Bhutan – An Introduction

Bhutan – An Introduction

bhutanWelcome to the Kingdom of Bhutan. Many eastern classics and books of wisdom have referred to the Himalayas as the abode of the gods immortals. These descriptions did not stem merely from the majesty and grandeur of the natural surroundings but perhaps alluded to a special environment where communion with the divine was possible through contemplation and meditation. And so since time immemorial, ascetics, scholars, philosophers and pilgrim have been drawn irresistibly to these remote and rugged mountains in their personal search for wisdom, inspiration, solitude and happiness.

Country

Bhutan is a country nestled in the eastern Himalayas. The country has been visited by many great saints, mystics, scholars and pilgrims over the centuries, who not only came for their personal revelation, but blessed the land and its people with an invaluable spiritual and cultural legacy that has shaped every facet of Bhutanese lives. Visitors and guests to the country will be surprised that the culture and the traditional lifestyle is still richly intact at the degree to which it permeates all strands of modern day secular life. From the traditional woven garments to the prayer flags on high mountain slopes, from the built environment to the natural environment, from the religious mask dances to the folk dances, this cultural heritage is proudly evident and offers a unique cultural setting.

The Bhutanese have treasured their natural environment as it is seen as a source of all life and the abode of the gods and spirits. Buddhism has been the predominant religion since the 7th century and has inculcated deeply the value that all forms of sentient life, not just human life, are precious and sacred. Given such a prevailing ethos which respects the natural environment, it is not surprising that the Bhutanese have lived in harmony with nature and that the nation has its environment still pristine and intact today. 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-systems harbors some of the most exotic species of the eastern Himalayas with an estimated 770 species of birds and over 50 species of rhododendron, besides an astonishing variety of medical plants and orchids. Bhutan is also rich in wildlife diversity having animals like takin, snow leopard, golden langur, blue sheep, tiger, water buffalo and elephant.

It is to safeguard this rich natural environment and culture, that the country has consciously adopted a controlled tourism and development policy. In 1997, just over 5,000 tourists entered the country and the numbers in the coming years are not expected to increase greatly. For the few who do travel to Bhutan, there are a wide variety of activities-from the Snowman trek to kayaking down the Mochhu; from witnessing the colorful festivals in the fortresses to the panoramic mountain flight on Druk Air.

We hope that visitors who make the journey to Bhutan enjoy their experience and return home with glowing memories.

History

Mystery surrounds Bhutan’s distant past, as priceless irretrievable documents were lost in fires and earthquakes. In the 8th century CE, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava or second Buddha) made his legendary trip from Eastern Bhutan to Western Bhutan on the back of a flying tigress to subdue the evil spirits who hindered Buddhism. After defeating them, he blessed them as guardians of the doctrine, introducing Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan. Taktshang or Tigers Nest in the Paro Valley is where he landed and today it remains one of most sacred place in Bhutan.

It is believed that the name Bhutan is derived from the Sanskrit ‘Bhotant’, meaning ‘the end of Tibet’, or from ‘Bhu-uttan’, meaning ‘high land’. Historically the Bhutanese have refered to their country as DrukYul, ‘land of the thunder dragon’. Bhutanese refer to themselves as Drukpa people.

Guru Rinpoche (Precious Master) is the father of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Tantric Mahayana Buddhism practice in Bhutan. ShabdrungNgawangNamgyal, a Tibetan lama of the Drukpa School, arrived in Bhutan in 1616 CE. He introduced the present dual system of religious and secular government, creating and building the system of Dzongs throughout Bhutan. Shabdrung unified the country, and established himself as the country’s supreme leader and vested civil power in a high officer known as the DrukDesi. Religious affairs were charged to another leader, the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot of Bhutan). For two centuries following Shabdrung’s demise, civil wars intermittently broke out, and the regional Penlops (governors) became increasingly more powerful. This ended when an assembly of representatives of the monastic community, civil servants and the people, elected the Penlop of Trongsa, UgyenWangchuck, the First King of Bhutan in 1907-1926. The monarchy has thrived ever since, and the present Fourth King, His Majesty JigmeSingyeWangchuck (1972 to present), commands the overwhelming support for his people.

