Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom on the Himalayas’ eastern edge. The only country in the world that practices the tantric form of Buddhism, it is a land of monasteries, fortresses (dzongs) and dramatic topography ranging from subtropical plains to steep mountains and valleys. In the high Himalayas, peaks such as the 7,326m high Jumolhari are a destination for serious trekkers. The landlocked nation abounds in sacred sites like the Taktsang Monastery or the Tiger’s Nest, and is bountiful in flora and fauna making it one of the world’s top hotspots for visitors.
The Bhutanese, a homogeneous group, are friendly and hospitable and fall linguistically into three sub-groups comprising of the Sharchops, Ngalongs and Lotshampas. There are also a number of smaller groups in the country with their own distinctive language. These groups form about one percent of the population. Some of these groups are the Tsanghos in the east, Layapas in the north-west, Brokpas in the north-east and Doyas in the south-west.
Longish robes called ghos tied around the waist by a cloth belt, known as kera are worn by Bhutanese men. The women wear ankle-length dresses known as kira. Both ghos and kiras are made of bright colored fine woven fabrics with traditional patterns and designs.
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. Other traditional sports popular in the Kingdom include various kinds of shot-put, darts and wrestling. International sports such as soccer, basketball, volleyball, taekwondo, cricket, tennis, badminton and table tennis are also extremely popular.
The currency of Bhutan is called Ngultrum. The G is silent when you pronounce it. Introduced in 1974, the Ngultrum is pegged with the Indian Rupee.
The rectangular Bhutanese flag is divided into two parts with a white dragon in the middle. The dragon symbolizes the name Druk Yul – meaning land of the thunder dragon and its white color is a representation of purity and loyalty. The yellow upper half signifies the country’s secular authority of the King in the affairs of religion and state. The lower saffron orange half signifies the religious practice and spirituality of Buddhism as manifested in the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma traditions.
The dzong or fortresses seen across the country with their large courtyards and beautiful galleries are among the finest examples of Bhutanese architecture. Housing large monasteries inside and sitting on hilltops or at the confluence of rivers, these fortresses are also the administrative centers of their districts. However, the most common architectural sights in Bhutan are the chortens or small shrines built to house sacred relics.
Bhutan being an agrarian society, agriculture and livestock rearing have traditionally been the mainstay of the Kingdom’s economy, contributing about 45% to the GNP. 70% of the Bhutanese populace lives on subsistence farming – growing rice, barley, millet, buckwheat, potatoes, mustard, chilies and vegetables. While hydropower contributes a major amount to the GNP, forestry adds another 15%.
In commemoration of the accession of Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck (the first King of Bhutan) to the throne in Punakha Dzong, December 17 is celebrated as the National Day.
Since 1974, Bhutan has followed a policy of cautious growth, a “high value, low impact” tourism policy; our government has actively managed visitors in keeping with the policy. Tourists have been required to travel with licensed Bhutanese tour operators accompanied by licensed guides. We have consistently sought to ensure that the number of tourists admitted to Bhutan has been within the capacity of our socio-cultural and natural environment to absorb visitors without negative impact.
Under Bhutanese law, 60% of the kingdom must remain covered by forest for all time(s) to come. His Majesty the Fourth King and the people of Bhutan received the “Champions of the Earth” Award for 2005. The Champions of the Earth Award was established by the United Nation Environment Program (UNEP) in 2004 to recognize outstanding achievements of individuals and organizations in protecting and improving the environment. The current forest coverage is 72.5% of the total landmass.
Bhutanese dzongs have played a significant role historically and continue to do so even today. Bhutan’s extraordinary architecture is best represented by the immense dzongs that stand tall throughout the country. Dzongs are large castle-like structures either perched on hilltops overlooking broad river valleys or built alongside river banks for protection from marauding Tibetan armies back in the day. A dzong is used for religious as well as for secular purposes. Bhutan’s official language “Dzong-kha” originated from the languages spoken in the Dzong in the olden days. ‘Kha’ is the Bhutanese word for language.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, who came to Bhutan from Tibet in 1616, built most of these historic structures. The first dzong he built was the Simtokha Dzong in Thimphu in 1627. He was also the one who unified Bhutan during a time of chaos and disorder, and served as the administrative as well as spiritual leader of Bhutan. Known as the historical king of Bhutan, he is one of the most revered figures in the country even today.
Arts & Crafts
All Bhutanese art, dance, drama and music have its roots in the Buddhist religion. And almost all representation in art, music and dance is a dramatization of the struggle between good and evil.
The thirteen aspects of Bhutanese arts and crafts called Zorig Chusum includes Shinzo (woodwork), Dozo (stone work) Jinzo (clay crafts), Shazo (wood turning), Parzo (wood, slate and stone carving), Lazo (painting), Lugzo (bronze casting), Garzo (blacksmithing), Troeko (silver and goldsmithing), Tsharzo (bamboo and cane crafts), Dhezo (papermaking), Thagzo (weaving) and Tshemzo (tailoring).
The skills of the local craftsmen are manifested in the statues of the deities, doors and windows of traditional houses, and in religious artifacts like bells, trumpets and drums. The country also has rich and diverse range of carpets and traditional textile designs whose colors, weaves and textures have evolved over centuries.
Tshechus are very special events and celebrated throughout Bhutan by every Bhutanese. The term ‘Tshechu’ literally translates to the 10th day of the Bhutanese calendar, which is considered auspicious. During tshechus, chhams (religious masked dances) are performed by monks and lay men alike. Besides the religious songs and dances, there are Atsaras (clowns) who usually wear masks with big red noses. To most, Atsaras are the soul of the tshechus. They are the ones who maintain order by injecting humor into the festival.
Tshechus all across the country are colorful events where people dressed in their best attires, donning exquisite jewelry, socialize, and make merry. More importantly, people go to tshechus to receive blessings and gain merits.
The climate varies widely depending on the elevation. Southern Bhutan is warmer compared to other parts of Bhutan. The central valleys, Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang, Mongar, Trashigang, Trongsa, and Lhuentse have a semi-tropical climate with cool winters. Whereas, places like Haa, Paro, Thimphu, Gasa, Tashi Yangtse, and Bumthang, have colder climatic conditions with some of these places covered with light snow. Only in the high Himalayan region (northern part of the country) does the snow remain year round. During the monsoon, heavy showers are a part of daily life so a rain coat or an umbrella is highly recommended.