The tiny Kingdom of Bhutan lies hidden in the folds of the eastern Himalayas sandwiched between the two giant countries of India in the south and China in the north. With a total area of 38,398 sq kilometers, approximately the size of Switzerland, Bhutan lies between 88° 45′ and 92°10′ longitude east and 26°40′ and 28°15 ‘ north. It is a mountainous country except for a small flat strip in the southern foothills. In the north we border Tibet, the autonomous region under China, the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and in the south with the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal.
History of Bhutan
Medieval Bhutan was known by several names and the genesis of the names varies. Some say that the name Bhutan has been derived from the ancient Indian term “Bhotanta” which means the end of the land of the Bhots. ‘Bhots’ was the Sanskrit term for Tibetans, thus Bhutan could mean the end of the land of Tibet or from “Bhu-uttan” which means ‘high land’. Though known to the outside world as Bhutan, it is also called Druk Yul or the Land of The Thunder Dragon.
Bhutan has never been colonized, a historic fact greatly treasured and prized by Bhutanese. Numerous clans and feudal chiefs ruled different regions in the country, leading to constant conflicts amongst themselves. However, this changed after the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in the 17th century, who unified the country and established a dual system of governance.
Apart from this, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel built several Dzongs in the country and established the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism. 1907 was another historic moment as the Trongsa Penlop (Governor) Ugyen Wangchuck was enthroned at Punakha as the first hereditary King of Bhutan. The Wangchuck dynasty, especially the Third King, Jigmi Dorji Wangchuck, known as the Father of Modern Bhutan opened Bhutan to the world. The current King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck is the fifth king of Bhutan.
Another historic figure in Bhutanese history is the great Indian Tantric Saint, Guru Padma Sambhava who came to Bhutan on the invitation of the then King of Bumthang, Sindhu Gyab. There are several legends surrounding Guru Padma Sambhava, one of the most important one being his journey to Paro Taktshang on a tigress in a wrathful form. He had come to the monastery to subdue evil forces that were obstructing the spread of Buddhism. Guru Rinpoche is not only recognized as the founder of Nyingmapa religious school but also considered as the second Buddha. In the years that followed many great masters flourished the faith of Buddhism. The country was eventually unified under the Drukpa Kargyud sect of Mahayana Buddhism by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.
From the 17th century till date, Bhutan has witnessed several historical moments, the most important being the abdication from the Throne by the Fourth King and introduction of democracy in the country. Bhutan held its first general elections in 2008. Thus, it is not without sufficient evidence and reasons that Bhutan is known as a special country, guided by visionary leaders- a country which gifted Gross National Happiness to the world.
Bhutan can justifiably be called as one of the world’s last remaining biodiversity hotspots. The importance attached to the environment is reflected in the Constitution of Bhutan, with Article 5, stating that 60 percent of the country’s area should be under forest cover at all times.
An astonishing array of plants grow in Bhutan: over 5,400 species, including 300 species of medicinal plants, some hardy species thriving even at 3,700m above.
Bhutan has one of the richest stocks of orchids in the world. Of the 369 species, 82 are unique to the mountain kingdom. Bhutan claims 46 of the 1,000 species of rhododendrons found worldwide.
The tropical evergreen forests growing below 800m are repositories of a unique biodiversity. The tropical vegetation of the lower zones give way to dark forests of oak, birch, maple, magnolia and laurel. Above 2,400m altitude is the home of spruce, yew, and weeping cypress, and higher still, growing up to the tree line, is the east Himalayan fir.
At about 5,500m are low shrubs, rhododendrons, himalayan grasses and flowering herbs. Bhutan’s national flower, Blue Poppy grows above the tree line at 3,500 – 4,500m elevation.
Many rare and endangered species such as the Royal Bengal tiger, Asian elephant, gaur, wild buffalo, wild dog, common leopard, black panther, marveled cat, golden cat, clouded Leopard and Chinese pangolin, Musk deer, Blue Sheep, Takin are seen in Bhutan. Species endemic to the Eastern Himalayan foothills, such as golden langur, capped langur, pygmy hog and hispid hare are found in Bhutan’s oldest park, the Royal Manas Park.
