The Kingdom of Bhutan
Bhutan, a jewel between India and China, is about the size of Switzerland with a population of around 750,000. Within its small boundaries the ecological diversity is amazing. Tropical jungles in the south with elephants, rhinoceros, and tigers, coniferous forest in the mid region with leopards, mountain goats, bears, and variety of bird life, and blue sheep and snow leopards in the high temperature zones. Through centuries of self-imposed isolation Bhutan has been able to preserve its spectacular environment and nurture its unique culture. Drawing inspiration from its neighbour, Tibet, Tantric Buddhism has flourished and influenced art, crafts, architecture for hundreds of years, and has shaped the Bhutanese way of life. The early 1960s saw Bhutan's first cautious opening to the outside world. Tourism began for the first time on June 2nd 1974.
The idea of happiness and wellbeing as the goal of development has always been a part of Bhutanese political psyche. While this has influenced Bhutan's development endeavors during the early part of the modernization process, it was not pursed as a deliberate policy goal until His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan introduced Gross National Happiness (GNH) to define the official development paradigm for Bhutan.
People and Culture
The two are core aspects of culture. And though Bhutan is a small country there are three major ethnic groups; the Sharchops-people of eastern Bhutan,the Ngalops (people of western Bhutan) and the Lhotsampas (people of Southern Bhutan).
However, other groups such as Bumtaps(people of Bumthang), Khengpas(people living in the district of Zhemgang), Layaps and Brokpas (the two communities that migrate) are prominent. There are about 20 different dialects spoken by the people.However, dzongkha Ă˘€“ the language of the people of western Bhutan is the official language.
Bhutanese men wear Gho Ă˘€“ a knee length robe tied at the waist by a belt known as Kera.
Women wear Kira- an ankle length dress, which is also tied at the waist by a Kera. Komas- brooches fasten the Kira on their shoulder. A long sleeved blouse known as a wonjo is worn inside the Kira and a Tego (like a jacket) is worn outside.A traditional boot called the Tsolam is also worn on special occasions.
Additionally, scarfs called kabney for men and rachu for women is worn during formal occasions and in offices. There are different colors of a Kabney, which represent the hierarchy in society, including the post that a man/woman holds.The yellow scarf is for the King and the Head abbot. The Orange are for ministers, the red for Dashos (a title equivalent to Knighthood); blue for members of the Parliament; green for the Justices and white for common man.
A Patang (sword) is also tied to the belt and is the prerogative of those that are ordained with the red, blue, green, orange and the yellow scarfs. However, the King can ordain a patang for those with white scarfs.
Culture and Religion
Bhutan is the only country to maintain Mahayana Buddhism in its Tantric Vajrayana form as the official religion. The main practicing schools are the state sponsored Drukpa Kagyupa and the Nyingmapa. Buddhism transects all strata of society, underpinning multiple aspects of the culture. Indeed, religion is the focal point for the arts, festivals and a considerably above average number of individuals.The presence of so many monasteries, temples and stupas, monks and tulkus (reincarnations of high lamas) is indicative of the overarching role religion plays throughout the nation.
Although Buddhism and the monarchy are critical elements, it is the general extensive perpetuation of tradition that is possibly the most striking aspect of Bhutan's culture. This is most overtly reflected in the nature of dress and architecture. All Bhutanese continue to wear the traditional dress: for men and boys the gho, a long gown hitched up to the knee so that its lower half resembles a skirt, for women and girls the kira, an ankle-length robe somewhat resembling a kimono. Generally colorful apparel, the fabrics used range from simple cotton checks and stripes to the most intricate designs in woven silk.
The national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, which is widely spoken in western region. The eastern region of the country speak Sharchop, where as the people in the south speak Nepali.
English has been used as the medium of instructions in schools and institutes. You will get by comfortably if you speak English, as the langue is taught in schools in Bhutan. Many children in Bhutan tend to walk up to visitors, wave and say hi or hello. The Bhutanese are always thrilled when they meet visitors who try to speak their language.
The 80% of people of Buddhist faith while balance follows Hindu beliefs. Besides offering spectacular natural beauty and a pristine environments, BhutanĂ˘€™s landscape is studded with a profusion of majestic dzongs, beautiful gompas(monasteries) and chortens (stupas) that are evidence of living spiritual culture.
The kingdom of BhutanĂ˘€™s official religion is Drukpa Kagyu,a school of Mahayana Buddhism .Bhutan came under the bhudhist influence via Tibet. Apparently this was foretold by the chief protagonist of the vajrayana teaching of Buddhism-Guru Rinpoche, the precious teacher.
Arts and Crafts
No places more comprehensively embody traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts than dzongs, the imposing monastic fortresses that appear throughout the landscape. Within their massive walls and measured beams are found items ranging from the most basic and functional to ones of spectacular beauty. Particularly striking are the paintings and statues representing important religious figures. Many intricate and colorful illustrations serve as allegories, dramatizing the continuing struggle between good and evil.
Bhutanese art and craft possesses three main interrelated characteristics: it is religious, it is anonymous and it corresponds to a certain uniformity of style. As such, items possess no intrinsic aesthetic function, and are instead interpreted as outward expressions of the holistic Buddhist religion. The distinction between more ornate (what one might consider artistic) forms and more practical applications is therefore somewhat blurred. All craftsmen would be considered artisans (scrupulously following tight traditional conventions) rather than artists (who might place greater emphasis on innovation). The Bhutanese style has over centuries been significantly influenced by Tibetan designs, whilst developing its own definite forms and themes.
