The princely Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked country, about 300 km long and 150 km wide encompassing an area of 38,394 square kilometers. Located between longitude 88045’ and 92010’ East and latitudes 26040’ and 28015’ North in the Eastern Himalayas, it is bounded by India in South and South-West and Tibetan autonomous region of China in the North and North-West respectively.
Virtually the entire country is mountaineous, and ranges in elevation from 100m along the Indian border to the 7,554m Kulha Gangri peak on the Tibetan border. These two extremes frame a landscape which stretches from sub-tropical to arctic like conditions. The maximum East-West stretch of the country is approximately 300 km and north-South about 150 km.
Talking in geomorphologic terms, Bhutan is distinctively divisible into three lateral zones from South to North. Incidentally, this zonation is more or less applicable to meteorological, ethnographical and geographical divisions of the country.
The Great Himalaya
Extending from Mt. Chomolhari (7,314m) in the West to Kulha Gangri (7,554m) near the center point of the northern border between Tibet and Bhutan, this region is virtually a snow-wilderness zone where almost 20% of the land is under perpetual snow. This zone is represented by alpine meadows and perpetually snow bound high summit of the Great Himalayan range.
The Inner Himalaya
This is the largest physiographic region of Bhutan and lies among broad valleys and forested hillsides from 1,100m to 3,000m in elevation. All the major towns of Bhutan are situated in this zone such as Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangduephodrang in western Bhutan, Trongsa and Bumthang in central Bhutan and Mongar, Trashigang in eastern Bhutan.
The Southern foothills
Also called as Himalayan foothills, this zone occupies the southern most part of the country. The plains in the south of the country are part of the region known as Terai, which extends from Kashmir, through Nepal, to Bhutan. The average annual rainfall in this region generally reaches up to 200 inches resulting to luxuriant vegetation particularly tropical forests rich in wildlife, while at times hot, steamy and unhealthy tracts are other features of this zone.
Rivers play an important role in Bhutan’s physical, economic, social and cultural geography. Their enormous potential for hydroelectric power has helped in shaping the national economy. Since the central Himalayas of Bhutan receives the full brunt of the monsoon so the rivers are larger and have created much broader valleys than rivers further to the west in Nepal and India. In their upper reaches, most Bhutanese rivers have created large fertile valleys such as those of Paro, Punakha, Wangduephodrang, Thimphu and Bumthang. As the rivers pass through the centre of Bhutan, the valleys become steeper and narrower, and roads have to climb high on the hillside. The principal rivers of the country are; Am-mo-chhu, Paro Chhu, Wang Chhu, Puna-Tsang Chhu, Mangde Chhu, Pho Chhu, Mo Chhu, Dangme Chhu, Manas Chhu and Changkhar Chhu.
Bhutan’s climate varies widely depending upon elevation. In the southern region it is tropical, with a monsoon season and eastern part is warmer than the west. The central valleys of Punakha, Wangduephodrang, Mongar, Trashigang and Lhuntshi enjoy a semi-tropical climate with cool winters, whereas Paro, Thimphu, Trongsa and Bumthang have relatively harsher climate including snowfall in winter.
In the valleys where most tourist activities are concentrated, the winters (mid-November to mid-March) are dry with daytime temperatures of 16 – 18 degree centigrade while evening and early morning are cold with night time temperature sometimes falling below zero.
Spring lasts from mid-March to the beginning of June, with temperatures warming gradually to 27-29 degree centigrade by day and about 18 degree centigrade at night. However, cold spells are possible up until the end of April, with a chance of new snow on the mountains above the valleys. Strong, gusty winds start blowing almost every day from noon to early evening . The first storms break, and they become more and more frequent with the approach of the monsoon which arrives in mid-June.
The country receives abundant rain especially in the south, as it gets full face of monsoon coming from the Bay of Bengal. To which its mountains form a barrier. At the end of September, after the last of the big rains, autumn suddenly arrives and sky gets clear, a brisk breeze picks up and temperature starts falling towards freezing at night although bright sunshine continues to keep the days warm. Autumn is the magnificent season that lasts until mid-November and it is the best time to visit this fascinating mountain Kingdom.
