A small country sandwich between the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and India, Bhutan is a tiny landlocked country found in the Himalayas.
Besides the stunning natural scenery, the enduring image of the country for most visitors is the strong sense of culture and tradition that binds the kingdom and clearly distinguishes it from its larger neighbours. Bhutan is the only Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world, and the profound teachings of this tradition remain well preserved and exert a strong influence in all aspects of life. Due to its pristine environment and harmonious society, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan has been called “The Last Shangrila.”
Bhutan is a unique country both culturally and environmentally. Perched high in the Himalayas, it is the world’s last remaining Buddhist Kingdom. It has developed the philosophy of Gross National Happiness; where development is measured using a holistic approach of well-being, not just based on gross domestic product.
It is still termed as a third world country with subsistence farming practised in much of Bhutan. In broad terms the land is fertile and the population small. In addition, the current generation receives free education, and all citizens have access to free, although rudimentary, medical care. The sale of tobacco products is banned and smoking in public areas is an offence punished with fines.
Major sources of income for the kingdom are tourism, hydroelectric power and agriculture.
While traditional culture has been very well preserved, the opening of the country to TV and internet in 1999 has had a major effect, and modern-day culture is mostly centred on bars and snooker halls. As a result, there is very little or no evidence of quality contemporary art, theatre or music.
Culturally, Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist with Dzongkha as a national language (although there are regional variations – such as Sharchopkha, the predominant language in Eastern Bhutan), and a common dress code and architectural style. Bhutanese people primarily consist of the Ngalops and Sharchops, called the Western Bhutanese and Eastern Bhutanese, and Lhotshamphas (Southern Bhutanese), a people of Nepalese Gurkha Origin, respectively. The Ngalops primarily consist of Bhutanese living in the western part of the country. Their culture is closely related to that of their neighbour to the north, Tibet.
Because of the danger of their distinct culture being overwhelmed by Hindu Nepalese immigrants, some of whom had been in Bhutan for generations, many were expelled or fled as stateless persons to refugee camps in Nepal.
Gross National Happiness
This ideology was the brain child of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. He studied in India and the UK and realised that mere economic success did not necessarily translate into a content and happy society. Consequently, soon after his coronation in 1974, the young king began to float the idea of developing a new set of guidelines by which to govern the country. Slowly these ideas took shape, and in 1998 the GNH indicator was established. GNH stands for “Gross National Happiness” and is defined by the following four objectives: to increase economic growth and development, preserve and promote the cultural heritage, encourage sustainable use of the environment, and establish good governance. While the concept of GNH receives much international praise and is a major draw for tourists, potential visitors should be aware that the idea is very much in its incubation stage, and there is very little evidence of GNH in the country itself.
On 19 July 2011, 68 countries joined the Kingdom of Bhutan in co-sponsoring a resolution titled “Happiness: Towards a holistic approach to development,” which was adopted by consensus by the 193-member UN General Assembly. In follow up to the resolution, the Royal Government of Bhutan convened a High Level Meeting on “Happiness and Well Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” on 2nd April 2012 at the United Nations headquarters in New York. This meeting initiated the next steps towards realising the vision of a new well being and sustainability based economic paradigm that effectively integrates economic, social, and environmental objectives. Following this resolution, Bhutan continues to be a champion of the resolution and actively promotes the concept internationally.
- It is possible to receive instruction on Buddhist practice at any monastery, though for discussions on Buddhist philosophy it is better to consult with the khenpos or loppons (teachers) at Buddhist colleges (shedra), such as, for example, Lhodrak Kharchhu Monastery in Jakar, Tango Monastery near Thimphu or Chokyi Gyatso Institute in Deothang.
- Deer Park Thimphu holds various Dharma related events in the capital, including weekly meditation sessions.
Weaving – Bhutanese woven cloth is prized throughout the world for its unique designs and high quality, and there is a weaving centre in Khaling in Trashigang.