Nestled in the Eastern Himalayas and completely land-locked, Bhutan is a small country, roughly the size of Switzerland. In recent years, Bhutan has been increasingly known for its unique development approach – Gross National Happiness (GNH). Here is Bhutan at a glance
Little is known about the early history of Bhutan. Buddhism was introduced with the arrival of Guru Padmasambhava (the great Indian Saint) in the 8th Century. Till then Bhutan largely existed as little kingdoms ruled by various clans and noble families before the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a Buddhist monk, from Tibet in 1616 AD. He unified the country and named it Druk Yul – the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Following instability and conflict among the people, the first Hereditary King of Bhutan, Sir Ugyen Wangchuck, was enthroned in 1907 establishing an era of peace and stability. In March 2008, Bhutan had its first democratic elections – a culmination of the vision and farsightedness of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Bhutan continues to make progress under the leadership of the Fifth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar. Close to 140,000 people live in the capital city, Thimphu, where most of the offices of the Government are located. Thimphu is a growing city and here you can find modern trends ranging from swanky club houses to small cosy cafes. But modernisation is not far removed from other smaller towns in Bhutan. Most of the towns are well connected with roads and communication facilities like Internet, telephone and mobile.
Around 70 percent of the Bhutanese live in rural areas. Three main ethnic groups make up the population of Bhutan: The “Ngalongs” who live in western Bhutan. The “Sharchops”, literally meaning ‘people from the east’, who live in the east. The “Lhotshampas”, the Nepali-speaking group, who settled in the southern foothills of the country in the late 19th century.
Buddhism is practiced mainly in the northern and eastern parts of Bhutan. The main schools are the Drukpa Kagyud and the Nyingma. Southern Bhutanese are mainly Hindus. The Bhutanese are generally warm and friendly people. It is not uncommon for a stranger to be invited in and offered a cup of tea.
There is no difference between men and women in Bhutanese society. And in comparison to most other South Asian countries, women in Bhutan enjoy greater equality and freedom. Besides the national language Dzongkha, English is widely spoken as it is the medium of instruction in schools. There are 19 languages and local dialects spoken in different parts of the country – the most widely spoken are Sharchop, Nepali and Bumthap.
Culture and Tradition
Buddhism plays a pivotal role in everyday life in Bhutan. The prayer flags dotting the countryside, numerous monasteries and temples, paintings on walls and carvings on hillsides all remind one of the deep influences of Buddhist beliefs and aspirations. It is admirable that the prevailing culture not only draw inspirations from the past, but also remains strongly connected to long-established traditions.
This is also clearly visible in the style of the dress and architecture in the country. Traditional dress –kira for women and gho for men – are very distinct and exhibits the rich and colourful textiles, hand-spun and hand-woven in variety of patterns. The gho is a knee length robe, tied at the waist with a traditional belt and women wear the kira which is a long floor-length dress, clasped at the shoulders by silver hooks or pins called koma and tied around the waist with a traditional belt. A wonju is worn inside and a light jacket called taego completes the dress. The traditional dress is worn for all formal occasions, to school and to work. However, the best is kept to be worn during special occasions like ‘tsechus’.
Tsechus are colourful displays of masked dances performed by monks and laymen dressed in silk-brocade costumes over several days in the courtyards of the dzongs and monasteries. Tsechus are also a time for social gathering when people put on their best clothes, take a break from work and relax with their family and friends. Losar – the New Year of the Lunar Calendar is another special event to celebrate and rejoice.
Doma paani – areca nut and betel leaf with a dash of lime – is an integral part of Bhutanese culture and vigorously used as a popular gift. In the olden days, chewing doma was regarded as an aristocratic practice with special ornate boxes exclusively made to carry them.
Food and Drinks
Bhutanese love chillies and anything spicy. Either dried or fresh, chillies are used abundantly to spice up the curries or as the main ingredient, which accompany steamed rice. The Bhutanese diet is rich in meat, poultry, dairy, grain and vegetables. Ema-datshi (chilli and cheese stew) is an all time favourite for the locals. The second favoured speciality is the sikam or phaksha pa laphu (dried pork/fresh pork and radish dish). But toned-down versions are available plenty to suit one’s palate.
Kewa datse (potatoes with cheese) or shamu datse (mushrooms with cheese) are popular dishes among foreigners. Tibetan inspired menus are also available. Steamed momos (dumplings with vegetable or meat stuffing) and thukpa – a kind of noodle soup are widely available. Liquor is easily available in bars with the exception of Tuesday (declared a ‘dry day’). The legal drinking age is 18 years and above. Locally brewed alcohol (chang and arra) are also common, especially in eastern Bhutan. Suja, salted butter tea, is served on social occasions. The regular tea, served with sugar and milk, is very common and a widely preferred beverage.
Nature and Environment
For a small country, Bhutan’s natural environment is exceptionally rich and diverse. Great geographical and climatic variations, its high, rugged mountains and deep valleys give it a perfect setting for a rich and spectacular biodiversity. Conserving Bhutan’s pristine environment is one of the highest priorities of the government. Currently over 70% of the land is under forest cover with more than 26% under protected areas, comprising of four national parks.
The rich ecosystem houses more than 165 mammals, 612 species of birds and more than 5000 species of plants, including 600 species of orchids, 300 species of medicinal plants and 50 species of beautiful rhododendrons. With its rich and diverse environment, Bhutan has rightly been named one of the world’s ten most important biodiversity ‘hotspots’.