Gross National Happiness: Development Philosophy of Bhutan
While agreeing that the ultimate purpose of life is the pursuit of Happiness, for a very long time, economists around the world have argued that the key to happiness is obtaining and enjoying material development. However, Bhutan adheres to a very different belief and advocates that amassing material wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness. There are abstract, non-material aspects of life, which are equally if not more important to make people happy. This was first underlined by Bhutan’s Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who proclaimed that “Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross National Product (GNP)”.
This concept has now become an international anthem and it was elevated further on 19th July 2011, when the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted resolution A/RES/65/309 entitled “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development”. It was the first resolution initiated by Bhutan and was passed without a vote after Bhutan was able to secure the support of 68 co-sponsors.
A concept that arose from a small Kingdom nestled in the Himalayas; GNH is today a subject for scholars and social thinkers, a literature in itself. This is a reason why Bhutan is called the “Happy Kingdom” and has become the epitome of Happiness.
GNH revolves around the four main pillars; equitable and equal socio-economic development’ preservation and promotion of cultural and spiritual heritage, conservation of environment and good governance. These are interwoven and complement one another.
Of late, GNH has dominated scholars seeking measures to translate GNH into a concrete concept. In Bhutan, the Center of Bhutan Studies (CBS) does most of the studies related to this concept.
People, Society and Religion of Bhutan
Bhutanese people can be generally categorized into three main ethnic groups. The Tshanglas, Ngalops and the Lhotshampas. The other minority groups are the Bumthaps and the Khengpas of Central Bhutan, the Kurtoeps in Lhuentse, the Brokpas and the Bramis of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan, the Doyas of Samtse and the Monpas of Rukha villages in Wangdue Phodrang. Together the multiethnic Bhutanese population number slightly more than 771,612.
The Tshanglas or the Sharchops are considered the aboriginal inhabitants of eastern Bhutan. Tshanglas or the descendants of Lord Brahma as claimed by the historians speak Tshanglakha and are commonly inhabitants of Mongar, Trashigang, Trashi Yangtse, Pema Gasthel and Samdrup Jongkhar. Besides cultivation of maize, rice, wheat, barley and vegetables, the Tshanglas also rear domestic animals to supplement their living. Weaving is a popular occupation of women. They produce beautiful fabrics mainly of silk and raw silk.
The Ngalops who have settled mostly in the six regions of western Bhutan are of Tibetan origin. They speak Ngalopkha, the polished version of Dzongkha which is the national language of Bhutan. Agriculture is their main livelihood. They cultivate rice, wheat, barley, maize etc, among others. In the regions of Thimphu and Paro apples are also cultivated as cash crops. They are known for Lozeys, or ornamental speech and for Zheys, dances that are unique to the Ngalops.
The Lhotshampas who have settled in the southern foothills are the latest to settle in the country. It is generally agreed that they migrated from Nepal in the beginning of the 19th century mostly coming in as laborers. They speak Lhotshampa which is the Nepali language and practice Hinduism. One can find various castes of Lhotshampas including Bhawans, Chhetris, Rai’s, Limbus, Tamangs, Gurungs, and the lepchas. They essentially depend on agriculture and cultivate cash crops such as ginger, cardamom, oranges, etc.
The Bumthaps, Mangdeps and Khengpas:
The people who speak Bumtapkha, Mangdepkha and khengkha respectively inhabit the central pockets of Bhutan. The Bumthaps cultivate buckwheat, potatoes and vegetables. A section of this population also rear yaks and sheep and produce fabrics of wool and yak hair. The Mangdeps depend on cultivation of rice, wheat, maize, vegetables, etc besides rearing domestic animals. The khengpas also depend on agriculture similar to the Mangdeps. However, they are also known for the bamboo and cane craft.
