History

Bhutan was originally known by many names including Lho Jong, ‘The Valleys of the South’, Lho Mon Kha Shi, ‘The Southern Mon Country of Four Approaches’, Lho Jong Men Jong, ‘The Southern Valleys of Medicinal Herbs and Lho Mon Tsenden Jong, ‘The Southern Mon Valleys where Sandlewood Grows’. Mon was a term used by the Tibetans to refer to Mongoloid, non-Buddhist peoples that populated the Southern Himalayas.

The country came to be known as Druk Yul or The Land of the Drukpas sometime in the 17th century. The name refers to the Drukpa sect of Buddhism that has been the dominant religion in the region since that period.

The country was first unified in 17th century by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. After arriving in Bhutan from Tibet he consolidated his power, defeated three Tibetan invasions and established a comprehensive system of law and governance. His system of rule eroded after his death and the country fell into in-fighting and civil war between the various local rulers. This continued until the Trongsa Poenlop Ugyen Wangchuck was able to gain control and with the support of the people establish himself as Bhutan’s first hereditary King in 1907. His Majesty Ugyen Wangchuck became the first Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) and set up the Wangchuck Dynasty that still rules today.

In 2008 Bhutan enacted its Constitution and converted to a democracy in order to better safeguard the rights of its citizens. Later in November of the same year, the currently reigning 5th Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned.

Language

The national language is Dzongkha, the native language of the Ngalops of western Bhutan. Dzongkha literally means the language spoken in the Dzongs, massive fortresses that serve as the administrative centers and monasteries. Two other major languages are the Tshanglakha and the Lhotshamkha. Tshanglakha is the native language of the Tshanglas of eastern Bhutan while Lhotshamkha is spoken by the southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin.

Other dialects spoken are Khengkha and Bumthapkha by the Khengpas and Bumthap people of Central Bhutan. Mangdepkah, which is spoken by the inhabitants of Trongsa and the Cho Cha Nga Chang Kha which is spoken by the Kurtoeps. The Sherpas, Lepchas and the Tamangs in southern Bhutan also have their own dialects. Unfortunately two dialects that are on the verge of becoming extinct are the Monkha and the Gongduepkha

Food

The most distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese cuisine is its spiciness. Chillis are an essential part of nearly every dish and are considered so important that most Bhutanese people would not enjoy a meal that was not spicy.

Rice forms the main body of most Bhutanese meals. It is accompanied by one or two side dishes consisting of meat or vegetables. Pork, beef and chicken are the meats that are eaten most often. Vegetables commonly eaten include Spinach, pumpkins, turnips, radishes, tomatoes, river weed, onions and green beans. Grains such as rice, buckwheat and barley are also cultivated in various regions of the country depending on the local climate.

The following is a list of some of the most popular Bhutanese dishes:

  • Ema Datshi: This is the de facto National Dish of Bhutan. A spicy mix of chillis and the delicious local cheese known as Datshi. This dish is a staple of nearly every meal and can be found throughout the country. Variations on Ema Datshi include adding green beans, ferns, potatoes, mushrooms or swapping the regular cheese for yak cheese.
  • Momos: These Tibetan-style dumplings are stuffed with pork, beef or cabbages and cheese. Traditionally eaten during special occasions, these tasty treats are a Bhutanese favourite.
  • Phaksha Paa: Pork cooked with spicy red chillis. This dish can also include Radishes or Spinach. A popular variation uses sun-dried (known as Sicaam). Hoentoe: Aromatic buckwheat dumplings stuffed with turnip greens, datshi (cheese), spinach and other ingredients.
  • Jasha Maru: Spicy minced chicken, tomatoes and other ingredients that is usually served with rice.
  • Red Rice: This rice is similar to brown rice and is extremely nutritious and filling. When cooked it is pale pink, soft and slightly sticky.
  • Goep (Tripe): Though the popularity of tripe has diminished in many countries it is still enjoyed in Bhutan. Like most other meat dishes, it is cooked with plenty of spicy chillis and chilli powder.

Climate

Bhutan pristine environment, with high rugged mountains and deep valleys, offers ecosystems that are both rich and diverse. Recognizing the importance of the environment, conservation of its rich biodiversity is one of the government’s development paradigms.

