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Burma Tour > Bhutan Guide

BHUTAN INFORMATION AND TRAVEL GUIDE

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About Bhutan

Bhutan or ‘Druk Yul’- the mythical Land of the Peaceful Dragon is as much known for its dramatic landscapes, architecture and fabulous bio-diversity as for its rich and colourful cultural heritage. Its worth mentioning for the kingdom for retaining its distinct cultural entity in a genuinely original form. The awe-inspiring valleys and mountain passes, daunting heights of the countless Himalayan mountains, sprawling glaciers and huge morains, stupendous waterfalls and crystal lakes, deep gorges, verdant slopes and vast undulating flower-studded meadows vividly reveals the varying moods of mother nature.

This wonderland is emerging as favoured destination for the discerning traveler, especially those interested in experiencing its unique and distinctive culture, hard and soft trekking, wildfile-watching and rural and eco-tourism. It has a rich historical background.

In the heart of the high Himalayan mountain range, Bhutan is a land-locked country surrounded by mountains in the north and west. Bhutan has four distinct seasons. Each has its advantage and disadvantages for the visitor. Notice should be taken of the predictable weather patterns before making decisions when to visit. Remember even predictable weather can vary dramatically in different areas and in 24-hour periods. Being a staunch Buddhist country, every aspect of Bhutan say its society, culture, arts, crafts, traditions and architecture are greatly influenced by religion.Bhutanese or Drukpa are friendly and hospitable people.

HISTORY
The name Bhutan appears to derive from the ancient term Bhotanta meaning the end of the land of the Bhots. Bhot was the Sanskrit term for Tibetans, thus Bhutan could mean the end of the land of Tibet. It could also extend from the Sanskrit word Bhu’uttan or high land. No one seems to be sure. Ancient Tibetan writer called their fertile neighbour Lho Mon or Mon Yul, Southland or the land of the Monpas. The Bhutanese themselves refer to their country as Druk Yul or the Land of the Peaceful Dragon. Druk meaning Dragon, extending from the predominant Drukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Bhutan’s history parallels Buddhism following in the Himalayas and to properly understand Bhutan’s history one also needs to understand its religion.

Mystery surrounds Bhutan’s distant past, as books and papers were lost in consecutive fires at the national printing works and at Punakha Dzong in 1828 and 1832 and then a massive earthquake in 1896 and a fire in Paro Dzong destroyed all but a few of the records that outlasted the first disasters. Despite these setbacks, enough reliable information has been recorded to piece together a history, which sets apart this small Kingdom from the others in its vicinity.

Bhutan was unified under a central authority until the 17th century; however, the religious presence in the country had been acting as a spiritual cohesion for many years. It was in 747 AD that Padma Sambhava who is known as Guru Rimpoche made his legendry trip to Bhutan. Guru Rimpoche is the father of the Tantric strain of Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Bhutan. His eight manifestations are worshipped in temples throughout the Kingdom and wherever he visited in the Kingdom is today a pilgrimage site highly revered by Bhutanese.

It was in the early middle ages that Buddhism blossomed in Bhutan. The Tibetan-based Kagyupa School was established at the beginning of the 12th Century and missionaries were sent south to spread its teachings. The Lhapa school, a Kagyupa sect, was set up in western Bhutan at the end of the 12th century and the Drukpa School (another subdivision of Kagyupa) in the first half of the 13th Century. For the next 500 years, disputes between the two theories of Buddhist practice were common. In the end, the Drukpa school reigned supreme and was even accepted in the eastern and central areas where Nyingmapa monks previously dominated.

Many of Bhutan’s most celebrated ancestors descend from the Nyingmapa School, including the ancestors of the present-day royal family. Pema Lingpa, the best-known Nyingmapa saint died in Bumthang, his home, in 1521. He was the reincarnation of Guru Rimpoche and Longchen Rabjam the philosopher. In his lifetime he founded the monasteries at Peseling, Kungzandra and Tamshing in Bumthang valley. Many of Pema Lingpa’s descendants settled in the east where they strengthened the Nyingmapa’s hold on the area.

Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan lama of the Drukpa School, designed the present system of intertwined religious and secular Government. He came to Bhutan in 1616. At that time no central authority existed and regional conflict had persisted intermittently for centuries. In his quest to unify the country, he gained the support of many powerful families of his school and constructed Dzongs (fortress monasteries) in the main valleys of western Bhutan, Designed to scare aggressors, the Dzongs command a powerful presence over the valleys in which they are still the centers of religious and civil authority.

