The land of the thunder dragon kingdom is a trekker’s paradise and an environmentalist’s dream. With 72 percent of the country under forest cover, Bhutan’s pristine ecology is home to rare and endangered flora and fauna.
This spiritual land is the last bastion of the Vajrayana school of Mahayana Buddhism which provides the essence of a unique identity for the 750,000 people.Bhutan is a unique blend of the old and new. Here is a country that is slowly opening up to the modern world in a fine balance with its ancient traditions.Those fortunate enough to visit Bhutan describe it as a unique, deeply spiritual and mystical experience. This kingdom is an adventure like no other.
Facts and Figures
Land area: 38,394 square kilometres
Forest area: 72.5 %
Altitude: between 240metres and 7541metres above sea level
Language: official language “Dzongkha”, English widely spoken
Religion: Vajrayana stream of Mahayana Buddhism (Also known as Tantric Buddhism)
Currency: Ngultrum (equal to Indian Rupee)
National Tree: Cypress
National Bird: Raven
National Flower: Blue Poppy
National Sport: Archery
National Animal: Takin
Local time: Six hours ahead of GMT and half an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time
Bhutan has unique and distinctive cultures in the world. A ting country with a very small population is proud of its diverse culture. To protect the sovereignty of the country, Bhutan feels it is important to preserve the culture and tradition. The uniqueness of the tradition and culture is visible in everyday life of the Bhutanese.
In Bhutan, the birth of a child is welcomed without any gender discrimination. The first three days after the birth is considered to be polluted by kaydrip (defilement by birth). Thus outsiders do not visit the child for three days. Outsiders come after a purification ritual (Lhabsang) is conducted in the house. Visitors bring gifts for both the mother and the child. In the rural places the gifts consists of rice and dairy product whereas in the urban places, visitors bring clothes and money.
The names are generally given by religious person after the child is taken to the temple of local deity. The name associated with the local deity (natal deity) is given. Some children given the name of t day they were born.
kye tsi- the horoscope of the baby is written based on the Bhutanese calendar. This Kye-tse details out the time and date of the birth, predicts the future of the child, rituals to be executed at different stages in the life of the child as remedy to possible illness, problems and misfortune.
Celebrating birthday traditionally doesn’t exist, it has lately become popular especially amongst the urban populace.
Till few decades back, arranged marriages were popular. Mostly, people married among the relatives, particularly in eastern Bhutan, where cross-cousin marriage was a popular tradition. Today this tradition is becoming unpopular among the literate mass and most of the marriages take place based on their own choice.
Although some rich people arrange dinner parties and receptions, marriages are conducted in simple ways. A small ritual is performed by a religious person. The parents, relatives and the friends present scarves (kha-dar) to the couple along with gifts in the form of cash and goods.
In the eastern Bhutan, after marriage, the wife goes to husband’s house while in western Bhutan it is just the reverse. In southern Bhutan the wife goes to husband’s house.However, this practice is not mandatory. Divorce is accepted in the Bhutanese society and carries no stigma. The divorced couple in most cases remarries with new partners.
As it does not mean the end, and Bhutanese believes in rebirth, death is one of the most expensive affairs. Many rituals are performed to help the departed soul get a better rebirth. Rituals are performed after the 7th day, 14th day, 21st day and the 49th days of the death. Cremations are done only on a favorable day arranged by the astrologer.
With erection of prayer flags in the name of the deceased, rituals are conducted on the death anniversary for three consecutive years. The relatives and people of the locality come with alcohol, rice, or other sundry items to attend these rituals.
Bhutanese wear one of the most unique dresses in the world. Bhutanese men wear gho, a long robe that is raised till knee, folded backwards and then tied around the waist by kera, a belt. The pouch formed above the waist is used for carrying bowl, money and doma (areca nut and betal leaf eaten with a dash of lime).The pouch is considered, by the outsiders, as the world’s biggest pocket.
Traditionally men insert a knife in the belt from inside the pouch.
