Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon
This is a modern fairytale, complete with kings and queens and… dragons
Bhutan, is a jewel between India and China, with an area of 38,394 square km; comparable to Switzerland both in its size and topography. The mighty Himalayas protected Bhutan from the rest of the world and left it blissfully untouched through the centuries. The Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism provided the essence of a rich culture and a fascinating history. The Bhutanese people protected this sacred heritage and unique identity for centuries by choosing to remain shrouded in a jealously guarded isolation. The kingdom is peopled sparsely, with a population of 807,710 people as of 2017.
Opened for tourism in 1974, after the coronation of the fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan is perhaps the world’s most exclusive tourist destination. The country still retains all the charm of the old world, and travelers experience the full glory of this ancient land as embodied in the monastic fortresses, ancient temples, monasteries and stupas which dot the countryside, prayer flags fluttering above farmhouses and on the hillsides, lush forests, rushing glacial rivers, and – perhaps most important of all – the warm smiles and genuine friendliness of the people. Each moment is special as one discovers a country, which its people have chosen to preserve in all its magical purity.
Bhutan’s history is steeped in Buddhist folklore and mythology – even museum captions and school textbooks describe shape-shifting demons and the miracle-working saints who bested them. The uneasy balance of secular, royal and religious power dominates Bhutan’s history, as does the country’s relationship with its northern neighbour Tibet, but to truly get to the heart of Bhutan’s past, try visualising the spirit of the happenings rather than rationalising events as historical truth.
Bhutan’s historical period begins at about 747 A.D., when the revered religious leader Guru Rimpoche came from Tibet and introduced Buddhism to the country. This remarkable man — almost as highly esteemed as Buddha himself in Bhutan — is credited with various events. He, for instance, flew in the form of Dorji Drakpo (one of his eight manifestations) to Taktshang in Paro on a flaming tigress, giving the famous Taktshang Goemba the name ‘Tiger’s Nest’.
The country was unified under the Drukpa Kagyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism in the early 17th century, by the religious figure, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The Shabdrung codified a comprehensive system of laws and built dzongs which guarded each valley. At the end of the 19th century, the Trongsa Penlop, Ugyen Wangchuck, who then controlled the central and eastern regions, overcame all his rivals and united the nation once more. In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was unanimously accepted as King, and a hereditary monarchy system was unanimously agreed for Bhutan. In 1998, the fourth King stepped down as head of state and handed over this function to a prime minister assisted by a cabinet of ministers. As part of the move towards democracy, the fourth King handed over his responsibilities to his son King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck in 2006. In 2008, the year that marked the centenary of the Kingdom, Bhutan made the transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and held its first general elections, marking a new era in the political history of Bhutan.
Culture and Religion
Bhutan is the only extant Mahayana Buddhist kingdom in the world that has adopted the Tantric form as its official religion. A majority of the Bhutanese people are Buddhist while people of Nepalese and Indian origin are Hindus. The teachings of this school of Buddhism are a living faith among its people. The air of spirituality is pervasive even in urban centres, where the spinning of prayer wheels, the murmur of mantras and the glow of butter lamps are still commonplace features of everyday life. Bhutan’s religious sites and institutions are not museums, but the daily refuge of the people. Religious festivals are perfect occasions to glimpse what might be termed Bhutanese.
Although Buddhism and the monarchy are critical elements, it is the general extensive perpetuation of tradition that is possibly the most striking aspect of Bhutan’s culture. This is most overtly reflected in the nature of dress and architecture. All Bhutanese continue to wear the traditional dress: for men and boys the gho, a long gown hitched up to the knee so that its lower half resembles a skirt, for women and girls the kira, an ankle-length robe somewhat resembling a kimono. Generally, colourful apparel, the fabrics used range from simple cotton checks and stripes to the most intricate designs in woven silk.
Gross National Happiness
The idea of happiness and well-being as the goal of development has always been a part of Bhutanese political psyche. While this has influenced Bhutan's development endeavours during the early part of the modernization process, it was not pursed as a deliberate policy goal until His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan introduced Gross National Happiness (GNH) to define the official development paradigm for Bhutan. The intuitive guiding principle of Gross National Happiness led to a practical conceptualization. The foundation is made of four pillars: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of culture and, environmental conservation. The four pillars are further elaborated into nine domains, which articulate and form the basis of GNH measurement, indices and screening tools: living standard, education, health, environment, community vitality, time
Bhutan is a country where survives the people with different ethnicities, caste and creed. The country’s population is comprised of immigrants, multi-religious and multi-linguistic groups. The people of Bhutan are called Drukpas. The native people of Bhutan are mainly found in central Himalayan region and are of mongoloid origin. The main occupation of people of Bhutan is cattle farming and agriculture.
There are three main ethnic groups in the country namely Ngalops, Sarchops and Lhotshampas. The dominant group is the Ngalops who resides in the western part of the kingdom. They are believed to have migrated from the Tibetan plains. They are also classified as the importers of Buddhism to the kingdom. The sharchops live in the eastern Bhutan. They are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of the country. They are categorized as Indo-Mongolian type. Lhotshamps are the inhabitants of the south. These people are known to be of Nepali origin and are believed to have arrived in the country in search of agricultural land and work by the end of the 19th century. With their inclusion, Nepali language and Hinduism got flourished in the southern part of the country.
The most distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese cuisine is its spiciness. Chilies are an essential part of nearly every dish and are considered so important that most Bhutanese people would not enjoy a meal that was not spicy.
Rice forms the main body of most Bhutanese meals. It is accompanied by one or two side dishes consisting of meat or vegetables. Pork, beef and chicken are the meats that are eaten most often. Vegetables commonly eaten include Spinach, pumpkins, turnips, radishes, tomatoes, river weed, onions and green beans. Grains such as rice, buckwheat and barley are also cultivated in various regions of the country depending on the local climate.
Art and Craft
No places more comprehensively embody traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts than dzongs, the imposing monastic fortresses that appear throughout the landscape. Within their massive walls and measured beams are found items ranging from the most basic and functional to ones of spectacular beauty. Particularly striking are the paintings and statues representing important religious figures. Many intricate and colourful illustrations serve as allegories, dramatising the continuing struggle between good and evil.
Bhutanese art and craft possesses three main interrelated characteristics: it is religious, it is anonymous, and it corresponds to a certain uniformity of style. As such, items possess no intrinsic aesthetic function, and are instead interpreted as outward expressions of the holistic Buddhist religion. The distinction between more ornate (what one might consider artistic) forms and more practical applications is therefore somewhat blurred. All craftsmen would be considered artisans (scrupulously following tight traditional conventions) rather than artists (who might place greater emphasis on innovation). The Bhutanese style has over centuries been significantly influenced by Tibetan designs, whilst developing its own definite forms and themes.