The Kingdom of Bhutan (which was only opened to the outside world in 1974) is tucked away in the Himalayas between India and China. It has never known foreign rule and till today proudly preserves its unique culture and pristine environment, making it a fascinating tourist destination for many.
The Land of the Thunder Dragon is a land of contrast and harmony where the ancient co-exists side by side with the modern. Where Gross National Happiness is deemed more important than Gross National Product. Bhutan is a deeply Buddhist land where the Buddhist culture infiltrates all aspects of life from birth to death. Monks clad in their striking maroon robes mingle with the fashionably dressed youth mimicking the latest Korean fashion. Preservation of the environment is a key Government policy with over 70% of its area covered in forest. With a population of fewer than 1 million it is no surprise that the culture and environment is fiercely guarded.
As a result, Bhutan has a high value – low impact tourism policy. Visitors have to pay a minimum of over USD 250 per day during peak season and USD 200 per day during low season, making it appear to be one of the world’s most expensive countries to visit. But on closer inspection this fee is all-inclusive of meals, transport, guide, porter, driver, entry fees etc. You don’t have to travel in a group and you can arrange your own itinerary. So travel to Bhutan is not as expensive as may first seem.
Bhutan is one of the world’s most fascinating and enigmatic countries – coined as the ‘last Shangri La’ by many. It offers you an opportunity to glimpse another way of life and attain spiritual insights of what is truly important in life
The arts and crafts of Bhutan that represents the exclusive “spirit and identity of the Himalayan kingdom’ is defined as the art of Zorig Chosum, which means the “thirteen arts and crafts of Bhutan”.
The thirteen crafts are carpentry, painting, weaving, blacksmith, sculpting and many other crafts.
The Institute of Zorig Chosum in Thimphu is the premier institution of traditional arts and crafts set up by the Government of Bhutan with the sole objective of preserving the rich culture and tradition of Bhutan and training students in all traditional art forms; there is another similar institution in eastern Bhutan known as Trashi Yangtse. Bhutanese rural life is also displayed in the ‘Folk Heritage Museum’ in Thimphu. There is also a ‘Voluntary Artists Studio’ in Thimphu to encourage and promote the art forms among the youth of Thimphu. The thirteen arts and crafts of Bhutan and the institutions established in Thimphu to promote these arts.
Art & Architecture
The castle-like Dzongs with tapering walls and large courtyards are among the finest example of Bhutanese architecture. The first Dzong was introduced in Bhutan by Galwa Lhanangpa in the 12th century which was later taken up by Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal in the 17th century. Most of the Dzongs today function as government offices and houses the monks. All art, crafts, dance, drama and music has its roots in religion. The art are more symbolic and personal. Therefore Buddhist arts are an explanation of values rather than depiction of facts.
The Thirteen Traditional Arts and Crafts
Bhutanese art and crafts are not only unique but are deeply rooted in the Buddhist philosophy. They are mostly subjective and symbolic and are highly attractive and decorative in their representation. The thirteen art and crafts are together known as Zorig Chusum.
Shing zo (Woodwork)
Dho zo (Stonework)
Par zo (Carving)
Lha zo (Painting)
Jim zo (Sculpting)
Lug zo (Casting)
Shag zo (Wood Turning)
Gar zo (Blacksmith)
Troe zo (Ornament Making)
Tsha zo (Bamboo Work)
De zo (Paper Making)
Thag zo (Weaving)
Tshem zo (Tailoring, embroidery and applique)
Shing Zo (Woodwork)
For centuries, Shing zo or woodwork has played an important role in the building processes of the magnificent dzongs and palaces, the temples and monasteries, houses and bridges and even furniture. The beauty and uniqueness of the Bhutanese woodwork is manifested in the houses, palaces, dzongs, temples and the bridges.
Stonework is an old craft which is not restricted or confined to one area but found throughout the Kingdom. Large Chortens or the stupas like Chorten Kora in Trashiyangtse and Chendebji are fine examples of Bhutanese stonework. Most of the Bhutanese houses in rural areas are also made of stones even today.
