The Landlocked Kingdom of Bhutan is situated in South Asia at the eastern end of the Himalayas, nestled between Asian giants India and China. The capital of this tranquil country is Thimphu, which has an estimated population of around 770 thousand people. This secretive Kingdom is filled with ancient monasteries and fortresses, covered with natural beauty with vast vistas of steep mountains, leafy pine forests and tranquil lakes. This undiscovered paradise provides plenty of rare sites in this mystic and spiritual land to inspire even the most seasoned explorer.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small country with a total area of 38,394 km2. Landlocked and mountainous, the country is bordered by the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh to its east, Assam and West Bengal to its south, and Sikkim to its west, and the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China to its north and north-west.
Administratively, the country is divided into 20 districts, also known as dzongkhag. The dzongkhags are further divided into several Geogs (blocks). At the present, there are altogether 205 Geogs. Some of the dzongkhags, namely Chhukha, Samdrupjongkhar, Samtse, Sarpang, Trashigang, and Zhemgang, have sub-districts, known as dungkhags.
Bhutan’s terrain is almost entirely mountainous with nearly 95 percent of the country being above 600 meters (m). The terrain is rugged and steep, with altitudes declining from above 7,500 m to under 200 m within a short north-south distance of 170 km. The country can be divided into three broad physiographic zones: one, the southern belt consisting of the Himalayan foothills adjacent to a narrow belt of flatland (Duars) along the Indian border with altitude ranging from under 100 m to about 2,000 m; two, the inner Himalayas made up of the main river valleys and steep mountains with altitude ranging from about 2,000 m to 4,000 m; and, three, the great Himalayas in the north along the Tibetan border consisting of snow-capped peaks and alpine meadows above 4,000 m.
According to the Population and Housing Census of Bhutan (PHCB 2017), the country’s total population on 30 May 2017 was 735,553 persons. Out of the total population, 681,720 persons were Bhutanese and 53,833 persons were non-Bhutanese. The rural population makes up 62.2 percent of the total population of Bhutan. Thimphu has the largest population of 138,736 people, constituting 19.1 percent of the total population of the country, while the least populated is Gasa District (0.5 percent) with 3,952 persons.
In the last twelve years (2005-2017), Bhutan’s total population has increased by 16 percent and the population density increased from 17 persons per km2 to 19 persons per km2. The population has increased at the rate of 1.3 percent per annum. The sex ratio of the population, currently is, at the national level is 110. The median age is 26.9 years.
The majority of the Bhutanese are a homogenous group divided into three main ethnic groups: the Sharchops – the inhabitants of the east; the Ngalongs – the inhabitants of the west; and the Lhotshampas – the inhabitants of the south. There are also a number of smaller groups and communities with distinct dialects and cultural distinctions. These include Bumthaps in Bumthang, Khengpas in Zhemgang and in parts of Mongar and Dagana, Monpas in Trongsa, Kurtoeps in Lhuentse, Layaps and Lunaps in Gasa, Brokpas and Dakpas in Trashigang, and Doyas in Samtse. The ethnic divisions are, however, gradually fading as a result of growing inter-marriage, inter-regional migration and population mobility.
Majority of Bhutanese practices Drukpa Kagyud or Nyingma Buddhism, both of which are disciples of Mahayana Buddhism. The state religion is Drukpa Kagyud. The remaining population practice Hinduism. The two have co-existed in harmony through centuries. Buddha is worshiped widely by both Buddhists and Hindus. However, constitution of Kingdom of Bhutan guarantees freedom of religion and citizens and visitors are free to practise any religion unless it infringe on rights of others.
Until the Buddhism arrived in Bhutan, people practiced Bonism, a form of religion that worshipped all forms of nation. Bonism is still practiced in remote villages. Buddhism arrived to Bhutan in seventh century when Songtsen Gampo built Jampa Lhakhang (temple) in Bumthang and Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro. However, a century later, an Indian tantric master Padmasambhava, who came to Bumthang to cure the ailing King popularised it.
Later, numerous saints and lamas from Tibet propagated the teaching among the agrarian population. Some of them even asserted political influence over their disciples.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who fled Tibet and came to Bhutan transformed the country into a nation state. Popularly known as Zhabdrung Rinpoche, he fled his ancestral home in Ralung after he had some differences with the ruler of Tsang. He expended his religious and political influences and consolidated most part of the country by the time he passed away in 1651. Today, he is reverentially remembered as the founder of Bhutan.
