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Bhutan

Bhutan – the land of monasteries

Bhutan, also known as Druk Yul (Land of the Thunder Dragon). The capital of Bhutan, Thimphu, lies in a sylvan valley, on a hillside on the bank of the river by the same name. One interesting fact about this city is that it is the only world capital without any traffic lights. The city is a storehouse of Bhutanese culture. The Trashi Chhoe Dzong or the fortress of Glorious Religion, and the Memorial Chorten are some of the old sites worth a visit. Geography: Bhutan is a landlocked country. It is about 47,000 kilometres. Bhutan is a land of soaring snowcapped peaks, alpine meadows and densely forested hills and ravines abounding in exotic flora and fauna. From May to August, hills are covered with an awesome variety of flowers decorated with waterfalls and streams gushing in wild abandon

Culture : The language is Dzongkha. Most Bhutanese men wear the gho, which is a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt called a kera. Women wear a kira, a bright, woven ankle-length dress with traditional patterns. It is clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. The females also wear a long-sleeved blouse, a toego, under the kira. Bhutan's national sport is Dha, or archery.

People : About three fourths of the population is Lamaistic Buddhist, followed by Indian- and Nepalese-influenced Hinduism. Bhutanese are a mongolid race of people who originally migrated into and settled the country in the 7th Century AD. A nomadic and pastoral society at first, they gradually turned to agriculture in the fertile valleys.

Festivals : There are many religious festivals. The best known festivals are the Tsechus which are held at different times of the year in different locations. Tsechus are celebrated for three to five days with both monks and laymen taking part in the ritual mask dances.


Places to Visit in Bhutan

The gateway to the south, it is a thriving commercial center on the northern edge of the Indian plains. Situated directly at the base of the Himalayan foothills, Phuentsholing is a fascinating mixture of Indian and Bhutanese, Phuentsholing a perfect example of the mingling of peoples and cultures. Being a frontier town, Phuentsholing is a convenient entry/exit point for visiting Bhutan and also the neighboring Indian states of West Bengal, Sikkim and Assam.

The capital town of Bhutan, and the center of government, religion and Thimphucommerce, Thimphu is a lively place, an interesting combination of tradition and modernity. Home to civil servants, expatriates and the monk body, Thimphu maintains a strong national character in its architectural style.

This beautiful valley encapsulates a rich culture, scenic beauty and hundreds of myths and legends. It is home to many of Bhutan's oldest temples and monasteries, the country's only airport, and the National Museum. Mt. ParoChomolhari (7,300m) reigns in white glory at the northern end of the valley, its glacial waters plunging through deep gorges to form the Pa Chu (Paro River). The Paro valley is one of the Kingdom's most fertile, producing the bulk of Bhutan's famous red rice from its terraced fields.

Punakha served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and still it is the winter seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot). Blessed with a temperate climate and fed by the Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers, Punakha is the most fertile valley in the country. There are splendid views from Dochu-la pass (3, 088m/10,130ft) on the Thimphu - Punakha road.

Located south of Punakha and the last town before central Bhutan, Wangduephodrang is like an extended village with a few well-provisioned shops. The higher reaches of the Wangduephodrang valley provide rich pastureland for cattle. This district is famous for its fine bamboo work, stone carvings, and slate which is mined up a valley a few km. from the town.

This town, perched on steep slopes above a river gorge, forms the central hub of the nation and is the place from where attempts at unifying the country were launched in former times. The landscape around Tongsa is spectacular and its impressive dzong, stretched along a ridge above a ravine, first comes into view about an hour before the winding, mountain road leads you into the town itself.

This lovely valley is the religious heartland of the nation and home to some of its oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. Tales of Guru Padmasambhava and the tertons ('religious treasure-discoverers') still linger in this sacred region.

Tashigang lies in the far east of Bhutan, and is the country;s largest district. Tashigang town, on the hillside above the Gamri Chu (river), was once the center for a busy trade with Tibet. Today it is the junction of the east-west highway, with road connections to Samdrup Jongkhar and then into the Indian state of Assam. This town is also the principle market place for the semi-nomadic people of Merak and Sakteng, whose way of dress is unique in Bhutan.

