Bhutan is peaceful. There is no strife. It has one of the lowest crime rates and it is very unlikely that one would hear of any kind of crime (let alone witness) while traveling here. It makes safe destination for single, individual travelers of all ages and genders, or for group. It is also one of the safest to travel during the pandemic, given the high vaccination drive. With the leadership of the His Majesty the King driven by science and genuine concern for people, the responses to the pandemic have been fast and effective. The borders only recently opened after ensuring the spread was manageable and resulted only in mild infections. The 21 deaths so far (since the pandemic began) had been those with pre-existing conditions.
To make it safer, people are friendly. Perhaps such friendliness arises from being happy. People are culturally oriented towards being happy. The tantric Buddhist culture have evolved in such a way that coping skills were passed on individual and masses naturally and outlook were managed for greater fulfillment. Managing one’s inner self considered as important, if not more, as changing outer circumstances. With such setting, since the 1970’s, Bhutan has gone on to shift development paradigm by striving for ‘Gross National Happiness’ or GNH as a goal of the country rather Gross National Product. GNH is balanced holistic development of human being and community, recognizing physical, mental and spiritual well-being, besides materialistic achievement.
In order to foster such holistic wellbeing, one of the conducive environments for growth of happiness is the natural environment, whose conservation is one of the main pillars upholding Gross National Happiness. All the Bhutanese land remain pristine – thanks to pre-Buddhist nature worship beliefs of the past and present day conservation policies. Bhutan has more than 70% of its land under forest cover and more than 50% is protected (including biological corridors). Within its constitution, Bhutan is to maintain 60% of its land under forest cover for all times to come. Some say, the percentage is big when actual area is small but then amount of flora and fauna (flora of over 7000 species, 750 species of birds & fauna of 200 mammals – Nature Conservation Division, Department of Agriculture & Forestry Services , 2018 figures) shows the overall effect as same. There are a smaller number of flora and fauna found in bigger area such as North America (70 times bigger than Bhutan). You can find untouched forests in Bhutan– going back centuries.
It is in centuries that we can talk about age of culture as well, with history going to pre-historic times. There has been stone implements and monoliths discovered in Bhutan dating back to pre-historic times. The country has never been ruled by any other than own – never colonized (so the indomitable nature of people). The evolution of the culture have largely been indigenous with some influences, particularly of the Buddhism. Thus evolved culture of nature worship, influenced by Buddhism have given the region the tantric form of Buddhism and its resulting culture, which continues to evolve. It is living heritage of Bhutan. The centuries old fortresses (known as Dzongs, pronounced ‘Zong’ – almost like zonk) and temples predating any kind of statehood in the country that is still houses such beliefs are testament to such continuity. These structures, both physical and institutional (such as monastic system that began in the 17th century) continue to be vessel and manifestation for these values.
The greatest upholder of these values are the monarchs of the country -the Druk Gyalpo or the Dragon Kings. In the last century and little more, since the Bhutanese monarchy began, there has been unprecedented peace and prosperity in the country. The Kings have not only genuinely created conditions for the peace and prosperity but with their vision, also navigated through the negative effects of development by reaching beyond the materialistic development and ensuring holistic spiritual and mental growth as well. The well being and all of country’s achievements, including few cited above, can be traced to the throne. The subjects are moon eyed about their monarchs, who look after all people as their own and all faiths in the people as same.
Bhutan, thus, remains to be a sanctuary – a respite for your mind, body and soul.
History in brief: Never colonized. The discoveries of stone implements and monoliths are proofs that there has been settlement in Bhutan since pre-historic times. Since then till now, Bhutan has never been colonized or ruled by any other than our own. Since then till the arrival of Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century, there are very less records. There are allusions to number of temples being built in the 7th century – most probably the first advent of Buddhism in the country and a prince being exiled into the mountains of Bhutan. But it was only after arrival of Guru Rinpoche that the Buddhism began to spread within the county as it began to assimilate the Nature Worship beliefs into the mainstream Buddhism. Many of the deities and objects of this pre-Buddhist shamanistic beliefs along with the rituals were incorporated into the Buddhism and adapted to work with basic principles of the Buddhism, evolving into the Tantric form of Buddhism.
It was still provincial land then, with many chieftains looking after their small territories, those of which were influenced by different lama personalities and their related schools of Buddhism particularly between 12th – 15th century, some of which originated from Tibet. One such school of tantric Buddhism was the Drukpa Kagyu School.
Drukpa Kagyu School, which was brought to Bhutan in the 15th century by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo after it had been founded in Tibet in the 12th century by Tshangpa Gyarey Yeshey Dorje. It became the most dominant school of Buddhism after Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal came about in the 17th century as its leader, which led to unification of the country as the provincial rulers came to be under central rule. It was the influence as the spiritual head that first led to the Zhabdrung having power of some of the western provinces from where he unified the rest of the country. Besides the influence of being a spiritual head, he used stronghold of the fortresses called the ‘dzongs’ to extend his influence. Once a region was brought under control, whether through spiritual and peaceful means or diplomacy or martial pressure, Zhabdrung created stronghold in form of Dzong, from where his influence was extended eastwards.
By mid 17th century, Zhabdrung established the ‘choesi’ (or the ‘dual’) system of the government with Punakha as its capital. Under this dual system, there was a spiritual – the Je Khenpo and temporal head – the desi. This form of the government continued to the start of the 20th century. It was quite effective for the first century or so, but it began to fail as the regional governors became more powerful than the central government and they began to fight among themselves to install their puppet in the central government. One of the most powerful governors to emerge by late 1800s was governor of Trongsa – the Trongsa Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck. By then, he was not only recognized within the country as the most powerful entity and governor, despite a separate central government but was also deferred to by the British at the south and Tibetans to the North. In fact, he was knighted by the British Empire in 1905 as the Knight Commander of British Empire for forging relations between the British and Tibetans. So, it was a tribute to his contributions when in 1907 the people, clergy, representatives of different sections of the society chose Ugyen Wangchuck as the first King of Bhutan. Since the start of the monarchy, there has been unprecedented peace and prosperity in the Kingdom. Before monarchy, there was strife within the country besides fighting off numerous invasions from Tibet and having a war with the British (in 1865) besides number of battles after certain failed mission with them.
