Often called The Last Shangrila (paradise), Bhutan is the travel worlds best kept secret, a pocket of calmness wedged between the two most populated and larger countries, India and China. It is the only nation that has adopted Vajrayana Buddhism as a state religion and, with 70% of the land area under forest cover, has been marked as one of the worlds 10 biodiversity hotspots along with the Amazon rainforests of South America and the Serengetti plains of Africa.
Having opted to stay isolated from the world for centuries, the history of modern Bhutan is not even 50 years old. Only in the early 1960s did feudal Bhutan open up to the community of world nations. It was then that the country adopted an approach, albeit a guarded one, to economic development and built its first roads, schools and hospitals. Very little has changed in the years hence.
When Bhutan is spoken about by foreigners who know of it, the accolades rarely cease. Its scenic beauty is heaven for photographers who rave that you can never take a bad picture in Bhutan. In spite of a cautious tourism policy and probably owing to it the country has been rated as one of the top 20 most exotic travel destinations by National Geographic Travel magazine. Even historically, early European travelers to the country described it as a country of majestic mountains, haunting ravines and primordial forests where the people were the handsomest race of men (I have) ever seen.
The Bhutanese are known to be easy-going and friendly. And time, in what a best-selling Canadian writer called the Bhutan Time Warp, stands still. If you are looking for escape, Bhutan is probably the place to go.
Culture and Tradition
Bhutan has one of the distinctive and unique cultures in the world. In the ever changing world, Bhutanese are committed to preserve and treasure their rich culture and tradition. The unique cultural and traditional values are highly valued and are visible in the everyday life of the Bhutanese. The protection and promotion of unique culture and tradition is a means of protecting the sovereignty of the nation as lying between two giant countries of the world, India and China.
Bhutanese architecture is famous for its originality, its pleasant proportions and its adaptation to the landscape. In fact the Architecture of Bhutan expresses the uniqueness of Bhutan from the rest of the world. Today, combining with the modern technology Bhutan still preserves and promotes its distinctive and beautiful piece of centuries old architecture. We can see the traditional unique architecture in each and every architectural structure of Bhutan. The architectural structures includes Dzongs (monasteries), chortens (stupas), stone walls, Lhakhangs (temples), fortresses, mansions, bridges and houses. Architectural heritage dating back to the 17th centuries are still visible and exists today.
The dzongs - themselves imposing 17th century structures built on a grand scale without the help of any drawings and constructed entirely without nails - are outstanding examples of the best in Bhutanese architecture. Reflecting a certain view of religion, society and spatial organization, the dzongs symbolize the history and long independence of Bhutan.
Lhakhang (temples) are fairly small building of simple design, seem to have been the first forms of religious architecture. It differs from ordinary houses by red band painted on the upper part of their walls and an ornament of gilded copper on the roof.
Gross National Happiness: A Development Philosophy
Another unique facet to Bhutan is that socio-economic development aim to achieve not increased GNP (Gross National Product) but increased GNH (Gross National Happiness). In fact, economic development is merely one of the four recognised pillars of the GNH model.
GNH was the brainchild of His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who used Bhutans late modernisation as a position from which to learn from the mistakes of other countries. One of His conclusions from modern world history was that societies everywhere were losing touch with spirituality and tranquility.
In the early 80s, the King articulated the GNH concept to stress that economic success was necessary but it alone was did not promise that a society would be content. It was not a means by itself but a means to a greater end. The GNH concept recognises that the ultimate goal of development should be to create an environment where it is possible for people to realise happiness. This stands in contrast to the ideology of most governments and instutions as well as academia which remain indifferent to happiness, considering it a utopian issue.
GNH is Bhutans own unique model of sustainable development, a manifestion of Bhutans collective social and cultural consciousness. It therefore seeks economic development but not at the cost of corrupting administration, degrading ones natural environment or diluting cultural values. Good governance, environmental preservation and promotion of cultural are thus the other three pillars of the GNH model.
Think of it this way. In, say, the United States, the sale of foodgrain and the sale of firearms are both considered good as they both contribute to the Gross Domestic Product. The Bhutanese will sell foodgrain as well but will not sell guns because a firearm carries too many associated costs that outweighs its material value. No surprise then that use of plastic bags and the sale of tobacco are prohibited in Bhutan.
The GNH ideology has generated a great deal of interest in some countries, one of which has drawn up a similar model that social scientists call subjective well-being.