Tashiyangtse is a rapidly growing town and administrative center for this district. Situated in a small river valley, it is a lovely spot from which to take walks in the surrounding countryside. The dzong overlooking the town was built in the late 1990s when the new district was created. Tashiyangtse is famous for its wooden containers and bowls, which make inexpensive, attractive and useful mementos of a visit to this remote region. The Institute for Zorig Chusum, where students study the 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan, is also worth a visit.


Bhutan at a Glance

Land area : 38,394 square kilometres
Forest area : 65 %
Altitude : Between 240 metres and 7541metres above sea level
Population : 634,982
Languages : Official language “Dzongkha”, English widely spoken
Religion : Mahayana Buddhism (Also known as Tantric Buddhism)
Currency : Ngultrum (equal to Indian Rupee)
Time : +6 hours GMT
Capital : Thimphu
National Tree : Cypress
National Bird : Raven
National Flower : Blue Poppy

Nestled in the Eastern Himalayas and land-locked, Bhutan is a small country, roughly the size of Switzerland. In recent years, Bhutan has been increasingly known and appreciated worldwide for its unique development policy - Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Little is known about the early history of Bhutan. Buddhism was introduced with the arrival of Guru Padmasambhava (the great Indian Saint) in the 8th Century. Till then Bhutan largely existed as little kingdoms ruled by various clans and noble families before the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a Buddhist monk, from Tibet in 1616 AD. He unified the country and named it Druk Yul – the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Following instability and conflict among the people, the first Hereditary King of Bhutan, Sir Ugyen Wangchuck, was enthroned in 1907 establishing an era of peace and stability. Under the rule of the Monarchs, Bhutan has seen tremendous progress.

In March 2008, Bhutan had its first democratic elections – a culmination of the vision and farsightedness of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Bhutan continues to make progress under the leadership of the Fifth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar.

Close to 80,000 people live in the capital city, Thimphu where most of the offices of the Government are located. Thimphu is a growing city and here you can find modern trends ranging from swanky club houses to small cosy cafes. But modernisation is not far removed from other smaller towns in Bhutan. Most of the towns are well connected with roads and communication facilities like Internet, telephone and mobile.

People

Around 79 percent of the Bhutanese live in rural areas. Three main ethnic groups make up the population of Bhutan:

  • The “Ngalongs” who live in western Bhutan
  • The “Sharchops”, literally meaning ‘people from the east’, who live in the east.
  • The “Lhotshampas”, the Nepali-speaking group, who settled in the southern foothills of the country in the late 19th century. Buddhism is practiced mainly in the northern and eastern parts of Bhutan. The main schools are the Drukpa Kagyud and the Nyingma. Southern Bhutanese are mainly Hindus.

The Bhutanese are generally warm and friendly people. It is not uncommon for a stranger to be invited in and offered a cup of tea. There is no difference between men and women in Bhutanese society. And in comparison to most other South Asian countries, women in Bhutan enjoy greater equality and freedom.

Besides the national language Dzongkha, English is widely spoken as it is the medium of instruction in schools. There are 19 languages and local dialects spoken in different parts of the country – the most widely spoken are Sharchop, Nepali and Bumthap.

Culture and Tradition

Buddhism plays a pivotal role in everyday life in Bhutan. The prayer flags dotting the countryside, numerous monasteries and temples, paintings on walls and carvings on hillsides all remind one of the deep influences of Buddhist beliefs and aspirations. It is admirable that the prevailing culture not only draw inspirations from the past, but also remains strongly connected to long-established traditions. This is also clearly visible in the style of the dress and architecture in the country.

Traditional dress –kira for women and gho for men – are very distinct and exhibits the rich and colourful textiles, hand-spun and hand-woven in variety of patterns. The gho is a knee length robe, tied at the waist with a traditional belt and women wear the kira which is a long floor-length dress, clasped at the shoulders by silver hooks or pins called komaand tied around the waist with a traditional belt. A wonju is worn inside and a light jacket called taego completes the dress. The traditional dress is worn for all formal occasions, to school and to work. However, the best is kept to be worn during special occasions like ‘tshechus’.