It was Ugyen Wangchuck’s diplomacy that the opposing forces outside the country were converted besides overcoming his rivals within the country. After Sir Ugyen Wangchuck was chosen, in his lifetime – the ‘man of destiny’ as he is called continued the process of unification at social level as well. His son Jigme Wangchuck reduced medieval taxes besides doing away with certain class distinction – the work which was continued by the ‘father of modern Bhutan’ – the 3rd King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. It was during his rule that the Bhutan consciously began to leave the age old policy of isolation and reach out to the world along with the process of modernization. It was during his time that Bhutan joined United Nations, besides number of international organizations. His son and successor – the Great Fourth besides continuing the path of modernization, set forth new paradigm in path of development in form of the Gross National Happiness, which encompasses the democracy that he gifted to the people of Bhutan. He continues to witness these successions of initiations as his son (to whom he handed over the powers of ruling King in 2005) the present King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck. There has been numerous interventions by the present King in form of “national guard” movement called the ‘dessung’ – a citizen voluntary organization, investments of state earnings (through Druk Holding Investments and their subsidiary companies), ongoing initiation into conscription and subsequent choice of national service area. His Majesty the 5th King is known for excellent handling the pandemic and associated responses (including leading to one of the highest levels of vaccination drives).
Bhutan maintains close diplomatic relations with India, stemming from time of British India and is part of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) The relations with China continues to warm up as the border talks have continued over past decade. Bhutan has diplomatic relations with 54 countries, which doesn’t include United States with whom Bhutan maintains informal “friendly and close” relations.
Names of the country: The name ‘Bhutan’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘bhu-uttan’ or the “highlands” and after being used by British extensively including on the early map of the regions (evolving from ‘Bootan’), it came to be the internationally accepted names. The Bhutanese themselves have always called their county ‘Drukyul’ and continues to do so. While the ‘Drukyul’ has been popularly translated as the ‘country of the peaceful dragon’ by many travel books, it actual comes from the name of the school of Buddhism Drukpa Kagyupa, which is called the Dragon School and the name Drukyul was meant to mean ‘the country of the Dragon School” and the Bhutanese as ‘Drukpas’ the followers of the Dragon School.
Location & Geography: Bhutan is located in eastern and northern hemisphere but close to equator. It has China to the north and India on three other sides, with latitude of 27°30” N and longitude of 90°E. Location: 90°E; 27°30” N
Its terrain is mountainous with deep valleys. It is landlocked Himalayan country. The altitude ranges from 150m/495ft to 7540m/ 24800ft approximately, within which includes 3 geographical belts. At the northern end is the alpine zone called the greater Himalayas. The south of greater Himalayas is the middle zone – the temperate zone called the Inner Himalayas and the sub-tropical zone to the south called the southern foothills.
Because of the latitude situation and the mountainous terrain, the tree line is much higher than elsewhere. It is till 3900m or 11500ft that you can find trees. In North America at 35°N latitude, you wouldn’t find any trees by 2900m or 9000ft, similar to Europe.
The snow line is also much higher. For permanent snow cover, one will have to be cross 5900m or 19000ft roughly. The capital Thimphu is at elevation of 7500ft (2350m) and it receives but one snowfall a year – had it been in Europe with latitude of 30° or more, there would be snowfall through out the winter. Contrary to popular notion, Bhutan is not under snow throughout the winter (some think throughout the winter), in fact, some consider themselves lucky if they get one snowfall a year!
The temperatures below are average for some of the common places in Bhutan:
|Month||Values.in.Celsius||…Paro (7500ft).||…Thimphu (7500ft).||…Punakha (4400ft).||…Trongsa (7000ft)…||…Bumthang (8700ft)…||…Mongar (4000ft)…||…Trashigang (3900ft)..|
Further reading: General information on Bhutan on Wikipedia: Bhutan
NATIONAL FLAG: The National flag is divided diagonally into two equal halves. The upper yellow half signifies the secular power and the lower saffron-orange symbolizes the spiritual side of the country. The dragon signifies the name of the country (from Druk-yul – the Dragon Country). The white color of dragon shows the purity and unity. The mythical wish fulfilling jewels in the dragon’s claws represent Bhutan’s wealth, while the dragon’s snarling mouth symbolizes defense by the protective deities and institutions.
NATIONAL SPORT: The national sport is the archery. The traditional archery played in Bhutan is akin to field archery played elsewhere. Usually the traditional bow is two piece long cane bow. The traditional arrows are also made from bamboos and can feature various feathers. Now, modern compound bows made from fiberglass and aluminum arrows are also used, but separately in their own competitions.
Since 1984, Bhutan has always sent an archery team to the olympics. But the format of olympic archery and international archery is different than traditional archery.
The archery matches traditionally were played between villages for revelry, but was considered practice for warfare in the past. Archery features in many legends of saints and is depicted in traditional murals as implements carried by guardian dieties.
NATIONAL EMBLEM: The national emblem, contained in a circle, is composed of a double diamond-thunderbolt (dorje or vajra) placed above a lotus, surmounted by a jewel and framed by two dragons. The thunderbolt represents the harmony between secular and religious power. The lotus symbolizes purity; the jewel expresses sovereign power; and the two dragons, male and female, stand for the name of the country as the land of thunder dragon..
NATIONAL BIRD: The national bird is the raven. This intelligent bird is considered to be form of protective deity of Bhutan – the Gonpo Jarodongchen (or the raven headed Mahakala in Sanskrit). As form of this guardian, it is also depicted on the crown of Kings of Bhutan and is called the Raven Crown.