The name ‘Bhutan’ appears to derive from the Sanskrit ‘Bhotant’ meaning ‘the end of Tibet’ or from ‘Bhu-uttan’ meaning ‘high land’. Though known as Bhutan to the outside world, the Bhutanese themselves refer to their country as Druk Yul or the Land of the Thunder Dragon. ‘Druk’ meaning ‘Dragon’ and extending from the predominant Drukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
The documented history of the Kingdom begins with 747 A.D. with Guru Padsambhava also known as Guru Rinpoche who made his legendary trip from Tibet across the mountains flying on a tigress’s back. He arrived in Paro valley at Taktsang Lhakhang also known as Tiger’s Nest. Guru Rinpoche is not only recognized as the founder of the Nyingmapa religious school but also considered to be second Buddha. In the ensuing centuries, many great masters preached the faith resulting in full bloom of Buddhism by the middle ages. Although sectarian at first, the country was eventually unified under Drukpa Kagyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism by saint/administrator Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the 17th century. Ngawang Namgyal codified a comprehensive system of laws and built a chain of Dzongs which guarded each valley during unsettled times and now serving as the religious and administrative centre of the region.
During the next two centuries civil wars intermittently broke out and the regional Governors became increasingly more powerful. At the end of 19th century, Trongsa Governor overcame all his rivals and soon afterwards recognized as the overall leader of Bhutan. The Governor of Trongsa, Sir Ugyen Wangchuck, was elected as the first King of Bhutan in 1907 by an assembly of representatives of the monastic community, civil servants and people. Since then, the country has been ruled by successive monarchs of the Wangchuck dynasty.
In November 2001, on the advice of the Fourth king, a committee chaired by the Chief Justice of Bhutan, was formed to draft the constitution of Bhutan. The constitution was launched in 2008 and with it a parliamentary democracy introduced. The progression from Hereditary Monarchy to that of a Parliamentary Democracy has been a carefully managed process that culminated in 2008 when Bhutan held its first elections country wide. Since 18 July, 2008, Bhutan has a two chamber parliamentary system: The Upper House of parliament, the 25-seat National Council, and the Lower House of Parliament (National Assembly - (Tshogdu)) with 47 seats. The government is headed by a Prime Minister and the King is still head of state. The country has two political parties to date: The Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party or Bhutan Harmony Party (Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP).
Bhutan’s population is, in many ways, one large family. About 70 percent of the people still live on subsistence farming, scattered in sparsely populated villages, across the rugged terrain of the Himalayas. Since early days, Bhutanese communities settled in the valleys with limited communication from outside word and perhaps it is for this reason that the sense of individuality and independence emerges as a strong characteristics of the people. The Bhutanese are, by nature, physically strong and fiercely independent with open and ready sense of humor. Hospitality is an in-built social value in Bhutan.
The estimated population of the country is about 7,78,106 and three main ethnic groups constitute its population :
Sharchops : live in eastern part of country, recognized as the original inhabitants of Bhutan and are Indo Mongoloid origin.
Ngalops : are descendants of Tibetan immigrants who arrived in Bhutan from 9th century and settled in the west of country.
Lhotshampas : this Nepalese group, began settling in the south of Bhutan in the late 19th century. The Lhotshampa represents different Nepali speaking ethnic groups primarily – Brahman, Chettri, Gurung, Rai and Limbu.
Bhutan's economy, is based largely on agriculture and forestry, which provide the main livelihood for more than half of the population. Because rugged mountains dominate the terrain and make the building of roads and other infrastructure difficult and expensive, industrial production is primarily of the cottage industry type. The economy is closely aligned with India's through strong trade and monetary links and is dependent on India for financial assistance and migrant laborers for development projects, especially for road construction. Multilateral development organizations administer most educational, social, and environment programs, and take into account the government's desire to protect the country's environment and cultural traditions.
Bhutan’s overall development strategy is assessed according to the expected impact on the Gross National Happiness indicator, by focusing on providing the population with basic needs, maintaining social cohesion and pursuing sustainable environmental policies. The most important sectors of the economy are hydroelectricity, tourism and agriculture. The government has focused on the development of ‘low volume, high quality tourism’, as a way to protect the environment and mitigate the impact of disrupting influences on the domestic culture. Its largest export - hydropower to India - is creating employment and will probably sustain growth in the coming years. Only 5% of Bhutan’s 30,000 megawatt hydropower potential is currently tapped. It also exports calcium carbide, wood products and cement. In other major export is agricultural product, including apples, oranges, cardamom, potatoes, asparagus, mushroom. Bhutan hopes to play a larger role in regional economic integration as a member of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
Health & Education
As a component of Gross National Happiness, affordable and accessible health care is central to the public policy of Bhutan. The Ministry of Health has provided universal health since the 1970s and Health care infrastructure & services are planned and developed through Five Year Plans (FYP) of the Ministry of Health. The concept of health in Bhutan must be seen in the context of the overall development strategy that defines development as the preservation of spiritual and emotional, as well as economic well being. The focus of health sector has been to increase the accessibility to health care. Basic health care services and essential drugs are provided free of charge. Therefore, the health sector policy objectives reflect the national ones: equity, social justice, sustainability and efficiency, in the context of preservation of national culture. The long term objective of the health services is to “facilitate, through a dynamic professional health care, the attainment of a standard of healthy living by the people of Bhutan to lead a socially, mentally and economically productive life, and within the broader framework of overall national development, enhance the quality of life of the people in the spirit of social justice and equity”.
