BHUTAN – MOUNTAIN KINGDOM OF ENCHANTMENT
The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan lies along the lofty ridges of the eastern Himalayas, bordered by China (Tibet) to the north and northwest, and by the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim on the east, south and west respectively.
With an area of 38,394 square km., Bhutan is comparable to Switzerland both in its size and topography. The mighty Himalayas protected Bhutan from the rest of the world and left it blissfully untouched through the centuries. The Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism provided the essence of a rich culture and a fascinating history. The Bhutanese people protected this sacred heritage and unique identity for centuries by choosing to remain shrouded in a jealously guarded isolation.
The kingdom is peopled sparsely, with a population approaching 552,996. Four main linguistic groups constitute Bhutan’s population: the Sharchopas, who are held to be indigenous inhabitants, the Bumthangpas and the Ngalongpas who originate in neighboring Tibet, and the Lhotshampas, recent immigrants of Nepalese origin.
Opened for tourism in 1974, after the coronation of the fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan is perhaps the world’s most exclusive tourist destination. The country still retains all the charm of the old world, and travelers experience the full glory of this ancient land as embodied in the monastic fortresses, ancient temples, monasteries and stupas which dot the countryside, prayer flags fluttering above farmhouses and on the hillsides, lush forests, rushing glacial rivers, and – perhaps most important of all – the warm smiles and genuine friendliness of the people. Each moment is special as one discovers a country, which its people have chosen to preserve in all its magical purity.
The history of the kingdom dates back to the 8th century, with Guru Padmasambhava’s legendary flight from Tibet to Bhutan in 747 AD on the back of a tigress. The Guru began propagation of the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism. The country was unified under the Drukpa Kagyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism in the early 17th century, by the religious figure, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The Shabdrung codified a comprehensive system of laws and built dzongs which guarded each valley. At the end of the 19th century, the Trongsa Penlop, Ugyen Wangchuck, who then controlled the central and eastern regions, overcame all his rivals and united the nation once more. In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was unanimously accepted as King, and a hereditary monarchy system was unanimously agreed for Bhutan.
In 1998, the fourth King stepped down as head of state and handed over this function to a prime minister assisted by a cabinet of ministers. As part of the move towards democracy, the fourth King handed over his responsibilities to his son King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck in 2006. In 2008, the year that marked the centenary of the Kingdom, Bhutan made the transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and held its first general elections, marking a new era in the political history of Bhutan.
Bhutan is the only extant Mahayana Buddhist kingdom in the world that has adopted the Tantric form as its official religion. A majority of the Bhutanese people are Buddhist while people of Nepalese and Indian origin are Hindus. The teachings of this school of Buddhism are a living faith among its people. The air of spirituality is pervasive even in urban centers, where the spinning of prayer wheels, the murmur of mantras and the glow of butter lamps are still commonplace features of everyday life. Bhutan’s religious sites and institutions are not museums, but the daily refuge of the people.
One of the most striking physical features of Bhutan is its architecture. Bhutanese architectural forms comprise of chortens (stupas), stone walls, temples/monasteries, fortresses, mansions and houses. The characteristic style and color of every building and house in the kingdom is a distinct source of aesthetic pleasure. What makes the Bhutanese architectural landscape unique is the consistency of traditional designs found in both old and new structures. Thus the ancient fortresses and temples seem to merge with the modern day structures thereby creating a consistency in the architectural landscape.
The dzongs – themselves imposing 17th century structures built on a grand scale without the help of any drawings and constructed entirely without nails – are outstanding examples of the best in Bhutanese architecture. Patterns of rich colors adorn walls, beams, pillars and doors in traditional splendor.
Arts & Crafts
As with its architecture, art and crafts are important aspects of Bhutanese culture and they bear testimony to the spiritual depth of Bhutanese life. Generations of Bhutanese artisans have passed down incredible artistic skills and knowledge. There are thirteen forms of traditional arts & crafts known as Zorig Chosum (Zo means “to make”, Rig means “science”, Chosum means “thirteen”). The thirteen art forms include: woodwork, stonework, sculpture, carving, painting, black smithy, silver & goldsmithy, fabric weaving, embroidery/appliqué, bamboo & cane craft, paper making, masonry and leather work.