NATIONAL ANIMAL: The national animal is the Takin (Burdorcas taxicolor). It is quite unique animal, often described as a cross between goat and cattle (in appearance). In fact, the legend has it that it was created after miracle performing Drukpa Kuenlay (the Divine Madmonk) devoured whole goat and cow, and put the carcasses together. During the summer it is found in herds in the alpine meadows, while in winter it behaves as solitary animals when within the forests.
NATIONAL FLOWER: The national flower is the Blue Poppy (Meconopsis Grandis). It has a delicate blue or purple tinged blossom with a white filament. It can grow up to be knee-high and is found in alpine regions of Bhutan. It was discovered in 1933 by a British Botanist George Sherriff in eastern Bhutan.
NATIONAL TREE: The national tree is the cypress (Cupressus torolusa). Cypresses are considered sacred with its leaves and wood used for incense. It is grown near temples and monasteries. It is protected by law and maybe cut only for building of altars and special temples. This tree is found mainly in the temperate regions of Bhutan.
Top 10 Hikes of Bhutan:
1. LUNGCHUTSE – TRASHIGANG: This hike has all – beauty of nature, blessing of deities and challenge of terrain with let off! The beauty of nature is highlighted by giant rhododendron trees, especially if you hiking in late spring when they are in bloom. If you are one of those that is used to seeing rhododendron shrubs and in pots, then this is a treat as look up to the skies for see blooms surrounding you. The gnarly trunks of the rhododendrons add allure to your walks, especially if it is misty around.
The trails lead you to Lungchutse temple at the top (11,355ft above sea level) and hermitages around. The temple is known to grant boons and blessings, as many locals would swear. The blessings from the temple will be complemented if there is clear skies during your visit, with view of high Bhutan Himalayan peaks.
The hike is challenging till the Lungchutse since it is more than 1000ft of climb in span of average time of one and half hours uphill. And the starting elevation is already high at 10, 250ft. But once at the temple, either you retrace back which then is steep downhill, or you traverse through forest of hemlock, firs, birches to Trashigang village, which has monastery and people in retreat. Both are easy and this is the let-off. During late spring or summer, you will chance upon meadow full of primroses.
2. LONGTEY LONGMEY HIKE. The hike should be called Longtey – Gangtey hike, because it starts at Longtey and ends at Gangtey Kumbu village but is called Longtey Longmey since Longtey (Upper village) is always referred together with its adjoining village the Longmey (lower village) along Bhutan’s east west highway, from where both can be seen distinctly.
You start at 10500ft at which Longtey village is situated at. If it is near winter or fall, you will have to start through herd of yaks. If in the winter, you will find yaks through out the trail, that takes you to the Kumbula pass at near 12000ft. It is steady climb but one of the most beautiful if you are doing in early summer since several species of rhododendron would be in bloom and you go through forests of rhododendron. Imagine forest of red, purple, white and even yellow flowers.
Once over the pass, short distance downhill from the top, you have view of the glacial valley of Phobjikha and Gangtey village below. This view will remain till near the end of your hike at Kumbu village – upper part of Gangtey.
3. CHANDANA HIKE: It is difficult not to hear of ‘Drukpa Kuenlay’ or the ‘Divine Madmonk’ once you are in Bhutan. The unconventional 15th century saint lives in our legends and prominent phallic symbols that you find painted over houses. This hike takes you to the heart and house, where the wandering Drukpa Kuenlay lived the longest while in Bhutan.
You follow the ancient pathway between Punakha and Thimphu. The hike can be started from village of Thinleygang on Thimphu Punakha Highway. It is all decent through sub-tropical vegetation into the valley and stream banks of Toeb Rongchu, where Chandana village and house associated with Madmonk is. “Chandana” translates to “honored arrow or honorable arrow’ and refers to the arrow that, according to legends, Drukpa Kuenlay shot from Tibet and landed at the ladder of house here.
You can still see the ladder entombed in the altar of the house. From here, your climb of the hike begins through forest of chir-pine (similar to white pine) but gradual. As you rise to end of the trail at the spur of the hill or ‘Laptshakha’ you view of the valley, houses and fields alongside the stream banks gets better.
4. LAPTSHAKHA TO PUNAKHA DZONG: The elevation of Punakha, where this hike is located, is lower at around 1300m or 4000ft. Because of the country’s near equator latitude position, even though this elevation is considered high, one experience sub-tropical conditions. As such, even in the winter, you will have pleasant warm temperatures throughout this hike that takes you through pine forests, terraced fields, farmhouses all the while looking over Puna Chu river and the settlements below. It is gradual climb down over the ancient pathway that is mostly wide but overgrown with disuse. You may meet occasional herder, if at all. Many birders have sighted many birds along here, especially near numerous stream beds you have to cross.
The hike ends with grand view of the Punakha Dzong placed between two rivers of Mo and Pho Chu.
5. WANGDITSE HIKE: Even in the biggest city of Bhutan Thimphu, the nature is not so far away. Just 10 minutes of drive from the town, you are in the nature and few minutes further up the road on Sangaygang hill, you will come to start of Wangditse hike. It is easy walk from Sangaygang to Wangditse temples. The path is well maintained and is also considered biking trail, with occasional riders that you may see.
There is hardly any change in elevation as you go through the mainly blue pine forest, overlooking the Thimphu city and more prominently the capitol building – the Trashichodzong. You will have the view from newly reconstructed 18th century Wangditse temples, from where you can retrace back steps to the starting point as we recommend. There is option to end at different location (at Dechenphodrang) but that calls for steep descent that may become challenging!
6. GANGTEY NATURE TRAIL: This hike is in Phobjikha valley of Wangdiphodrang District. Phobjikha valley is a wide glacial valley, with a prominent hill in it, which some say is left over glacial moraine. This hill is called Gangtey, from the monastery that is on tip -‘tey’ of hill – ‘Gang’. It is from this hill top that you begin that Gangtey Nature Trail walk gradually into the valley floor below, which is mainly marshy and being cut by meandering stream called Nakey (meaning fiddlehead) Chu.