The government has enacted a law that shall maintain at least 60% of its forest cover for all time. Today, approximately 72% of the total land area of Bhutan is under forest cover and approximately 60% of the land area falls under protected areas comprising of 10 national parks and sanctuaries.

People, Society & Religion

Bhutanese people can be generally categorized into three main ethnic groups. The Tshanglas, Ngalops and the Lhotshampas.

The other minority groups are the Bumthaps and the Khengpas of Central Bhutan, the Kurtoeps in Lhuentse, the Brokpas and the Bramis of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan, the Doyas of Samtse and finally the Monpas of Rukha villages in WangduePhodrang. Together the multiethnic Bhutanese population number just over 700,000.

Tshanglas: The Tshanglas or the Sharchops as they are commonly known, are considered the aboriginal inhabitants of eastern Bhutan. Tshanglasare according to historians, the descendants of Lord Brahma and speak Tshanglakha. They are commonly inhabitants of Mongar, Trashigang, Trashiyangtse, Pema Gasthel and Samdrup Jongkhar. Besides cultivation of maize, rice, wheat, barley and vegetables, the Tshanglas also rear domestic animals to supplement their living. Weaving is a popular occupation among their women and they produce beautiful fabrics mainly of silk and raw silk.

Ngalops: The Ngalops who have settled mostly in the six regions of western Bhutan are of Tibetan origin. They speak Ngalopkha, a polished version of Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan. Agriculture is their main livelihood. They cultivate cereals such as rice, wheat, barley and maize along with a variety of other crops. In the regions of Thimphu and Paro apples are also cultivated as a cash crop. They are known for Lozeys, or ornamental speech and for Zheys, dances that are unique to the Ngalops.

Lhotshampas: The Lhotshampashave settled in the southern foothills of the country. It is believed that they migrated from Nepal in the beginning of the 19th century, attracted by the employment opportunities provided by the many constructions works taking place in the kingdom. They speak Lhotshamkha (Nepali) and practice Hinduism. Their society can be broken into various lineages such as the Bhawans, Chhetris, Rai’s, Limbus, Tamangs, Gurungs, and the lLepchas. Nowadays they are mainly employed in agriculture and cultivate cash crops like ginger, cardamom and oranges.

The Bumthaps, Mangdeps and Khengpas: The people who speak Bumtapkha, Mangdepkha and khengkha respectively inhabit the central areas of Bhutan. The Bumthaps cultivate buck wheat, potatoes and vegetables. A section of this population also rear yaks and sheep and produce fabrics of wool and yak hair. The Mangdeps depend on cultivation of rice, wheat, maize, vegetables, etc besides rearing domestic animals. The khengpas are also dependent on agriculture much like the Mangdeps, however, they are also known for the bamboo and cane craft.

Kurtoeps: Kurtoeps inhabit the eastern part of the country. Specifically the district of Lhuentse and the villages are found spread along the banks of Kurichu. Khoma women are expert weavers and are known for their skill in weaving the grandiose Kushithara.

The Brokpas and the Bramis: The Brokpas and the Bramis are a semi nomadic community. They are settled in the two villages of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan. They mostly depend on yaks and sheep for their livelihood and do not typically grow crops due to the high altitude zones they inhabit. They speak a different dialect and have their own unique dress that is made of yak hair and sheep wool. They are also experts in cane and bamboo crafts.

The Layaps: To the extreme north are the Layaps who speak layapkha. Like the Brokpas, they are semi-nomadic and their livelihood is dependent upon yaks and sheep. They use the products of their herd animals to barter rice, salt and other consumables with the people of WangduePhodrang and Punakha.

The Doyas: A tribal community that has settled mostly in southern Bhutan. They are considered the aboriginal inhabitants of western and central Bhutan, who over the years migrated to and settled in the present areas in Dorokha. They have their own unique dialect and style of dress.

Monpas: The Monpas are a small community in Rukha under Wangdiphodrang. Together with the Doyas they are also considered the original settlers of central Bhutan. They have their own unique dialect but it is unfortunately slowly dying out as they are now being absorbed into the main stream Bhutanese society.