Kurtoeps are the other category of people in the east. They inhabit the district of Lhuentse and the villages are found spread along the banks of Kurichu. Khoma women are expert weavers and are known for their skill in weaving the grandiose Kushithara.
The Brokpas and the Bramis:
The Brokpas and the Bramis are a semi-nomadic community. They are settled in the two villages of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan. They mostly depend on yaks and sheep for livelihood. Living in the high altitude zones they hardly take up agriculture. They speak a different dialect and have their own unique dress that is made of yak hair and sheep wool. They are also experts in cane and bamboo crafts.
To the extreme north are the Layaps who speak the layapkha. Like the Brokpas, they are also semi-nomads whose main source of livelihood is dependent on yaks and sheep, the products of which they barter with the people of Wangdue Phodrang and Punakha with rice, salt and other consumables.
These are the other tribal communities and are settled mostly in southern Bhutan. They are considered the aboriginal inhabitants of western and central Bhutan, who over the years settled in the present areas in Dorokha. They have a dialect of their own and dress in their own unique style.
The Monpas are a small community in Rukha under Wangdue Phodrang. Together with the Doyas they are also considered the original settlers of central Bhutan. They speak a different dialect unique to their own but one that is slowly fading as these people are now being absorbed into the mainstream Bhutanese society.
The Bhutanese society is free of class or caste system and any inhibition that is detrimental for a society to progress. Slavery was abolished by the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in the early 1950s through a royal edict. Few organizations to empower women have been established a few years back, in general ours is an open and a good-spirited society.
Living in a Bhutanese society generally means understanding some basic norms like Driglam Namzha, the traditional etiquette. This is a norm that desires members of the society to conduct themselves in public places. Wearing a scarf when visiting a Dzong or an office, letting the elders and the monks serve themselves first, offering felicitation scarves during ceremonies such as marriages and promotions, greeting elders or senior officials are some simple manners that harmonizes and binds together the Bhutanese society.
Normally, greetings are limited to saying Kuzuzangpo amongst equals. For seniors and elders, the Bhutanese bow their heads a bit and say kuzuzangpo la. But, the western ways of shaking hands has also become an accepted norm.
Bhutanese are also fun-loving people. Dancing, singing, playing archery, stone pitching, partying, social gatherings etc. are common things that one observes while they are in Bhutan. Visiting friends and relatives at any hour of the day without any advance notice or appointment clearly depicts the openness of the Bhutanese society.
Bhutan is a Buddhist country and people refer to it as the last stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism. Buddhism was first introduced by the Indian Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century. Till then people worshiped all forms of nature, remnants of which are still evident even today in some remote villages in the country. The older form of religion was referred to as Bon and was accompanied by offerings of animal sacrifice and worshiped a host of deities invoking and propitiating them.
They believed in invisible forces and considered them as the rightful owners of different elements of nature. Mountain peaks considered as abodes of Guardian deities (Yul lha), the lakes as inhabited by lake deities (Tsho mem), cliffs resided by cliff deities (Tsen), land belonging to the subterranean deities (Lue), land inhabited by (Sabdag), water sources inhabited by water deities (Chu gi Lhamu), and dark places haunted by the demons (due) etc.
With the visit of Padmasambhava, Buddhism began to take firm roots and especially led to the propagation of the Nyingmapa (the ancient or the older) school of Buddhism.
The visit of Phajo Drugom Zhigpo from Ralung in Tibet to Bhutan in 1222 marks another milestone in the history of Bhutan and in Buddhism. He was instrumental in introducing yet another school of Buddhism – the Drukpa Kagyu that is the state religion of the country today. His sons and descendants were also instrumental in spreading it to other parts in western Bhutan.
By far the greatest contributor was Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal. His arrival in 1616 from Tibet marks another landmark. He was able to bring the various Buddhist schools cropped up in many parts of western Bhutan under his domain and unified the country as one whole nation-state and give it a distinct identity.
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 circumnutation temples and stupas, fluttering prayer flags, red robed monks conducting rituals, among many others are all living cases in point to reveal that Buddhism is an essential ingredient of a Bhutanese life.