Par zo (Carving)
Carving in Bhutan is done on various materials ranging from stone, wood and slate. Masks, traditional symbols, bowls and cups, wooden sheaths or scabbards and handles for knives and swords, beautiful carved pillars and beams, printing blocks of wood and altars are excellent examples of woodcarving. Slate carving is another popular art and the finest examples are carvings of images of deities, religious scripts and mantras. Stone carving in Bhutan while not so evident has survived over the years. The large grinding stone mills turned by water and the smaller ones used by farmers at home, the hollowed-out stones for husking grain, troughs for feeding animals and the images of gods and deities carved onto large rocks and scriptures are examples that survive today.
Lha zo (Painting)
Vibrant paintings dominate the Bhutanese landscape and the shades of colors are visible in houses, in temples and monasteries and in dzongs. Paintings represent the most complete essence of the people’s beliefs and ideas, their feelings and thoughts and aspirations and hopes of our way of life. The most common painting on the walls of monasteries, temples and dzongs are those depicting religious figures. We can also find the paintings of images of Buddhist deities and saints.
Jim zo (Sculpting)
Sculpting or jim dzo is one of the oldest forms of craft in Bhutan and has its origin in the 17th century. Clay statues, paper mache, clay masks, pots, etc. are examples of jim dzo.
Lug zo (casting)
Lug dzo or the art of casting includes both wax and sand casting. In the past bronze was commonly used for making containers such as cups, urns, and vases. People also used bronze to make weapons such as battle-axes, helmets, knives, shields, and swords.
Shag zo (wood turning)
Shag dzo or wood turning is another ancient tradition that is vibrantly practiced in Bhutan. Bowls, plates, cups and containers from different types of woods are examples and are best practiced in Trashiyangtse in eastern Bhutan.
The art of black smithy is yet another ancient art. Bhutan always had its own iron mining resources of which the most known were Woochu in paro and Barshong in Trashigang. Blacksmiths have long been producing farming tools and defense weapons including spear or arrow tips, crude axes, knives and swords, (patangs).
The art of ornament making is also widely known in Bhutan. Ornaments are made of stones like turquoise, coral or etched agate (zee) as well as silver and gold.
Tsha zo (bamboo work)
The art of bamboo weaving or tshar dzo is still alive and is practiced mainly in Kheng Zhemgang and Trimshing Kangpara in Trashigang. Bangchungs, palangs, floor mats and mats for drying grains, musical instruments like flutes, matted bamboo for roofs and fences, traditional bows and arrows, quivers, etc are examples of tshar dzo.
De Zo (Paper Making)
The art of paper making was confined for monastic purposes in the past. However today, paper making is of great commercial value. The art of papermaking is popular in Bomdeling and Rigsum Gonpa in Trashi Yangtse. Desho is especially made from the bark of a plant known as Daphne (Deshing) and the paper products today are mainly used for wrapping gifts and writing religious scriptures.
The art of embroidery or tshemzo has played a very important role in the making of thangkas and other decorative clothes throughout Bhutanese history. Tailoring of garments is a popular craft. The three main crafts in tailoring are: stitching clothes such as the gho and kira worn by men and women, embroidery (Tshemdrup) and appliqué (Lhemdrup) and the production of traditional Bhutanese Tsho lham, boots.
Thag Zo (weaving)
Weaving holds a special place in Bhutanese society as an income generating source to supplement the agricultural income for rural people. Weaving is done always by women and rarely by male. The rich and complex art of textiles are embedded in the culture and history of Bhutan. Women of eastern Bhutan are one of the most celebrated weavers though weaving is an art that has widely spread throughout Bhutan. Some of the finest weaving comes from Khoma in Lhuentse and Radhi, Bartsham and Bidung villages in Trashigang.
People of all ages had travelled for days to be blessed by Je Khenpo. Its a once in a lifetime experience for most Bhutanese
Bhutanese culture is one of the distinctive cultures in the world. As a tiny country with a very small population the need to preserve culture and tradition is amplified. This unique culture is a means of protecting the sovereignty of the nation. The distinctiveness of the culture and tradition is visible in the everyday life of the Bhutanese.
