We know our country as Druk Yul, the Dragon Country
Druk yul, as Bhutan is known here, is a land of arresting contrasts – and uncommon harmony. It’s a place where people can find peace and do business, experience living traditions and discover wilderness teeming with life.
History of Bhutan
Our country is known as Bhutan to the outside world. The name is believed to have its basis in the Sanskrit word Bhu-Uttan, meaning Highland or Head of India, or Bhotsant, meaning End of Tibet. For the Bhutanese, we know our country as Druk Yul, literally meaning the Dragon Country. Druk Yul has its origins in the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Buddhism.
There are very little written sources on the history of Bhutan. It is inferred from findings of ancient stone tools and megaliths as well as sites associated with the previous lives of the Buddha that Bhutan could have been populated since 2000 BC.
Bhutanese Buddhism belongs to the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) tradition. Our recorded history is found principally in religious documents where the beginnings of the introduction of Buddhism in Bhutan are chronicled. It starts from the 7th century with the construction of the first Buddhist temples in Paro (west) and Bumthang (central). A century later, the arrival of Guru Rimpoche, revered as the second Buddha, marked the beginning of Buddhism gaining a stronghold in the country. Oral stories of Guru Rimpoche’s travels within Bhutan tell of a land of local deities and powerful demons, and where mountains, rivers and trees were worshipped as part of what is known as the Bon religion. During this period and in the next two centuries or so, there are various accounts of the origin of noble families, particularly in central and eastern Bhutan, who ruled these parts of the country. At this time, not much is known about our history except that Bhutan seems to have been divided into little kingdoms’ ruled by nobilities.
A significant occurrence from the 11th Century is the arrival of important religious figures from Tibet and the spread of their schools of Buddhism. The descendents of these religious figures formed hereditary lineages that combined religious authority with secular powers. They often married into old noble families, thereby increasing their standing. The influence of these different schools mainly the powerful but short-lived dominance of the Lhapa Kagyupa school, the rise of the Drukpa Kayupa school, and the prominence of the Nyingmapa school depicts a country open to different influences of not only religious but secular consolidation. One of the greatest religious figures at this time was Terton (treasure revealer) Pema Lingpa, renowned as a great Buddhist teacher, creator of numerous sacred dances, and predestined to reveal several religious texts and objects hidden by Guru Rimpoche. The Bhutanese royal family is a descendent of Terton Pema Lingpa.
A landmark event that occurred in the 17th Century was the arrival of the Zhabdrung to Bhutan from Tibet. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel was the prince-abbot at Ralung monastery, the Drukpas’ main monastery in Tibet. He arrived in Bhutan in 1616. The Zhabdrung is revered as a divine being as well as credited with Bhutan’s emergence as a nation. He consolidated different religious factions, won the allegiance of people from different regions, including old ruling families, and promulgated a code of laws that regulated judicial aspects, and social and economic life. He combined religious and secular powers, creating a theocratic state. This amalgamation was physically reflected in the Dzongs that the Zhabdrung built Semtokha, Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang, Paro which were seats of religious and secular powers. He established a dual system of government (chosi) wherein a supreme abbot (Je Khenpo) headed the monastic body and a secular ruler (Desi) administered the political affairs. The country was divided into regions administered by regional governors (Penlops), and chiefs of Dzongs (Dzongpons). This structure of government was to remain till the enthronement of the first Hereditary King of Bhutan in 1907.On the tenth day of the third month of the Iron Rabbit Year (1651), the Zhabdrung entered into retreat in the Punakha Dzong, from which he never reappeared.
Bhutan came into contact with British power in India for the first time in the 18th Century. In 1772, after a Bhutanese incursion into the State of Cooch Bihar in India, the regent of Cooch Bihar sought the support of the East India Company. The Company was victorious and also captured two Bhutanese forts in the foothills. After an intercession, an Anglo-Bhutanese Treaty was signed in 1774 which provided for a return to the boundaries that existed prior to the incursion. This was followed by several British missions to Bhutan. Relations started to deteriorate between the Company and Bhutan as minor disputes kept occurring along the border. The plains between the river Brahmaputra in India and the lowest hills of Bhutan were known as Duars (doorway or gate). The Bhutanese administered the seven Assam Duars under a rental agreement with the Assamese. When the British occupied Assam in 1828, the points of tension increased and led to the British annexation of the Assam Duars in 1841. Tensions further escalated and culminated in the Duar war of 1864 wherein the British annexed all the Duars. A successful Bhutanese counter-offensive was led by the Penlop of Trongsa, Jigme Namgyel (father of the first King of Bhutan). This was quickly followed by a counter-attack, and subsequently ended in the Treaty of Sinchula. Under the Treaty, Bhutan ceded 2,750 sq. miles of lowland and the British agreed to pay an annual compensation of Rs. 50,000. From then on, political relations improved. In fact, the then Penlopof Trongsa (who later became the first King of Bhutan) provided valuable support to the British in their relationship with Tibet.