The dress for the tribal and semi nomadic people like the Bramis and Brokpas of eastern Bhutan and the Layaps of western Bhutan and Doyas of southern Bhutan have a unique dress of their own and do not wear the gho and Kera.
The Brokpas and the Bramis wear a dress made of yak hair and sheep wool with an animal skin over it and a hat with five fringes hanging from the sides.
While the Layap men dress Gho the women dress differently with a loose outfit that reaches their calves. The dress is again made of yak hair. On the head they put on a conical bamboo hat.
Bhutanese men wear a scarf called kabney on formal visits to a Dzong or an office. Wearing of kabney is an important part of the Bhutanese decorum and should be put on in a right manner.
The kabney identifies the rank of a person. For example, the King wears the yellow scarf, minister’s orange, judge’s green, and district administrator’s red with a white band going lengthwise and common people white with fringes etc.
Women on the other hand wear kira, a rectangular shaped cloth piece. It is tied by belt. Women wear their kira long till their ankle. Women also wear the scarf called rachu. They hang it over their shoulder and it is beautifully hand woven with fringes at the end. It is smaller than a kabney.
Food and eating habits
Eating with spoons is imported culture in Bhutan. People generally eat with their hands. The mother serves the food when the family members sit on the floor in a circle. In many parts of the country people still use plates made of wood (dapa/dam/dolom) and bamboo (bangchungs). Before eating some morcels of rice is tossed in the air as offering to the deities and spirits.
The favorite Bhutanese dishes features spicy red and green chillies, either dried or fresh. Ema Datsi (chili with cheese), Paa (sliced pork and beef) and red rice are the common recipes. No dish goes without chili. People also drink salted butter tea (suja) and alcohol.
Doma (betel leaf and areca nut eaten with a dash of lime) is carried by many in their pouch. Offering of Doma to someone is an act of friendship, politeness and a mark of generosity.
Ema-datsi, the national dish is today favourite among Bhutanese and a growing number of foreigners. For non-vegeterians, meat is available is most of the restaurants. Most of the restaurants have vegetarian options. The legal drinking age in Bhutan is 18 years and liquires are easily available in bars.
Tsechus, a mask dance festivals, are one of the most colorful festivals in Bhutan. They are performed in all the dzongs and in many monasteries throughout Bhutan. Tsechus are conducted to commemorate the events in the life of Guru Rinpochoe who is revered as the second Buddha in Bhutan.
The living Bhutanese cultures are exhibited in the tsechus that many people have come to admire and treasure.
During the tsechus, Thongdrol, large scroll paintings of deities and saints which have the power to liberate people from sin that they had committed just by seeing it are unfurled for public. The word throngdelmeans “liberation on sight” and people form long queues to receive blessings by touching their heads against the bottom of the thangkha. These festivals are also considered as social get together. People come to witness tsechu wearing their finest clothes and jewelries.
Community folk dancers and singers also perform during the Tsechus apart from monk dancers. The Bhutanese people consider it a blessing to be able to watch the dances. Tsechus are held on auspicious days, on the tenth day of the Bhutanese month, and last up to four days in which a series of highly stylized masked dance rituals are performed.
In the community level numbers of local festivals are held. These festivals which are inspired by the pre-Buddhist tradition provide a fascinating insight in to the local belief. Most of these festivals are believed to be originated from the Bon practices. Some of the festivals are Ache Lhamo Dances, Bumthang, Hungla dances, Trashi Yangtse, Bon festival, Ha, and Bon festival, Trashi Yangtse.
Mahayana Buddhism in its Tantric Vajrayana form is the official religion of Bhutan. Bhutan could be probably only country in the world where this form of Buddhism is practised and preserved. Drukpa Kagyupa is the state sponsored school of practise whereas Nyingmapa is popularly practised in most parts of the kingdom. In the northern and eastern Bhutan, Buddhism is the main religion. In the south the people practise Hinduism.
Bhutan is a country where Buddhism is still vibrant and alive. The Dzongs, monasteries, stupas, prayer flags, and prayer wheels punctuate the Bhutanese landscape. The chime of ritual bells, sound of gongs, people circumambulating temples and stupas, fluttering prayer flags, red robed monks conducting ritual, among many others are all living case in point to reveal that Buddhism is an essential ingredient of Bhutanese life.