Zhabdrung Rinpoche introduced Drukpa Kagyud tradition of Buddhism, the state religion of Bhutan. Today monks in all the dzongs, and religious institutions supported by the state practise this school of Buddhism.
Nyingma tradition, or old school of Buddhism, that was introduced by Guru Rinpoche, is equally popular in the country. There are hundreds of monasteries dedicated to this school of Buddhism. Treasure discoverer, Terton Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) popularised this school of Buddhism and his descendants who settled in different parts of the country spread it. Bhutan’s royal family originated from one such family in Dungkar in Lhuentse.
In Bhutan, religious persons are kept out of politics by law. The constitution considers religion “above politics”. Therefore, religious persons are required to keep themselves away from mundane political activities.
Bhutan has been able to maintain its unique cultural and spiritual heritage due to its long isolation from rest of the world. The Bhutanese people are intensely religious. It is not uncommon to find majority of the people circumambulation monastery spinning prayer wheels and murmuring mantras. The monasteries, temples and religious monuments are dotted across the landscape bearing witness to the importance of Buddhism.
Customs and tradition differ from one part of the country to another. Bhutan’s rich culture is still vibrant and alive. Its culture is deeply rooted in Vajrayana Buddhism, although some sections of the population follow Hinduism and have their distinct culture. A prominent factor in a Bhutanese life is religion. Adding colour to the lives of the Bhutanese are festivals the year round which they celebrate with much pomp and joy. Food plays important role in the celebration of these festivals.
Bhutan’s landscape is dotted with choetens, temples, monasteries, dzongs and prayer flags. Hundreds of monks reside in these temples and monasteries who keep the Bhutanese religious, cultural and spiritual values alive. These religious sites are also the centre of various religious and cultural festivals including tshechus. Tshechus – religious festivals – are the evident of Bhutan’s unique religious and cultural festivals. Tshechus meaning the “tenth day” are conducted annually in almost all the monasteries, dzongs and temples across the country. A variety of mask dance, folk dances, and dance drama are displayed in this festival.
Attending a tshechu is believed to cleanse one’s negative karma. These festivals are medium of Buddhist teaching in the same time a platform for social gathering. Locals are seen in the finest cloths and jewelleries singing, dancing, merrymaking, and feasting. For the tourists, it is an opportunity to appreciate the essence of Bhutanese culture and spiritual traditions.
Music is integral part of Bhutanese life. Music plays a leading role in transmitting social and religious values. Traditional Bhutanese music includes folk to religious songs. The traditional music is distinct from modern popular rigsar. Bhutanese in the past have shared distinct oral culture, where songs and dances were composed to observe important rituals and socialise. Songs were also used to express and transmit knowledge, experiences and values, country’s character, beliefs, way of life, and spiritual traditions. Bhutanese folk songs mostly dwell on nature, religion, harmonious coexistence, and the beauty and delights of life. Today, a wide variety of music is available including English, Hindi, Nepali and Tibetan. Bhutan’s modern songs – rigsar – creation sounds similar to any of the above that praise romance and the passing good feelings of youthful encounters.
The climate is dominated by southwestern monsoon, which originates from the Bay of Bengal and accounts for 60 to 90 percent of the annual precipitation. Generally, the monsoon starts from June and lasts until early September. Occasionally, during October and November post-monsoon rain occurs.
From November to March is usually dry, although brief showers may occur due to the westerly wind that brings winter rains in the Himalayan foothills, and snow in the mountains. During April and May, pre-monsoon occurs with light showers. Mean annual rainfall varies from approximately 2,500 to 5,500 millimetres (mm) in the southern foothills, from 1,000 to 2,500 mm in the middle valleys and inner hills, and from 500 to 1,000 mm in the northern part of the country.
Bhutan has very strong environmental policies and legislations in place. The overarching Bhutanese development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) enshrines environmental sustainability as one of the four main pillars for pursuing peace, prosperity and happiness. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan explicitly outlines environmental conservation as a mandate and spells out in very specific terms the environmental responsibilities and rights of the Bhutanese citizens. A number of sector-based policies and laws reinforce the importance of environmental conservation and complement the country’s overall philosophy of environmentally sustainable development.
