Hidden deep in the folds of the great Himalaya mountains for years, Bhutan developed its own civilisation. The population of about 680,000 people, living in close harmony with nature, evolved a unique identity, derived largely from a rich religious and cultural heritage. Today, the world is seeing many exotic aspects of this kingdom.
Bhutan is becoming increasingly known for its pure practice of Mahayana Buddhism in the Tantric form, its untouched culture, its pristine ecology and wildlife, and the unparalleled scenic beauty of its majestic peaks and lush valleys. It is still, in many ways, a magical kingdom of the past.
An Unconquered Land
It is a matter of great pride to the Bhutanese that their small kingdom was never colonised. Its ancient history, which is a mixture of the oral tradition and classical literature, tells of a largely self-sufficient population which had limited contact with the outside world until the turn of the century.
In the eight century Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), established several sacred religious sites which are important places of pilgrimage for the Buddhist world today.
Over the years many other saints and religious figures helped shape Bhutan’s history and develop its religion.
Perhaps the most dynamic era in Bhutanese history came in the 17th century with the arrival, in 1616, of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the great leader of the Drukpa school of Mahayana Buddhism. He unified the country and established the foundations for national governance and the Bhutanese identity.
The Zhabdrung also left as his legacy the dual system of government – the temporal and theocratic – with Je Khenpo (chief abbot) as the religious head and the temporal leader known as the Desi. This system took Bhutan to the turn of the 19th century, until the birth of the Wangchuck dynasty and establishment of hereditary Monarchy.
In 1907, a historic Assembly of the clergy, the official administration, and the people unanimously elected Gongsar Ugen Wangchuck as the first hereditary King of Bhutan. The reigns of the first two Kings were marked by political stability.
A Spiritual Nation
Just as the kingdom’s history is characterised by religious landmarks, the influence of religion is highly visible in every day life of the lay population. Bhutan is a spiritual nation. Hundreds of sacred monasteries, stupas, religious institution, prayer flags and prayer wheels which dot the countryside provide a strong infrastructure and atmosphere for the teachings of their living faith.
In both urban and rural Bhutan, religious ceremonies and rituals are performed regularly and with reverence. The horoscope of Bhutanese life is drawn from the scriptures. National and regional festivities, coinciding with the seasons, are major events for the entire population the year round. The Buddhist world thus regards the kingdom with special importance as the last bastion of Mahayana Buddhism.
A Rich Culture
Bhutanese language and literature, the arts and crafts, ceremonies and events, and basic social and cultural values draw their essence from religious teachings. The tradition of fine art is alive today, manifested, for example, in exquisite traditional painting visible on monasteries and houses, skillfully enhancing the architecture.
Architecture is also a significant feature of the Bhutanese identity. The combination of engineering skill and aesthetic beauty is unparalleled in all structures, from the massive monastic fortresses to houses and bridges. Traditional shapes, colours and patterns on the walls, doors, windows, put Bhutanese architecture in a class of its own.
Music, dance, and handicrafts, both by the clergy and the lay population, play an important role in national, village, or domestic functions and festivals. Bhutan’s textile tradition has, in recent years, gone international. The distinct technique, colour and style of indigenous Bhutanese weaving is being increasingly appreciated by textile specialists, collectors, and users.
The national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha. The people also speak more than 18 dialects across the country. Today, English is taught in the schools and is used as the official working language, but the national leaders emphasise the development and use of Dzongkha.
Bhutan has been described as a natural paradise. Even as the world mourns the loss of its ecology, this small Himalayan Kingdom is emerging as an example to the international community, with about 70 percent of its land still under forest and a great variety of rare plant and wildlife species.
Wedged between China and India, Bhutan’s terrain ranges from the sub-tropical foothills in the south, through the temperate zones, to dizzying heights of over 7,300 meters (24,000 feet). In Historical records Bhutan was known as Lhojong Menjong ‘the Southern Valley of Medicinal Herbs.’ Besides these rare herbs, the Bhutanese seasons are reflected in full color by wild flowers and plants, which carpet the mountain sides.
Bhutan’s population is, in many ways, one large family. More than 70 percent of the people live on subsistence farming, scattered in sparsely populated villages across the rugged terrain of the Himalayas. With rice as the staple diet in the lower regions, and wheat, buckwheat, and maize in other valleys, the people farm narrow terraces cut into the steep hill slopes.
Bhutanese communities settled in the valleys with limited communication in the past. It is for this reason that the sense of individuality and independence emerges as a strong characteristic of the people.
It is for the same reason that, despite the small population, it has developed a number of languages and dialects. 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.
Challenges and change
Yet it is inevitable that Bhutan is changing. Five decades of development have had a dramatic impact on the Kingdom which has moved, in a short span of time, from the medieval age into the 21st century. A comprehensive network of roads, school and hospitals reaching their services to the people, a modern telecommunication system, increasing contact with the international community, urbanisation, and a growing private sector cannot but bring change.
But, just as the Bhutanese people chose to guard their magical kingdom in its pristine form through the centuries, they are determined to balance development and change. The essence of modernisation in Bhutan has been a blend of tradition and progress. The protective Bhutanese psyche, which kept the kingdom in a jealously guarded isolation, is visible in the controlled tourism policy, strong sense of environmental protection, and the careful pace of all-round development.
Bhutan has long decided that economic achievement is no replacement for its unique national identity. In the past, the kingdom fought aggression, in different forms, to safeguard its interests, its priorities, and its identity. The future will be no different.