Flora & Fauna

Bhutan is one of the last remaining biodiversity hotspots in the world; forest cover has now increased to over 72% of the country, with 60% of the country under protection. The array of flora and fauna available in Bhutan is unparalleled due to conservation and its wide altitudinal and climatic range. Physically, the country can be divided into three zones:

  1. Alpine Zone (4000m and above) with no forest cover
  2. Temperate Zone (2000 to 4000m) with conifer or broadleaf forests
  3. Subtropical Zone (150m to 2000m) with Tropical or Subtropical vegetation

Forest types in Bhutan are fir forests, mixed conifer forest, blue pine forest, chirpine forest, broadleaf mixed with conifer, upland hardwood forest, lowland hardwood forest, and tropical lowland forests. Almost 60% of the plant species found in the eastern Himalayan region are present in Bhutan.

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.

In addition, 57% of Bhutan’s globally threatened birds and 90% of the country’s rare birds are dependent on forests. Bhutan has about 415 resident bird species. These birds are altitudinal refugees, moving up and down the mountains depending upon the seasons and weather conditions. Of about 50 species of birds that migrate during the winters are the buntings, waders, ducks, thrushes and the birds of prey. Some 40 species are partial migrants and they include species such as swifts, cuckoos, bee-eaters, fly catchers and warblers.

Bhutan is also home to about 16 bird species that are endangered worldwide. These include the White bellied heron, Pallas Fish eagle and Blyth’s King fisher to name a few. Phobjikha valley in Wangdue Phodrang and Bomdeling in Trashi Yangtse are also two especially important locations of the endangered Black Necked Cranes.

As one of the ten global hotspots, Bhutan is committed to preserve and protect its rich environment through its government and environmental organizations. This commitment is apparent in the fact that the kingdom has the distinct honor of being one of the only nations whose forest cover has actually grown over the years.

Environment

Due to Bhutan’s location and unique geographical and climatic variations, it is one of the world’s last remaining biodiversity hotspots.

Bhutan pristine environment, with high rugged mountains and deep valleys, offers ecosystems that are both rich and diverse. Recognizing the importance of the environment, conservation of its rich biodiversity is one of the government’s development paradigms.

The government has enacted a law that shall maintain at least 60% of its forest cover for all time. Today, approximately 72% of the total land area of Bhutan is under forest cover and approximately 60% of the land area falls under protected areas comprising of 10 national parks and sanctuaries.

National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries

Each of Bhutan’s National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries are an essential part of the Bhutan Biological Conservation Complex – a system of national parks, protected areas and forest corridors covering 60% of the country. Each of these parks and sanctuaries has its own special character and are home to endangered animals, birds and plants. High ice peaks fall away to low conifer and broadleaf forests. The park remains one of the largest undisturbed tracks of forest anywhere in the Himalaya’s. The varying altitude and rainfall have created a wide range of climatic conditions, making it home to many species of plants, animals and birds.

Both musk deer and Himalayan black bear can be found here. The golden langur, which is quite common in Bhutan, the rare clouded leopard, the red panda and the Royal Bengal tiger are among some of the many species found here. The eastern side of the park supports about 20% of Bhutan’s tiger population and the park itself forms an important link between the northern and southern tiger populations.

It is also home to 391 bird species of which seven species are among some of the world’s most endangered species. Phobjikha valley, a buffer zone to the park, is the winter habitat of the Black Necked Crane. More than 260 majestic cranes winter in Phobjikha every year.

Political System of Bhutan

The political system of Bhutan has evolved over time together with its tradition and culture. It has developed from a fragmented and a disoriented rule of the different regions by local chieftains, lords and clans into the parliamentary democracy we have in place today.

The first move towards a systematic scheme of governance came in 1616 with the arrival of Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal from Tibet. He introduced the dual system of governance with the Je Khenpo as the spiritual head of the nation and the Desis, as the head of the temporal aspects.

But a major breakthrough came about in 1907 when the people unanimously enthroned Ugyen Wangchuck as the fist hereditary King of Bhutan. He was the man who had proven his mettle by banding together the different Dzongpons and Penlops (governors of fortress), ending centuries of strife and bringing much needed stability and peace to the country. Since then, the country has been ruled by successive monarchs of the Wangchuck dynasty.