The forest coverage and pristine environment, is testimony of Bhutanese believe in interdependence and coexistence with the nature and environment. Having remained in isolation for centuries, the Bhutanese life has come to be defined and shaped by values that are non-existent or increasingly being lost in the developed world. Foreigners find that Bhutan and Bhutanese way of life is different.Bhutan boasts a wealth of biodiversity with almost three quarters of its land area covered by forests. Bhutan has been declared amongst the ten most prominent areas for environmental protection in the world for its rich Himalayan flora and fauna, dazzling snow-capped peaks, lush valleys and unbelievably beautiful rural landscapes.
Forests account for 72.5 percent, including 8.1 percent scrub forest, of the country’s land cover – one of the highest in the world. Almost all forests in the country are natural, with plantation forest being just about 0.2 percent. Broadleaf forests and mixed conifers are the main forest types. Other forest types include fir, broadleaf with conifers, blue pine and chir pine.
Bhutan’s small economy is based largely on hydropower, agriculture, and forestry, which provide the main livelihood for more than half of the population. Because rugged mountains dominate the terrain and make the building of roads and other infrastructure difficult and expensive, industrial production is primarily of the cottage industry type. The economy is closely aligned with India’s through strong trade and monetary links and is dependent on India for financial assistance and migrant labourers for development projects, especially for road construction. Bhutan inked a pact in December 2014 to expand duty-free trade with Bangladesh.
Multilateral development organizations administer most educational, social, and environment programs, and take into account the government’s desire to protect the country’s environment and cultural traditions. For example, the government, in its cautious expansion of the tourist sector, encourages visits by upscale, environmentally conscientious tourists.
Despite the tourism policy “high value, low impact” formerly “low volume, high value”, the number of tourist arrivals and consequent tourism revenue have grown significantly over the years. Growth in tourism has been due to the “exclusivity” factor stemming from well-preserved culture and relatively unspoiled nature as well as a result of improvement in communications and marketing.
Bhutan has inspired many scholars, critics, philosophers, politicians, and academics around the world by developing a unique development philosophy, Gross National Happiness (GNH). GNH places the happiness and prosperity of each citizen ahead of economic wealth. The central idea of GNH was developed by His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. This philosophy is based on the premise that true development occurs when material and spiritual development complement each other and highlights both the physical and mental well-being of the individual. His Majesty the Fourth King stresses that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product, as wealth does not necessarily bring happiness to people. For a holistic development of an individual and society, there needs to be harmony between material prosperity, cultural and spiritual values, environmental consciousness, and good governance. These different dimensions of life are known as the four pillars of GNH. These four pillars are balanced and equitable socio-economic development; preservation and promotion of culture; preservation and sustainable use of environment; and good governance.
In 2004 His Majesty the King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck clearly expressed that while the philosophy of GNH is inherently Bhutanese; its ideas have positive relevance to any nation, community or peoples.
In his words “I feel that there must be some convergence among nations on the idea of what the primary objective of development and progress should be – something that GNH seeks to bring about,” and further “There cannot be enduring peace, prosperity, equality and brotherhood in this world if our aims are so separate and divergent especially as the world shrinks to a global village.”
The concept of GNH as a development philosophy has evolved into a national conscience, and is a bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality, and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth such that it helps the a nation in making better and wiser decisions for the wellbeing and happiness of all Bhutanese.
The idea of happiness and wellbeing as the goal of development has always been a part of the Bhutanese political psyche. To achieve this Bhutan has developed a number of policies to create social, environmental, cultural, and political conditions conducive to the achievement of happiness.
For example, Article 9 of Bhutan’s constitution says that “The State shall strive to promote those circumstances that will enable the successful pursuit of Gross National Happiness.” All state policies are obliged to be in consonance with the grand statement the constitution makes.
In fact, the Bhutanese state has always taken on the responsibility of happiness for the people. Bhutan’s 1729 legal code stated that “if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist. It’s in line with GNH philosophy that the constitution of Bhutan declares 60 percent of total land area should remain forested for all time.
Today it is mandatory that all public policies and laws pass through the set of GNH screening.
In the words of His Majesty the King “Today GNH has come to mean so many things to so many people, but to me it signifies simply – development with values. Thus for my nation today GNH is the bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth. GNH acts as our National Conscience guiding us towards making wise decisions for a better future.”