The birth of the child is always welcomed without difference on gender. The outsiders, normally, do not visit the child for first three days as the house is considered polluted by kaydrip (defilement by birth). Thus, a purification ritual (Lhabsang) is conducted in the house, after which the outsiders come to the house to see the new born baby. Gifts are brought for the newborn and the mother. The gifts range from rice and dairy products in the rural places to clothes and money in the urban.
The child is not immediately named. Generally, the names are given by religious person. The child is also taken to the temple of the local deity (natal deity) and the name associated with the deity is given. In some cases, the child is given the name of the day on which the child is born. The horoscope of the baby known as kye tsi is written based on Bhutanese calendar. It details out the time and date of the birth, predicts the future of the child, rituals to be executed at different stages in the life of the child as remedy to possible illness, problems and misfortune.
Traditionally, the culture of celebrating birthdays did not exist. However, it has now become popular especially among the town and city dwellers.
Death is the most expensive affair as it does not mean the end. On the contrary, it is merely passing on to another life. Thus many rituals are performed to help the departed soul get a better rebirth. Rituals are performed after the 7th day, 14th day, 21st day and the 49th days of the death. Cremations are done only on a favorable day prescribed by the astrologer but in habitually before the 7th day ritual. Elaborate rituals are also conducted on the death anniversary for three consecutive years with erection of prayer flags in the name of the deceased. The relatives and people of the locality come with alcohol, rice, or other sundry items to attend these rituals.
Bhutanese eat with hands. Eating with spoons is an imported culture. The family members sit on the floor in a circle and the mother serves the food. Most of the Bhutanese still use traditional plates made of wood (dapa/dam/dolom) and bamboo (bangchungs). Before eating they toss some morsels of rice in the air as offering to the deities and spirits. The favorite Bhutanese dishes are Ema Datsi (chili with cheese), Paa (sliced pork and beef) and red rice. No dish goes without chili. People also drink salted butter tea (suja) and alcohol. Doma (betel leaf and areca nut eaten with a dash of lime) is also carried by many in their pouch. Offering of Doma to someone is an act of friendship, politeness and a mark of generosity.
Until just a few decades ago arranged marriages were common and many married among their relatives. In eastern Bhutan cross-cousin marriages were also once common, however, this practice is now becoming less common place among the literate masses and most marriages are based on the choice of the individuals.
Marriages are simple affairs and are usually kept low-key. However, elaborate rituals are performed for lasting unions between the bride and the bridegroom. As the religious ceremony comes to an end, parents, relatives and friends of the couple present the newlyweds with traditional offerings of scarves along with gifts in the form of cash and goods.
In the Western Bhutan, it was commonplace that the husband goes to live in his wife’s house after marriage while the practice in Eastern Bhutan is for the wife to move into the husband’s home. Of course, the newlyweds may also choose to live on their own. Divorce is also an accepted norm and carries no ignominy or disgrace within the country.
One of the most distinctive features of the Bhutanese is their traditional dress.One of the most distinctive features of the Bhutanese is their traditional dress, unique garments that have evolved over thousands of years. Men wear the Gho, a knee-length robe somewhat resembling a kimono that is tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as Kera. The pouch t which forms at the front traditionally was used for carrying food bowls and a small dagger. Today however it is more accustomed to carrying small articles such as wallets, mobile phones and Doma (beetle nut).
Women wear the Kira, a long, ankle-length dress accompanied by a light outer jacket known as a Tego with an inner layer known as a Wonju. However, tribal and semi-nomadic people like the Bramis and Brokpas of eastern Bhutan generally wear clothing that differs from the rest of the Bhutanese population. The Brokpas and the Bramis both wear dresses woven either out of Yak or Sheep hair.
Bhutanese still wear long scarves when visiting Dzongs and other administrative centers. The scarves worn vary in color, signifying the wearer’s status or rank. The scarf worn by men is known as Kabney while those worn by women are known as Rachus. Below is a brief breakdown of the different kabneys and their associated rank.
The Rachu is hung over a woman’s shoulder and unlike the scarves worn by men, does not have any specific rank associated with its color. Rachus are usually woven out of raw silk and embroidered with beautiful rich patterns.
