Bhutan is a sovereign and landlocked country in South Asia bordered by China in the north and Indian in the south. With a total area of 38,394 km2, Bhutan is one of the smallest countries in the world. Bhutan is the only independent Buddhist Kingdom in the Himalayas. Bhutan’s population stands at 0.7 million as of 2017.
Above the Indian plains, Bhutan gradually rises from the luxurious jungle of the foothills about 150 meters above sea level to the solitude of the snow-capped peaks culminating at more than 7500 meters above sea level.
Bhutan is divided into 20 districts and further divided into 205 blocks. Thimphu is the capital city of Bhutan while city of Phuntsholing in Chukha serves as the commercial hub.
Bhutan’s historical names
1. Druk Yul: the Land of Thunder Dragon
In Dzongkha, Bhutan is known by the name Druk or Druk Yul. Druk is a mythological animal equivalent to ‘dragon’ in English.
Tsangpa Gyarey (1161–1211), the founder of Drukpa Kaguy, a sect within Buddhism, heard a violent thunder storm when he began to construct a monastery in Ralung in Tibet. Thunder is considered a roar of the dragon and seen auspicious. He added ‘Druk’ to his monastery and the sect. Its followers were called Drukpas.
Later on, in the 17th Century, a Lama from the Drukpa Kagyu Lineage, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, came to Bhutan and established the dual system of government. Since then, the country came to be known as Druk and its people as Drukpas or the follower of Drukpa Kagyu.
2. Menjong: the land of Medicinal Plants
Bhutan’s difference in altitude, bringing almost tropical vegetation right to the vase of glaciers, has made it possible for plants of extremely different climatic and environmental conditions to grow in the country.
Owing to its plants with medicinal values used in various schools of Asian traditional medicine, Bhutan was known as Menjong, the land of medicinal plants.
With Sir Ugyen Wangchuck was enthroned unanimously by the people of Bhutan in 1907 as the first hereditary monarch, Bhutan was a late entrant among countries that adopted monarchy.
However, Bhutan definitely gained a lot from the monarchical system as it was blessed with benevolent monarchs who worked tirelessly for the welfare of their people.
Bhutanese monarchs have provided exemplary leadership and have transformed the country into a modern progressive nation in a matter of just about 100 years.
Their praises are sung not just by Bhutanese, but by the world at large because their accomplishments are big though our country is small.
The present King of Bhutan, His Majesty the Fifth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is popularly known as the People’s King because of his deep love and concern for the welfare of his people.
National symbols of Bhutan
1. National Sport
Archery is the National Sport of Bhutan. Bow and arrow were an important means of survival in the highlands during war and on hunts. Today, Archery is played during local festivals, religious and secular public holidays in Bhutan.
2. National Bird
Raven, the big black bird with shining feathers, hoarse voice, and playful nature is sacred and is national bird of Bhutan. More profoundly, it is the symbol of the country’s guardian deity Yeshey Gonpo and the Raven head takes pride of place on top of the King’s Crown. The Raven Crown symbolizes the sacred nature of Bhutanese Kingship.
3) National Animal
Associated with religious history and mythology, Takin is the national animal. It is a very rare mammal with a thick neck and short muscular legs. It lives in groups and is found above 4000 meters and feed on a variety of leaves and grasses, as well as bamboo shoots and flowers.
4. National Flower
Meconopsis gakyidiana, a species of Blue poppy and native to Bhutan is the national flower. Curator Rinchen Yangzom decided on a new name and it was given a dzongkha name ‘Gakyid’. The name was inspired by the concept of GNH.
5. National Tree
The national tree is the cypress.Cypresses is found in abundance and Bhutanese consider the cypress sacred and held it in great reverence. Cypress is often planted outside monasteries, dzongs and religious places and its wood and branches has been used as incense for thousands of years.
6. National Dress
Gho, for men, and kira, for women, are national dress of Bhutan. All Bhutanese, except monks and nuns, are required to wear national dress in schools, government offices and on formal occasions. It is also customary to wear national dress while joining festivals and visiting temples, monasteries and Dzongs.
7. National Dish
Ema Datshi (chili and cheese) is recognized as a national dish though meat is highly revered. The dish is prepared with chili as the main ingredient. Any kind of chili (green, red, or dried) can be used. Butter/oil and cheese and salt are added to balance the hotness of chili.
8. National Flag
The National Flag of Bhutan is diagonally divided into yellow and orange fields. The yellow half stretches from the lower hoist to the upper fly end, and the orange half from the fly end to the lower hoist. White dragon with jewels in hands, flies facing away from the hoist along the dividing line.
9. National Anthem
The National Anthem of Bhutan reads as follows:
In the Kingdom of Bhutan adorned with cypress trees,
The Protector who reigns over the realm of spiritual and secular traditions,
He is the King of Bhutan, the precious sovereign.
May His being remain unchanging, and the Kingdom prosper,
May the teachings of the Enlightened One flourish,
May the sun of peace and happiness shine over all people.