Ngawang Namgyal fought and won a battle against the Tibetans in 1639 and assumed the title Shabdrung, meaning ‘at whose feet one submits’. In effect he became the first secular and religious leader in Bhutan. Later the Shabdrung unified the country and established himself as the country’s supreme leader and vested civil power in a high officer as the Druk Desi. Religious affairs were charged to another leader, the Je Khenpo. The country was divided into regions and an intricate system of law was codified.

He died in 1651, within five years of death the whole country had unified under the control of the central government. The last vestiges of Lhapa power disappeared and Drukpa became the focus of religious and civil obedience.

During the next two centuries civil wars intermittently broke out and the regional Penlops became increasingly more powerful. At the end of the 19th Century the Penlop of Tongsa (who controlled central and eastern Bhutan) overcame his greatest rival the Penlop of Paro (who controlled western Bhutan) and was soon recognized as the overall leader of Bhutan. An assembly of representatives of the monastic community, civil servants and the people elected the Tongsa Penlop, Ugyen Wangchuk, the first King of Bhutan in 1907.

The monarchy has thrived ever since and the present King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the first King’s great grandson, commands the overwhelming support of his people.

GEOGRAPHY
The Kingdom lies east of Nepal and west of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. It is south of the Tibet and north of the Indian territories of Assam and West Bengal.

Located in the heart of the high Himalayan mountain range, Bhutan is a land-locked country surrounded by mountains in the north and west. The rugged east, visited by few Western travelers, borders the sparse and largely unknown Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The high Himalayas in the northern steppes separates the Kingdom from Tibet.

The population of 600,000 is made up primarily of indigenous Bhutanese. Many naturalized citizens came in from Tibet. In the higher reaches of the Kingdom and in some isolated valleys, hill tribes thrive on the land. Some, like, those from Merak and Sakteng in the east and Laya in the north, have no contact with the western civilization and trade only in bartered goods.

The lower southern regions are inhabited by migrant Nepalese who have been granted Bhutanese nationality. Most of them are agricultural workers who take advantage of the fertile southern land. Most industrial areas are also located in the south. The southern districts are less populated than central districts but more populated than the northern mountainous regions.

Altitudes in the south range from 1,000 to 4,500 feet. Altitudes in the more populated central regions range from 4,000 feet in the east around Tashigang to a high of 17,000 feet over the highest pass. The altitude at Thimphu, the capital, is 7,700 feet.

Until roads are built in the early 1960s, it took travelers at least five days to make the journey from the Indian border at Phuntsholing to Thimphu. A high mountain range separates the lowlands of the south from the central valleys. Before the Chinese closed border with Tibet in 1959, the Bhutanese used to trade across the lower passes in the north of the country as they remained open during the cold winter months.

RELIGION
The Buddhist faith has played and continues to play a fundamental role in the cultural, ethical and sociological development of Bhutan and its people. It permeates all strands of secular life, bringing with it a reverence for the land and its well-being. Annual festivals (tsechus and dromchoes) are spiritual occasions in each district. They bring together the population of the district and are dedicated to either Guru Rimpoche or other deities.

Throughout Bhutan, stupas and chortens line the roadside commemorating a place where Guru Rimpoche or another Shabdrung may have stopped to meditate. Prayer flags are even more common. Fluttering on long poles, they maintain constant communication with the heavens and luck. Bhutan is the only country in the world to retain the tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism as its official religion. During the time of Shabdrung, to ensure the perpetuation of Buddhism in the Kingdom, one son from each family normally attends monastic school. While the Dzongs are the centers of administrative and government activities for the entire valley, they are predominantly the homes and temples of the monastic community.

 

PEOPLE
Early records suggest scattered clusters of inhabitants had already settled in Bhutan when the first recorded settlers arrived 1,400 years ago.

Bhutan’s indigenous population is the Drukpa. Three main ethnic groups, the Sharchops, Ngalops and the Lhostampas (of the Nepalese origin) make up today’s Drukpa.

Bhutan’s earliest residents, the Sharchops, reside predominantly in eastern Bhutan. The origin can be traced to the tribes of north Burma and southeast India. The Ngalops migrated from the Tibetan plains. Most of the Lhostampas migrated to the southern plains in search of agricultural land and work in the mid 20th Century.

The geography of the land kept each ethnic group separate until the middle of the 20th Century when roads were built between the east and the west. As a result, the Sharchops have retained their influence over the east, while the Ngalops predominate in the west and the Nepalese have retained their homes in the south of Bhutan.

The contrast ethnic diversity of the Bhutanese people has meant that a number of different languages and dialects are spoken throughout the Kingdom. The national language is Dzongkha, which is taught in all schools.

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