Bhutan is the only country to have adopted Vajrayana Buddhism as its state religion though it also allows the practice of other religions as well. Along with the Serengetti plains of Africa and the Amazon rainforests of South America, it has been ranked among the top ten biodiversity �hotspots� of the world as more than 70% of its land area is under forest cover.
For centuries Bhutan had kept itself isolated from the rest of the world and only opened its gateways in the early 1960s. During this time, the country adopted a guarded economic approach and built its first schools, hospitals and roads. Not much has changed since then.
People who have been to Bhutan vouch by its scenic landscapes and it is said that it is almost impossible to take a bad photograph in Bhutan. National Geographic Travel magazine has rated Bhutan as the top 20 most exotic travel destinations in the world. Even early European travelers described the country of primordial forests and haunting ravines. Bhutan is a deeply mystique Himalayan kingdom which is hauntingly beautiful.
Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan. The population of Bhutan is 660,000 with a literacy rate of 59.5 percent. The people of Bhutan are congenial and easy-going by nature. Time here stands still in �Bhutan Time Warp� according to a best-selling Canadian writer. It is the perfect place to unwind and let go.
BHUTAN in brief:
- Political System: Democratic Constitutional Monarchy
- Land Area: 38,400 square kilometres
- Capital: Thimphu
- Population: 660,000
- Districts: 20
- Forested land area: 72.5%
- Protected land area: 26%
- Cultivated land area: 7.8%
- Country code: 975
- Local time: Six hours ahead of GMT
- National Sport: Archery
- National Animal: Takin (Budocras Taxicolor)
- National Tree: Cypress (Cupressus Sempervirens)
- National Flower: Blue Poppy (Meconopsis Grandis)
- National Bird: Raven (Corvus Corax Tibetanus)
Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of government. However, it was ruled by the Wangchuck dynasty for 100 years i.e. till April, 2008. In March 2008 the country conducted its first elections to elect its first democratic government. The reigning monarch initiated this change in the country unlike the other countries of the world where democracy had to be achieved through a revolution. It is noteworthy that the people of Bhutan were more than content with the governance of the monarchy. However, the King considered the monarchy system to be redundant and flawed and decided to do away with it.
This political change was rather gradual than abrupt. It was a pre-planned and methodical process undertaken by His Majesty the Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The first step towards this process was undertaken in the early 80s when he started the process of decentralization and delegated power to Dzongkhag Yargey Tshhogchungs (DYTs) or the district development committees. A few years later the Geog Yargey Tshhogdes (GYTs) were created to follow up the process of decentralization. The GYTs are development committees within the sub-districts that from the districts. The members were elected by the people some of whom were elected further to represent at the DYTs. Eventually the elected members of the DYTs represented the people in the then National Assembly which is the country�s parliament or supreme legislative body.
The true essence of His Majesty�s altruism became evident in 1998 when he dissolved the existing cabinet and transferred his existing executive powers to a new cabinet of ministers elected by the people. It is a very incident to occur in a world where people can go to any extent to attain power.
It was during this time when he started the process of drafting a new constitution to make Bhutan a democratic country. The draft constitution was evolved after consulting more than 30 constitutions and was finally accepted by Him and the then Crown Prince (now His Majesty the Fifth King), Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. Each and every article was analysed and discussed and amended where it was required.
The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (which translates into People�s Development Party) won a majority over the People�s Democratic Party winning in 45 out 0f 45 seats in the first ever election in 2008. The institution of monarchy however, continues to exist in Bhutan. The king is more of a titular head of the nation but is still revered amongst the people and is one of the most beloved personalities of the country. The parliament of Bhutan comprises of two houses- The National Assembly (or the lower house) and The National Council with 25 members.
Gross National Happiness
One of the most striking and unique feature of Bhutan is that the socio-economic development goal is not just focused on achieving increased GNP/GDP (Gross National Product/Gross domestic Product) but instead on increased GNH (Gross National Happiness). Economic development is considered to be just one of the four recognized �pillars� of the GNH model.
His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck used Bhutan�s late modernisation as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other countries and as a result developed the concept of GNH. He concluded from the modern world history that societies in most part of the world was losing its touch with spirituality which was a result of their woes.