Bhutan is rich in cultural diversity and this richness is further enhanced by the wide variety of elaborate and colorful religious festivals that are celebrated throughout the country. Every village is known for their unique festival though the most widely known is the annual Tshechu, meaning a religious festival.
As the Tshechu begins, the villagers and the general populace dress in their finest clothes and congregate at their local temples and monasteries were these festivals take place. Tshechus are usually occasions to mark important events in the life of the second Buddha, the Indian/Pakistani Tantric master known as Guru Rinpoche or the Precious Gem. Various mask dances are performed together with songs and dances for three days.
These religious celebrations are lively, high-spirited affairs during which people share meals of red rice, spicy pork, Ema Datshi and Momos (pork dumplings) whilst drinking the heady traditional rice wine known as Ara. These occasions provide the villagers with a respite from the hard labor of their day to day lives and give the community an opportunity to catch up with family and friends.
Bhutan is one of the last remaining biodiversity hotspots in the world; forest cover has now increased to over 72% of the country, with 60% of the country under protection.
Forest types in Bhutan are fir forests, mixed conifer forest, blue pine forest, and chirpine forest, broadleaf mixed with conifer, upland hardwood forest, lowland hardwood forest, and tropical lowland forests. Almost 60% of the plant species found in the eastern Himalayan region are present in Bhutan.
Bhutan boasts of about 300 species of medicinal plants and about 46 species of rhododendrons. Some common sights for the visitors are the magnolias, junipers, orchids of varied hues, gentian, medicinal plants, Daphne, giant rhubarb, the blue and trees such as fir, pine and oaks.
A wide range of rare and endangered animals can also be found frequenting the dense jungles and high mountains of Bhutan. Due to the countries conservation efforts and its unspoiled natural environment Bhutan supports thriving populations of some of the rarest animals on earth and has thus been classified as one of the last biodiversity hotspots in the world.
The array of flora and fauna available in Bhutan is unparalleled due to conservation and its wide altitudinal and climatic range. Physically, the country can be divided into three zones:
Ø Alpine Zone (4000m and above) with no forest cover;
Ø Temperate Zone (2000 to 4000m) with conifer or broadleaf forests;
Ø Subtropical Zone (150m to 2000m) with Tropical or Subtropical vegetation.
Some high altitude species are the snow leopards, Bengal tigers that are found at altitude ranging 3000 to 4000 meters, the red panda, the gorals and the langurs, the Himalayan black bear, wild pigs, barking deer, blue sheep and musk deer.
In the tropical forests of Southern Bhutan one can come across clouded leopards, the one horned rhinoceros, elephants, water buffaloes and swamp deer. You can even find the Golden Langur, a species of monkey that is unique to Bhutan.
Bhutan also has a great variety of bird species. It is recognized as an area of high biological diversity and is known as the East Himalayan ‘hot spot’, the hub of 221 global endemic bird areas. The recorded number of bird species is over 670 and is expected to rise as new birds are discovered.
In addition, 57% of Bhutan’s globally threatened birds and 90% of the country’s rare birds are dependent on forests. Bhutan has about 415 resident bird species. These birds are altitudinal refugees, moving up and down the mountains depending upon the seasons and weather conditions. Of about 50 species of birds that migrate during the winters are the buntings, waders, ducks, thrushes and the birds of prey. Some 40 species are partial migrants and they include species such as swifts, cuckoos, bee-eaters, fly catchers and warblers.
Bhutan is also home to about 16 bird species that are endangered worldwide. These include the White bellied heron, Pallas Fish eagle and Blyth’s King fisher to name a few. Phobjikha valley in Wangdue Phodrang and Bomdeling in Trashi Yangtse are also two especially important locations of the endangered Black Necked Cranes.
As one of the ten global hotspots, Bhutan is committed to preserve and protect its rich environment through its government and environmental organizations. This commitment is apparent in the fact that the kingdom has the distinct honor of being one of the only nations whose forest cover has actually grown over the years.
Some of the proactive organizations working in Bhutan are:
Ø National Environmental Commission
Ø Royal society for protection of nature clubs throughout the country.
Ø Department of Forestry Services.