Between late November to early March, along the trail, you will sight Black Necked Cranes that Gangtey or Phobjikha valley is known world over for. And towards summer, you will have hillside covered in primulas. It is beautiful and easy hike – a combination that is not commonly found.
7. THARPALING – KIKILA: Bumthang district in the central Bhutan is known to be made of four valleys. Going from the west, Chumey valley is the first valley you will come across where this beautiful hike is located. To get to the trailhead, you will have to leave the highway and drive up to the retreat village of Tharpaling. Tharpaling literally translates to “land to crossover” or to accomplish. And there are many monks and hermits here that are striving to accomplish or cross over to enlightenment. The place is associated with a great 14th century teacher to Longchenpa.
It is from near the rock where Longchenpa is supposed to have meditated that hike begins. You first climb up to this rock called seat of Longchenpa, from where you have view of whole valley below. On clear day, you will also see highest peak of Bhutan – the Gangkar Puensum. From the spur, it is then downhill walk through meadows and pinewood to the pass of Bumthang called ‘Kikila’
8. KYICHU TO SATSHAM CHORTEN: This is mainly along farm roads in northern Paro. Starting from Kyichu temples, first it takes you over narrow path between farmhouses and field to a farm road behind. There is not much incline throughout the hike.
Along the farm-road, you will meet plenty of people walking – children back from schools, farmers to the fields, people out to the shops. It is perfect walk to acclimatize and learn firsthand about Bhutan. The view is beautiful, and you will be able to see Paro valley with the Dzong and also Tiger’s Nest, besides villages surrounded by paddy fields.
The hike ends at Satsham Chorten – a village known to have landmark (Satsham) stupa (Chorten). There are many stories of what landmark is for.
09. DRAMITSE – BAGINGLA: The hike begins on top of a hill in the eastern Bhutan called Dramitse – the “peak without foes” (‘dra’ means a foe, ‘mi’ – disappearance, ‘tse’ – tip or peak). It has been called so, because only at the place, her suitors that were the foes to her spiritual pursuits left her alone. The place has monastery called the Dramitse Lhakhang from where your walk can begin toward Bagingla.
It will take couple of hours along ancient trail to Bagingla overlooking river and the valleys below, surrounded by hills that are dotted by villages. Bagingla itself is beautiful with schools near the village surrounded by maize field and a prominent ruins of an ancient castle. There are many legends about it.
From Bagingla, if you like fast pace and is not concerned by overgrown paths, then you can continue to Sherizam, a settlement deep down in the valley. But it is best, you get picked up in Bagingla, which is connected by a farmroad.
10. GAYZAMCHU – URA: This is in east most valley of Bumthang – the Ura valley. And it is long one and can take you whole day if not about 6 hours. It begins at Gayzamchu, which is around 11300ft elevation and takes you through forest to mountain pass of Wangthangla at 12500ft. You will notice the vegetation change from fir forests, to rhododendron mixed with larches and then to shrubs at the pass.
From here, you walk down into a stream bed and climb back up to Saitangla – another hill and pass. Besides water driven prayers wheels along the streams, you will see many caves of used by herders to camp in besides those used by hermits in retreat. From Saitangla, you have great view of the Ura valley with its village and paddy fields below. It is an hour’s descent to reach the village and roads.
Top 10 Cultural Sites of Bhutan
1. TAKTSHANG – the Tiger’s Nest: Perched on high on ledge 2000 ft above Paro valley floor, these temple complex is perhaps the most recognized structure of Bhutan. It has become icon of Bhutan. On top of such extraordinary location, the legend of flying tigresses that carried Guru Rimpoche to the spot adds to allure the temples known as ‘Taktsang’ – the Tiger’s Nest (Tak meaning Tiger, tshang meaning nest).
It is the 8th century that legend alludes to, when the flying tigress carried Guru Rimpoche to the ledge for meditation. But it was only since 1692 that the temples came about. Back in the 8th century believe that Guru Rimpoche, a tantric saint and often referred as the 2nd Buddha or tantric Buddha, meditated for months. Since then many from world over have come here to immerse in his essence and to be blessed.
This site is not easy to get to. It requires 5 hours of walking – 3 hours uphill and 2 hours to retrace.
2. BIG BUDDHA This is an open air statue of Buddha – considered the largest seated Buddha in the world at 60m height or 198ft. It is located top of hill called ‘Kuenselphodrang’ overlooking capital city of Bhutan – Thimphu. The drive to location of Buddha is beautiful and has many viewpoints of the city below.
The statue called ‘Buddha Dordenma’ houses three level temples in its throne and thousands of smaller statues of the Buddha in the body. Often high teachers, including the His Holiness Chief Abbot of Bhutan provides teachings to public in the wide tiled area around the statue.
3. PUNAKHA DZONG: It was at pinnacle of Bhutan’s medieval era when the statehood of Bhutan was being formed that the Punakha Dzong was built (1640CE). Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel built the dzong/ fortress and gave Bhutan its statehood. Officially called, the Punthang Dechen Phodrang or the ‘Place of Great Bliss’, it is built at confluence of rivers Pho and Mo Chu, protected on 3 sides by the river and hill behind.
It is considered the ancient capitol building of Bhutan and many of historical events took place here, including crowning of the Kings of Bhutan. The great courtyards outside majestic assembly halls with fine murals, one can easily spend half a day here.
4. DOCHULA DRUK WANGYAL MONUMENTS, including temple and stupas: The ornament for the great mountain pass of Dochula (3050m – over 10,000ft), connecting Thimphu and Punakha valley is Druk Wangyal monuments. The monuments include 108 Bhutanese style of stupas (stupas are also called Chortens in Bhutan) and a temple, built by Her Majesty the Queen Mother Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, on a backdrop of high Himalayan peaks of Bhutan including the highest unclimbed Gangkar Puensum.
