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Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon

Once known as the Hermit Kingdom of the Himalayas, Bhutan is one of the most isolated countries on this planet and the only Vajrayãna (Tantric) Buddhist kingdom in the world. Druk Yul (“Land of the Thunder Dragon”) as it is known in Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan, embraces a balance between mankind and nature. It is one of the few Asian countries that has never been colonized, and is a picturesque sanctuary in a region often marked by political and martial instability, bordered by India and China. Bhutan spans three climate zones, from the Indian plains to the breathtaking Himalayan range. Its northern border with Tibet is defined by some of the highest mountains in the world from which spring numerous rivers, the source of hydroelectric power which today is Bhutan’s major export commodity. It has a mostly pristine environment, with numerous semitropical river valleys in the south and verdant forests. Rich in biological diversity, over one-third of the country is designated nature reserve for snow leopards and other rare species. It is an almost rectangular country approximately the size of Switzerland; although there is no state in the U.S. that comes close to it in terms of size, Bhutan is nearly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined and is inhabited by less than 700,000 people. The origin of the present name “Bhutan” remains obscure. It was perhaps derived from the Indian term bhotanta, meaning “end of Tibet.”

If you want to visit Bhutan, chances are you’ll have to fly into Paro, the only international airport in the country. The flight is a mesmerizing aeronautical feat offering an exciting descent into the kingdom. The 6,050-foot runway, located in a deep, tree-lined valley, is accessible only through a 16,000-foot, wind-whipped Himalayan Mountain approach. Pilots are specially trained to fly into Bhutan, and accessing the airport is entirely dependent on good weather conditions.

Bhutan’s topography is much like a staircase, ascending from the Indian plains at 985 feet to the unspoiled Himalayan range reaching 25,000 feet along the Tibetan frontier. Towering snow-capped Mount Chomolhari at approximately 24,000 feet is the country’s most sacred mountain, the locus of an annual pilgrimage by Tibetan Buddhists. Running north-south are eight major valleys separated by passes of up to 11,000 feet. Only navigable a few months of the year, there were not any connecting roads until 1962. One could always travel on foot, but travel as we know it is just opening to the East. Three climatic zones span luxurious tropical jungles to high-altitude frigid wastes. Heavy monsoon rains are responsible for 40-foot ancient rhododendron and dark, dense conifer forests. The ecosystem is home to nearly 800 species of birds, 200 mammals and over 2,000 plants. To protect rare species — snow leopards, red pandas, blue sheep and white-colored bears — over 30 percent of the country has been allocated to nature reserves. Today about 3/4 of Bhutan is forested, and the government’s strict environmental laws will not allow the forested area reduced below 60 percent.

Imagine a heavenly country with forest-clad mountains and magnificent waterfalls where happiness is the guiding principal of government, a 21st century Shangri-La. Since 1972 when former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck conceived of the idea, Bhutan’s enlightened government has measured its national well being not through economic output but by virtue of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) of its people, as opposed to the more conventional Gross National Product (GNP). The four pillars of GNH officially focus on:

  1. Good Governance
  2. Conservation of the Environment
  3. Conservation of Culture, and
  4. Equitable Development

An independent study ranked Bhutan as the planet’s 8th happiest place. (The United States ranked 23rd.)

Bhutan has been deliberately slow opening its doors to outsiders; a prohibition on visitors was not lifted until 1974. Even now it restricts world-wide tourism only to those they can accommodate, now about 6,500 a year. Air service is limited to their national airline, which owns just two planes. Currently the country has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. There are few lawyers, and litigants plead their own cases but may have mediators for more complex situations.

Religion and Culture

There are three vehicles of Buddhism: Theravãda, Mahãyanã and Vajrayãna, an esoteric form of Mahãyanã Buddhism and its most complex. It is still practiced today in Tibet, Ladakh, Bhutan and Japan, where it is the foundation of the Shingon and Tendai schools of Buddhism. Buddhism is the bedrock of Bhutan’s precepts. It was first introduced into Bhutan in the 7th century, and the practices of Vajrayãna Buddhism were first brought to Bhutan by the great 8th century tantric master Padmasambhava. Buddhism abhors violence. Buddhism does not go to the extremes; it follows the Middle Path doctrine of Dependent Origination, within which all phenomena are inherently without substance and may be seen as impermanent. At the heart of Buddhism is emptiness in which it sees all of reality emanating from emptiness. This is a paradox that is quite challenging to the Western mind, but if one has some sympathy for that point of view one can begin to understand Bhutan. The Bhutanese realize that the insights of Buddhism are not only a powerful vehicle for personal development but for societal transformation as well, an important global message in an age of increasing materialism.