The sovereign Kingdom of Bhutan is a constitutional democratic monarchy. The Kingdom was an absolute monarchy between 1907 and 1950s. The march towards democracy has been steady and peaceful since 1950s. In July 18, 2008 Bhutan signed its first modern Constitution. Under the Constitution, Bhutan is a Sovereign Kingdom and a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. The Supreme Court is the guardian of the Constitution and the final authority on its interpretation.
Today the King is the head of state. Prime Minister is the head of the government, who along with the Lhengye Zhungtshog or council of ministers exercises the executive power. Legislative power is vested in the National Council, the upper house, and National Assembly, the lower house.
Bhutan’s modern political history began with the enthronement of Ugyen Wangchuck as the first hereditary King of Bhutan on December 17, 1907. Successive monarchs worked towards modernising and democratising Bhutan.
In order to ensure a more democratic governance of the country, the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in 1953 established the National Assembly (Tshogdu). Every Gewog, a group of villages and an intermediate geographic administrative unit between dzongkhag (district) and village, had an elected member representing the National assembly to enact laws and to discuss issues of national importance. In the year 1963, Royal Advisory Council (Lodoe Tshogde) was established as a link between the King, council of ministers and the people.
The process of decentralization and democratisation was extended by the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1981 through the establishment of the Dzongkhag Yargay Tshogdu (District Development Assembly) and in 1991 through Gewog Yargay Tshogchung (County Development Assembly).
In 1998, the fourth King handed over the power to rule the county to the cabinet ministers and he started to serve as the Head of the State while the government was managed by the Prime Minister as head of the government.
Bhutan started drafting its constitution in 2001 through a 39-member Constitution Drafting Committee comprising elected members of the people, monastic body, the judiciary and the executive arms of the government, headed by the Chief Justice of Bhutan
In 2008, Bhutan witnessed a major shift in its political system with the first elections launched countrywide with a 79 percent voter turnout. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa won a landslide victory to form Bhutan’s first democratic government. Jigme Y Thinley became the first democratically prime minister with 45 elected members leaving just two seats to the opposition. In second general election held in 2013, the opposition party, People’s Democratic Party won 32 seats leaving 15 to Druk Phuensum Tshogpa. Tshering Tobgay became the second prime minister. In the third general election held in 2018 Druk Nymrup Tshogpa won majority of the seats to form the government. Druk Phuensum Tshogpa is the opposition party today.
The organs of the Bhutanese government comprise of the Legislature, Judiciary, and the Executive and the article 1(13) of the Constitution ensures separation of these three organs. The ruling political party, the opposition and the National Council now forms the legislative body.
Bhutan’s parliament consists of three chambers – the National Assembly comprising 47 members elected from 47 National Assembly constituencies across 20 districts, the National Council comprising 25 members (one each from 20 districts and five eminent persons appointed by the King), and His Majesty the King.
In the new political system, political aspirants are required to have a minimum of university degree and the clergy is considered “above” politics and cannot even vote.
The First Schedule to the Constitution provides that the National Emblem of Bhutan is a circle that projects a double diamond thunderbolt placed above the lotus. There is a jewel on all sides with two dragons on vertical sides. The thunderbolts represent the harmony between secular and religious power while the lotus symbolizes purity. The jewel signifies the sovereign power while the dragons (male and female) stands for the name of the country Druk yul or the Land of the Dragon.
“Within the circle of the national emblem, two crossed vajras are placed over a lotus. They are flanked on either side by a male and female white dragon. A wish-fulfilling jewel is located above them. There are four other jewels inside the circle where the two vajras intersect. They symbolize the spiritual and secular traditions of the Kingdom based on the four spiritual undertakings of Vajrayana Buddhism. The lotus symbolizes absence of defilements, the wish-fulfilling jewel, the sovereign power of the people, and the two dragons, the name of the Kingdom.” – Constitution of Bhutan.
The national flag of Bhutan is rectangular in shape and divided diagonally into two equal halves. The upper yellow half runs from the hoist to the upper fly end and symbolises the secular power and authority of King while the lower orange half symbolises religion and the power of Buddhism manifest in the tradition of Drukpa Kagyud. The dragon symbolises the name of the country and its white colour the purity of the country. The jewels in the dragon’s claws symbolise the wealth of the country and the snarling mouth of the dragon symbolises the protection of the country’s guardian deities. The national flag was first designed during the signing of Bhutan-India treaty of 1949. Then, it was square in shape, the lower half was red in colour, and the dragon was green in colour.