All of the monuments, called were built to mark the victory of His Majesty the Fourth King when he led incursion against militants that had come across the southern border. They represented dissidents against the India but were camped inside Bhutan. It is not only manifestation the Queen Mother’s respect and love for His Majesty the Great Fourth, but also recognition of the guardian deities and their protection.
The temple also called ‘Druk Wangyal’ or the temple of “victorious Drukpas/ Bhutanese” has some of the finest display of artistic tradition in Bhutan. There are fine works of both contemporary and traditional, not only method but also the subject matter. Besides the traditional depiction of deities and Buddha’s life event, the monarchs and their forefather is depicted. It is hard to encompass the legacy of the Kings and royal family, but the murals provides essence and marks them.
5. BIG GURU RIMPOCHE: Officially called the Guru Zilloen, the Big Guru is also known as the ‘Takila Guru’ being perched on Takila hill that overlooks deep sharp valleys of Lhuentse and its river Kuri Chu. Built by late Venerable Khenpo Karpo, the open air statue of Guru Rimpoche with height of 173ft is considered largest of Guru in the world. Inside the statue, there are multiple levels of temples housing statues and murals mostly related to Nyingma traditions.
The statue is surrounded by number of huge prayer wheels, places to offer butter lamps, guest house for visiting pilgrims and narrow terraced rice fields.
6. TRONGSA DZONG: There are many dzongs in Bhutan, but none as big as the Trongsa Dzong accentuating the defensive of nature of this majestic fortress. Commanding over the only medieval path between east and west Bhutan, it was seat of power in the past. It was from here that the first King rose to power. It is tradition for Crown Prince of Bhutan to become governor of Trongsa or ‘Trongsa Penlop’ before ascending the throne.
The Wheel of Life depiction outside south assembly hall is considered one of best in the country.
7. KURJEY LHAKHANGS: ‘kurjey means ‘body print’ and it is believed that Guru Rimpoche in the 8th century miraculously left body print in the rocks while meditating. It is around these rocks and caves, where Guru Rimpoche meditated that the first Kurjey Temple was built in the 17th century. Then a temple was added at the start of the 1900s and then last in this complex was built in 1958 by the Royal Queen Grandmother Kesang Choden Wangchuck. All the temples are three storied and celebrate life of Guru Rimpoche.
8. KYICHU TEMPLES. There are 2 temples here. One of the Kyichu temples is old and easily predates statehood of Bhutan, built in 7th century, 900 years before state of Bhutan. It marks the first advent of Buddhism to Bhutan. It is considered one of the 108 temples built by a Tibetan King then – the King Songsten Gampo, at behest of his consort Wengchenma – a Chinese princess. One of the other temple, considered part of the 108 temples that the King Songsten Gampo built, is Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang. Both have future Buddha as the central figure.
Besides the old Kyichu temple, there is new one built dedicated to Guru Rimpoche alongside the old temple. It is one of the best rendition of Guru Rimpoche in statue form. The temples are surrounded by cherry trees, few hybrid maples and a very large cypress tree.
9. DUNGKAR NAGTSHANG – THE HERITAGE HOUSE. This is ancestral house of Kings of Bhutan. It is situated in eastern district of Lhuentse and further half day journey from Lhuentse district center. The name ‘Dungkar’ translate to conch shell and it is from physical shape of the land surrounding the house that looks like conch. Conch in Bhutanese beliefs is considered auspicious. Tracing lineage to 15th century saint, it is said that the father of first King, Jigme Namgyel ventured out of this house to Trongsa, where he rose to the governor setting up for his son Ugyen Wangchuck to extend the influence and ultimately be crowned the first King of Bhutan. The landscape surrounding the village is beautiful as the drive (though rough) taking you there.
10. CHORTEN KORA: This is a stupa and it has to be considered along with the Trashiyangtse town that is around this great stupa. The stupa is in Nepalese style and legend has it that the stupa represent ultimate show of faith since a maiden princess entombed here from where she achieved enlightenment. The festival here, featuring circumambulation of stupa, commemorates her. The stupa is believed to have overcome harmful demonic forces since it was built in the 18th century. It is pleasant walk from the stupa to the Trashiyangtse town nearby, explore the shops, especially for the wooden bowls that the district is known for, besides woodworks in general.
TOP 10 BHUTANESE DISHES
- EMA DATSHI: It is often hard to explain that a spice (hot one at that) – the chilly, is used as vegetable and cooked as the main ingredient as in this ‘Ema Datshi‘ dish. The ‘Ema Datshi‘ is often declared as the national dish of Bhutan (not officially acknowledged). The ‘ema’ means chilly (often Jalapeños) and ‘datshi’ the cheese (often cottage/ cheddar). The cheese is melted over the steaming chilly into saucy dish with long halved green or red or dried chillies. Some add spices like tomato or onion, though the best “chilly cheese” dish traditionally would feature only chillies (ideally new crop of fresh chillies) with cheese and salt. Other chillies such as Cayennes can be used (but usually not habaneros though it can be mixed with bell pepper to give it a taste to heatless pepper!). It can be very hot with cayennes. The best are done with Jalapeños, not to too hot or too mild, which makes it hot and enjoyable!
- MENGEY: The closest to pizza from among the traditional Bhutanese dishes is ‘Mengey’. It doesn’t need an oven though. The crust is made from already cooked rice, mashed to become dough-like base spread on buttered pot or pan. The topping traditionally has been Amarantha seeds with thinly sliced cooked radish and touch of mustard. It is kept over slow heat before being served.
- JATSHA GONGDO: This is a speciality from the Nobgang village in the western Bhutan. It is delicate looking egg dish made from with sieved eggs that is fried but looks frosted yellow cage ball. It is crisp and ready accompanying dish to other spicy cookings.