Geography

bhutanThe Kingdom of Bhutan lie in the Central Himalayas, between Tibet to the north, the Indian territories of Assam and West Bengal, to the south and east, and Sikkim to the west. The Kingdom has a total area of about 47,000 square kilometers, about the size of Switzerland. Located in the heart of the high Himalayan mountain range, Bhutan is a land-locked country surrounded by mountains. The sparsely populated Greater Himalayas, bounded to the north by the Tibetan plateau, reach heights of over 7,300 meters (23,950ft.), and extend southward losing height, to form the fertile valleys of the Lesser Himalayas divided by the Wang, Sunkosh, Trongsa and Manas Rivers. Monsoon influences promote dense forestation in this region and alpine growth at higher altitudes. The cultivated central uplands and Himalayan foothills support the majority of the population. In the south, the Duars (the gates) Plain drops sharply away from the Himalayas into the large tracts of semi-tropical forest, savannah grassland and bamboo jungles.

Religion

Bhutan is the only country in the world to retain the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism (Drukpa Kagyu) as its official religion. The Buddhist faith has played and continues to play a fundamental role in the cultural, ethical and sociological development of Bhutan and its people. It pervades all strands of secular life, bringing with it a reverence for the land and its well being. Annual festivals (tshechus and dromchoes) are spiritual occasions in each district. They bring together the population and are dedicated to the Guru Rinpoche or protective deities. Throughout Bhutan, chortens or stupas (receptacle for offerings) line the roadside are commemorating places where Guru Rinpoche or another high Lama may have stopped to meditate. Prayer flags dot the hills, fluttering in the wind, which allow Bhutanese constant people to maintain communication with the heaven.

Way of life

While urban settlements have sprung up with the process of modernization, the majority of Bhutanese people still live in small rural villages. Small family farms are the predominant way of life and the farming is the most common occupation. As the altitude rises, crops give way to cattle and yak breeding with herds grazing in the high pasture.

The Bhutanese diet is rich in meat and poultry, dairy, grain (particularly rice-red and white) and vegetables. Emadatse (chili pepper and cheese stew) is considered the national dish with many interpretations to this recipe throughout the country. Poultry and meat dishes, pork, beef and yak, are lavishly spiced with chilies, and it is common to see bright red peppers drying on rooftops in the sun. Salted butter tea, or suja, is served on all social occasions. Chang, a local beer, and arra, a spirit distilled from rice, maize, wheat or barley, is also common and widely favored. Doma or betel nut is offered as a customary gesture of greeting. The Bhutanese way of life is greatly influenced by religion. People circumambulating (kora) the chortens with prayer beads and twirling prayer wheels are a common sight. Every Bhutanese home has a special room used for prayers, a chosum.

Government

The form of government in Bhutan is as unique as the country. It is the only Democratic Monarchy in the world. His Majesty King JigmeSingyeWangchuck is Bhutan’s fourth king who has kept the culture and traditions of his county intact and listens to his people as well. One of the six development goals HM King JigmeSingyeWangchuck has expressed is: People’s participation and decentralization in the government.

Its administrative system is inherited from ShabdrungngawangNamgyel’s of the 17th century and thus is divided into 20 Dzongkhags (dzong districts or states, see map above), each with its own elected 3 year representative, a Dzongdag (district chief). In 1988, four Dzongde (zones) were set up as administrative units between the district level and the central government. A group of four districts make up one zone, which is headed by the DzongdeChichab (Zonal Administrator) with authority over the district chiefs in the area. All districts are divided into blocks, administrative units that include several villages. At the block level, government orders are transmitted through an elected representative, theGup (village headman).

The Tshogdu, or National Assembly has 154 members who fall into 3 catagories. The largest groups with 105 members are the Chimis, representatives of Bhutan’s 20 dzongkhags. The regional monk bodies elect 12 monastic representatives who also serve 3 year terms. Another 37 representatives are civil servants nominated by the king. They include 20 Dzongdags, (district administrators or mayors).The old term for Dzongdag is Penlop (Governor), the first king was the Penlop of Paro and Thimphuministers, secretaries of various government and other high ranking officials. The Tshogdu meets in Thimphu twice each year and is presided over by an elected speaker. The speaker may also call special sessions during emergencies. The Tshogdu body passes the entire kingdom’s legislation by a simple majority vote.

A Gift of Bhutan

In a changing world, the Venerable YongtenGyaltshen, The DorjiLopen (one of the ministers in the monk body directly below the Je Khenpo or the Head Abbot of Bhutan) composed a peace prayer to share with the people of the world. We are honored by his effort, and thank him for his contribution.

National Symbols of Bhutan

The rectangular national flag of Bhutan is divided diagonally and depicts a white dragon (druk) across the middle. The upper part of the flag is yellow, representing the secular power of the king, while the lower part is orange, symbolizing the Buddhist religion.