It is possible to ride horseback and climb near the Taktshang Monastery, or “Tigers Nest,” a breathtakingly spectacular complex of temples built into a black rock precipice above the Paro valley, one of the most revered pilgrimage sites in the Himalayan world. Myth suggests that the 8th century Tibetan lama Guru Rimpoche flew to Taktshang on the back of a tigress. For three months he meditated in a cave, converted the valley, and ultimately all of Bhutan, to Buddhism. Almost more revered than Buddha, he is considered the spiritual father of the country.

In Tantric Buddhism, religious roles are shared with monks, lamas and select laypeople. A lama is not a monk, but a religious master or guru who may be ordained or married or have a secular job, but is expected to deliver a range of spiritual services according to their esoteric texts. There are about 7,000 monks in Bhutan. Boys are placed in a monastery at age 5, bringing great prestige to their families. However, it is not a lifetime commitment and they may renounce their vows to marry and have children.

Deep faith pervades the life of the independent, soft-spoken and respectful Bhutanese. Eighty percent of the population still farm and raise livestock so people converge from remote locations to the local market to buy and sell most everything they need: yak butter and fermented cheese, dried fish and fresh produce. The smell of betel nuts is in the air and the stalls are crammed with cabbages, fern shoots and always red and green chilies used in the national dish emandatse, a blistering stew of chilies and cheese laced with spices. Red rice, noodles, meat and poultry are favorites, and their preferred drink is tea made with yak butter. Exchange was with bartering until money was introduced in the 1960s. Their markets have wood-carved masks, jewelry, musical instruments and rich, handwoven textiles used in native dress. Bhutan is unique in its dress code; to preserve its national identity, men are required to wear a gho, a knee-length kimono tied at the waist by a cloth belt known as the kera, while the woman’s kira is an ankle-length rectangular cloth wound around her body, clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Underneath the outer layer she also wears a toego, a long-sleeved blouse. The scarf’s color designates status in their social hierarchy.

Traveling east to central Bhutan one notes Bumthang’s gently sloping valleys, zig-zagging rivers and patchwork of fertile fields that characterize the country’s bucolic status. Reminiscent of a feudal society, there is little sign of mechanization, and one can easily step back through the centuries watching buckwheat and barley being harvested. Bales are carried home for use in the Bhutanese staple diet of buckwheat cakes and noodles.

The Bhutanese feel they need supernatural help to understand the mysteries of their deities as expressed in their decor and woven into their customs. Sexual symbols are an integral part of their beliefs. Many marriages are arranged, and men may have as many wives as they want but must support each one and the children, even if divorced. Women have more freedom than in most Asian countries. Extramarital relationships are common and either is free to divorce. At birth boys or girls are equally welcome, and the child’s name is chosen by a monk or a lama. The most important ceremony is a funeral, easily the heaviest financial burden a family will face. Death begins the reincarnation process. For 49 days, a family, monks and lamas engage in elaborate, expensive and complex rituals thought to help the decedent pass into another life in the most favorable manner possible.



Free education and textbooks are provided for 11 years of basic schooling. There are an extraordinary number of dialects, but Dzongkha is the national language, unwritten until 30 years ago. A Dzonkha-English dictionary has just been released, and while instruction is in English, some Westerners are concerned that students are learning by rote or memorization instead of using deductive skills and reason needed for innovative thinkers.

Regardless of the level of education, Bhutanese believe a dizzying array of spirits affect their daily life. Deities inhabit every mountain peak, every lake, river and rock, even the air — and can bring good fortune and disaster. Eighth-century Guru Rimpoche is universally revered for taming local deities, forcing them to swear allegiance to Tantric Buddhism. If you have the right Karma, you may be able to enter the secluded hidden valleys he blessed, as found in Lost Horizon.


Arts and Crafts

Much of Bhutan’s ancient arts and crafts have been kept alive through the patronage of Bhutan’s royal family and the deep spiritual faith of the people. The first school for the 13 arts and crafts was opened in 1680. The 13 traditional Bhutanese crafts are as follows:


  1. Woodworking (shingzo), such as building dzongs and other structures, and making tools and implements;
  2. Stone carving (dozo), such as building stone walls and stüpas, millstones and tools;
  3. Carving (parzo), including wood, slate and stone carving;
  4. Painting (lhazo), such as religious paintings (thangkas), mandalas, house and wall painting;
  5. Clay arts (jinzo), as used in building construction (plastering and rammed-earth), the making of Pottery, Statues and masks;
  6. Metal casting (lugzo), such as the casting of statues (mainly bronze), bells, musical instruments, culinary tools and utensils, jewelry and pottery;
  7. Wood-turning (shagzo), such as turned bowls, vessels from wood burls and tree roots, hand drums and ladles using the treadle-lathe;
  8. Blacksmithing (garzo), such as chain-making, creation of ploughs and weapons (swords, knives and axes);
  9. Gold and silver works (trözo), including all ornaments of copper, silver and gold plus techniques associated with their production like drawing, engraving or beating;
  10. Basketry (tshazo), utilizing cane and bamboo to creat storage baskets, hats, beer containers, bamboo thatching and floor mats in addition to bows and arrows;
  11. Paper-making (dezo), such as creating traditional paper out of bark, in addition to more contemporary paper creation using bamboo and rice stalks;
  12. Needlework (tshemzo), such as stiching and embroidery on cloth and leather, and also includes appliqué, patchwork, hat-making and boot-making; and
  13. Weaving (thagzo), including yarn preparation, dyeing and designing. This is the largest industry of the 13 traditional crafts.