10. National Currency
Ngultrum is the currency of Bhutan. One Ngultrum is divided into 100 fractions known as Chetrum. The paper currency of Bhutan was formally launched only in 1974. Until then, the coins were used as a legal tender.
11. National Language
Dzongkha is the official and National Language of Bhutan and the only language with a native literary tradition. Dzongkha is compulsory in schools and colleges.
The native Dzongkha speaker counts to around 0.17 million but almost all the Bhutanese speak Dzongkha.
Religion and Culture
Culture of Bhutan is a distinctive feature that gives Bhutanese a unique identity in the world. Developed over centuries with influence of Buddhism, culture of Bhutan remained unswayed due to strict isolation policy until the 1960s.
For a small kingdom, situated between the two Asia Giants, preservation and promotion of unique cultural identity is seen as a means to survive as a sovereign kingdom.
As Bhutan began its development guided by the philosophy of Gross National Happiness in the 1970s, preservation and promotion of cultural heritage and traditional values is one of the four pillars of the philosophy.
Buddhism is a predominant religion in Bhutan followed by Hinduism. Buddhism was introduced in Bhutan by Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th Century.
The constitution of Bhutan protects Buddhism as the spiritual heritage of country that promotes the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance.
Buddhism plays a vital role in Bhutanese daily life from birth till death. It has influence over everything related to Bhutan.
Prayer flags over the mountains, stupas on your way, prayer wheels along the streams, majestic dzongs and temples on the hills and people chanting prayers are a way of Buddhism.
Bhutan has surprisingly more number of monks than soldiers.
High Value Low Impact Tourism
Bhutan remained isolated from outside world for centuries and opened to foreigners only in 1974. Bhutan enjoys a reputation for unique cultural heritage and natural environment.
Bhutan is aware of the environmental impact of tourism on unspoiled natural landscape and culture. Therefore, tourism is strictly regulated under the ‘high value low impact tourism’ policy.
Except for citizens of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives, all tourists visiting Bhutan must pay $250 per person per night halt during peak season (March, April, May, September, October & November) and $200 per person per night halt during low season (January, February, June, July, August & December).
But where does the Bhutan tourist fee money go? Daily tariff includes a 3 star hotel, a registered tour guide, transportation and all meals. $60 per day goes to the government’s sustainable development fee.
Citizens of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives entering Bhutan as a tourist shall have to pay 25% of $60 that comes to $15 a day starting mid of 2020.
Gross National Happiness
Gross National Happiness (GNH) is a term coined by His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King of Bhutan.
In 1972, a 16 year old king, while on the way to conference abroad, was asked about the GNP of Bhutan. In response, he said, for Bhutan, GNH is more important than Gross National Product. That very moment gave birth to GNH.
Distinguishable from Gross Domestic Product, GNH development framework is based on four pillars:
1. Sustainable and equitable socio-economic development;
2. Conservation of environment;
3. Preservation and promotion of culture;
4. Good governance.
GNH Commission was formed to coordinate all policy formulation, monitoring and implementation of development plans and policies in Bhutan. It is composed of Secretaries each of the ministries, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of the GNHC.
The GNH index is used to measure the happiness and well-being of Bhutan’s population.
In 2011, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development” urging member nations to follow the example of Bhutan and calling happiness a “fundamental human goal.”
After the UN High Level Meeting in 2012, 20 March was declared to be the International Day of Happiness by the UN.
Nature and Environment
Located on the southern end of the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan’s mountains are some of the salient geographical features ranging from an elevation of 160 meters to more than 7,000 meters above sea level.
The Bhutanese have always had a deep respect for its natural environment and have lived in harmony with nature for centuries. This is reflected in our architecture, way of life and our policies.
Gangkar Puensum, standing at the elevation of 7,570 meters is the highest unclimbed mountain peak of the world. Water in Bhutan are glacial and spring that follows from mountains.
Bhutan’s constitution requires the government to maintain at least 60% of land under forest cover but Bhutan has more than 82% of total land area under forest. Small population and absence of overdevelopment has contributed to forest preservation.
Forests in Bhutan has the capacity to absorb 6 million tons of carbon annually whereas Bhutan emits only 1.5 million tons of carbon in a year. Thus, Bhutan is not carbon neutral but the only carbon negative country in the world.
Attributing to the presence of a rich biological diversity, Bhutan is a home to several endangered species of flora and fauna harboring over 7000 species of plant, 165 species of mammals and 700 species of birds.
Even when the planned modern economic development started in the early sixties, our Kings have been wise and far-sighted enough not to trade our pristine natural environment for short term economic gains.
Bhutan is a deeply spiritual country with temples, monasteries, stupas and prayer flags everywhere.
One of the most striking features of Bhutan is architecture. Bhutanese developed a peculiar style for dzongs, temples, house, bridges and stupas.
Traditional structures are constructed from locally available materials such as wood, bamboo, mud and stone. Neither nails nor iron bars are used. Blue prints are also not used.
Once complete, the structures get traditional paint on both external and internal walls.
The construction act mandates all modern buildings to have a look of traditional architecture with arched windows, sloping roofs and traditional painting.
Health and education
All Bhutanese citizen receive free health care services both in traditional medicine and modern medicine.