Ø Nature Conservation Department
Ø Bhutan Trust Fund.
Ø Donor Organization.
Ø Association of Bhutan Tour Operators.
Economists argue that happiness can be obtained with material development. However, Bhutan argues the case differently trying to advocate by saying that material growth does not necessarily lead to happiness. In Bhutan, progress is not measured by Gross Domestic Product but by Gross National Happiness.
The Late Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck expressed his view on the goal of development as making “the people prosperous and happy.” The importance of “prosperity and happiness” was highlighted in the King’s address on the occasion of Bhutan’s admission to the United Nations in 1971. This vision was further elaborated by the Fourth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck who declared in the first years of his reign that “our country’s policy is to consolidate our sovereignty to achieve economic self-reliance, prosperity and happiness for our country and people.”
While the emphasis is placed on both, prosperity and happiness, the latter is considered of more significance. The Fourth Druk Gyalpo emphasized that for Bhutan “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product” and this is now being fleshed out by a wide range of professionals, scholars and agencies across the world.
Concerned about the problems afflicting countries that focused only on economic growth, Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck decided to make the nation’s priority not it’s G.D.P. but its G.N.H. (Gross National Happiness). He suggested that the progress of nations be measured by “Gross National Happiness” for the rich are not always happy while the happy generally consider themselves rich. While conventional development models stress economic growth as the ultimate objective, the concept of GNH claims to be based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other.
Ø Gross National Happiness comprises of four pillars:
Ø Equitable and equal socio-economic development,
Ø Preservation and promotion of cultural and spiritual heritage,
Ø Conservation of environment and
Ø Good governance which are interwoven, complementary, and consistent.
Ø They embody national and local values, aesthetics, and spiritual traditions.
Today, the concept of GNH has traveled across the world to define prosperity in better terms and to measure actual wellbeing rather than consumption. The conventional concept of Gross National Product measures only the sum total of material production and exchange in any country. Thus, three major factors seem to be responsible for the expanding credibility of GNH. One, there is wider awareness that GNP is a one-dimensional and thus misleading measure. Two, a wide range of indices have been devised which offer a more realistic assessment of even material prosperity. Three, there is growing pressure for an infusion of moral and cultural values into the core of economic policy.
GNH has allowed Bhutan to both expand its network of roads and increase its forest cover. In most other developing countries the arrival of roads is inevitably followed by deforestation. Bhutan’s move towards GNH has been indeed fruitful. For example, the high value low volume tourism policy has facilitated in high revenue generation as well as promotion and preservation of cultural and traditional values.
Guided by Gross National Happiness Bhutan has tread the trail of economic development but not to the detriment of the Happiness of her people. This development philosophy has made the lives of the Bhutanese comfortable by embracing the Middle Path. Bhutan has savored immense stride of economic progress that had complemented in the preservation and promotion of the four pillars of Gross National Happiness.
Thus, Bhutan extols its forest cover and diversity of flora and fauna when elsewhere many species are disappearing and are on the verge of extinction. In an age of globalization, Bhutanese spiritual, cultural and traditional values continue to influence the lives of the Bhutanese. The government strives to enhance self reliance and reduce the gap between the rich and poor. Intensive efforts have been made to ensure good governance for it is the main source of progress and happiness.
Following the international seminar on Operationalizing Gross National Happiness held in Bhutan in February 2004, the participants began working to establish a Gross International Happiness Network, indicating the influence of Gross National Happiness beyond the Bhutanese Borders.
The Network attempts to find the best examples of sustainable development that incorporate values reflecting the general well-being of the people. The GNH Network is a collaboration of the following institutions:
Ø Center for Bhutan Studies, Bhutan
Ø Spirit in Business, USA and the Netherlands
Ø Social Venture Network Asia, Thailand
Ø ICONS, Redefining Progress & Implementing New Indicators on Sustainable Development, Brazil
Ø Inner Asia Center for Sustainable Development, the Netherlands
Ø The New Economics Foundation, UK
Ø Genuine Progress Indicators / GPI Atlantic, Canada
Ø Corptools/Values Center, USA
Ø nternational Society for Ecology and Culture, UK
Visit www.bhutanstudies.org.bt for more details on Gross National Happiness.