Art is thriving and talent nurtured. Students from the ages of 7 to 25 years old are schooled in a wide range of creativity — traditional painting, sculpting and wood carving. Imagination is not the driving force in Bhutanese art, ancient Buddhist texts are. When it comes to the flowers and other designs one can use one’s imagination, but when it comes to the painting of deities, one has to strictly follow the holy scriptures or religious texts. The color of the divine image, like its structure, is laid down by rite and convention. As in the drawing of the divine figures, Indian iconometry also had set rules for Bhayankara (terrifying) figures. The artist, however, had apparently a greater freedom of action here as long as he successfully enlarged and improved upon this grotesque world of frenzied terror. Every image in their temples has meaning.

The beauty of Bhutanese crafts is that many of them are still not made on a commercial scale, and there are few pieces of the same products available at a time. Shopping in Bhutan can be like a treasure hunt as Bhutan’s best crafts are high-end crafts and not the mass products or souvenirs that are common in many Asian markets.

Another value of Bhutanese handicrafts is that they are produced for use, not for display. They are high-end products and the domestic demand exceeds the supply. In Bhutan, the arts and crafts truly signify a living culture.

More formal exhibitions are displayed in Paro at the National Museum, housed in an ancient 17th-century watchtower. The kingdom’s spectacular stamps are on view, as well as thangkas, or paintings on cloth and banners. Art is commissioned on religious work personifying the deities. Large thangkas — painted, embroidered or appliqued — provide enlightenment to faithful viewers when hung outside fortress walls during religious festivals.


The roots of traditional Bhutanese Buddhist architecture can be traced to neighboring India, the Middle East and especially Tibet. The difference is seen in architectural elements that are often more elaborate in Bhutan due to the abundance of timber, even though certain designs of these elements also can be found in ancient buildings in Tibet. Local stories tell of master carpenters from Tibet who were invited to Bhutan to supervise the building of Buddhist monasteries, particularly those headed by Buddhist masters with lineage roots in Tibet [e.g. Gangtey Sa-nga Chöling Monastery, 17th century].

Bhutan is renowned for the magnificent architectural masterpieces of ancient Dzongs, massive fortresses with monasteries that dominate most valleys in this small rural country which are designed to repel invaders. Beautifully proportioned with solid sloping walls and pitched roofs, fine examples of art and craftsmanship are found therein, and architecturally these majestic and elegant forms have always been the trendsetters. Dzhongs are fortresses built in strategic commanding locations across the country; they are seats of civil and religious power that consolidate functions to defend against invaders. Most are built with a central tower, enclosing several temples, courtyards, administrative offices of the district government, state clergy and the entire monastic community. Dzongs continue to play a significant living role in each region while hosting the most sacred and elaborate festivals as they have been doing for hundreds of years.

Courtyards of Dzhongs are richly decorated with high-relief sculptures, intricate woodcarving and prayer wheels. Symbolic art represents guardian spirits, local divinities and mythical figures, such as the mythical sun-eagle Garuda, a most popular divinity of Hinduism also owned by Vajrayana Buddhism and associated with Vajrapani. The circular wheel of law symbolizes endless birth and rebirth. In contrast to our philosophy, “You only live once so go for it,” they are searching for the next life even within this one.

Chörtens are an integral part of the landscape. They are sacred monuments which can be erected as memorials for prominent lamas or placed on dangerous mountain passes or bridges to ward off evil spirits living there. The four-eyed Chendebji Chörten in whitewashed stone was built in the 19th century by Lama Shida to nail down a demon terrorizing that countryside. Often a prayer wheel is placed nearby. At mountain passes, snapping prayer flags send messages on every gust of wind, each one’s color representing an element of nature.

Thimphu was established as the permanent capital of Bhutan in 1952 (Year of the Dragon), and by royal decree all buildings are traditional in style. This is the only country in the world whose capital city does not yet have a traffic light, leaving any traffic problems to policemen on wooden platforms at city intersections.