The ‘traditional’ education system in Bhutan has two major components, the ecclesiastical oriented institutions and the state led general or secular education. With the advent of Buddhism in Bhutan in the 8th century, monastic schools came to play an important role in the lives of the people; and it continues today. The modern, western form of education was introduced in Bhutan in 1950s. The western education has been promoted and expanded since the first Five Year Plan in 1961 corresponding to the embarkation of modern development in 1961 to address the basic educational needs, and develop human resources required for the socio‐economic development of the country. The Non‐Formal Education system, to deliver basic literacy and numeracy skills in Dzongkha, was introduced in the country in 1990 to reach out to the dispersed and marginalized groups, especially women. A Continuing Education program to provide opportunities to adults who could not complete their education was piloted in 2006 in Thimphu and has since been expanded. Besides the education provided within the country, many Bhutanese receive the opportunities to pursue education outside the country. Prior to the initiation of tertiary education programs in 1983, all qualifying Bhutanese were sent abroad, mostly to India, to obtain their tertiary education. Even now, many Bhutanese obtain their tertiary education degrees outside the country through government arranged scholarship . Moreover, because of the lack of capacity within the country, increasing numbers of Bhutanese are travelling outside the country to get their education through self financing.
The National Emblem of Bhutan is a circle, projecting a double diamond thunderbolt placed above the lotus. There is a jewel on all sides with two dragons on vertical side. The thunderbolt represents the harmony between secular and religious power while the lotus symbolizes purity. The jewel signifies the sovereign power while the dragons (male and female) stands for the name of the country Druk Yul or the Land of the Dragon.
The National Flag is rectangular in shape that is divided into two parts diagonally. The upper yellow half signifies the secular power and authority of the King while the lower saffron-orange symbolises the practice of religion and power of Buddhism, manifested in the traditions of Drukgpa Kagyu. The dragon signifies the name and purity of the country while the jewels in the claws stand for wealth and perfection of the country.
The National Flower is Blue Poppy (Meconopsis Grandis), a delicate blue or purple tinged blossom with a white filament. It grows to a height of one meter, on the rocky mountain terrain found above the tree line of 3500-4500 meters.
The national tree is Cypress (Cupressus torolusa), found in temperate climate zone between 1,800 and 3,500 meters. Its capacity to survive on rugged harsh terrain is compared to bravery and simplicity.
The national bird is Raven and represents the deity Gonpo Jarodongchen (raven-headed Mahakala), one of the chief guardian deities of Bhutan. The Raven, national bird also ornate the royal crown.
The Takin (burdorcas taxicolor) is the national animal of Bhutan, looking like a cross between a cow and goat and associated with religious history and mythology of the country.
17th December is celebrated as the National Day that coincides with the crowing of Gongpa Ugyen Wangchuk as the first hereditary King of Bhutan, in Punakha Dzong on 17 December, 1907.
The national anthem was first composed in 1953 and became official in 1966. It is known as Druk Tshenden Kepay Gyalkhab Na (In the land of the Dragon Kingdom, where cypress grows). It is religious in essence with lyrics consisting of prayers for peace and prosperity in the country, long life of the King and propagation of Buddhism.
The state language is Dzongkha which in the olden times was spoken by people who worked in the Dzongs that was seat of temporal and spiritual power. Later, Dzongkha was declared as national language of the country. Today, about 18 languages and dialects spoken all over the country.
Archery was declared national sport in 1971 when Bhutan became a member of United Nations. Archery tournaments are among the most picturesque and colorful events in the country. Every village has it own archery range. High spirited competitions, usually accompanied by a banquet, are a part of all festive occasions.
The national dress of Bhutan is called the 'Gho' for men and 'Kira' for women. It was introduced during the 17th century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to give the Bhutanese a unique identity.
The gho is a long robe hoisted to the knee and held in place with a 'Kera,' a woven cloth belt, wound tightly around the waist. The kira is a floor-length rectangular piece of cloth wrapped around the body over a blouse called wonju. The kira is held from the shoulders by broach-like hooks called 'Koma' and is fastened at the waist with a kera. The dress is complete with a short, open jacket-like garment called 'Toego.'