The national emblem, contained in a circle, is composed of a double diamond-thunderbolt (dorji) placed above a lotus, surmounted by a jewel and framed be two dragons. The thunderbolt represents the harmony between secular and religious power. The lotus symbolizes purity,the jewel expresses sovereign power and the two dragons, male and female, stand for the name of the country which they proclaim with their great voice, the thunder.

National Day is celebrated on December 17 and honors the ascension to the throne of UgyenWangchuck, the first king of Bhutan.

The national flower is the blue poppy, found in the high altitudes. The national tree is the cypress, which is often associated with religious places. The national bird is the raven, which adorns the royal crown. It represents the deity GonpoJarodonchen, one of the most important guardian deities of Bhutan. The national animal is the takin, an extremely rare bovid of the ovine-caprine family. Found in heards in the very high altitudes (13,000 ft and over), living on a diet of bamboo.

People

bhutanAn early record suggests that scattered clusters of inhabitants had already settled in Bhutan when the first recorded settlers arrived 1,400 years ago. Bhutan’s indigenous population is the Drukpa. Three main ethnic groups, the Sharchops, Ngalops and the Lhotsampas (of Nepalese origin), make up today’s Drukpa population. Bhutan’s earliest residents, the Sharchops (people of the east) reside predominantly in eastern Bhutan. Their origin can be traced to the tribes of northern Burma and northeast India. The Ngalops migrated from the Tibetan plains and are the importers of Buddhism to the kingdom. Most of the Lhotsampas migrated to the southern plains in search of agricultural land and work in the early 20th century. The current population of Bhutan is approximately 750,000.

Bhutan’s official language is Dzongkha. Given the geographic isolation many of Bhutan’s highland villages, it is not surprising that a number of different dialects have survived. 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. To keep the traditional culture alive, Bhutanese people wear the traditional clothing that has been worn for centuries. Bhutanese men wear a gho, a long robe tied around the waist by a small belt called a kera. A woman’s ankle length dress is called a kira, made from beautifully colored and finely woven fabrics with traditional patterns. Necklaces are fashioned from corals, pearls, turquoise, and the precious agate eye stones which the Bhutanese call ‘tears of the gods’ or dzi beads.

THIMPU

Lying in a valley (elevation 2,350m), Thimpu is unlike any other capital in the world. The traditional architecture of its houses and building s is particularly striking. The places to visit are the Memorial Chorten, dedicated to the late King JigmeDorjiWangchuk, TashichhoDzong, seat of the government of Bhutan and the summer residence of the central monk body, the Traditional Medicine Hospital where herbal medicines are prepared,the National Library, a treasure trove of ancient texts, the Painting School where children learn the traditional techniques of drawing and painting, Dechenchholing where traditional gold and silver smiths at work can be seen,ChangangkhaLakhang which contains ancient scriptures and thanka paintings and SmitokhaDzong, Bhutan’s oldest fortress which now houses a school for Buddhist studies.

AROUND BHUTAN

Paro is 65 Km (two hours’ drive) to the southwest of Thimpu is a beautiful place to visit. The Taktsang Monastery where Guru Rinpoche meditated to subdue evil spirits, RinpungDzong, venue of the Parotsechu (festival), Ta Dzong which houses the national museum, the ruins of DrukgyelDzong, built to commemorate Bhutan`s victory over Tibetan aggressors,KyiscLakhang, one of the oldest and most scared temples in Bhutan and DungtseLakhang with its extraordinary collection of religious paintings, are the places to see in the valley.

Punakha, 77Km (three hours and 15 minutes’ drive) at northeast of Thimpu, served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and even today, it is the winter home of the central monk body. The PunakhaDzong houses many scared artifact and temples. The road from Thimpu to Punakha crosses the 3,115-m Dochula pass.

WangdaPhodrang (or Wangdi) is situated 70 Km (three hours’ drive)  at Southeast of Thimpu. The WangdiPhodrangDzong played a key role during the unification of Bhutan. On the route from wangdi to Tongsa is the GangteyGompa, the biggest Nyingmapa monastery in Bhutan.

bhutanCENTRAL BHUTAN

Trongsa is 129 Km (four and half hours’ drive) at east of Wangdi and crosses the 3,300 m Pelela pass. The TrongsaDzong, the ancestral home of Bhutan’s Royal family, houses 23 temples. The watchtower, Ta Dzong, has a temple dedicated to king Gesar, the hero of a great epic.

