Bhutan Travel Guide
The Kingdom of Bhutan lies in the eastern Himalayas, between Tibet to the north and the Indian territories of Assam and West Bengal to the south. The Kingdom has a total area of about 47,000 square kilometers. Located in the heart of the high Himalayan mountain range, Bhutan is a land-locked country surrounded by mountains. The sparsely populated Greater Himalayas, bounded to the north by the Tibetan plateau, reach heights of over 7,300 meters, and extend southward losing height, to form the fertile valleys of the Lesser Himalayas divided by the Wang, Sunkosh, Trongsa and Manas Rivers. Monsoon influences promote dense forestation in this region and alpine growth at higher altitudes. The cultivated central uplands and Himalayan foothills support the majority of the population. In the south, the Doars Plain drops sharply away from the Himalayas into the large tracts of semi-tropical forest, savannah grassland and bamboo jungle.
There are three main ethnic groups: the dominant political group the Ngalops; in the west, the Sharchops in the east and the southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin (also known as Lhotshampas) in the south. Largely Brokpas and Bjops inhabit northern regions of Bhutan. They are predominant in the regions of Merek and Sakten and in the northern regions of Bumthang, Lunganak, Gasa, Lingshi, Paro and Haa. Lhotshampas are of Nepali origin and live in the south, primarily in the districts of Chukha, Dagana and Samdrup Jonkhar districts. There are other smaller ethnic groups like the Santhals, Rajbansis, and Doyas.
The Ngalop (a term thought to mean the earliest risen or first converted) are people of Tibetan origin who migrated to Bhutan as early as the 9th century. For this reason, they are often referred to in foreign literature as Bhote (people of Bhotia or Tibet). The Ngalop are concentrated in western and northern districts, which include Wangdi, Punakha, Dagana, Thimphu, Chukha, Paro, Haa and Gasa. They introduced Tibetan culture and Buddhism to Bhutan and comprise the dominant political and cultural element in modern Bhutan. Ngalop are often called Drukpas and are the ruling group who control the monarchy and the government and dominate the economy. The king and all the high government officials belong to this politically and economically dominant ethnic group. They live in the northwestern region, speak the Dzonkha language and wear robe-like dresses. They migrated from Tibet.
The Sharchop (the word means easterner), an Indo-Mongoloid people who are thought to have migrated from Assam or possibly Burma during the past millennium, comprise most of the population of eastern Bhutan and dominate the eastern areas namely Mongar, Tashigang, Bumthang, Mangde, Kheng, Kurtoe, Dungsum and Yangtse. Although long the biggest ethnic group in Bhutan, the Sharchop have been largely assimilated into the Tibetan-Ngalops culture. Because of their proximity to India, some speak Assamese or Hindi. They practice slash-and-burn and tsheri agriculture, planting dry rice crops for three or four years until the soil is exhausted and then moving on. They practice the Nyingmapa sect of Mahayana Buddhism and belong to Tibeto-Burman ancestry. They speak Tsangla, Kurteop, Kheng and Brokpa dialects and have supposedly migrated from North-east India.
Bhutan is the only country in the world to retain the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism (Drukpa Kagyu) as the official religion. The Buddhist faith has played and continues to play a fundamental role in the cultural, ethical and sociological development of Bhutan and its people. It permeates all strands of secular life, bringing with it a reverence for the land and its well being. Annual festivals (tsechus and dromches) are spiritual occasions in each district. They bring together the population and are dedicated to the Guru Rinpoche or other deities. Throughout Bhutan, stupas and chortens line the roadside commemorating places where Guru Rinpoche or another high Lama may have stopped to meditate. Prayer flags dot the hills, fluttering in the wind. They allow Bhutanese people to maintain constant communication with the heavens.
Art and Culture
Bhutan's unique spirit and identity is reflected in its arts and crafts, which are all religiously rooted. Three characteristics are typical for Bhutanese art: it has no independent aesthetic function, it is religious and anonymous. Bhutan ‘art of Zorig Chosum’ contains 13 arts and crafts. These vary from paintings and thankas (wall hangings) to sculptures, weaving, paper making, wood carving, carpentry, blacksmithing, swordmaking, boothmaking, thazo (bamboo craft), jewelry and bow and Old Bhutanese Doorknob arrow making.
Because the Bhutanese make the arts merely for themselves and not for tourists, they are still very much alive. Also, the government puts a great emphasis on the preservation of culture and tradition and supports it in several ways.
Bhutanese culture and Buddhist influence go hand-in-hand. The influence of religion is highly visible in everyday life and is a major reason for Bhutan’s spiritual and cultural legacy. The hundreds of sacred monasteries, stupas, religious institutions, prayer flags and prayer wheels make Buddhism a faith that nowadays still is very alive and probably always will be in the kingdom. Not only this makes Bhutan a very authentic country; it is also because of the traditional woven garments the people wear, the typical robust yet refined architecture and the splendid cultural festivals which are steeped in Buddhism.
All religious ceremonies and rituals (and there are many!) are regularly performed, with reverence for all of life. All Bhutanese families go on a pilgrimage on auspicious days, offering prayers and butter lamps to the gods of the Himalayas. National and regional festivals coincide with the seasons, happening all year round.
The rich cultural heritage of Bhutan is strongly promoted by its government. Although modernization is slowly making its way, generating urban settlements and introducing computers, mobile phones and other Western modernities, most of Bhutan's people still live quietly in small remote villages. The predominant way of life is small family farms and Bhutan’s number one occupation is being a farmer.
The documented history of the Kingdom begins with 747 A.D. with Guru Padsambhava also known as Guru Rinpoche who made his legendary trip from Tibet across the mountains flying on a tigress's back. He arrived in Paro valley at Taktsang Lhakhang also known as Tiger's Nest. Guru Rinpoche is not only recognized as the founder of the Nyingmapa religious school but also considered to be second Buddha. In the ensuing centuries, many great masters preached the faith resulting in full bloom of Buddhism by the middle ages. Although sectarian at first, the country was eventually unified under Drukpa Kagyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism by saint/administrator Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the 17th century. Ngawang Namgyal codified a comprehensive system of laws and built a chain of Dzongs which guarded each valley during unsettled times and now serving as the religious and administrative centre of the region.
During the next two centuries civil wars intermittently broke out and the regional Governors became increasingly more powerful. At the end of 19th century, Trongsa Governor overcame all his rivals and soon afterwards recognized as the overall leader of Bhutan. The Governor of Trongsa, Sir Ugyen Wangchuck, was elected as the first King of Bhutan in 1907 by an assembly of representatives of the monastic community, civil servants and people. The country has now the system of constitutional monarchy.