After the dual system of governance was established, 55 Desis have ruled the country. Only a few of them completed their terms as others were assassinated or deposed by rivals, just as Penlopsand Dzongpons plotted and fought against each other for power. It was a period of civil strife in which a man from the Dungkar Choje (religious nobility) in Lhuntse (eastern Bhutan), descendent of Terton Pema Lingpa, emerged as an important figure and became the 50th Desi of Bhutan. Upon his death, his son, Ugyen Wangchuck, rose in ranks with shrewdness, skills, and leadership that extended beyond Bhutan’s borders. He is credited with consolidating the many political fractions that had built up and with bringing peace in the country after centuries of internal strife. By the end of the 19th Century, he had emerged the undisputed leader of Bhutan and was unanimously elected as the first Hereditary King of Bhutan in 1907.
Bhutan places great emphasis on cultural conversation, both tangible arts and architecture as well as intangible ways of life and customs. Although skills in various arts and crafts are believed to have existed much earlier, their categorization into 13 forms (Zorig Chusum) was initiated in the 17th Century. These are paper making, stonework, blacksmithing, clay arts, paiting, bronze casting, wood, slate and stone carving, woodturning, woodworking, weaving, silver and goldsmithing, cane and bamboo work, needlework. To preserve and promote the thirteen arts and crafts, two institutes Institute of Zorig Chusum in the capital, and the Trashiyangtse institute of Zorig Chusum in the east were established. In addition to these institutes, numerous small family enterprises have grown around these arts and crafts. These enterprises rely on tourism as well as the fact that the values attached to some of these crafts go beyond their aesthetic significance. For example, farming tools for household use, woven fabrics we wear every day, and ornaments. Certain regions have their specialty art form such as Trashiyangtse in the east excelling in woodturning and Lhuntse in the creation of some of the most intricate hand woven fabrics. One of the most exquisite art forms is the painting or embroidery of sacred religious scrolls (Thangkhas). The subject of these scrolls are generally rooted in religion, and their creation demands knowledge on religious themes as well as artisanship. Their size can vary from modest three feet long Thangkhas hung in family altars to over hundred feet in length Thongdrels (roughly translated as liberation on sight).
Bhutanese architecture combines different art and craft forms. From small traditional homes that display skills in woodwork, stonework and painting to Dzongs (fortresses) that are a visual delight and architectural and engineering feats, Bhutanese architecture presents one of the most stimulating expressions of Bhutan’s identity. Building materials generally include rammed earth, stones, and abundance of timber. Most of the Dzongs were built in the 17th Century, and are said to have been constructed without structural drawings, nail less, and based on visions and omens. The immense earth walls of Dzongs are punctuated by timber bay windows rabseys (projected windows) normally on the second or third floor, all of which are crowned by intricately decorated cornices. Inside, there are murals, elaborate wood carvings, and paintings on tapering columns, walls, and ceilings. A wide red stripe that goes all the way around a structure signifies a religious building. Bhutan has over 2000 Lhakhangs and over 10,000 chortens of various sizes and architectural beauty. Like the fortresses, traditional homes also use rammed mud or stones walls as the base, depending on climatic conditions and availability of building materials in different regions. The timber bay windows are fitted with sliding wooden shutters. The ground floor is generally used for keeping animals. The first floor is used for residential purposes and includes a room dedicated to the family chapel. Under the roof is an open space, bordered by earth walls, used for storage and drying. The roof is made of wooden shingles, although that is now being replaced by galvanized metal sheets. In most houses in southern Bhutan, rammed earth is plastered over closely matted bamboo. In some parts of rural Bhutan, one storey houses are built on wooden silts. In urban centers today and also seen in the middle of rice fields, cement, bricks and steel are replacing traditional architecture. These concrete apartments and shopping centers continue to retain some elements of tradition in their design of windows, maintaining the cornices, and colorful painting.
