Bhutan - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Kingdom of Bhutan
Formation 1656 / 1865
Population 700,000 / 39 people per sq mile (15 people per sq km)
Total area 18,147 sq. miles (47,000 sq. km)
Languages Dzongkha*, Nepali, Assamese
Religions Mahayana Buddhist 75%, Hindu 25%
Ethnic mix Drukpa 50%, Nepalese 35%, Other 15%
Government Mixed monarchical – parliamentary system
Currency Ngultrum = 100 chetrum
Literacy rate 56%
Calorie consumption Not available
Because little or no archaeological research has been done in Bhutan, nothing is known about the prehistory of the region.
The earliest records available indicate that the first settlers arrived here about 1,400 years ago. However they may have encountered scattered clusters of earlier inhabitants. The official name of this country is Druk Yul, which means “land of the thunder dragon.” The Bhutanese call themselves Drukpa.
The colloquial name Bhutan is probably derived from the Sanskrit word bhotant, which means “the end of Tibet”; another possible root is bhuuttan, which means “high land.” In addition to the majority Bhote, today’s Drukpa population is made up of three main ethnic Nepalese groups: the Sharchops, the Ngalops, and the Lhotsampas. As far as is known the Sharchops were Bhutan’s earliest residents. They were originally members of tribes in northern Burma and northeast India. Today, they occupy eastern Bhutan. The Ngalops, who brought Buddhism to the kingdom, originated in the Tibetan plains. In the early 20th century the Lhotsampas (who are of Nepalese origin) migrated to the southern plains of Bhutan, mostly in search of agricultural land and work.
The roots of the present form of government were planted by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (late 1500s–1651), a Tibetan lama (or priest) of the Drukpa School, who came to Bhutan in 1616. Under Namgyal’s leadership Bhutan was unified for the first time. Although he was the country’s supreme leader, he delegated responsibility for all civil affairs to the druk desi (an administrator similar to a prime minister) and responsibility for religious activities to the je khenpo, or chief abbot. Namgyal also built a system of fortified monasteries (dzongs), which have become an important focus of Bhutanese culture. After Shabdrung died, sporadic civil wars continued for almost two centuries. During this period the regional governors (ponlops) became increasingly powerful.
Ugyen Wangchuk (1861–1926), the ponlop of Trongsa, was finally successful in subduing the other feuding ponlops who had plunged Bhutan into a state of almost perpetual civil war. He had consolidated his authority across the entire country by 1885; in 1907, an assembly of representatives of the monastic community, civil servants, and other citizens, elected Ugyen Wangchuck the first king of Bhutan in recognition of his superb statesmanship and leadership abilities. Around the same time Wangchuck also assumed the role of mediator between the British and the Chinese. He ruled until 1926, establishing a dynasty. The monarchy has thrived ever since, and the present fourth king His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck (b. 1955) commands the overwhelming respect of his subjects.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Bhutan is a landlocked country surrounded by the eastern Himalayan Mountains. It is south of Tibet and north and west of the Indian territories of Assam, West Bengal, and Sikkim. Bhutan’s total area is about 18,147 square miles (about the size of Switzerland). The Greater Himalayas in the north reach heights of over 23,950 feet and are sparsely populated. Their height diminishes in the south of the country to form the fertile valleys of the Lesser Himalayas, which are divided by the Torsa, Raidak, Sankosh, and Manas Rivers. The majority of the population lives in the cultivated central uplands and Himalayan foothills.
The climate of Bhutan ranges from cold in the north to tropical in the south. In the high-altitude passes, the snowfall is so heavy it can lead to roadblocks.
The period of heaviest snowfall in the higher mountain elevations is late December through midFebruary.
March through May is the spring season.
Scarlet rhododendrons are in bloom, and Bhutan is vibrant, colorful, and quite spectacular. During the summer (late May–late September), the monsoons from the Bay of Bengal affect Bhutan. These monsoons have led to dense forestation in the south and alpine vegetation at higher altitudes.
Many species of wild orchids blossom during the late summer season (August). The autumn season (late September–November) is usually mild and clear.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
The most common occupation in Bhutan is farming, and small family farms are the predominant social unit. At higher elevations cattle and yak breeding is the primary source of income, and the majority of Bhutanese here also live in small rural villages.
The Buddhist faith plays an important part in the Bhutanese way of life. Bhutan is the only country in the world to have retained the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism. Padmasambhava, better known as Guru Rinpoche (precious master), is the father of its official lineage (drukpa kagyu).
Buddhism affects all aspects of secular life. It is common to see Bhutanese making circles around offering receptacles (chortens or stupas) with prayer beads or twirling prayer wheels. In every Bhutanese home there is a special room used for prayers called a chosum.
