongar, Trashigang, Trashi Yangtse, Pema Gasthel and Samdrup Jongkhar. Besides cultivation of maize, rice, wheat, barley and vegetables, the Tshanglas also rear domestic animals to supplement their living. Weaving is a popular occupation of women. They produce beautiful fabrics mainly of silk and raw silk.

Ngalops: The Ngalops who have settled mostly in the six regions of western Bhutan are of Tibetan origin. They speak Ngalopkha, the polished version of Dzongkha which is the national language of Bhutan. Agriculture is their main livelihood. They cultivate rice, wheat, barley, maize etc, among others. In the regions of Thimphu and Paro apple is also cultivated as cash crop. They are known for Lozeys, or ornamental speech and for Zheys, dances that are unique to the Ngalops.

: The Lhotshampas who have settled in the southern foothills are the latest to settle in the country. It is generally agreed that they migrated from Nepal in the beginning of the 19th century mostly coming in as laborers. They speak Lhotshamkha which is the Nepali language and practice Hinduism. One can find various castes of Lhotshampas including Bhawans, Chhetris, Rai’s, Limbus, Tamangs, Gurungs, and the lepchas. They essentially depend on agriculture and cultivate cash crops such as like ginger, cardamom, oranges, etc.

The Bumthaps, Mangdeps and Khengpas: The people who speak Bumtapkha, Mangdepkha and khengkha respectively inhabit the central pockets of Bhutan. The Bumthaps cultivate buck wheat, potatoes and vegetables. A section of this population also rear yaks and sheep and produce fabrics of wool and yak hair. The Mangdeps depend on cultivation of rice, wheat, maize, vegetables, etc besides rearing domestic animals. The khengpas also depend on agriculture similar to the Mangdeps. However, they are also known for the bamboo and cane craft.

Kurtoeps: Kurtoeps are the other category of people in the east. They inhabit the district of Lhuentse and the villages are found spread along the banks of Kurichu. Khoma women are expert weavers and are known for their skill in weaving the grandiose Kushithara.

The Brokpas and the Bramis: The Brokpas and the Bramis are a semi nomadic community. They are settled in the two villages of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan. They mostly depend on yaks and sheep for livelihood. Living in the high altitude zones they hardly take up agriculture. They speak a different dialect and have their own unique dress that is made of yak hair and sheep wool. They are also experts in cane and bamboo crafts.

The Layaps: To the extreme north are the Layaps who speak the layapkha. Like the Brokpas, they are also semi nomads whose source of livelihood is dependent on yaks and sheep the products of which they barter with the people of Wangdue Phodrang and Punakha with rice, salt and other consumables.
The Doyas: These are the other tribal community and are settled mostly in southern Bhutan. They are considered the aboriginal inhabitants of western and central Bhutan, who over the years settled in the present areas in Dorokha. They have a dialect of their own and dress in their own unique style.

 The Monpas are a small community in Rukha under Wangdue Phodrang. Together with the Doyas they are also considered the original settlers of central Bhutan. They speak a different dialect unique to their own but one that is slowly ding as these people are now being absorbed into the main stream Bhutanese society.

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

Living in a Bhutanese society generally means understanding some basic norms like Driglam Namzha, the traditional etiquette. This is a norm that desires members of the society to conduct themselves in public places. Wearing a scarf when visiting a Dzong or an office, letting the elders and the monks serve themselves first, offering felicitation scarves during ceremonies such as marriages and promotions, greeting elders or senior officials are some simple manners that harmonizes and binds together the Bhutanese 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 ways of shaking hands has become an accepted norm.

The Bhutanese are also fun-loving people. Dancing, singing, playing archery, 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.

Bhutan is a Buddhist country and people refer to it as the last stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism. Buddhism was first introduced by the Indian Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century. Till then people by and large worshipped all forms of nature, remnants of which are still evident even today in some remote villages in the country. The older form of religion was referred to as Bon and was accompanied by offerings of animal sacrifice and worshipped a host of deities invoking and propitiating them. They believed in invisible forces and considered them as the rightful owners of different elements of nature. Mountain peaks considered as abodes of Guardian deities (Yul lha), the lakes as inhabited by lake deities (Tsho mem), cliffs resided by cliff deities (Tsen), land belonging to the subterranean deities (Lue), land inhabited by (Sabdag), water sources inhabited by water deities (Chu gi Lhamu), and dark places haunted by the demons (due) etc.

With the visit of Padmasambhava, Buddhism began to take firm roots and especially led to the propagation of the Nyingmapa (the ancient or the older) school of Buddhism.