National Flag of Bhutan is divided diagonally with a white dragon in the center of the flag. The dragon is snarling and clutches jewels in its claws. One half of the flag is orange representing the spiritual power in the country that is controlled chiefly by Drukpas monasteries and Buddhist religious practices. The other half of the flag is saffron yellow representing the temporal power in the country and the secular authority of the dynasty. Bhutan is a religious country with Buddhism as its official religion. Bhutanese people call their country as ‘Druk yul’ or ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’. Bhutanese believe that thunder is actually the voices of the dragon roaring. Thus the dragon in the center of the flag or ‘Druk’ has deep association with the country itself
The jewels in dragon’s claws represent the wealth and prosperity of the nation. The snarling dragon represents the male and female deities who are always protecting the country, its King and the people from harm and are inimical to outside forces that are threatening them. In Bhutan, the democratic government shares its power with the King representing the monarchy. In the late 12th century and the beginning of 13th century, a monastery was set up in Bhutan, which was called the ‘Druk’ (meaning the ‘Thunder Dragon’) and the sect it represented was called ‘Drukpas’. Since then, dragon has become inseparable with Bhutan. The King, His Majesty Jigme Wanchuck, designed the first version of the national flag.
The National Emblem of Bhutan is a circle that projects a double diamond thunderbolt placed above the lotus. There is a jewel on all the sides and two dragons on the two vertical sides. The two thunderbolts represent the harmony between secular and religious power. The lotus symbolizes purity. The jewel signifies sovereign power. The two dragons (male and female) on each side stand for the name of the country (Druk means dragon and for the Bhutanese, Bhutan is known as Druk yul or the Land of the Dragon).
Bhutan is a multi-lingual society. Today, about 19 languages and dialects are spoken all over the country. However, the state language of Bhutan is Dzongkha. In the ancient times this language was used by the people who worked in the Dzongs, the fortresses that was the temporal and spiritual seat. Later, feeling the need to have a common tool of communication, Dzongkha was introduced as the national language of Bhutan.
The national anthem was first composed in 1953 and became official in 1966. It is known as Druk Tshenden Kepay Gyalkhab Na (In the Dragon Kingdom, where cypress grows).
Original Bhutanese Lyrics
Druk tsendhen koipi gyelkhap na
Lug nyi ki tenpa chongwai gyon
Pel mewang ngadhak rinpo chhe
Ku jurmey tenching chhap tsid phel
Chho Sangye ten pa goong dho phel
Bang dey kyed nyima shar warr sho.
It’s celebrated on December 17. It marks the crowning of Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck as the first king of Bhutan, in Punakha Dzong on 17 December 1907 by the people of Bhutan unanimously for restoring peace and order when he was the Trongsa Penlop, Governor of Trongsa. For this reason, all the Kings of Bhutan are installed as Trongsa Penlop before their enthronement as King. This is a national holiday in Bhutan.
The national flower is Blue Poppy (Meconopsis horridula). It is delicate blue or purple tinged blooms with a white filament. It grows to a height of 1 meter, on the rocky mountain terrain found above the tree line (3500-4500). This flower is however linked with a myth of a yeti. It was discovered in 1933 by a British Botanist, George Sherriff in remote part of Sakteng in eastern Bhutan.
The national tree is cypress (Cupressus torolusa). In Bhutan one can notice big cypresses near the religious structures. Cypress is found in the temperate climate zone, between 1800 and 3500 metres altitude. It is associated with religiou. Its capacity to survive on rugged harsh terrain is compared to bravery and simplicity.
The national bird is the raven. It ornaments the royal crown. Raven represents the deity Gonpo Jarodongchen (raven headed Mahakala), one of the chief guardian deities of Bhutan.
The national animal is takin (burdorcas taxicolor). The reason for selecting this mammal as a national animal is because it is associated with religious history and mythology. It is a very rare mammal. It has a thick neck and short muscular legs. It lives in groups and is found in places 4000 meters high on the north-western and far north eastern parts of the country. They feed on bamboos. It can weigh about 250 kgs.