In a move to ensure a more democratic governance of the country, the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck instituted the National Assembly (Tshogdu) in 1953. Every gewog has an elected member representing it in the National assembly. It became a platform where the people’s representatives enacted laws and discussed issues of national importance. The establishment of the Royal Advisory Council (Lodoe Tshogde) in 1963 as a link between the king, council of ministers and the people was another move towards democratization. It also advised the king and the council of ministers on important issues and ensured that projects were implemented successfully.

The institution of Dzongkhag Yargay Tshogdu (District Development Assembly) in 1981 and Gewog Yargay Tshogchung (County Development Assembly) in 1991 by the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was another move towards decentralization.

But the devolution of the power of the King in 1998 to the cabinet ministers was the highest form of decentralization. The King, thereafter, began to serve as the Head of the State while the government was managed by the Prime Minister.

In November 2001, on the advice of the Fourth king, a committee chaired by the Chief Justice of Bhutan, was formed to draft the constitution of Bhutan. The constitution was launched in 2008 and with it a parliamentary democracy introduced. The progression from Hereditary Monarchy to that of a Parliamentary Democracy has been a carefully managed process that culminated in 2008 when Bhutan held its first elections country wide. The Druk Phunsum Tshogpa was mandated by the people to head the new government with a major victory. Today with 45 elected members, Lyonchen Jigme Y Thinley steers the government with just two opposition members from the People’s Democratic Party.

The organs of the Bhutanese government comprise of the Legislature, Judiciary and the Executive. The ruling political party, the opposition and the National Council now forms the legislative body.

Gross National Happiness

Gross National Happiness: Development Philosophy of Bhutan
Economists the world over have argued that the key to happiness is obtaining and enjoying material development. Bhutan however, adheres to a very different belief and advocates that amassing material wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness. Bhutan is now trying to measure progress not by the popular idea of Gross Domestic Product but by through Gross National Happiness.

His Majesty the third Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuck expressed his view on the goals of development as making “the people prosperous and happy.” With this strong view in mind, the importance of “prosperity and happiness,” was highlighted in the King’s address on the occasion of Bhutan’s admission to the United Nations in 1971.

While the emphasis is placed on both, prosperity and happiness, the latter is considered to be more significant. The fourth Druk Gyalpo emphasized that for Bhutan “Gross National Happiness,” is more important than “Gross National Product.” Thus, Gross National Happiness is now being fleshed out by a wide range of professionals, scholars and agencies across the world.

Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck said that the rich are not always happy while the happy generally considered themselves rich. While conventional development models stressed on economic growth as the ultimate objective, the concept of Gross National Happiness is based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other.

The philosophy of Gross National Happiness has recently received international recognition and the UN has implemented a resolution “…recognizing that the gross domestic product [...] does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people,” and that “…the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal”.

The four main pillars of Gross National Happiness are

  1. Equitable and equal socio-economic development
  2. Preservation and promotion of cultural and spiritual heritage
  3. Conservation of environment and
  4. Good governance which are interwoven, complementary, and consistent.

These pillars embody national and local values, aesthetics, and spiritual traditions. The concept of Gross National Happiness is now being taken up the United Nations and by various other countries.

Crucial to a better understanding of Gross National Happiness, is its wider reach and awareness amongst other countries, and the various indices that have now been formulated to include material gains in their assessment of the country and lastly, the growing need to synthesize the moral with the cultural values as the core of economic policy.

Gross National Happiness as a development paradigm has now made it possible for Bhutan to take its developmental policies into the remote corners of the kingdom and to meet the development needs of even its most isolated villagers, while still accentuating the need to protect and preserve our rich environment and forest cover. The policy of high value, low impact tourism has facilitated the promotion and preservation of our cultural values.

Furthermore, the concept of Gross National Happiness has greatly enabled the pursuit of development, while at the same time promoting the attainment of happiness as the core philosophy of life. For the government, it has facilitated the drive towards self-sufficiency and self-reliance, the ultimate reduction in the gap between the rich and the poor and ensuring good governance and empowerment of her people as one of its key directives.

Following the international seminar on Operationalizing Gross National Happiness held in Bhutan in February 2004, the participants began working to establish a Gross International Happiness Network, indicating the influence of Gross National Happiness beyond the Bhutanese Borders.