The visit of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo’s from Ralung in Tibet to Bhutan in 1222 marks another milestone in the history of Bhutan and in Buddhism. He was instrumental in introducing yet another school of Buddhism – the Drukpa Kagyu that is today the state religion of the country. His sons and descendants were also instrumental in spreading it to many other parts in western Bhutan.
By far the greatest contributor was Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal. His arrival in 1616 from Tibet marks another landmark. He was not only able to bring under his domain the various Buddhist schools that had cropped up in many parts of western Bhutan but unify the country as a one whole nation-state and give it a distinct identity.

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 rituals, among many others are all living case in point to reveal that Buddhism is an essential ingredient of a Bhutanese life.

Though referred to as the last Vajrayana Buddhist country, yet one may still come across animistic traditions and beliefs being practiced by the people. Nature worship and animal sacrifice are still a part of the Bhutanese worship. Every village has a local priest or a shaman to preside over the rituals. Some of the common nature worship being practiced are the Cha festival in Kurtoe, the Kharphud in Mongar and Zhemgang, the Bala Bongko in Wangdue Phodrang, the Lombas of the Haaps and the Parops, the Jomo Solkha of the Brokpas, the Kharam amongst the Tshanglas and the Devi Puja amongst our southern community. All these shamanistic rituals are being performed to keep at bay the evil spirits, to bring in prosperity, to cure a patient, or to welcome a new year. In all of these rituals a common feature is the offering of animals ranging from slaughter of an ox, fish a chicken or a goat.

Even such seemingly mundane activities are carpentry, blacksmithing and weaving are part of Bhutan's heritage of zoring chumsum, and are therefore integral elements of buddhist artistic tradition.

Drawing and Painting is called lhazo and encompasses all types of painting including thangkas (religious pictures), wall paintings and decorative paintings. Proficiency in lhazo is basic to all other arts. The geometric proportions and iconography that are essential to Buddhist atr are important parts of the school of painting. Painting in particular the portrayal of human figures, are subject to strict rules of iconography. Paints are traditionally made from earth, minerals and vegetables though in recent times chemical colours are used.

Woodworking for the construction of dzongs, monastries, houses and household goods is called shingzo (wood art).

The art of carving in wood, slate and stone is parzo. Parzo plays an important part in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition because most religious texts are printed from wooden blocks on which monks have laboriously carved a mirror image of the text.

Mud work known as jinzo, includes the making of clay statues and ritual objects such as drum stands, torma (ritual cakes) and masks. Most large statues are made by forming plaster or mud on a hollow frame and are a part of this tradition. Jinzo is understood specifically as the making of statues and ritual objects, but may also be applied to construction works using mortar, plaster and rammed earth.

Lugzo applies to two types of casting; sand casting and the lost-wax method. Lugzo craftsmen produce statues, bells and ritual instruments. The term is also used for jewellery and less exotic items such as kitchen goods.

The garzo tradition is the manufacture of iron goods such as swords, knives, chisels, axes, spades, shovels, darts, helmets, chains and plough blades.

Bamboo Work
The art of working with cane and bamboo is tshazoo. These craftsmen produce bows and arrows. bangchung (baskets) to carry food, zem and palang for storing and carrying arra and chang (local drinks), belo (bamboo hats), redi (bamboo mats), lachu and bohm for storing grains and balep (bamboo thatch).

Goldsmithing and Silversmithing
The art of working with gold and silver is aclled serzo ngulzo. These craftsmen produce objects ranging from household goods to jewellery to ritual objects. Some of these objects. Some of these objects include koma japtha (brooches and chains), thingkhap (rings), chaka timi and batha (cases for carrying doma- betel nut), dung (ritual trumphets), dorji (thumberbolt symbols) and gau (Buddhist amulets).

The entire process of weaving, from preparation of yarn, to dyeing and eventually to the final weaving is called thagzo. See the special section 'The Wrap & the Weft' in the eastern Bhutan Chapter.

The art of working with needle and thread is tshemzo. There are two categories of tshemzo. Tshendrup is embroidery and includes traditional boot making. The second is lhendrup (applique), the technique of sewing pieces of cloth onto a background to produce a picture. This process is used in thondrols such as the ones displayed at dzongs during tsechus.

The art of cutting and stacking stone walls is aclled dozo. This term is especially applied to the construction of the huge stone outer walls of dzongs, monasteries and other buildings.

Leather Work
The art of working with leather is kozo. These craftsmen produce such items as gayu, the leather bags for carrying grains, and shada, leather ropes and belts for swords.

The art of making paper is dezo. The word de refers to the daphne plant, from which the traditional paper is made.

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.

Some of the proactive organizations are the:

  • National Environmental Commission
  • Royal society for protection of nature clubs throughout the country.
  • Department of Forestry Services.
  • Nature Conservation Department
  • Bhutan Trust Fund.
  • Donor Organization.
  • Association of Bhutan Tour Operators.