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ABOUT BHUTAN

Hidden in the folds of the Himalayas, Bhutan had been unknown to the world for thousands of years.

When the kingdom first emerged from centuries of self-imposed isolation in the 1960s, it was soon perceived as the “Last Shangri-La”. Wedged between China and India, this little country’s unique development paradigm – known as Gross National Happiness – provides a perfect recipe to save our planet from ecological disaster.

Art and Craft

Bhutanese, arts and crafts, language and literature, ceremonies and events, and basic social and cultural values draw their essence from religious teachings. The exquisite traditional painting is visible on monasteries and houses, skillfully enhancing the architecture. Traditional shapes, colors and patterns on the walls, doors, windows, put Bhutanese architecture in a class of its own. Music, dance, and handicrafts play an important role in national, village, or domestic functions and festivals.

Challenges and change

Yet it is inevitable that Bhutan is changing. Five decades of development have had a dramatic impact on the Kingdom which has moved, in a short span of time, from the medieval age into the 21st century. A comprehensive network of roads, school and hospitals reaching their services to the people, a modern telecommunication system, increasing contact with the international community, urbanisation, and a growing private sector cannot but bring change. But, just as the Bhutanese people chose to guard their magical kingdom in its pristine form through the centuries, they are determined to balance development and change.

The essence of modernisation in Bhutan has been a blend of tradition and progress. The protective Bhutanese psyche, which kept the kingdom in a jealously guarded isolation, is visible in the controlled tourism policy, strong sense of environmental protection, and the careful pace of all-round development. Bhutan has long decided that economic achievement is no replacement for its unique national identity. In the past, the kingdom fought aggression, in different forms, to safeguard its interests, its priorities, and its identity. The future will be no different.

People

Most Bhutanese live off subsistence farming scattered in sparsely populated villages across the slopes of the rugged Himalayas. The sense of individuality and independence emerges as a strong characteristic of the people. Numerous ethnic groups inhabit the country – such as the semi-nomad Brokpa in the far east, the Layap and Lunap highlanders in the extreme north, the Nepali in the south, the Olep in pockets of central Bhutan and the Doya in the south-west. In all, some 16 languages are spoken. The vast majority are Buddhists.

Kind of Happiness

In recent times, Bhutan has become famous worldwide as a happy country. The United Nations to countries like Japan, United Kingdom, Brazil, South Korea, the USA and France have all embraced Bhutan’s gift to mankind, the Gross National happiness (GNH) philosophy.

This new development paradigm requires society to create the enabling conditions for their people to pursue happiness by balancing spiritual and material needs in order that the planet Earth is not overly exploited due to wanton materialistic consumption. Back in Bhutan, the pursuit of happiness is inbuilt in the government’s policies and its impact is manifest in the day-to-day lifestyle of the people.

An Unconquered Land

It is a matter of great pride to the Bhutanese that their small kingdom was never colonised. Its ancient history, which is a mixture of the oral tradition and classical literature, tells of a largely self-sufficient population which had limited contact with the outside world until the turn of the century.

In the eight century Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), established several sacred religious sites, which are important places of pilgrimage for the Buddhist world today. Over the years many other saints and religious figures helped shape Bhutan’s history and develop its religion.

Nature

Even as the world is trying to heal itself from the scars of ecological damage, Bhutan is emerging as an example to the international community, with more than 70 percent of its land still under forest cover and a great variety of rare plant and wildlife species.

The dense forests, ranging from the sub-tropical to the temperate and the alpine, are home to rare and endangered species of mammalian wildlife like the Tiger, The Blue Sheep, the elusive Snow Leopard, the Himalayan Black Bear, the Golden Langur, the Takin and so on. So far more than 700 species of birds have been recorded, including dozens that are globally threatened. These include White-bellied Her¬on, Phalla’s Fish Eagle, Black-necked Crane, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Grey-crowned Prinia and Beautiful Nuthatch.

Festivals

Religious festivities take place in different districts at specific times during the year.

Apart from the spiritual significance, the festivals are occasions to get together and renew acquaintance amid a profusion of sights and sounds which reveal the finer aspects of Bhutanese culture. For a visitor, a well-timed trip to any such occasion is an excellent opportunity to look at Bhutanese life in a miniscule. Portraying the country’s traditions and beliefs, the festivals mirror the values that construct a typical Bhutanese society.

Culture

For a tiny country with less than a million people, Bhutan has built a strong identity for itself by zealously protecting its culture, traditions and other age-old values. Bhutanese culture is manifest in dress, language, art and craft, architecture, folk music and performing arts, traditional etiquettes and religious practices.

The culture is exhibited through the numerous traditional heritage structures, the festivals and the everyday lifestyle of the people. A unique feature of the kingdom is the way in which the people live in close harmony with nature.

A Spiritual Nation

Just as the kingdom’s history is characterised by religious landmarks, the influence of religion is highly visible in every day life of the lay population.

Bhutan is a spiritual nation. Hundreds of sacred monasteries, stupas, religious institution, prayer flags and prayer wheels which dot the countryside provide a strong infrastructure and atmosphere for the teachings of their living faith. In both urban and rural Bhutan, religious ceremonies and rituals are performed regularly and with reverence. The horoscope of Bhutanese life is drawn from the scriptures. National and regional festivities, coinciding with the seasons, are major events for the entire population the year round. The Buddhist world thus regards the kingdom with special importance as the last bastion of Mahayana Buddhism.