Art & Architecture
Traditional beliefs in Bhutan continue to reinforce respect for and even worship of the environment. These have been translated into policy frameworks. The Constitution of our country mandates that a minimum of 60% of the total land area should remain under forest cover at all times. Much ahead of this proclamation, Bhutan had conservation policies that reflected a deep understanding of the need for environmental conservation. For example, the first Act passed by the National Assembly after its inauguration was the Forest Act of 1969. Today, 72.5% of Bhutan’s total area is under forest cover, over 29% has been designated as parks and wildlife sanctuaries with an additional 9% as biological corridors. Consequently, over 38% of the country is under some form of conservation. These efforts have resulted in environmental returns, an important one being the availability of fresh water resources in the form of numerous springs, streams, rivers and lakes. It has been estimated that Bhutan has one of the highest per capita availability of water.
Within a small geographical area, there exists an amazing level of flora and faunal biodiversity. Bhutan ranks in the top 10 percent of countries with the highest species density in the world. There are a recorded number of over 7000 species of vascular plants, 46 species of rhododendrons, and 300 medicinal plant species. There are 201 mammal species and more than 770 species of birds, many of which are endangered or extremely rare. Some examples of these mammals are the Bengal tiger, snow leopard, takin, Himalayan musk deer, golden langur, and red panda, and the birds species include the black necked crane and white bellied heron.
Bhutan’s landscape rises from 100 meters above sea level to over 7,500 meters. There are three distinct physiographic zones namely the southern foothills (200 meter – 2000 meter), the inner Himalayas (2000 meters – 4000 meters), and the great Himalayas (above 4000 meters). These wide variations in the altitude has directly influenced the variations in the climatic conditions in the country, from hot and humid sub-tropical conditions in the southern plains and foothills, to temperate in the central regions to tundra conditions of perpetual snow and ice in the great Himalayan zone in the north. Temperatures vary according to altitude. The northernmost parts of the country experience long winters and a short spell of warm climate during the summer. In these parts, the average annual precipitation is only about 40 millimeters. In most central parts, a cool temperate climate is experienced from spring through summer and autumn. Winters can become very chilly and dry with temperatures dropping to below zero Celsius. In this region, a yearly average precipitation of around 1000 millimeters is common. In the sub-tropical south, several locations have registered up to 7800 millimeters per year. Notwithstanding the extreme differences in climatic conditions between the high elevations and lowlands, a major part of the country experiences the four seasons. Spring time generally starts in early March and goes to mid April. Summer brings with it occasional showers and continues through the monsoon months of heavy rains that can last from late June through late September. Autumn is characterized by bright sunny days and light snowfall at higher elevations, and can commence from late September or early October to late November. Winter sets in from late November until March with frost throughout much of the country and snowfall common in areas above 3000 meters.
Bhutan is a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy. It adopted its first written Constitution in 2008, a process that was initiated by the Fourth King and followed through by the present and Fifth King. The democratically elected Parliament consists of the National Council (upper House) and the National Assembly (lower House) whose members were elected in the first national elections which took place in December 2007 and March 2008 respectively.
Bhutan’s adoption of the present system of governance in 2008 is often depicted as a rapid transformation. However, our political history show that our Kings made far-sighted decisions to prepare the country for these changes. Beginning from 1907 till 2008, Bhutan had a Monarchical system of governance wherein hereditary Monarchs from the Wangchuck dynasty ruled the country. The first King of Bhutan was enthroned on 17th December 1907 by a unanimous decision of the clergy, the people and the government. His ascension to the throne marked the end of many years of disputes among regional and district factions to gain supremacy over each other. The first King unified the country and laid the foundation for peace and stability. He was succeeded by the second King who strengthened the structure of government, maintained peace and harmony, and initiated the beginnings of modern-day developments. The third King launched the country on a path of socio-economic transformation, started in-country governance reforms and put Bhutan on the international stage. The fourth King is known for his exceptional devotion to the country and people, and has furthered the social and economic progress of the country, and laid the foundations for a vibrant democracy. His Majesty the Fifth King ascended to the throne on 6th November 2008.Certain important milestones initiated by our Monarchs in preparation for the political transitioning include the establishment of a National Assembly in 1953, the Royal Advisory Council as a consultative body in 1965, a cabinet in 1968, decentralization of powers to districts and blocks in 1981 and 1991 respectively, and devolution of responsibilities and powers to an elected cabinet in 1998. In 2001, His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan initiated the process of drafting a written Constitution for Bhutan through a committee made up of members from the Monastic body, the Judiciary, people’s representatives, the civil service, local research institutes, and the environment commission. The draft of the Constitution was widely discussed and debated with their Majesties the Fourth and Fifth Kings personally holding consultations in all the 20 districts in the country. Apart from the Legislative and the Executive, the independence of the Judiciary has received paramount importance. In 1959, under the guidance of the Third King of Bhutan, the National Assembly enacted the first comprehensive codified law called the Thrimzhung Chhenmo(Supreme Law). Less than a decade later in 1968, the High Court was established and in 1978, the lowest formal courts were established at sub-district levels. Towards the end of 2009, the first Supreme Court, the highest appellate body, was established with the appointment of Bhutan’s first Supreme Court Chief Justice. This event completed the four tier formal court system in the country.