He stressed on the concept of GNH stating that economic development alone was not suffice to make a society enriched and happy. GNH is not means by itself but a means to a greater end. The ultimate goal of development according to the GNH model is to create an environment where people can be happy. This a stark contrast to most government and institutions as well as the academic world where happiness of people is considered to be relative and an utopian issue.
GNH is thus Bhutan�s distinctive way to achieve sustainable development. It is a unique blend of collective social and cultural consciousness of Bhutan which seeks economic development but not at the price of degrading the environment or dissolving cultural values. Cultural promotion, good and just governance and protection of environment are the basic tenets of the GNH model.
For instance in the United States the sale of both food grains and fire arms are considered equally good. In Bhutan however, the sale of fire arms would not be done as it is harmful and its associated costs are much more than its material value.
The unique ideology of GNH has gained interest around the world. Another country has created a similar model that social scientists term as �subjective well-being.�
Bhutan as a country is unique in many ways and so is its tourism policy. The Bhutanese Government understands that tourism is an effective way to build bridges among people with different cultural identities and promotes respect and understanding of different culture. Being a developing country the government also understands that it is a great means to promote socio-economic development.
However, the dominant belief among the majority of the people, the government and also individuals from the tourism industry itself is that they should not be tempted by the tourist dollars like other neighbouring countries. Unregulated tourism might bring in quick bucks but creates a lot of adversities in the long run especially to the environment. The people of Bhutan strongly believe that no amount of money is worth more than the preservation of cultural values and the local environment.
Bhutan is located between two most populous countries of the world which makes it especially exposed to cultural domination. The country has little military or economic power. Thus the only way it can safeguard its sovereignty is by creating a distinct national identity forged out from strong cultural practice. The future of Bhutan relies on the strength of its culture.
The tourism policy of Bhutan on the basis of such concerns makes it mandatory for all tourists (except those from India and Bangladesh, who have other arrangements) to pay a tariff of US$ 200 per day. By this policy it is ensured that the tourists who visit Bhutan are well-off and sophisticated enough to add and take positively from Bhutan. The policy also imposes an automatic ceiling on the number of visitors so that foreign dilution of Bhutanese culture can be kept as low as possible.
High value, low impact� or �high value, low volume� is two effective terms to express the Bhutanese tourism policy. The policy takes into account that infrastructure and resources in tourism are limited, and are based upon the principles of economic viability, cultural acceptability, sustainability and soundness of environment. �Low impact� means that tourism should not degrade environment or weaken culture and tradition. Even though such a policy seems to defy prevalent and conventional global economic sensibility but the Bhutanese have shown that in the long run it pays well. To put it simply, visitors pay US $ 200 each day because they are aware that they cannot buy the same peace and calm anywhere else, at any price.
Regions & Climate
Even though Bhutan is a small, landlocked country with limited latitude, it is blessed with a wide range of altitude. In Bhutan, the Greater Himalayan peaks stretch over to 7,000 meters above sea level from where the land dramatically drops to rich and fertile valleys in the Lesser Himalayan central belt, and then gently continues on to the foothills in the south.
Not many people live above the treeline except for a few nomadic settlements. Majority of the people live in the hills and valleys of the central region. It is divided in a north-south direction by the Kuri Chhu, Wang Chhu, Mangde Chhu and Punatsang Chhu rivers. The industrial belt of southern foothills drops sharply away from the Himalayas into large tracts of semi-tropical forest and grassland. Both the central highlands and the southern foothills are arable but remain either forested or inhabited. The percentage of cultivated land in Bhutan is just 7 percent only.
It is apparent that Bhutan�s distinct range of altitude allows a distinct range in the weather as well. While the north is perpetually covered with snow weather in the west, central and east of Bhutan is almost similar to cold European weather.
November to March is the time when winter lasts here. Wangduephodrang and Punakha are exceptions since they are located in the lower valleys where summer is relatively hoter but winter is mild. Southern Bhutan has atypical hot and humid subtropical condition.
In terms of conditions and timing, the four seasons in Bhutan are similar to that of countries of Western Europe. Most tourists visit. The ideal time to visit Bhutan is in spring (mid of March to Mid of June) and autumn (mid of September to mid of November) as mild temperatures, less rain, and clear skies make sightseeing more enjoyable.