- SIKAM PAA: The Bhutanese bacon is thick, arm-length long and air-dried in the space that you see that is open between attic and roofs of traditional houses. It is often dried for months, aged so that best ones would have touch of bitter taste. It is cooked with dried red chillies – cut long and sliced radish or potatoes. It is traditionally dish that is often flaunted during the festival grounds by families, who bring packed lunches – the longer the golden bacon the better. ‘Sikam’ means ‘cold dried’ and ‘paa’ denotes the meaty cut.
- MOMO: ‘Momo’ is the most popular Bhutanese fast food. It is dumpling with variety of fillings. The dumplings with pork, cheese, vegetables or other meat filling, is kept ready to be steamed and as the order comes, it is steamed and served, if not already steamed. It is served with chilly paste. You can get it fried as well or take them as part of soup.
- HOENTEY: ‘Hoentey’ is a dumpling but made from sweet buckwheat flour and fillings of buttered dried turnip greens. It comes from the western valleys of Haa and parts of Paro.
- EZAY: There are tomatoes that grows on trees called ‘tree tomato’ (duh). And this tree tomato called ‘lambenda’ locally is what gives to taste to the ‘ezay’ after it is roasted, peeled and then mashed with chilly flakes. The chilly is freshly flaked by slow roasting and then crushing them. While mashing, available spices such as Sichuan pepper, fresh coriander with salt can be added. Some would or not add cheese. Ezay goes along any of staples of Bhutan.
- JUMA: The Bhutanese sausage ‘Juma’ can have spicy tingling taste given the filling that Sichuan pepper and chilly powder mixed with dough. The ‘juma’ after filling is cold dried, which hardens over the time. The dried ‘juma’ is then cooked like other traditional Bhutanese meat dishes that is with radish, chillies and loads of fats.
- KHULEY: ‘Khuley’ is for those that are intolerant to ‘gluten’. It is made from buckwheat, which as you know is not a wheat! It is staple of the high central valleys of Bhutan. It is flat bread traditionally baked over thick heated stone – often round river rocks. The color of the bread can be dark rich yellow and is made from both kinds of buckwheat found in Bhutan – the sweet or the coarse. It is always accompanied by side dish – the chilly cheese dish mentioned above, chilly paste, butter along with butter tea.
- KANGCHU: This is a dish that is made from pork legs cooked over long time. The pork legs is minced along with the bones and then cooked over the time till the bones becomes soft. The spices, especially, Sichuan pepper is added.
Bonus: GOEN HOGAY: This is a side dish, mostly made with long thin slices of cucumber that is peppered with chilly flakes, salt, Sichuan pepper and fresh cottage cheese. Instead of cucumber, young radish slices can be used.
- India (Kolkata, Delhi, Bagdhora, Bodhgaya) open for all international travel that are fully vaccinated OR have negative result of RT-PCR test within 72 hours before arrival, all to be detailed in self declaration form. The self declaration form to be filled in before boarding. Self monitoring for 14 days recommended. 2% of flight to be randomly tested and if positive, quarantine protocols to be applied. One maybe subject to register on contact tracing apps. This is as of 2nd Sep 2022. More details: https://www.mohfw.gov.in/pdf/GuidelinesforInternationalarrivalsupdatedon02September2022.pdf
- Nepal (Kathmandu): Either with negative test or full vaccination certificate, all international travel by air allowed on-arrival visa without quarantine. Covid protocols enforced. Subject to test result and health condition, quarantine maybe imposed on individuals.(In effect from 10th March 2022). More details: https://www.immigration.gov.np/post/travel-advisory-published-on-16th-march-2022
- Thailand (Bangkok): From 1st Oct 2022, passengers will be no longer required to present COVID-19 related documents such as a certificate of vaccination and COVID-19 test results upon arrival in Thailand.Entry requirements for Thailand are the same for all travelers, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status.
- Bangladesh (Dhaka): An online declaration form to be filled in. If fully vaccinated (14 days prior to arrival) or testing negative within 72 hours of arrival, no quarantine required . For partial or unvaccinated – negative result of RT-PCR test taken no more than 48 hours required, if not 07 days quarantine applicable. Possible subjection to additional health screenings at the airport and corresponding to result, quarantine. (In effect from 2nd Jun 2022). More details: http://caab.gov.bd/circul/AT-Circular-FSR-03-2022%20(02June22).pdf
- Singapore (Singapore): Quarantine and testing free entry to Singapore for fully vaccinated travelers. Partially or unvaccinated travelers (above 12 years) will need to show negative result of RT-PCR or ART taken within 48 hours before departure. Those with documented covid infection between 14-90 days can travel without testing but documentation to be checked before arrival. (in effect from 1st Aug 2022). More details: https://www.ica.gov.sg/enter-transit-depart/entering-singapore
Note: There are exceptions to test and vaccination requirements to those below 5 years of age and some destinations upto 12 years of age.
- Borders fully open since 23rd Sep 2022 to all travelers with no restrictions.
- With His Majesty leading and government actively and efficiently carrying out the commands, all driven by science, there has been very effective responses to different stages of the pandemic.
- It is testament to such responses that there were only 4 deaths and 400 cases till the beginning of the year 2022.
- State run Reverse Isolation Facilities for vulnerable population during the current change in approach of living with the virus. Vaccination of all eligible ages.
- Separate covid hospitals in various strategic regions with state run isolation facilities.
- Flu clinics established to screen out possible infections before entering hospitals in all districts.
- Dictation of different zones according to risks.
- More than 50, 000 people affected by pandemic (mostly from tourism but also from other sectors) given access to welfare schemes (such as mostly wages), alternative engagements, re-skilling, up-skilling programs, etc.
- Many businesses affected, mainly of tourism, given loan repayment deferments and other fiscal protection including additional loans with flexible schemes besides total waiver on some part of repayments.