Political System of Bhutan
Bhutan’s overall development philosophy is expressed in the phrase Gross National Happiness (GNH). GNH was conceived by His Majesty the Fourth King as, in the words of the Prime Minister of Bhutan, the beacon of Bhutan in its search for greater well being GNH essentially propounds a harmonious balance between material well-being and the spiritual, emotional and cultural needs of an individual and the society. Its emphasis is less on the quantitative measurement of Happiness itself, but rather as a constant reminder of the essence of development. Four strategies have been identified, called the four pillars, to guide the realization of GNH. These are sustainable and equitable development, cultural preservation and promotion, environmental conservation, and good governance. These components continue to provide the broad strategic framework for national development priorities and processes.
Since the introduction of planned social and economic development in the early 1960s, Bhutan has made tremendous improvements in the quality of life as shown by these social indicators: life expectancy has increased from 42 years in the 1970s to 66 years, basic health coverage has reached 99% and both infant and maternal mortality rates have been drastically reduced. There is a significant difference in the adult literacy rate (53%) and the current school enrollment pattern (the net primary school enrollment has expanded to 91.5%), reflecting the growing accessibility to schools and the importance attached to getting a modern education.
A large majority of people of Bhutan are farmers and herders. Although urban centers are growing and modern amenities have arrived, over 69% of the people live off their land. Therefore, while the contribution of agriculture to the Gross Domestic Product is on the decline (from 52% in 1980 to 18.6% in 2008), it is the most important source of livelihood for the majority of the Bhutanese. Our traditional farming system is subsistence in nature and integrates crop production, livestock production and forest products. Because of our pristine environment and the late introduction to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, an important objective of the renewable natural resource sector is to create a niche market for organic products from Bhutan.Bhutan’s GDP growth since 1980 has averaged 7% per annum, mainly propelled by the hydro power sector. While the share of contribution of the agriculture sector to the economy has declined, the secondary (43.3% in 2008) and tertiary sectors (36.4% in 2008) of industry, construction and services have increased. This trend shows a structural shift in the Bhutanese economy.
It is difficult to state for certain which populations inhabited Bhutan at which time in its history. Some suggest that three small groups theMonpas in central Bhutan, related to them the Oleps in the west, and the Lhops in the southern region “ could be aboriginal groups of Bhutan. However, further anthropological and linguistic studies are needed to corroborate these suggestions. In general terms, there seem to have been different waves of migration from Tibet perhaps from the 6th Century onwards, although this is not stated anywhere as a fact. The southern belt is inhabited by people of Nepali descent who arrived in Bhutan since the beginning of the 20th Century.The Bhutanese are known to be friendly and hospitable. In our folktales, descriptions of journeys invariably talk of crossing mountains and deep valleys. In many ways, this landscape has shaped our identity. Inaccessibility meant that people had to rely on themselves, as a result of which the Bhutanese are known to be strong, independent, and resourceful.
The difficulties in access between settlements have resulted in diversities in languages and ways of life that visitors do not expect in a country of less than a million people. There have been 19 recorded languages and numerous dialects in Bhutan. The national language is Dzongkha (language of the fortress) which belongs to a branch of the Tibeto-Burman family, and is used as the official language of correspondence. Other major languages include Tshangla or Sharchopkha (literally translated as language of the east), indigenous to mainly four districts in the eastern and south eastern Bhutan; Lhotsamkha (˜language of the south which is Nepali, an Indo-European language), spoken largely in the southern parts; and Khengkha, spoken in the south central region. However, these languages cannot be distinctly associated with one region or sometimes even one district. For example, there are districts in the east whose native language is not the language of the east but distinct from it. In the modern education system, English is the medium of instruction.