Bhutan is an ecological wonder. Rising from the Indian plains to the Tibetan plateau, it is a natural landscape of immense beauty and diversity. Folds of forested hills, rugged cliffs, fast rivers and young valleys fall from high snow-covered peaks. Austere barren expanses stretch between colossal luminous veined mountains. Patchwork fields of subtly contrasting hues nestle within spontaneous kaleidoscopic vegetation. There are a great variety of individual locales, differentiated by their particular combination of altitudinal, climatic and topographical conditions. These harbor a wealth of flora and fauna, the sheer mass and variety of which is almost unparalleled within such a limited space: giant rhododendron and rare orchid, majestic tiger and quirky takin, colorful pheasant and graceful black-necked crane.
More remarkable still is the manner in which entire ecosystems remain relatively uncompromised by human activity. There is little evidence in Bhutan of teeming masses uncontrollably jostling for tenuous positions or the commanding technological innovations with which man has wrested control of his environment from Mother Nature. Most inhabitants still realize a simple sustainable existence within their dominant natural settings. The inhospitable mountainous backdrop serves to both inhibit whole scale human encroachment and accentuate the primacy of the natural world. Ecology thus survives in all its immense complex multidimensional totality, perpetually interacting within understated natural habitats and relatively stable hierarchies.
Gross National Happiness (GNH)
Three decades ago, the term Gross National Happiness (GNH) was coined by the fourth King His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The concept of GNH was articulated to indicate that development has many more dimensions than those associated with Gross National Product.
The GNH philosophy places the individual at the centre of all development efforts and thus recognizes that people not only have material needs but also spiritual and emotional needs as well. It asserts that spiritual and emotional needs cannot and should not be defined exclusively in material terms. GNH is an economic and development philosophy that serves BhutanĂ˘€™s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values.
One of the main attractions of the kingdom is its annual religious festivals, the tsechus celebrated to honor Guru Padmasambhava (more commonly referred to as Ă˘€śGuru RinpocheĂ˘€ť). All of Guru RinpocheĂ˘€™s great deeds are believed to have taken place on the 10th day of the month, which is the meaning of the word tsechu. Tsechus are celebrated for several days and are the occasion for dances that are clearly defined in religious content. The religious dances called Ă˘€śchamĂ˘€ť can be grouped into three broad categories: dramas with a moral, dances for purification and protection from harmful spirits and dances that proclaim the victory of Buddhism and the glory of Guru Rinpoche.
The dancers, either monks or laymen, wear spectacular costumes of bright silk or brocade, ornate hats and extraordinary masks. Another highlight of the Tsechus are the Atsaras or clowns who are believed to represent Acharyas, religious masters of India. They confront the monks, toss out salacious jokes, and distract the crowd with their antics whenever the religious dances begin to grow tedious. They are the only people permitted to mock religion in a society where sacred matters are treated with the highest respect.
For the Bhutanese, attendance at religious festivals offers an opportunity to become immersed in the meaning of their religion and to gain much merit. The festivals are also occasions for seeing people, and for being seen, for social exchanges, and for flaunting success. Festivals are held all the year round at temples, dzongs and monasteries throughout Bhutan. Attendance at one of these religious events provides an opportunity for the outsider to experience the extraordinary.
Flora & Fauna
The three climatic zones of the foothills, central Himalayan valleys and the high Himalayas makes BhutanĂ˘€™s natural heritage more rich and varied than other Himalayan regions. In historical records, the kingdom is referred to as the Ă˘€śSouthern Valley of Medicinal HerbsĂ˘€ť, a name that still applies to this day. The countryĂ˘€™s flora consists of over 7000 species of plants, including the rare Blue Poppy which is also the national flower.
Bhutan also has a reputation for being a birdwatcherĂ˘€™s paradise with over 675 species of birds including the endangered Black-Necked crane. Because of the deep traditional reverence, which the Bhutanese have for nature, the kingdom is one of the leading countries in environmental conservation. Over 70% of BhutanĂ˘€™s land area is still under forest cover. Many parts of the country have been declared wildlife reserves, and are the natural habitats of rare species of both flora and fauna.
Entry to Bhutan
Travel by Air
The countryĂ˘€™s only international airport in Paro caters to the needs of visitors coming or returning by air from its destinations in Bangkok, Kathmandu, Singapore, Dacca, and the Indian cities in Delhi, Kolkatta, Bombay, Guwahati and Bagdora.
Bumthang in central Bhutan has a domestic airport offering alternative choice for faster local travel to central and east of Bhutan. Meanwhile two other domestic airports in Gelephu in the south and Yonphula in the east would soon be ready for operation.
Bhutan introduced its first private airline, an airbus A319 much to the relief of tour operators and other travelers since 2014
Travel by Land
Phuntsholing, a border town with India serves as the gateway for travellers by land to the west of Bhutan. For travellers in North-east India can easily take a domestic flight to Bagdora airport from where it takes 3 to 4 hrs. drive by car to the boarder town in Phuntsholing, the commercial hub of Bhutan. A pleasant overnight stay in the town, you are in Thimphu, the capital city in 4-5 hours on the following day.
Similarly we have Gelephu in south-central and Samdrup Jongkhar in the south-east serve as an entry points for travellers arriving by land routes from the nearest Indian airport Guwahati 3 hours drive away.