Tshechus are colourful displays of masked dances performed by monks and laymen dressed in silk-brocade costumes over several days in the courtyards of the dzongs and monasteries. Tshechus are also a time for social gathering when people put on their best clothes, take a break from work and relax with their family and friends. Losar – the New Year of the Lunar Calendar is another special event to celebrate and rejoice.

Doma paani – areca nut and betel leaf with a dash of lime – is an integral part of Bhutanese culture and vigorously used as a popular gift. In the olden days, chewing doma was regarded as an aristocratic practice with special ornate boxes exclusively made to carry them.

Food and Drinks

Bhutanese love chillies and anything spicy. Either dried or fresh, chillies are used abundantly to spice up the curries or as the main ingredient, which accompany steamed rice. The Bhutanese diet is rich in meat, poultry, dairy, grain and vegetables. Ema-datshi (chilli and cheese stew) is an all time favourite for the locals. The second favoured speciality is the sikam or phaksha pa laphu (dried pork/fresh pork and radish dish). But toned-down versions are available plenty to suit one’s palate. Kewa datse (potatoes with cheese) orshamu datse (mushrooms with cheese) are popular dishes among foreigners. Tibetan inspired menus are also available. Steamed momos (dumplings with vegetable or meat stuffing) and thukpa - a kind of noodle soup are widely available.

Liquor is easily available in bars with the exception of Tuesday (declared a ‘dry day’). The legal drinking age is 18 years and above. Locally brewed alcohol (chang and arra) are also common, especially in eastern Bhutan. Suja, salted butter tea, is served on social occasions. The regular tea, served with sugar and milk, is very common and a widely preferred beverage.

Architecture

Bhutanese architecture is strikingly bold and beautiful. The massive dzongs (fortresses), remote monasteries and lhakhangs (temples) and rambling old farm houses to the newly constructed modern buildings in towns and cities all incorporate the typical Bhutanese characteristic and style.

A distinctive feature of the architecture of the dzongs and monasteries are that most were built without a proper plan or drawing and built without using any nails. Most of the dzongs and monasteries go back several hundred years.

Stone, mud and wood are abundantly used as building materials in rural areas. A typical Bhutanese house is two storeys high with a large open attic space used as a storage. The walls are either built with stone or pounded mud which are several inches thick. Wooden shingles are used to roof the house. The finished house is whitewashed and the walls and wooden frames painted colourfully with various designs, mostly that of religious significance. Although the builds may vary to a certain degree, all structures strikingly correspond to traditional designs which lend a degree of uniformity, beautifully merging the old with the new.

Nature and Environment

For a small country, Bhutan’s natural environment is exceptionally rich and diverse. Great geographical and climatic variations, its high, rugged mountains and deep valleys give it a perfect setting for a rich and spectacular biodiversity.

Conserving Bhutan’s pristine environment is one of the highest priorities of the government. Currently 65 percent of the land is under forest cover with more than 26 percent under protected areas, comprising of four national parks. The rich ecosystem houses more than 165 mammals, 612 species of birds and more than 5000 species of plants, including 600 species of orchids, 300 species of medicinal plants and 50 species of beautiful rhododendrons. With its rich and diverse environment, Bhutan has rightly been named one of the world’s ten most important biodiversity ‘hotspots’.

Weather and Climate

Located in the eastern part of the Himalayas, Bhutan experiences four distinct climatic seasons – Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn. The central districts of Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang, Mongar, Trashigang and Lhuntse enjoy a semi tropical climate with very cool winters, and warm summers. Thimphu, Paro, Trongsa and Bumthang have pleasant summers, but cold or freezing winters with monsoon rains, mainly from June-August. Late September sees the advent of autumn which is convenient season for trekking till November before the winter cold sets in. Winter months of November through February are generally dry with daytime temperatures sometimes falling below zero degrees celsius. The valleys experience strong winds which affect the temperatures. The southern part of Bhutan is tropical and in general the east of Bhutan is warmer than the west of the country.

Most of the towns in Bhutan are located in river valleys. Travels among these towns involve driving over high passes, along rivers, across valleys and through picturesque villages.

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