The traditional wear is a gho (an ankle length gown, lifted to the knees and tied with a fabric belt called kera) for men and kira (ankle length dress secured at the waist by a fabric belt called kera and fastened at the shoulders by brooches called koma) for women. The range of fabrics and designs used to weave ghos and kiras are remarkable and is best witnessed during local festivals. The kira is worn with a blouse underneath called wonju and a jacket called tego on the outside. For visits to the Dzongs, offices, and official functions, men wear a scarf called kabney over their gho and women wear a sash called rachu over their left shoulder. The colour of the kabney or rachu and the presence or absence of fringes on them identifies the rank of a person. Traditional footwear called Tshoglham for higher ranking persons and Yulham worn by ordinary people that are knee high silk and cotton or polyester boots, respectively, with leather soles.
Traditionally, nine food crops (dru-na gu) are recognized in the Bhutanese agriculture system. These are rice, maize, wheat, barley, buckwheat, millets, amaranth, mustard and pulses. Rice and chilli with cheese is generally represented as the major Bhutanese food. Although this is the unsurpassed national favorite for many Bhutanese, there are varieties in the kind of food grown, the cooking processes, preservation methods and even values attached to certain kind of food. At higher altitudes are semi-nomadic communities who herd yaks and produce dairy products, and grow barley, buckwheat, mustard and vegetables. Further down in the cool temperate zone, yaks, sheep and cattle are raised and crops like barley, wheat, potatoes, buckwheat and mustard, and some fruit trees are grown. In the warm temperate zone, rice is grown on irrigated land, wheat, mustard and potatoes on dry land, and one can find a variety of temperate fruit trees and vegetables. Cattle and pigs are also raised. In the sub-tropical zone, depending on the attitude and humidity, maize, rice, pulses, millet are some crops usually grown. Tropical fruit trees and vegetables are also grown, and cattle, poultry, pigs and goats are raised. In addition, a variety of non-wood forest products are harvested, ranging from wild ferns and shoots to the over 137 varieties of edible mushrooms.As one would expect, the kind of food grown determines the staple diet of a locality. Some examples are buckwheat pancakes (Khulay), buckwheat and barley noodles (puta), milled corn kernels (kharang), barley dough (drango) and varieties of red rice. Fresh vegetables are cooked almost always in combination with either chilli and cheese, or meat, and sometimes all together. A traditional habit that is still widely prevalent is the drying of vegetables, even in situations where off-season vegetables are available or where kitchens are equipped with modern storage facilities. Dried spinach, pumpkins, egg plants, or chillies normally accompany meat cuisines. Suja is the much-loved salted butter tea.
People of Bhutan
Religion in Bhutan
Religion plays a central role in everyday lives, from celebrating a birth to helping the dead transition. Buddhism is recognized as the spiritual heritage of Bhutan with a majority of people practicing the Mahayana tradition. Hinduism is prevalent in the southern parts of the country and a small proportion of the population practice Christianity as well. There are also remnants of Ban ism and Shamanism in certain pockets of the country.The monastic body (Zhung Dratsang) of Bhutan consists of the central monastic body and district monastic bodies. In total, there are about 7000 registered monks in the country. The central monastic body is headed by the supreme abbot (Je Khenpo), and assisted by five venerable masters (Lopons). The monastic bodies in the district are each headed by a district abbot (Lam Neten). In addition, there are various Buddhist Colleges and meditation centres which are headed by Principals and meditation masters, and a Council for Ecclesiastical Affairs which was established in 1984. Till 2008, the monastic body was represented in the National Assembly and the Royal Advisory Council. Alongside the monks, there are over a thousand nuns in the 22 nunneries in the country.Apart from the formal monastic body, there are various religious institutions in the country. In 2007, the National Assembly enacted the Religious Organizations Act of Bhutan to facilitate the establishment of and promote the effective use of resources from societies, foundations, non-profit entities and charitable trusts that seek to support religious institutions in the country. Religious institutions and personalities are considered as being above politics, and hence are expected not to participate in political affairs.
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