Houses are clustered around central courtyards, forming tightly-knit communities. People work together, there is little privacy and conformity is more important than originality. Houses are made of rammed earth, straw and timber from the rich forests, with livestock sheltered in the lower level, the family above in small rooms, usually containing a prayer room, and space under the pitched roof used for drying vegetables and strings of chilies. The Bhutanese often proudly recall that their buildings were erected without a single nail. Great care is taken on the exteriors, gaily decorated in earth-based paints with floral patterns and geometric designs, all having religious or protective symbolic meaning.


In this democratic monarchy, the King is head of state and head of government, assisted by a cabinet assembly comprised of elected representatives, including clergy. It wasn’t until 1651 that Bhutan was unified under Zhabdrung, an abbot from Tibet whose legacy was a duel system of government for both secular and religious affairs. Following Zhabdrung’s death, 2-1/2 centuries of exhausting Coronation of 5th King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck civil wars continued until 1907 when a hereditary monarchy was established and their first King elected.

The fourth King ascended the throne in 1972 at age 16. He is a visionary, challenging the classic process of modernization with a carefully thought-out planning document that embraces economic development, environmental preservation, cultural promotion and good governance. Jigme Singye Wangchuk was educated in Bhutan, India and in England. He has four wives — all sisters — and is an extremely popular king. He lives simply, constantly moving about the country and talking to his subjects. The Bhutanese dearly love, respect and rely on their King. After more than 100 years of monastic rule, the King has decreed that Bhutan will become a democracy. The people are apprehensive and hope the upcoming changes will be for the better.

In 2006 the King of Bhutan stepped down and was succeeded by his eldest son. A ceremony for the coronation of the fifth king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, was held in Thimphu on July 11, 2008. The new king hopes to maintain his father’s vision of happiness for his people.


National Sport

Bhutanese enjoy their fun, especially when they are doing archery, the national sport. To them archery is a holy sport, a traditional as well as a social event. It was bought to Bhutan by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the 17th century. The Bhutanese believe he used traditional bamboo bows and arrows to shoot and subdue devils and demons when he was protecting Bhutan from invasions. Their bows and arrows are sacred to the bowmen; when they aren’t using them they keep them in a special bag and store them in their shrine room. It is surprising to see them using American Jennings compound bows, lighter and more accurate than traditional bamboo. Moving at an excruciatingly slow pace, the archery tournaments used to take a month but now are somewhat faster and serve as an excuse for a party. Women and monks are forbidden to touch a bow, and of course archery is not used for hunting but only for target matches, as ancient spirits dictate.

Challenges Ahead

With the country’s recent technological and communications advances, one wonders if the Bhutanese will be able to resist the tide and temptations they face. Until 1999 there was no Internet or television in Bhutan; today one of the country’s favorite programs is Desperate Housewives. Will television change the pace of their lives in festivals and archery matches, and negatively influence their manners and culture?

Although natural geographic barriers of high mountains and deep valleys have protected the country for centuries, migrants from Nepal have been immigrating to south-central and southwestern Bhutan since the late 1800s in search of farmland and a better life. This has caused some racial problems in southern Bhutan. By the mid-1980s, ethnic Nepalese made up roughly 30 percent of Bhutan’s population, retaining their culture, language and Hindu religion even though many were Bhutanese citizens. That changed in 1985 under the king’s “one nation, one people” campaign, which mandated all citizens to adopt Drukpa dress and speak the Dzongkha language. By 1991, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalese were forcibly evicted from the country or fled voluntarily in the face of officially sanctioned pressure. About 105,000 Nepalese eventually crossed into India, where they were trucked to seven camps in eastern Nepal under the supervision of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. In Nepal, they have remained stateless, even though they share the same ethnic and cultural background. These camps have become breeding grounds for a fledgling Maoist militancy that seeks to overthrow Bhutan’s democratic monarchy.

Today about 100,000 ethnic Nepalese still reside in Bhutan, nearly one-sixth of the national’s population. The government hopes that the new democracy will keep the threat of insurrection remote, along with their plans to reopen 15 schools and build more health centers by the end of the year. As explained by Prime Minister Jigme Thinley, “The best way a country like Bhutan can defend itself and prevent security problems … has to be through the people. By the end of five years, there will be absolute parity in terms of the provision of … services and infrastructure. This is how we can prevent conditions for discontent and disaffection from growing in our country.”

Will Bhutan be immune to the burgeoning growth of working-age populations from neighboring India and China spilling across the borders? For years the agricultural kingdom has been run by kings, monks and farmers. Now facing economic realities to pay for economic development and expansion, they may need to export more hydroelectric power and perhaps valuable timberland.

Self-reliant and independent, Bhutan is not seeking a role in Western civilization. Yet, will they succeed in preserving this extraordinary culture and maintain bedrock values of obedience and respect? One can’t help but be captivated by this jewel of a kingdom, a serene people with a vision of human happiness. May they continue to live in harmony with their environment and adapt to our world on their terms, one step at a time.