Arts, Crafts & Architecture of Bhutan: The term ‘Zorig Chusum’ is used to club thirteen traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan and often used to denote all of the arts and crafts of the country, even though actual tradition far exceeds this number. Nonetheless, it remains to be the set that encompasses other craftsmanship and receives nationwide recognition. The thirteen arts and crafts are (1) calligraphy or yigzo, (2) painting or lhazo, (3) carving or parzo, (4) clay sculpture or jinzo, (5) metal casting or lugzo, (6) silver and gold smithery or troezo, (7) needle work or tshemzo, (8) wood work/ carpentry or shingzo, (9) textile production or thagzo, (10) paper making or delzo, (11) bamboo craft or tsharzo, (12) black smithery or garzo, and (13) masonry or dozo
The architecture of Bhutan often encompasses most, if not, all of the thirteen above listed skills. The architecture of the country is known for building without nails and using natural contours of landscape that gives shapes that uses strength of surroundings.
The following description of Zorig Chusum is excerpt from article by Dr. Karma Phuntsho – a leading scholar of Bhutan. It was published in national newspaper Kuensel on 16th May 2022 and is being given here with courtesy of Kuensel. Here is the link of the original article: https://kuenselonline.com/zorig-chusum/
Zorig Chusum (བཟོ་རིག་བཅུ་གསུམ) is a classification of arts, crafts and technological skills into thirteen different domains, which is well known in Bhutan. The thirteen categories include (1) calligraphy or yigzo, (2) painting or lhazo, (3) carving or parzo (སྤར་བཟོ་), (4) clay sculpture or jinzo (འཇིམ་བཟོ་), (5) metal casting or lugzo (བླུག་བཟོ་), (6) silver and gold smithery or troezo (སྤྲོས་བཟོ་), (7) needle work or tshemzo(ཚེམ་བཟོ་), (8) wood work/ carpentry or shingzo (ཤིང་བཟོ་), (9) textile production or thagzo (ཐགས་བཟོ་), (10) paper making or delzo (འདལ་བཟོ་), (11) bamboo craft or tsharzo (ཚར་བཟོ་), (12) black smithery or garzo (མགར་བཟོ་), and (13) masonry or dozo (རྡོ་བཟོ་). In this classification, carpentry and woodturning are put together under wood work whereas in another enumeration, black smithery and gold and silver smithery are treated as one art of smithery and woodturing (ཤག་བཟོ་) and carpentry enumerated as different arts or crafts.
Yigzo (ཡིག་བཟོ་) or calligraphy includes the art of writing in different scripts. It is carried out mostly by monastic scribes and priests who create books for regular use or make ornamental books with artistic calligraphy. Associated with calligraphy are also other crafts such as ink making and pen making.
Lhazo (ལྷ་བཟོ་) or fine art is practised as high culture by artists who are trained in the field. Buddhist figures and themes dominate the content of fine art, thus giving it the name lhazo or art of divine beings. The painters learn iconographic mensuration and line drawings and gradually go on to create very complex images of deities and Buddhas. They also learn how to prepare and use the pigments, paint brushes and canvass.
Parzo (སྤར་བཟོ་) or carving comes in many forms. Bhutanese artists and craftsman carve on metals such as copper, bronze, silver and gold, and also on wood and stone. The carvings on the stone are mostly mantra spells in either the Lantsha (ལན་ཛ་) or Uchen (དབུ་ཅན་) script while the carving on wood generally depict Buddhist icons and traditional motifs and symbols. It is common to find deity images carved on metal and sometimes on stone and placed on receptacles and monuments.
Jinzo (འཇིམ་བཟོ་) or clay sculpture is one of the finest arts associated with Bhutan. Bhutanese clay sculptors excel in making clay figures, most of which is religious icons or symbols. A very special clay, collected from some specific areas of Bhutan, is used for the clay sculpting. Bhutanese temples are full of wonderful samples of clay sculpture. Like fine art, clay sculpture is taught in the schools for traditional arts and crafts.
Metal casting or lugzo (བླུག་བཟོ་) is also known in Bhutan. Using the ancient lost wax technology, many bronze sculpture are created through metal casting.
Silver and gold smithery or troezo (སྤྲོས་བཟོ་) is a very refined tradition. Silver and gold smiths create a wide range of intricate objects including religious figures, ritual artefacts, jewelleries and household items. Many religious and cultural motifs are used in the gold and silver works.
Needle work or tshemzo (ཚེམ་བཟོ་) is practised by many Bhutanese but the more specialised art of embroidery and applique are undertaken only by people with skills. Needle includes the basic craft of tailoring to produce a diverse set of garments Bhutanese wear and the ornamental pieces which Bhutanese use heavily in both religious activities and ceremonies. Special pieces such as wall hangings such as thongdrol and thangka are created using the technique of embroidery and applique.
Wood work/carpentry known as shingzo (ཤིང་བཟོ་) is a very common craft. Most Bhutanese houses are built with intensive use of timber. The wooden part of Bhutanese built structure is filled with various designs and decorations, which a master carpenter or architect is familiar with. Wood work is also carried out to produce household utensils. Traditionally, the Bhutanese mostly produced their crockery from wood through woodturning.
Textile production or thagzo (ཐགས་བཟོ་) is a very popular art and craft practised almost exclusively by women. From creating yarn, to dyeing to weaving the numerous patterns, Bhutan has a very rich and diverse tradition of textile production. Bhutan exported textiles created from wool, yakhair, silk, cotton and plant fibres to Tibet and textiles remains one of the main attractions for the tourist who visit Bhutan today.
Paper making or delzo (འདལ་བཟོ་), (11) is an ancient craft which was perhaps passed from China via Tibet. As Bhutan abundantly grows Daphne and Edgeworthia, Bhutan had a vibrant tradition of paper production although this was a craft practised by selected people. Paper was sent as gift or merchandise to Tibet and the state also collected paper as tax from the people.
Bamboo craft or tsharzo (ཚར་བཟོ་) is widely practised by the common Bhutanese. Most cowherders practise craft to create ropes, baskets, strainers, mats and other household items. Thanks to Bhutan’s environment with heavy vegetation, different species of bamboo and cane are grown across the country. Bamboo is also used to build houses in the southern parts of Bhutan.
