10 Facts about Bhutan
Bhutan is one of those mysterious distant lands that people don’t know much about, which makes it even more appealing! Just in case it comes up in conversation, we’ve put together 10 facts about Bhutan for you – a quick profile of the country and the things that make Bhutan, well Bhutan – so you can talk with some authority on the Land of the Thunder Dragon…
1. PERSON – Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the fifth dragon king of Bhutan. His education was completed overseas in Massachusetts, then at Magdalen College Oxford, and finally at the National Defence College in New Delhi, India. His father, the enlightened King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, abdicated in his favour in 2008, and he continued his father work overseeing the democratisation of his country. He married a commoner, Jetsun Pema in 2011, amid countrywide celebration. In his coronation speech Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, made the following promise: “Throughout my reign I will never rule you as a King. I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother and serve you as a son.”
2. HISTORY – Bhutan’s history has been marked by a succession of invasions – most notably by the Tibetans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1616, the Tibetan lama and military leader Ngawang Namgyal, established his base in West Bhutan going on to found Cheri Monastery in the Thimphu Valley. He unified the warring fiefdoms of Bhutan and built a network of fortresses across the country, called dzongs, to defend against more Tibetan invasions. Many of the dzongs still exist as religious and administrative centres.
3. POLITICS – The fourth Dragon King of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck proved to be an enlightened ruler, actively moving his country from an absolute monarchy to a democracy with its first parliamentary elections in 2008. He also created the concept of Gross National Happiness as an alternative measure of development to Gross National Product, believing the happiness of its people is a better indicator of a country’s wealth.
4. RELIGION – the state religion is Vajrayana Buddhism, which was introduced to Bhutan in the 7th century AD by the Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo. He built two temples, one at Bumthang and the other at Kyichu Lhakhang in the Paro Valley. It is estimated that three-quarters of Bhutan’s population are adherents and the government pays annual subsidies to the Buddhist monasteries and shrines.
5. CULTURE – Bhutan’s cultural heritage has survived largely unspoilt due to the country’s isolation from the rest of the world. In the 1970’s a tiny number of tourists were first allowed in and numbers are still strictly regulated today. Western influences are still kept at bay – there are still no traffic lights in Bhutan, although television, satellite and the web are now limitedly available. Houses must be built to a traditional design, every village holds regular competitions in the national sport of archery, and most people still wear traditional dress – men wear the gho, a knee-length sarong and women wear the ankle-length kira with a jacket called a tego.
6. FESTIVALS – Bhutan is known for its colourful festivals or tshechus, elaborate and colourful Buddhist celebrations held at temples, dzongs and monasteries throughout the country usually to mark important events in the life of the second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche. Monks perform sacred cham masked dances to the sound of horns and cymbals, interspersed with performances of folksongs, whilst atsaras, naughty clowns with vast wooden phalli, entertain the crowd! People flock from surrounding villages dressed in their best clothes to enjoy these lively, high-spirited festivals. They receive blessings, catch up with friends and family and share meals of red rice, spicy pork, ema datshi and momos (pork dumplings) whilst drinking the heady traditional rice wine known as ara.
7. NATURE – The unspoilt landscape is home to a rich and varied wildlife, including many rare and endangered species. The golden langur, Bengal tiger, clouded leopard, hispid hare, sloth bear, Himalayan black bear, red panda, sambar, wild pig, barking deer, snow leopard, blue sheep, marmot, Tibetan wolf, antelope, Himalayan musk deer, white-winged duck and the takin – Bhutan’s national animal – all have their homes in Bhutan’s fertile countryside.
8. LANDSCAPE – Bhutan’s landscape is as rich and unspoilt as its culture. Steep high mountains, deep valleys and swift rivers offer breathtakingly beautiful scenery. In the north there is the alpine shrub and meadows of the Eastern Himalayas; central Bhutan is made up of the Black Mountains, dense forests and the river systems of Mo Chhu and Drangme Chhu; and the south comprises the Shiwalik Hills, lowland river valleys, and subtropical Duars Plain with its dense vegetation.
9. ICONIC STRUCTURES – Of all Bhutan’s majestic dzongs and monasteries, the most famous and perhaps most sacred is the Taktsang Palphug Monastery or Tiger's Nest as it is popularly known. Perched high on the mountainside in the upper Paro valley, the temple complex was first built in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown from Tibet on the back of a tigress. There he meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century. Situated at an altitude of 3,120 metres (10,240 ft), about 900 metres (3,000 ft) above the Paro valley, the monastery can be reached from the northwest through the forest, from the south along the steep path used by pilgrims, and from the north with access over the rocky plateau known as the “Hundred Thousand Fairies” or Bumda.
10. ETHNIC GROUPS – Bhutan is home to numerous ethnic groups, with many tribal peoples like the Brokpa, Lepcha, and Doya, living in rural villages all over Bhutan. However, there are some distinct large ethnic groups – including the Ngalop of Tibetan origin who live mainly in western and northern Bhutan and are the dominant political and cultural element. Their language, Dzongkha, is the national tongue. The Sharchop live in eastern Bhutan; and the Lhotshampa in the south.