The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small (about 47,000 square kilometers), landlocked nation in the eastern Himalayas surrounded by China (Tibet, specifically) to the north and India to the west, south, and east. Due to its location, Bhutan has remained isolated from much of the world and, apparently, likes it that way. The culture hasn't changed much over the centuries and the government keep controls on tourism to keep traditions as they are and protect the largely untouched environment which the Bhutanese people live in harmony with. Buddhism has dominated the culture and government (the country touts itself as the world's only democratic theocracy) since seventh century CE.

The people of Bhutan called their country Druk Yul (which means "Land of the Thunder Dragon") and refer to themselves as the Drukpa people. The name Bhutan is believed to have derived from Bhotant, Sanskrit for "the end of Tibet," or from Bhu-uttan, which means "high land."

Culture and People

Bhutan's people, known as the Drukpa, can be divided into three main ethnic groups: The Sharchops, who have been present in Bhutan the longest; the Ngalops, who originate from Tibet; and the Lhotsampas, who are of Nepalese origin and, unlike the rest of the Drukpa, are primarily Hindu. Figures on the national population vary dramatically, going as low as 500,000 to as high as 2,000,000. There are some claims, made by Nepalese immigrants exiled from Bhutan in the late 1980s/early 1990s, that the number of Lhotsampas within Bhutan is being underreported by the Bhutanese government.

Bhutanese culture and customs are practiced today pretty much as they have been for many centuries past. The people wear the same style of traditional clothing that has been worn for most of Bhutan's known history. Men wear a gho, which is a long robe tied around the waist by a small belt called a kera. Women wear a kira, which is an ankle-length dress made of colorful and expertly woven fabrics in traditional patterns. Many wear necklaces crafted from coral, pearl, turqoise, and agate stones called the "tears of the gods." Despite gender-specific dress, Bhutan claims its populace has recognized and accepted gender equality. The country never had a very rigid class system, unlike its neighbor India. Most of the population still lives in rural areas, performing mostly farming work. Some urban settlements have popped up in recent years, however, as the country attempts to modernize.

Bhutan is a relatively poor country, in part due to the self- and geographically-imposed isolation of the region over the years. Roads outside the major cities are often unpaved and receive low maintenance. Bhutan's medical facilities are rather limited and more complex (and expensive) medical procedures usually require the patient travel to a more technologically advanced nation for care. Bhutan's major industries are the creation of cement, wood products, processed fruits, alcoholic beverages, calcium carbide, rice, corn, dairy products, and eggs. The country's major trading partners are Bangladesh, Germany, India, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Despite some poor conditions, however, the level of crime in Bhutan is extremely low. Most crimes are petty thefts.

The majority of the populace can be found in the cultivated central highlands and the foothills of the Himalayas. The primary staples of the Bhutanese diet are meat, poultry, dairy products, red and white rice, and various vegetables. Chili and other spices are frequently added to these foods. Suja, a salted butter tea, is typically served at social gatherings. The doma (betel nut) is considered a customary offering used in greeting. The most common alcoholic beverages available are arra and chang.

There are many annual festivals celebrated by the Drukpa, most Buddhist in origin (around 75% of the population is believed to be Buddhist). Almost every home has a room used specifically for prayer called a chosum. Hill tops throughout the countryside have prayer flags mounted on them and the roads are marked with chortens (offering receptacles) and stupas (markers indicating places where Guru Rinpoche and other high Lamas meditated).

Environment

As stated, Bhutan is nestled in the Himalayas and the people who live there maintain a balance with the environment that has kept it largely untouched by civilization. Bhutan is considered a "bio-diversity hot spot," being home to hundreds of different species of plants and animals. The northern region of the country, clearly containing Himalayan mountains, is unsprisingly cold throughout the year (exceptionally so in the winter). The climate is temperate in the center of the country and actually somewhat tropical in the south, where semi-tropical forests, bamboo jungles, and savannah gasslands can be found. Forestation in certain regions of the country is highly influenced by monsoons in the Indian and Pacific Oceans (Bhutan itself is landlocked).

Government

Bhutan is divided into twenty districts, known as Dzongkhags, each of which is represented and administrated by a Dzongdag (formerly known as a Penlop) appointed to a three-year term by the king. Each district is divided into several blocks. Each block contains a number of villages, the residents of which elect a representative known as the Gup. In 1988, four Dzongdes (zones) were setup for administration on a level between the central and Dzongkhag governments. Each Dzongde contains four Dzongkhags and is headed by a Dzongde Chichab.