Till 8th century when Guru Padmasambhava visited Bhutan, people worshipped nature. The religion they followed was called Bon. People felt that there were invisible forces that were rightful owners of the different elements of nature, mountains peaks, lakes, cliffs, land, and water sources.
Buddhism came to Bhutan in 8th century during the visit of Guru Rinpoche and began to take form. His visit led to the spread of the Nyingmapa (the ancient or the older) school of Buddhism.
In 1222 Phajo Drugom Zhigpo came to Bhutan. He introduced the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism. Further his sons also worked in spreading the tradition of Drukpa Kagyu especially in western Bhutan.
In Bhutan Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is considered as the greatest historical figures. He came to Bhutan in 1616 from Tibet and strengthened the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism. Today, Drukpa Kagyu is the state religion of Bhutan. However, people also follow Nyingmapa school of Buddhism and Hinduism.
Besides Guru Rinpoche, Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, many other lamas had also contributed to the propagation of Buddhism in Bhutan
Physically, Bhutan can be divided into three zones: Alpine Zone (4000m and above) with no forest cover; the Temperate Zone (2000 to 4000m) with conifer or broadleaf forests; and the Subtropical Zone (150m to 2000m) with Tropical or Subtropical vegetation. Because of its wide altitudinal and climatic range, the flora and fauna is diverse and rich.
Forest types in Bhutan are Fir Forests, Mixed Conifer Forest, Blue Pine Forest, Chirpine Forest, Broadleaf mixed with Conifer, Upland Hardwood Forest, Lowland Hardwood Forest, and Tropical Lowland Forests. Almost 60% of the plant species that is found in the eastern Himalayan region can be found in Bhutan as well.
Bhutan boasts of about 300 species of medicinal plants and about 46 species of rhododendrons. Some common sights for the visitors are the magnolias, junipers, orchids of varied hues, gentian, medicinal plants, daphne, giant rhubarb, the blue poppy which is the national flower and tropical trees such as pine and oaks.
A wide range of animal could also be found frequenting the jungles of Bhutan. Some high altitude species are the snow leopards, the Bengal tigers that are found at altitude ranging 3000 to 4000 meters, the red panda, the gorals and the langurs, the Himalayan black bear and sambars, the wild pigs and the barking deer, the blue sheep and the musk deer. In the tropical forests of Southern Bhutan one can come across the clouded leopards, the one horned rhinoceros, elephants, golden langur that is unique to Bhutan, the water buffaloes and the swamp deer.
Bhutan also has a great variety of bird species. It is recognized as an area of high biological diversity and is known as the East Himalayan ‘hot spot’ situated as it is at the hub of 221 global endemic bird areas. The recorded number of bird species is over 670 and there are chances that this number could still go up.
In addition, 57% of Bhutan’s globally threatened birds and 90% of the country’s restricted rare birds are dependent on forests. Bhutan has about 415 resident bird species. These inhabitant birds are altitudinal refugees, moving up and down the mountains depending upon the seasons and weather conditions. Of about 50 species of birds that migrate in winters are the buntings, waders and ducks, thrushes and the birds of prey. Some 40 species are partial migrants and they include species such as swifts, cuckoos, the bee-eaters, fly catchers and the warblers.
Bhutan is also home to about 16 bird species that are endangered worldwide. These include the White bellied heron, Pallas Fish eagle, Blyth’s King fisher to name a few. Phobjikha valley in Wangdue Phodrang and Bomdeling in Trashi Yangtse are also two important places in Bhutan that is visited by the endangered Black Necked Crane.
As one of the ten global hotspots Bhutan is all set to preserve and protect the rich environment through environmental organizations.
Some of the proactive organizations are the:
National Environmental Commission
Royal society for protection of nature clubs throughout the country.
Department of Forestry Services.
Nature Conservation Department
Bhutan Trust Fund.
Association of Bhutan Tour Operators.