Bhutan: An Introduction

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small country located to the eastern side of the mighty Himalayas at 27º28.0’N and 89º38.5’E in South Asia. It is a landlocked country and has the two Asian giants China (to the north) and India (to the east, west and south) as its neighbors. This Himalayan kingdom has an area of 14,824 square miles and a population of 768,844 (Source: National Statistics Bureau). The main ethnic groups of Bhutan are Ngalops, Sharchops, and Lhotshampas. The terrain of Bhutan is mountainous for the most part, but there are also some beautiful valleys and grasslands. The climate is tropical in the south while the central part experiences cool winters and hot summers. In the north, the winters are severe and summers are cool. Bhutan is rich in natural resources such as hydropower, timber, gypsum, and calcium carbonate. It is also rich in flora and fauna and is home to many rare species of animals such as the Golden Langur.

Before the 17th century Bhutan was a mere collection of minor fiefdoms. These fiefdoms were unified by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who is held in great esteem by the Bhutanese. The current Wangchuck dynasty came to power in 1907 and in 2008, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy with Parliamentary democracy, a move initiated by the fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, father of the present king.

Bhutan is a member of the United Nations and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). It is a developing nation, untouched by the tides of modernity till 1970s. A number of measures have been taken to modernize it while preserving the rich Buddhist heritage of the country. Bhutan is also famous for being the first country in the world to adopt the new indicator of holistic quality of life, the Gross National Happiness (GNH), a concept coined by its King Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

Background Archaeological evidence points out that Bhutan was inhabited by 2000 BC, but there is no historical record. Buddhism entered Bhutan in the 7th century and has been the driving force behind the cultural and religious life of the Bhutanese since then. Prior to the 17th century, Bhutan was a loose group of a number of small fiefdoms which were united by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. To protect the country from external aggression, he built fortresses or dzongs and established the Tsa Yig to implement central administration.

Europeans first entered Bhutan during the reign of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. After his death, Bhutan was in a state of chaos and taking advantage of this situation, Tibet attacked it in 1714. Bhutan first went up against the British in the 18th century when Bhutan attacked and occupied Cooch Bihar (in Bengal)and the latter sought the aid of the British to end this occupation. The British were successful in expelling the Bhutanese troops. In the 19thcentury, after many altercations over the Duars of Bengal, the Treaty of Sinchula was signed between Bhutan and British India in 1885. The treaty handed the duars to the British crown in lieu of an annual subsidy which was paid to Bhutan. In 1907, the Wangchuck dynasty came to power and in 1910 the Treaty of Punakha was signed between British India and Bhutan. In accordance with the treaty the British agreed not to interfere in the internal matters of the Himalayan country. In exchange, Bhutan gave it the right to direct its foreign affairs, a role that independent India inherited.

In 1953, Bhutanese King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established the National Legislature to promote democracy in the country. The pro-democracy stand of Bhutanese kings culminated in the declaration of Bhutan as a constitutional monarchy in 2008. The first democratic elections were held that year and Jigme Y Thinley was appointed the Prime Minister.

Economy  Bhutan is counted among the least developed countries of the world. Bhutan’s GDP (PPP) is ranked 167th in the world. The economy is an agriculture based economy and industrialization is at its nascent stage. The mountainous terrain makes construction of roads and other infrastructure development very expensive and difficult. Bhutan is heavily dependent on its neighbor India for financial assistance and development projects. Bhutanese government is also cautious about undertaking full fledged industrialization because of the strong commitment to environmental and cultural issues. Bhutan has great potential in the hydropower sector and many dams are being built to harness this potential. The country has started exporting hydropower.

Culture The culture of Bhutan is deeply immersed in the traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Due to its remoteness and isolation, it has managed to preserve its unique culture and so is referred to as the last Shangri-la.

Bhutanese architecture is traditional with houses made of rammed earth dominating the landscape. The stonework and woodwork in the windows and rooftop is however intricate. Bhutanese architecture also includes fortress called dzong which are massive in size. Traditional cuisine of Bhutan mainly consists of rice, wheat maize and animal protein. Dairy product and beverages like tea and beer are also popular. Music is the lifeblood of Bhutanese life and both traditional and modern are enjoyed by the people. Popular folk genres include boedra and zhungdra. Bhutan is also known for its mask dances and dance dramas which are accompanied by traditional music. These are generally performed during religious festivals. One interesting fact about Bhutanese culture is that inheritance passes through the female line and after marriage the man is expected to build a house of his own, but in many cases the bridegroom moves into his wife’s home. The society is strongly matriarchal in this respect. Arranged marriage is still preferred though love marriages are gaining popularity, particularly in urban area.