In the altitudes between 200 and 300 metres, the temperatures and vegetation are more akin to the moderate climate of middle Europe. The tree line of Bhutan lies at a level below 4000 metres. There is little amount of precipitation during winters. It is rare for snow to fall below 2500 metres.
Art & Craft
It is important to understand that unlike the West art is not considered to be creative or innovative in Bhutan. Each and every Bhutanese art and craftworks are religious and anonymous. For example, paintings do not carry signatures of the artists who have made it and adhere to a traditional style. Therefore artifacts hold no inherent artistic function and are instead considered as material expressions of religious faith.
Indigenous art and craft like most things of the country has virtually remained unchanged in form and method since time immemorial and are a living testimony to the incidence of the country's traditional Buddhist culture. It is almost impossible to distinguish between paintings, artifacts and structures from two hundred years ago and today. Bhutanese artifacts has another remarkable feature, they are not just made for the tourists but are used extensively by the Bhutanese in daily life and for religious practices.
Bhutanese art has been so little explored and studied abroad that phonetic conventions of Bhutanese art terminology have not yet been solidified. Except for the vegetable dyes used in Bhutanese painting which are more subdued and earthy, even a seasoned art curator of the Himalayan region will find it difficult to distinguish the fine differences between the Buddhist-inspired artifacts of Bhutan from those of Tibet and Nepal. A Bhutaneese artisan obviously can point out more differences.
The Buddhist art heritage is encapsulated in 13 forms collectively known as the Zorig Chusum .Particularly these 13 forms of art are jinzo (sculpture),dozo (masonry), tshemzo (embroidery). garzo (blacksmithing), kozo (leatherwork), serzo ngulzo (gold and silver smithing), lhazo (painting), thagzo (weaving), parzo (carving), dezo (paper making), shingzo (carpentry), lugzo (casting) and tsaazo (bamboo work).
Culture and Festivals
Culture is one thing that the Bhutanese hold very dear. Years of isolation from the rest of the world has enabled Bhutan to have a distinct and unique cultural identity of its own. Even after opening its doors to the outside world, Bhutan has been able to maintain and preserve its rich cultural heritage from the influence of the outside world.
The uniqueness of the culture of Bhutan draws people from different corners of the world to come and visit the country. The Bhutanese take immense pride in their culture. They are extremely protective about their cultural identities. The protection and preservation of the country�s culture became all the more important as being a small country wedged between two of the most populated countries of the world like India and China, Bhutan would have had a hard time to protect its sovereignty. It was due to their strong cultural identity that they have been able to sustain their sovereignty without the aid of supreme military and economic powers.
The exclusivity of Bhutan�s culture is reflected through their distinct and stunning architecture, dress, traditional ceremonies, archery, and the everyday Bhutanese way of life. The Bhutanese culture is based on the belief that one should have respect for all sentient beings. Values like tolerance, compassion, respect, and generosity are emphasized and encouraged in the Bhutanese culture. Buddhism goes hand-in-hand with culture in Bhutan. Buddhism is not just a religion here but a �way of life� here.
Bhutan is famous for its rich cultural diversity and this richness of culture becomes further pronounced by the multiplicity of elaborate and colorful religious festivals that are celebrated throughout the length and breadth of the country. Tsechu is the most widely celebrated and popular festival of Bhutan. The Tsechus are celebrated in honour of great deeds of Guru Padsambhava also known as Guru Rinpoche. Villagers and the general populace dress in the finest of clothes and gather at the local temples and monasteries during the Tsechus to celebrate it.
Usually Tsechus last for three to five days and various mask dances are performed which have a purely religious context. The dancers are decked in rich silk costumes and masks and have blaring horns, booming drums and clashing cymbals along with them.
Also some festivals ends with the unveiling and worship of a huge religious appliques or thongdroel. It is believed that one can be free from the cycle of reincarnation and life by just viewing this thangkha.Religious festivals for hold a significant place for the Bhutanese people as they offer them with an opportunity to become one with their religion and culture. Besides they also serve as social gatherings where they dress in their finest attires and jewelleries and enjoy in the revelry.