Black smithery or garzo (མགར་བཟོ་) was practised by certain communities and families in the past. Black smiths produced a wide range of household items, farming tools and also religious artefacts. Bhutan had many areas where iron ore was prevalent and even Tibetan builders such as Thangtong Gyalpo used iron extracted and processed in Bhutan. The tradition is now in decline as a lot of the steel artefacts and implements are imported from India.
Masonry or dozo (རྡོ་བཟོ་) is a widespread in Bhutan. The houses in Central and Eastern Bhutan are generally built of stone and wood. Bhutanese masons used stone in skilful ways to built towering structures which lasted for many centuries. Most valleys also have quarries from where excellent stone is extracted for building houses. The stone is chiselled or broken to get the desired shape and then stacked using mud plaster to hold them together. Whole stone slabs are sometimes put over a river to make a bridge. Stones are also used for millstone, mortar and pestle, knife sharpener, and also as pans for pancake.
Although the thirteen arts and crafts are generally given as comprehensive list of artistic tradition and craftsmanship in Bhutan, this set of thirteen does not include all arts and crafts. Tannery, ink making and bone works are some examples which do not fall within the thirteen. Nonetheless, the thirteen arts and crafts today represent the artistic and craft based cultural heritage of Bhutan and is being actively promoted by the state.
ECONOMY OF BHUTAN
Economy Overview: The Bhutanese economy is mixed economy. There is considerable government interventions and regulations so that there is conducive environment for free market and capitalism to grow. The interventions include not just regulatory but also state participation in commercial ventures making up in the areas that lacks investment, either because of the scale of investment or market brevity. As of now, Bhutan is at verge of becoming ‘More Developed Country, given the steady growth over last four decades since planned development began.
The main source of revenue for the country is sale of hydropower to India. Till the onset of pandemic, tourism brought in the second most revenue into the country. Besides, hydropower, Bhutan exports agricultural & mineral produces from fruits to low grade coal and gypsum.
Gross Domestic Product (GDP): The Bhutanese economy recorded a growth of 4.09 percent in 2021, which is a 14.10 percentage points increase from a decline of -10.01 percent in 2020. The key sectors that contributed to the expansion of the economy were Mining & Quarrying at 28.27 percent, Transport & Communication at 16.21 percent, Construction at 8.78 percent, and Wholesale and Retail Trade at 7.26 percent. However, the Electricity & Water Supply sector, Financial & Insurance Activities, and Education & Health dropped by 3.69 percent, 4.16 percent, and 0.01 percent respectively.
On the demand side, the Government Final Consumption Expenditure (GFCE) posted a growth of 5.73 percentand Household Final Consumption Expenditure by 4.85 percent. The Gross Capital Formation (GFC) also recorded a growth of 12.60 percent against a drop of 15.99 percent in 2020. Further, the Export of Goods and Services increased by 8.92 percent and at the same time, the Import of Goods and Services increased by 15.74 percent in 2021.
The Gross National Income (GNI) recorded a growth of 4.10 percent in 2021, which is an increase of 11.24 percentage points compared to -7.13 percent in the previous year. The increase in GNI in 2021 was due to a decrease in the net outflow of primary income as compared to the previous year.
The primary income outflow to the Rest of the World (RoW) in 2021 was recorded at Nu 13,022.55 million as against Nu 12,427.29 million during the previous year. The net primary income from the RoW was recorded at Nu -11,507.87 million which is an increase in outflow of Nu 922.41 million over the previous year.
Per capita GDP and GNI: The GDP per capita in 2021 increased to Nu. 248,334.31 (US $ 3,358.59) from Nu. 230,054.91 (US $ 3,104.36) in 2021 and in real terms, it increased by 3.10 percent which is up by 13.98 percentage points compared to 2020.
The per capita Gross National Income (GNI) in 2021 recorded a growth of 3.11 percent compared to a -8.03 percent fall in 2020, increasing by 11.14 percentage points. In nominal terms, the GNI per capita in 2021 was recorded at Nu. 233,114.85 (US$ 3,152.76) as against Nu. 215,920.81 (US $ 2,913.64) in 2020.
The GDP deflator (implicit price deflator), which is the measure of price change for goods and services produced in the domestic economy, was recorded at 4.70 percent in 2021 as compared to 7.22 percent in 2020 which was a drop of 2.52 percentage points from the previous year.
On the other hand, annual price change (inflation) measured by Consumer Price Index (CPI) was recorded at 7.35 percent in 2021, which was an increase of 1.72 percentage points from 5.63 percent in 2020.
National Saving and Investment: The economy in 2021 noted a gross national savings of Nu 26,404.02 million against Nu. 28,822.37 million in 2020, which is a drop of Nu. 2,418.34 million. Of the total national savings, government savings was Nu. -6,321.28 million and private savings (Households, Private and Public Corporations) was Nu. 32,725.31 million.
The gross national savings recorded a drop of 6.14 percent in 2021 from the previous year. The increased Government Final Consumption Expenditure (GFCE), and continuous decline in the inflow of primary and secondary income from the Rest of the World resulted in the fall of the National Saving.
With the drop in national savings in 2021, like in the past years, the gross national savings was not adequate to meet the investment requirements of the economy. The nominal investment in 2021 was estimated at Nu 67,276.84 million as against the Gross National Saving of Nu. 26,404.02 million.
Table: Bhutan Economic Indicators (Source: National Statistical Bureau)
Bhutan at a Glance
- Area: 38,394 sq. km
- National Language: Dzongkha
- Population (2021): 756, 129 (Female: 361, 806; Male: 394, 232)
- Gender Ratio: 109 male to 100 female
- Median Age: 28.9 years
- GDP at Current Market Price (2020): BTN 171,572.90 million
- Gross National Income (2020): BTN 160,987.44 million
- GDP Per Capita (2020): BTN 229,090.40
- Form of Government: Constitutional Democratic Monarchy