The national assembly is called the Tshogdu. The Tshogdu meets twice per year in the capital city of Thimphu and is presided over by an elected speaker. This speaker may call an unscheduled session of the Tshogdu in the event of an emergency. The Tshogdu is made up of 154 members. Twelve of its members are representatives of the country's Buddhist monks. These representatives serve three year terms and are elected by the monks. Thirty seven of the Tshogdu's members are civil servants appointed by the king, including the twenty Dzongdags and ministers and secretaries of government departments. The remaining 105 members of the Tshogdu are known as the Chimis and are elected representatives from throughout the twenty Dzongkhags. For any legislation to be passed by the Tshogdu, a majority vote is required.

Though the government's official religion is Buddhism and the Tshogdu includes representatives of Buddhist monasteries, freedom of religion is technically accepted. Nevertheless, conversions are illegal and many believe the government has/is discriminating against the ethnic Nepalese (who are Hindu). On the other hand, several Hindu holidays have been recently declared national holidays, in addition to the Buddhist ones already officially recognized. I suppose such contrasts in policy are to be expected from a "democratic theocracy."

The official language of Bhutan is called Dzongkha and a number of regional dialects have popped up due to geographic isloation of many of the country's villages. Bhutan's currency is called Ngultrum (Nu), 45 of which are equal to one dollar in the United States. The Indian Rupee is also accepted as legal tender within Bhutan. Banks in the major cities will exchange foreign currency for either Ngultrum or Rupees. The only airline serving Bhutan is Druk Air, which consists of two BAe-146 aircraft flown by pilots trained by Thai Airways International. Bhutan has a national newspaper, called the Kuensel, which is published weekly in Dzongkha, English, and Nepali. The top level domain of Bhutan is .bt.

History

Much of Bhutan's history prior to eighth century CE is unknown as many key historical documents have been lost to fires and earthquakes over the years. The Sharchops, the ethnicity of Bhutan's oldest residents, have origins that can be traced to tribes in northern areas of Burma and northeastern India. The first settlers known to arrive in Bhutan did so about 1400 years ago. Remaining documents from this time period suggest that scattered groups of people were already living in Bhutan when the settlers arrived.

Legend has it that in the eighth century, Buddhist Guru Rinpoche traveled to Bhutan from Tibet on the back of a flying tigress to defeat evil spirits that were hindering Buddhism. After the Guru defeated the spirits, he blessed them as guardians of Buddist doctrine. What is actually known is that Guru Rinpoche did arrive in Bhutan in the eighth century, introduced a form of Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan, and set up the Drukpa Kagyu school of Tantic Mahayana Buddhism (which remains the country's official religion).

In 1616, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan Lama of the Drukpa school, arrived and introduced a form of government that largely remains today. Shabdrung created a system of districts organized around Dzongs (fortified temples), unified the country, and declared himself its leader. Shabdrung created a high office called the Druk Desi to handle civil affairs and one called the Je Khenop to handle religious affairs. The system worked during Shabdrung's lifetime but when the Lama died in 1651, the country fell into conflict off and on for around two centuries as regional governors (called Penlops) vied for control. In 1907, an assembly composed of monastic representatives, civil servants, and representatives of the people elected the Penlop of Trongsa, Ugen Wangchuck, as king. Wangchuck took power on 17 December, 1907 (which now a Bhutanese national holiday). Civil war within the country finally came to an end. The monarchy has been in place since then, along with an assembly of elected officials. The fourth and current King of Bhutan is Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

National Symbols

Bhutan's flag is, like many flags, rectangularly shaped. The flag is divided diagonally (the division runs from the upper right to lower left corners), the upper division being yellow to represent the secular power of the king, and the lower division being orange to represent Buddhism. In the center of the flag is a white dragon (druk). Bhutan's national emblem is circular in shape and depicts a double diamond-thunderbolt above a lotus, below a jewel, with two dragons on either side. The thunderbolt in the center represents harmony between secular and religious power and is also a symbol of the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism. The lotus flower represents purity. The jewel represents sovereign power. One dragon is supposed to be male and the other female. The two stand for the name of the country. The Bhutan national flower is the blue poppy. The national tree is the cypress. The national bird is the raven, which represents Gonpo Jarodonchen, one of the most important guardian dieties of the country. The national animal is the takin.

Tourism

Bhutan first opened its country to tourism in 1974. Fearing contamination of the environment by outsiders, Bhutan allows only a limited number of tourists within its borders each year, all of whom must have arranged entry into the country on a pre-planned, prepaid, and guided tour package. In additions, Bhutan's customs division is very strict about what is and isn't allowed to be brought into and out of the country. Most electronic devices being carried in, for example, must be registered with the customs office. In 2001, only 6,393 tourists were allowed to enter Bhutan.

Sources:

http://www.kingdomofbhutan.com/
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/indian_subcontinent/bhutan/
http://travel.state.gov/bhutan.html
http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/irf/irf_rpt/1999/irf_bhutan99.html
http://www.pbs.org/edens/bhutan/
CIA World Factbook

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