Tshechus and dromchoes are two different kinds of spiritual festivals that are important here. They unite the population and are dedicated to the Guru Rinpoche or protective deities. There are also chortens lining the roadsides, marking places where it is believed Guru Rinpoche or other senior lamas stopped to meditate. Innumerable prayer flags (dashi) dot the hills, because the Bhutanese people believe they keep them in constant contact with the spiritual world.
There is no rigid class system in Bhutan, and neither rank nor birth affects social and educational opportunities. Bhutanese men and women enjoy equal rights in all respects. Dzongkha is Bhutan’s official language, but the geographic isolation of Bhutan’s highland villages has preserved a number of dialects.
Bhutanese women wear an ankle-length dress called a kira. It is made from finely woven fabric and beautifully colored in traditional patterns. They also wear necklaces made from coral, pearls, turquoise, or agate. (The Bhutanese call these stones dzi beads or “tears of the gods.”) Men wear a gho, a long robe tied around the waist with a small belt called a kera.
Bhutan uses both the Buddhist lunar calendar and the Gregorian calendar in designating its holidays.
Meat and poultry, dairy products, grain, and vegetables are all basic to the Bhutanese diet. The Bhutanese also eat red or white rice with every meal.
Chilies are used lavishly in preparing poultry and meat dishes (pork, beef, and yak). The national dish is emadatse (chili peppers and cheese stew). The usual drink on all social occasions is suja, a salted butter tea. A local beer called Chang, as well as arra, a drink distilled from rice, maize, wheat, or barley, are also popular. It is customary to offer doma or betel nuts to guests as a sign of welcome.
Since Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist, most Bhutanese adhere to the Buddhist ritual related to birth. The family chants and recites passages from the scriptures when the expectant mother goes into labor. The recital of prayers is believed to be helpful in allaying her fears. They may also be repeated by the father-to-be, to help to boost his confidence and calm his mind.
COMING OF AGE
As in all Buddhist countries monasteries play a key role in everyday life in Bhutan. It is common practice among Buddhist families to have at least one son (generally the oldest) ordained as a monk. The initiation ceremony of a young boy (as a novice monk) is an important rite of passage. It represents the transformation of the boy into an adult. The initiation is accompanied by a big celebration and festivities, which are attended by the boy’s family and friends.
After the guests depart the boy is tonsured, and he takes his monastic vows. He leaves home for a sojourn in the monastery (which might last from a few days to a few weeks) and practices the rituals of Buddhist monastic life, including begging for food.
During this time, it is mandatory for everyone, even his parents, to bow to him in reverence and acknowledge that he has reached a superior spiritual status.
When the boy returns to his normal life, he is considered an adult in every respect. He may relinquish domestic life and enter the monastery again in the future if he so chooses.
A traditional Bhutanese marriage is simple and is performed according to Buddhist precepts. Once the horoscope of the boy and the girl are matched, the family of the groom consults the lama for an auspicious day to conduct the marriage. The groom’s family then visits the bride’s house to ask her parents for their daughter’s hand in marriage. On the day of the wedding bride and groom rise early to prepare food as offerings to the monks, as well as flowers, incense, and candles. These are believed to ensure good fortune for the marriage. At the stipulated time the bride and groom are taken to the venue of the wedding. The designated place must have a shrine featuring a statue or image of the Buddha, adorned with candles, flowers, and incense.
Buddhist wedding traditions do not necessarily require the presence of monks. The ceremony begins as the entire assembly recites the Vandana, Tisarana, and Pancasila readings. The couple then does obeisance to the image of the Buddha. Though there are no established marriage vows, the bride and groom are usually expected to be governed by the Sigilovdda Sutta doctrines. The bridegroom vows to love and respect his wife, to be kind, considerate, and faithful, and to provide her with pleasing gifts. The bride promises to perform her household duties competently, to be hospitable to her in-laws and her husband’s friends, to be faithful, to invest their income, and to perform her duties lovingly and conscientiously. After the vows are uttered, the bride and groom can exchange rings. If monks are present, all the rituals will be punctuated by their chanting.
Afterward the bride accompanies her husband to her new home, on either the same day or the next day, depending on their horoscopes. At her new home the bride is received by her mother-in-law. This is followed by a lavish meal.
In Bhutan, in cases where death is not sudden and the individual is languishing, monks are called in; they are expected to chant to help release the dying person’s good energies from his or her body. The chanting continues until the person has drawn his or her last breath. After the person has died, the body is cleansed and dressed in neat but simple attire, utterly devoid of jewelry or embellishments. It is believed that the deceased has already been reborn elsewhere; thus such things are of no use to him or her. The body is placed in a casket and adorned with incense, and flowers offered by relatives, friends, and neighbors. It is common to cremate the dead, and the monks accompany the family to the cremation ground. The family offers food and candles to the monks in a bid to foster goodwill; it is commonly believed that this gesture contributes substantially toward the attainment of eternal peace and tranquility by the departed soul.