One of the main attractions of the kingdom is its annual religious festivals, the tsechus celebrated to honor Guru Padmasambhava (more commonly referred to as “Guru Rinpoche”). All of Guru Rinpoche’s great deeds are believed to have taken place on the 10th day of the month, which is the meaning of the word tsechu. Tsechus are celebrated for several days and are the occasion for dances that are clearly defined in religious content. The religious dances called “cham” can be grouped into three broad categories: dramas with a moral, dances for purification and protection from harmful spirits and dances that proclaim the victory of Buddhism and the glory of Guru Rinpoche. The dancers, either monks or laymen, wear spectacular costumes of bright silk or brocade, ornate hats and extraordinary masks.
Another highlight of the Tsechus are the Atsaras or clowns who are believed to represent Acharyas, religious masters of India. They confront the monks, toss out salacious jokes, and distract the crowd with their antics whenever the religious dances begin to grow tedious. They are the only people permitted to mock religion in a society where sacred matters are treated with the highest respect.
For the Bhutanese, attendance at religious festivals offers an opportunity to become immersed in the meaning of their religion and to gain much merit. The festivals are also occasions for seeing people, and for being seen, for social exchanges, and for flaunting success.
Festivals are held all the year round at temples, dzongs and monasteries throughout Bhutan. Attendance at one of these religious events provides an opportunity for the outsider to experience the extraordinary.
Flora & Fauna
The three climatic zones of the foothills, central Himalayan valleys and the high Himalayas makes Bhutan’s natural heritage more rich and varied than other Himalayan regions. In historical records, the kingdom is referred to as the “Southern Valley of Medicinal Herbs”, a name that still applies to this day. The country’s flora consists of over 7000 species of plants, including the rare Blue Poppy which is also the national flower. Bhutan also has a reputation for being a birdwatcher’s paradise with over 675 species of birds including the endangered Black-Necked crane. Because of the deep traditional reverence, which the Bhutanese have for nature, the kingdom is one of the leading countries in environmental conservation. Over 70% of Bhutan’s land area is still under forest cover. Many parts of the country have been declared wildlife reserves, and are the natural habitats of rare species of both flora and fauna.
The scope for trekking in Bhutan is immense – from short walks to 4 day treks (highest altitude reached 4090m/12,726ft) to the arduous Snowman trek (highest altitude reached 5345m/17,532ft). The very moment you step off the road to start your trek you will be totally de-linked from the stressful sights and sounds of urban life. Instead, you will enjoy views of snowcapped peaks, dense forested hillsides and river valleys, and the sounds of birds and gushing streams, flowing down to the temperate river valleys from the melting snows of the mighty Himalayan peaks. Trekking provides an excellent opportunity to experience the real heart of Bhutan and gain insight into the rural culture of the kingdom.
Our cultural tours introduce visitors to unique aspects of Mahayana Buddhist culture, including visits to religious festivals, dzongs (fortresses), temples, and village excursions. All tours provide a closer look at a culture and a land which remains the most unspoiled and beautiful example of the traditional Himalayan way of life in existence today. Cultural tours of western Bhutan can be done in 3-7 days, whereas central and eastern Bhutan tours would take longer, 8-10 days and 11-13 days respectively. Nevertheless, Ati Jong can tailor make tour programs to meet individual needs and preferences.
Gross National Happiness
Three decades ago, the term Gross National Happiness (GNH) was coined by the fourth King His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The concept of GNH was articulated to indicate that development has many more dimensions than those associated with Gross National Product. The GNH philosophy places the individual at the centre of all development efforts and thus recognizes that people not only have material needs but also spiritual and emotional needs as well. It asserts that spiritual and emotional needs cannot and should not be defined exclusively in material terms. GNH is an economic and development philosophy that serves Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values.
|Area||38,394 sq km|
|Time Zone||6 hours ahead of GMT|
|Language||Dzongkha (official) English widely spoken|
|Country Dialling Code||+975|
REASONS WHY BHUTAN SHOULD BE YOUR NEXT TRAVEL DESTINATION
1.YOU’LL LEARN THAT WEALTH DOESN’T MEASURE THE STRENGTH OF A CULTURE
- 2. TO EXPERIENCE THE BEAUTY OF BUDDHISM
- 3. FOR AMAZING WILDLIFE
- 4. THEY LOVE CHILIS
- 5. YOU’LL BE MCDONALD’S FREE
- 6. TO TRAVEL RESPONSIBLY
- 7. TO EXPERIENCE THE PRESERVATION OF CULTURAL HERITAGE
- 8. TO GET AN ALTERNATIVE LOOK AT RELIGION
- 9. TO EXPERIENCE SOMETHING YOU CAN’T ANYWHERE ELSE