The Dragon Kingdom
The splendour of the Himalaya with an emerald edge. Bhutan is home to rolling hills all shades of green as well as looming masses of snow, ice, and stone. Imagine a country the size of Switzerland where the climate and landscape range from subtropical to high altitude, rich with all manner of flora and fauna. As lovely the physical aspect is of Bhutan, its cultural and historical legacy is equally compelling. There is stunning traditional architecture of wood, stone, and brightly-coloured paint, especially in the old monasteries and forts, or dzong, that protected various parts of Bhutan from Tibetan and Indian invasions and now serve as the seats of authority of administration as well as the prevelant Mahayana Buddhism. It's a misconception that Bhutan and its religion are mere reflections of Tibet. In truth, its geography and history of even more extreme, but carefully calibrated isolation make it truly unique. Its polygamous Eton-educated monarch extols the virtues of thinking of development in terms of Gross National Happiness rather than GDP, and only allowed television into the country a few years ago. Its numerous highly-educated citizens are still required to wear traditional dress for everyday official and professional purposes, and all the old festivals and arts and crafts, such as weaving and woodwork still hold sway over ordinary folk. Bhutan is the only country of its kind left in the world, and one that no more than 5,000 visitors a year can experience.
A quick historical background
Like with Tibet, for most people the history of Bhutan 'really begins' after the introduction of Buddhism there in the 7th century by Padmasambhava who brought this already centuries-old religion from India. This has as much to do with the prevelance of oral history up to this point as the fact that there was no one central authority that defined 'Bhutan' as such; rather, there were a series of independent valleys ruled by feudal masters. Mahayana Buddhism's Kargyupa school became increasingly widely accepted by the denizens of these various valleys, and slowly political and administrative power shifted from being the exclusive reserve of feudal lords, to being shared between them and the monasteries and monks of what has come to be called Drukpa Buddhism. In the early 17th century a Drukpa monk called Ngwang Namgyal managed to pull together various aristocratic and feudal families from all over what is now Bhutan in support of his proposed theocratic government. The cornerstone of this system was the division of powers between two rulers, one responsible for the spiritual matters of the country, and the other for the civil. An ill-advised pact between the spiritual head and the British East India Company brought to head various rivalries that had been simmering under the surface, and after a lot of wrangling and intrigue, finally in 1907, a new, single monarch came to power assuming all responsibility.Urgyen Wangchuk's great-grandson, Jigme Singye Wangchuk is now king of Bhutan. Amid considerable continuing controversy over the expelling of over 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin in 1990, in 2003 the king put forth a controlled gradual form of village-level democracy. There are interesting times ahead, given the very cautious modernisation of many aspects of Bhutanese life, the traditional acceptance for divided forms of government, the refugee situation, and the new 'democratic' experiment
Bhutan is a little landlocked country,just about the size of Switzerland. Small as it is, Bhutan is home to five climatic zones - the tropical, subtropical, temperate, sub-alpine, and alpine. It is bounded by Tibet on the north, and various Indian states - West Bengal and Assam to the south, and Arunachal Pradesh eastwards. In Bhutan the snow peaks and alpine meadows give way to thickly forested hills and ravines, which in turn give way to a small - 5-8 km wide - strip of plains, part mangrove swamp, part permanent rice fields, called the Dooars. Bhutan is home to the sacred Chomolhari mountain (7,300 m).
While the summers are never blazing, temperatures in the lower reaches of the Dooars, can go up into the high-20s (Centigrade). Around Paro and Thimphu the lows in winter are around 0 (C), while higher up it can be considerably below freezing in the winter. The monsoon runs from June through September.
People and language
Bhutanese society, once pastoral and nomadic, is now largely (90%) agricultural. The hill farmers live in the temperate central valleys, where there is access to good sources of water and many hillsides to terrace.There are three main ethnic/ linguistic groups in Bhutan: the Ngalongs from the western and central parts of the country consider themsleves descendants of 9th century Tibetan immigrants, and are the most influential group in religion and politics; the indigeneous Sharchops in eastern Bhutan: and the southern Bhutanese Lhotsampa, people of Nepali descent of many different ethnicities, castes, and religions, descendants of workers brought in in the late 19th century to develop the southern part of the country. Since the expulsion of a large majority of the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese in 1990, the population of Bhutan is at 600,000.
The national language is Dzongkha, which is related to Tibetan. The Ngalongs and Sharchops speak Tibet-Burman languages, while the Lhotsampas speak Nepali as their mother tongue. Hindi is also widely spoken in Bhutan.
Religion and festivals
Prayer flags fluttering against a blue sky and verdant rolling hills, and gnarled hands spinning prayer wheels - this really is the most obvious manifestation of Drukpa Buddhism. Then come the monasteries with their elaborate thangka, frescoes, and murals, their elaborate brightly-painted woodwork, and intricate statuary. The festivals are a visual, aural, and theatrical delight with deep horns and gongs, chanting, masks, and dances.
The most distinctive of Bhutanese festivities is the tsechu, or masked dance. Differents villages and towns celebrate their tsechu at different times of the year. People walk for miles to attend these revelries and watch the masked dancers tell stories of historical or religious significance, such as how Buddhism was brought to Bhutan, or the triumph of good over evil. They exchange news and dress up, and reaffirm their commitment to their faith and their community.
The arts, architecture and culture
There is plenty of art and architecture, music and dance in Bhutan, but the most sophisticated art form here is the weaving tradition. The fabrics of Bhutan, all handwoven according to a multitude of traditional regional patterns as well s innovations, are stunning. There have been exhibits at the Smithsonian and other major Western museums, and some of the older samples are virtual national treasures. The wood carvings, murals and frescoes in the dzong and monasteries, as well as the thangka are sublime examples of how religious art can display both brilliant craftsmanship, as well as intricate systems of iconography. Thangka uses pre-determined symbols and figures to tell various stories about the life of the Buddha and his many manifestations. Ideally the paints used are of a deep, dull sheen and made from stone and other natural materials. There's a whole set of conventions ruling the traditional consutruction of palaces, temples, and gardens, as also the lovely coloured furniture that you also see in Lhasa and Kathmandu, usually in specialty shops.
Flora and fauna
In the more tropical parts of the country there are many varieties of bamboo, as well as the golden langur monkey, tiger, elephant, rhino, and bison. Higher up are the obligatory yak and blue sheep, as well as the shy and endangered snow leopard. Bhutan has an enornmous number of different butterfly types, making it heaven for a TKTK.
The Bhutanese flora is a delight - over 600 kinds of orchids, a few hundred of medicinal herbs, and some 50 rhododendrons. Not to mention, naturally,
Food and drink
Bhutanese food is, quite simply, delicious. It's also very heavy on fresh, vitamin C-loaded, and spicy green chilli. But don't worry - as a traveller you won't be expected to scarf down all your food loaded with heat; chefs at hotels, and cooks on tented treks are no strangers to catrering to far milder palates. Bhutan is known for its delicious ema datshi and kawa datshi, mushroom and potato respectively in a thin, slightly tangy, fresh-smelling cheese sauce. The cheese itself is the freshest farmer's cheese, available at all the farmer's market at every city, town, and village. These dishes are eaten with the fragrant, unique Bhutanese 'red' rice that is more like a shiny pink when uncooked. Bhutanese love vegetables, as they do pork cooked in many ways. They have in common with Tibetans the butter tea - yak butter mixed in with brick tea to create a liquid that is savory, almost soupy, and very very buttery. Other preparations include the famous steamed or fried stuffed ravioli called momo and a savory stuffed griddle bread called shabhalay.