Even if a patient has to be referred abroad for treatment, the government bears the cost of travel and medical expenses. Common medical destinations are India and Thailand.
In line with providing free healthcare services, privatization of hospital is not allowed in Bhutan.
Likewise, Bhutan government bears the cost of educating every child up to class 12. Bhutan has some private schools, from nursery to college, for those who do not want to enroll their children in government schools.
After 12th standard, excellent students are given scholarship to study in government colleges. But those who cannot meet the scholarship mark can either join private colleges within and outside Bhutan at their own expense or join government owned vocational training institutions.
For a population of a little more than 700,000 people, Bhutan is linguistically rich with more than 20 languages. Difficult geographical features and harsh climatic conditions have led to isolation.
Dzongkha is the national language and every Bhutanese is expected to speak and write in it though it is the native to the west.
It’s mandatory for students to learn Dzongkha in schools and colleges. Two other major languages are the Tshanglakha, spoken by the people from the east and the Lhotshamkha, spoken in the south.
Mangdepkha, Khengkha and Bumthapkha are spoken in the central Bhutan while Chocha Ngacha is spoken by the Kurtoeps in eastern Bhutan.
Unfortunately, some minor spoken language such as Oleykha and Gongdukha are on verge of extinction.
Rice is the main dish of Bhutan accompanied by side dishes such as beef, pork and vegetables. Chili, salt and oil (sometimes butter) are a must ingredient for all side dishes.
Bhutanese eat a lot of chili and curry made from Chili and Cheese, called Ema Datshi, the favorite of most. Here, chili is the main ingredient followed by cheese. It’s also the national dish.
In addition to main food, Bhutanese drink Suja, tea made from butter and salt, and milk tea. Drinking alcoholic beverages is a part of celebrations, gatherings and social events.
Banned in Bhutan
1. Capital punishment
Capital punishment was the penalty for murderers and criminals who fled the scene until 1960s when the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck banned it. However, Under the National Security Act of 1992, the death penalty was re-designated for treason.
In 2004, His Majesty, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck formally decreed the abolition of capital punishment. The constitution prohibits the capital punishment under the fundamental rights.
Economy was based on the payment in kind and in labor before the introduction of money. Slavery was inherited and therefore, was legal until its abolishment in 1958. As a part of the modernization, the Third King not only freed but awarded citizenship and land to former slaves.
3. Hunting and fishing
Hunting and fishing in Bhutan is not allowed. However, fishing in non-restricted areas are allowed with a special permit.
In addition, import and sale of meat and fish is not allowed during the holy days and months of the Bhutanese Calendar since early 2000s.
4. Felling Trees
Cutting down of trees is illegal in Bhutan. People in the rural area are eligible for certain numbers to trees for the construction of house. For construction in urban, the owner have to buy logs from sawmill.
5. Import and use of plastic
Bhutan initiated a ban on plastic import in 1999. It garnered global attention and appreciation. However, the ban was a failure since the alternatives for plastic bags were not sought out. The ban was reintroduced in 2005 and 2019.
6. Mountain climbing
Bhutan has around 20 mountain peaks that exceed 7,000 meters elevation. Mountains are considered the abode of gods and deities. Numerous Buddhist masters have visited these mountains for pilgrimage and meditation and therefore, it’s holy and sacred.
Mountaineering was allowed in the 1980s with very special permit, but it has been prohibited to climb peaks over 6,000 meters elevation since 1994. Mountain climbing in Bhutan was banned completely in 2003.
The highest unclimbed mountain peak of the world is located in Bhutan. It’s Gangkar Puensum.
7. Sale of tobacco products
The Tobacco Control Act of Bhutan, 2010, prohibits the cultivation, harvest, production, and sale of tobacco and tobacco products in Bhutan. The act allows individuals to import tobacco and tobacco products for personal consumption according to limits set by the Tobacco Control Board subject to duties and taxes.
Smoking in public places, offices, restaurants and in films are banned as well.
8. Prostitution and pornography
The Penal Code of Bhutan criminalizes prostitution. In 2017, Lhak-Sam, an NGO, proposed to legalize prostitution by the government, but the proposal was turned down.
Likewise, production and distribution of pornography is a crime.
9. Screening foreign films
Bhutan has only 10 cinema halls. Hollywood and Bollywood films were screened for entertainment until screening of foreign films is banned in mid 2000s to give a boost to local films. The ban is also to solve the shortage of screening facilities and locations in the country.
Bhutan produced first feature film ‘Gasa Lami Singye’ in 1988. Today, around 15 films are produced annually.
10. Vegetable and poultry import from India
Bhutan strictly monitors the imported food items. Recently, chili, beans and cauliflower important from India were found with high chemical content and therefore the government imposed a ban of mentioned vegetables.
Because of the petition submitted by Bhutanese poultry farmers to control the import of poultry products and the avian flu outbreak in India, the government to ban poultry products including eggs in 2012. It is also because a self-sufficiency food policy to shield the food security in the country.
Although the import of eggs remains banned, import of chicken is allowed.