Bumthang consist of the valley of Chumey, Choekhor, Tang and ura. It takes two and half hours to reach Bumthang, 68 Km northeast of Trongsa. Bumthang is ideal for making excursion to the many monasteries and shrines – TharpalingChoedrak, Tamshing, Kurjey, Jambey, Kunzangdra among others – as well as to Mebartso, “the flaming lake”.

EASTERN BHUTAN          

Mongar is 198 Km (seven hours’ drive) southeast of Bumthang. The two monger crosses Thumshingla(3,800 m), the highest pass in Bhutan. The MongarDzongia relatively new compared to the other dzongs of the Kingdom.

Lhuntshi is 76 Km (three hours’ drive) north of Monger. The landscape here is spectacular with stark cliff and gorges, and dense coniferous forests. This district is famous for its weaves and the fine quality of fabric they produce.

The 90-Km trip from Monger to Trashigang, the easternmost district, takes four hours. Some 20 Km before Trashigang is the Dametsi Monastery the most important monastery of eastern Bhutan. After Thimpu, Trashigang is the largest urban center where the TrashigangDzong stands over the Gamri River. TashiYangtse, north of Trashigang, has a dzong and Nepalese style ChortenKora.

TRANSPORT

Transport is provided by tour operators who have their own fleet of luxury buses. All major places of interest are connected by paved roads.

GENERAL INFO

Bhutan has a strip of plain in the south, a network of valleys in the central parts and over 7,000-m high mountains in the north.

Access

Druk air, Bhutan’s airline, operates flights to Paro from Bangkok, Kolkata, Dhaka, Kathmandu and New Delhi. There are two overland entry and exit points. One is from the Indian state of west Bengal into Phuntsholing in southwest Bhutan. Phuntsholing is four hours’ drive from Bagdogra the nearest Indian airport, and seven hours’ drive from both Gangtok (Sikkim) and Darjeeling. The drive from Phuntsholing to Thimpu takes six hours. The other point is samdrupJongkhar in the southeast, 110 Km from Guwahati, India. An inner line permit to enter Assam will also be required to entery and exit through Guwahati. Trashigang is six hours’ drive from samdrupjongkhar.

Tariff

 The TAB has set minimum tariffs which are different for the high and the low seasons. Individuals and group if less than four person must pay a surcharge. The rates are same for both cultural and adventural tour and treks.

Season

The months from March-May and septmember-November are the high season, while June-July and December-February comprise the low season. You need to bring cotton or light woollen in summer as temperature reaches to maximum 30 degree Celsius and heavy woolens and down jacket in winter as average temperature is minimum 1.1 degree Celsius.

Adventure

This place offers Trekking and mountaineering.

Accommodation

Modern hotels are available in Thimpu. The outlying areas have comfortable resort and lodges.

VISA

Visa is required for travelling to Bhutan which is processed and arranged by International trekking agency. No foreign mission grants Bhutan tourist Visa. All Passport details (full name, nationality, date of birth, passport no. Issued & expiry date, address & profession) should be forwarded at least 3 weeks prior to the date of arrival and can be mailed or faxed. Actual visa is stamped on arrival in Bhutan while it is cleared in advance and a visa clearance number is issued. For all travellers entering Bhutan by Druk air, the Visa clearance number is forwarded to the concerned overseas Druk Air stations and without clearance number passengers are not allowed to board the flight. Visa clearance number is also required while issuing Druk Air tickets. For travellers entering into the country by surface through Phuntsholing (Border in South Bhutan) the visa clearance number is forwarded to Foreign Ministry’s office in Phuntsholing for reference. Three copies of original passport size photographs are required on arrival.

VISA FEE

Visa fee is US $20 for 14 days stay and an additional US$10, as Tourism development must be paid on arrival. Visa can be further extended with an additional fee of US$15.

CLIMATE

The monsoon starts in mid June and lasts until the end of September. The climate within the mountains varies greatly according to precipitation and wind conditions. The Duars plain is up to 1500 m. The climate is sub-tropical with high humidity and heavy rainfall. The climate of mid-mountain belt varies, in such a way that low-lying parts of Punakha, Monage, Tashigang and Lhuntse have cool winter and hot summers, whereas the higher valleys of Ha, Paro, Thimpu, Tongsa and Bumthang ranging from 2,500 – 4,500 m, endures a temperate climate with cold snowy winters and some-what cooler summers.

BOOKING

For bookings during the months of March to May and September to November full passport particulars of all participants should be provided minimum 60 days in advance for us to hold all services on confirmed basis.

PAYMENT

Payment should be made in advance either in cash or T. C. prior to the commencement of the tour or it should be transferred to our following account & a copy of bank remittance should be faxed to us.

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