The national anthem was first composed in 1953, became official in 1966 and finally placed in the Second Schedule to the Constitution, 2008. It is known as Druk Tshenden Kepay Gyalkhab Na (the Kingdom of Bhutan adorned with cypress trees).
“In the Kingdom of Bhutan adorned with cypress trees,
The Protector who reigns over the realm of spiritual and secular traditions,
He is the King of Bhutan, the precious sovereign.
May His being remain unchanging, and the Kingdom prosper,
May the teachings of the Enlightened One flourish,
May the sun of peace and happiness shine over all people.” – Constitution of Bhutan.
The first national anthem of Bhutan was known to have been composed by Dasho Thinley Dorji, the Chief Secretary. It was a 12-line verse. It was later shortened to the present length by Dasho Shingkhar Lam, the Secretary to the third King, and Sangay Dorji, his personal secretary.
The raven (Corvus corax) is Bhutan’s national bird for many symbolic reasons. The raven represents Bhutan’s protector deity Gonpo Jarog Dongchen (raven-faced Mahakala). The raven-faced protector deity is believed to have come to help Trongsa Ponlop Jigme Namgyal, the father of the first King of Bhutan, won war against British India in the form of the raven. Later, Jigme Namgyal’s root lama, Jangchub Tsundru, designed a crown for Jigme Namgyal with the raven’s head. The crown, which was later modified for the successive Kings of Bhutan came to be known as the Raven Crown. The Raven Crown is still the crown of the King of Bhutan and the most noticeable symbol of Bhutanese monarchy.
The national animal of Bhutan is the takin (burdorcas taxicolor), a rare bovine associated with religious history and mythology of Bhutan.
The takin is a strange mammal with a thick neck and short, thick legs. It lives in groups and is found above 4,000 metres.
The origin of the takin is associated with the magical powers of Lama Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman of the 15th century. Once the lama known for his outrageous behaviours went to a social function and ate the whole carcass of a cow and a goat. After he finished his colossal meal, he collected all the bones of the two animals. Then he attached the skull of the goat on the body frame of the cow and snapped his fingers. At this the skeleton of the two animals stood up like a living animal. The lama told the skeletal animal, “Go and eat grass. You haven’t eaten or drunk anything.” The animal walked to the nearby grassland to graze. And this animal is the takin, the animal with the head of the goat and body of the cow.
The national flower of Bhutan is blue poppy (Meconopsis horridula). It is a delicate, blue- or purple-tinged flower with white filaments. It is found above the tree line (at around 3,500-4,500 metres) on rocky mountainsides and grows to a height of about one metre.
Blue poppy was first discovered in 1933 by a British Botanist called George Sherriff in a remote part of Sakteng in the eastern Bhutan.
The national tree of Bhutan is cypress (Cupressus torolusa). Cypress is a very special tree in the Bhutanese historical and cultural contexts.
Cypress grows in abundance in the temperate regions across the country and around temples and monasteries. Some cypress trees found near temples and monasteries are said to have grown from the walking sticks of some great religious personalities.
The national sport of Bhutan is archery. The traditional Bhutanese archery was adopted as the national sport in 1971 when Bhutan became a member of the United Nations.
Archery has been the most favourite sport of the Bhutanese people for centuries. Archery matches have been dominating any celebratory public events. During medieval times, when wars were frequently fought, bow and arrows were used as weapons. Perhaps that is how the Bhutanese-style archery played across a long range (150 metres). Archery is today the mostly widely played sport in Bhutan, thanks to an increasing number of competitions offering handsome prizes.
Area: 38,394 sq. km.
Administrative Units: 20 districts
National Currency: Ngultrum
National Language: Dzongkha
Projected Population for 2019: XXXXXX
National Dress: Gho for men and Kira for women
Altitude: 100 metres in the south to over 7,500 metres above sea level in the north.
Capital: Thimphu, the only capital city in the world without traffic lights.
Political system: Democratic Constitutional Monarchy
National Day: 17 December
Local Time: 6 hours ahead of GMT
Country code: +975