Flora and Fauna
Bhutan has a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Blessed with unparalleled scenic beauty of majestic snow capped peaks, lush valleys and large zone of virgin forest, Bhutan is home to numerous rare and endangered species of wildlife such as the blue sheep, musk deer, red panda, snow leopard, black bear, golden langur and the unique Takin, the national animal of Bhutan.
The endangered Black Necked Cranes also migrate to Bhutan from Central Asia during the winter. The country has been identified as one of the 10 bio-diversity hot spots in the world and as one of the 221 global endemic bird areas. Its eco-system has some of the most exotic species of the Eastern Himalayas with an estimated 770 species of birds and over 50 species of rhododendron, along with an amazing variety of medicinal plants and orchids.
The Bhutanese Society
Bhutan has never had a rigid class system. Social and educational opportunities are not affected by rank or by birth. Bhutanese women enjoy equal rights with men in every respect.
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.
One trait which is common to all Bhutanese is hospitality. Custom dictates that simple hospitality is extended to any and all guests, even to perfect strangers. In Bhutan, everyone seems to wear a smile. Perhaps this is due to their deep rooted Buddhist faith or may be their sense of contentment is due to their self-sufficient lifestyle. Whatever the reason, the Bhutanese project an apparent inner happiness that travelers will remember long after their visit.
The country is still predominantly rural and about 85% of the people live in villages. Small family farms are the predominant way of life and the farmer the most common occupation.
BHUTAN AT A GLANCE
Area: Approximately 38,000 sq km
Location: North east of India South east of China
Altitude: Varying from 180m to 7550 m above sea level
Time: 6 hours ahead of GMT.
Population: Approx. 700,000
Government: Constitutional Monarchy
Official religion: Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism.
Official language: Dzongkha
English, Sharchop, and Nepali
Buddhism is official religion of Bhutan. It maintains Tantric Vajrayana form of Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion. The Buddhism was first introduced by the Tantric Master Guru Padmasambhava in 8th century. Beside majority of Bhutanese being Buddhist, few Bhutanese follows Hinduism and Christianity.
The Buddhist faith plays 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 (Tshechu and Dromchoes) are spiritual occasions in each district and are dedicated to either Guru Rimpoche or other protective deities. During the festival, Monks and lay people perform the dances established by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, Pema Lingpa, and Guru Rinpoche. The dancers playing wrathful and compassionate beings, heroes, demons and animals. Known as cham these dances bring blessings, dharma teachings, protect from misfortune, and exorcise evil. The Tshechu is a religious festival and brings merit to those who attend. It is also a major social event and attendees wear their best clothes and jewelry
The Dzongs, monasteries, stupas, prayer flags, and prayer wheels punctuate the Bhutanese landscape. The chime of ritual bells, sound of gongs, people circumambulating temples and stupas, fluttering prayer flags, red robed monks conducting rituals, among many others are all living case in point to reveal that Buddhism is an essential ingredient of a Bhutanese life. On auspicious days Bhutanese families make pilgrimages to monasteries to offer prayers and butter lamps.
Bhutan is rich in cultural diversity and this richness is further enhanced by the variety of festivals that is being observed. At different time of the year, the annual festivals known as “Tshechus” take place in different locations. Tshechus are usually occasions to mark the important events in the life of the second Buddha, the precious Indian Tantric master known as Guru Rinpoche or the Precious Gem. All of Guru Rinpoche’s great deeds are believed to have taken place on the 10th day of the month, which is the meaning of the word tshechu. Tshechus are celebrated for several days between three to five days and are the occasion for dances that are clearly defined in religious content. The dancers, either monks or laymen, wear spectacular costumes of bright silk or brocade, ornate hats and extraordinary masks. Certain festivals end with the unveiling and worship of a huge religious appliqués or thongdroel and festival goers believe that simply by viewing this thangkha, they can be delivered from the cycle of reincarnation which is the ultimate aim of Buddhism.
Another highlight of the Tshechus is 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.
Best Seasons and Temperature The southern part of Bhutan is tropical, and in general, the east of Bhutan is warmer than the west of the country. The central valley of Punakha, Wangdiphodrang, Mongar, Trashigang and Lhuntse enjoy a semi tropical climate with very cool winters, while Thimphu, Trongsa and Bumthang have a much harsher climate, with heavy monsoon rains in the summer and heavy snow fall in winter.
Winter in Bhutan starts from mid-November till mid-March, and at this time of the year the climate is dry with day time temperature of 16-18° C and night time temperature falling below zero. The monsoon usually arrives in mid-June, with the rain falling mainly in the afternoons and evenings. Autumn starts from the end of September, after the last of the big rains, and it is a magnificent season for trekking-lasting till mid-November.