Kuzu Zangpola and Welcome to Bhutan!
Bhutan – The Land of Gross National Happiness welcomes you into her folds with a bounty of cultural diversity and geographic beauty. Bhutan has often been regarded as the Last Shangrila. Druk Yul – or The Land of the Thunder Dragon also gained momentum in its popularity as the Kingdom in the clouds. A land of mist and mysticism is what others likened Bhutan to. From a land ruled by different factions to one that was pampered and nurtured by successive hereditary Monarchs to becoming the world’s youngest democracy – Bhutan has come a long way and each and every step of her way stands testimony to the rich cultural and traditional heritage that serves as the central pillar of the nation’s strength and unity. Bhutan is also the only nation which measures its development with the philosophy of Gross National Happiness. This unique philosophy of development which in plain terms is ‘development with values’ prioritizes people’s happiness more than material development which in today’s world is totally unprecedented.
Bhutan opened her doors to the outside world in the 1970s and since then it never ceased to hypnotize and woo people from all over the world. Every year, thousands of tourists visit this enchanted land of wonders and get immersed in it. The wanderlust Travel Magazine awarded Bhutan the ‘Top Country 2009’ Award, and in 2011, Bhutan was awarded the ‘Most Refreshing Tour’ at the 25th International Travel Expo (ITE) in Hong kong. A total of 105,402 tourists visited Bhutan in 2012. Recently, Bhutan was shortlisted as one of the three finalists for the 2013 World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) prestigious “Destination Stewardship Award.” New York Times listed Bhutan as one of the top 5 places to visit. These are few of the many awards and accolades that Bhutan has won as a top travel destination.
A Short History of Bhutan
Bhutan existed as a patchwork of minor warring fiefs until the early 17th century, when the lama and military leader Ngawang Namgyal, the 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, who was fleeing religious persecution in Tibet, unified the area and cultivated a distinct Bhutanese identity. Later, in the early 20th century, Bhutan came into contact with the British Empire and retained strong bilateral relations with India upon its independence. In 2006, based on a global survey, Business Week rated Bhutan the happiest country in Asia and the eighth-happiest in the world.
Bhutan’s landscape ranges from subtropical plains in the south to the sub-alpine Himalayan heights in the north, where some peaks exceed 7,000 metres (23,000 ft). Its total area was reported as approximately 46,500 km2 (18,000 sq mi) in 1997 and 38,394 km2 (14,824 sq mi) in 2002. Bhutan’s state religion is Vajrayana Buddhism and the population, as of 2015 estimated as 770 thousand people, is predominantly Buddhist. Hinduism is the second-largest religion. Bhutan revels in its interesting arts and architecture. It is one of the kingdom’s most visible distinctive features. From normal houses to stately public structures like Dzongs, all the architecture structures are strictly based on the unique architectural designs of Bhutan. They are highly decorative and ornamental. The traditional Bhutanese architecture has no nails or iron bars.
The Bhutanese folk can be grouped into three distinct ethnic groups-Sharchops, People who live in east of the Bhutan, are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Bhutan. They are Indo-Mongoloid origin and appear closely related to the inhabitants of northeast India and northern Burma. The Ngalongs are of Tibetan descendant of the migrated to Bhutan in the 9th century and settled west of the country. The third groups Lhotsampas are the Nepali origin that settled in the foothills of southern Bhutan in mid 19th century. There are other minority groups in Bhutan such as Layap, Brokpa, Doya, Lhopu, Dhakpa and Lepcha. The Bhutanese are very religious and this is evidenced by the numerous Dzongs, Temples and monasteries that mark the landscape. In addition, every home has its prayer room or alters and generally celebrates an annual festival called “Chogu”. This is when prayers of thanksgiving are offered for the year past as well as for future well being of the family. One of the least densely populated countries in the world with 79 percent of the people living in the rural areas, Bhutan boasts of people; who always have a welcome smile for every visitor.
Arts and Crafts
Bhutanese architectural grandeur is exhibited in the form of Dzongs, monasteries, temples,chortens(stupas) and traditional Bhutanese houses. The Dzong architecture is one of the most elegant and harmonious in the world. The genius of Bhutanese art is best expressed in frescoes and paintings. Bhutan’s thangkas and mandalas depict an artistic skill and a rare exquisite fineness. The mandala or mystic circle represents the Buddhist concept of cosmogony of the universe. The statues are made of wood, stones, bronze, coral, pearl and other expensive materials, which depict fine craftsmanship of the Bhutanese artists. The contemplation and visualization of colours and patterns in art and craft is considered an integral part of worship and spiritual practice. The art of Zorig Chusum or the thirteen arts and crafts of Bhutan remains very much alive toady. There are two institutes of zorig chusum where these traditional arts and crafts are being taught today, one in capital Thimphu and other in Trashiyangtse in eastern Bhutan.
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 gives the community an opportunity to catch up with family and friends.
Flora and Fauna
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. 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, sambars, 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.