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The Extraordinary Journey of Bhutan

In celebration of the 108th National Day this 17 December, we are proud to present this special video recounting the Extraordinary Journey of Bhutan, united by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, and guided by a succession of Dharma Kings.
This year, we honoured the Father of our Nation, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, under whose reign Bhutan achieved phenomenal success, with the celebration of His Majesty’s 60th Birth Anniversary.
The celebration brought the people of Bhutan an additional cause for celebration, when His Majesty announced that the Heir to the Golden Throne would be born next year.
It is therefore a special National Day we mark this year, united as a nation and looking forward with ambition and hope. We take the opportunity to pay tribute to our Kings, who embody Bhutan’s greatest characters of strength, compassion, and unity.

The stunning artwork for this video has been done by Chimi R Namgyel. Courtesy the Royal Office for Media.

Culture

Eating Habits

Traditional Bhutanese eating habits are simple and food is eaten with hands. Family members eat while sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor with food first being served to the head of the household.

It is usually women who serve the food and in most cases, the mother. Before eating, a short prayer is offered and a small morsel placed on the floor as an offering to the local spirits and deities. With modernisation, eating habits have changed and in urban areas, people usually eat with cutlery whilst seated at a regular dining table.

Traditionally dishes were cooked in earthenware, but with the easy availability of modern goods, pots and pans have largely replaced their use. A typical Bhutanese meal consists of rice, a dish of Ema Datshi, the country’s favorite dish of chili and cheese, pork, beef curry or lentils.

Bhutanese Dress

One of the most distinctive features of the Bhutanese is their traditional dress, unique garments that have evolved over thousands of years. Men wear the Gho, a knee-long robe somewhat resembling a kimono that is tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as Kera. The pouch, which forms at the front, traditionally was used for carrying food bowls and a small dagger. Today however it is more accustomed to carrying small articles such as wallets, mobile phones and Doma (beetle nut).

Women wear the Kira, a long, ankle-long dress accompanied by a light outer jacket known as Tego with an inner layer known as Wonju.

However, tribal and semi-nomadic people like the Bramis and Brokpas of eastern Bhutan generally wear clothing that differs from the rest of the Bhutanese population. The Brokpas and the Bramis both wear dresses woven either out of Yak or Sheep hair.

Bhutanese still wear long scarves when visiting Dzongs and other administrative centers. The scarves worn vary in color, signifying the wearer’s status or rank.  The scarf worn by men is known as Kabney while those worn by women are known as Rachu. The Rachu is hung over a woman’s shoulder and unlike the scarves worn by men, does not have any specific rank associated with its color. Rachus are usually woven out of raw silk and embroidered with beautiful rich patterns

Marriage

Until just a few decades ago arranged marriages were common and many married among their relatives. In eastern Bhutan cross-cousin marriages were also once common, however, this practice is now becoming less common among the literate masses and most marriages are based on the choice of the individuals.

Marriages are simple affairs and are usually kept low-key. However, elaborate rituals are performed for lasting unions between the bride and the bridegroom. As the religious ceremony comes to an end, parents, relatives and friends of the couple present the newlyweds with traditional offerings of scarves along with gifts in the form of cash and goods.

In the Western Bhutan, it was commonplace that the husband goes to live in his wife’s house after marriage while the practice in Eastern Bhutan is for the wife to move into the husband’s home.  Of course, the newlyweds may also choose to live on their own.  Divorce is also an accepted norm and carries no ignominy or disgrace within the country.

Birth

The birth of a child is always welcomed. In Bhutan extended family and guests are discouraged from visiting during the first three days after the birth.

On the third day, a short purification ritual is performed after which visitors are welcomed to visit the new born and mother.   Bhutanese value children as progenitors of the future and therefore do not discriminate on the sex of the child.  Traditionally various gifts are offered ranging from dairy products to cloth and money.

The child is not immediately named. This responsibility is usually entrusted to the head lama (Buddhist priest) of the local temple. The mother and child will also receive blessings from the local deity (natal deity) and it was traditional that the name associated with the deity is given. In some cases, the child is given the name of the day on which the child is born. Based on the Bhutanese calendar, a horoscope is written based on the time and date of the birth, this will detail the various rituals to be performed at different times in the life of the child and to an extent predict his or her future.

Festivals

Bhutan is rich in cultural diversity and this richness is further enhanced by the wide variety of elaborate and colorful religious festivals that are celebrated throughout the country. Every village is known for their unique festival though the most widely known is the annual Tshechu, meaning a religious festival.Black-Hat-Dancers1

As the Tshechu begins, the villagers and the general populace dress in their finest clothes and congregate at their local temples and monasteries were these festivals take place. Tshechus are usually occasions to mark important events in the life of the second Buddha, the Indian/Pakistani Tantric master known as Guru Rinpoche or the Precious Gem. Various mask dances are performed together with songs and dances for three days.

These religious celebrations are lively, high-spirited affairs during which people share meals of red rice, spicy pork, Ema Datshi and Momos (pork dumplings) whilst drinking the traditional rice wine known as Ara. These occasions provide the villagers with a respite from the hard labor of their day-to-day lives and gives the community an opportunity to catch up with family and friends.

Climate

The climate in Bhutan is extremely varied. This variation in the climatic conditions and average temperature can be attributed to two main factors, the vast differences in altitude present in the country and the influence of the north Indian monsoons.

Southern Bhutan has a hot, humid sub-tropical climate. Temperatures can vary between 15-30 degrees Celsius. In the Central parts of the country the climate cools a bit, changing to temperate and deciduous forests with warm summers and cool, dry winters. In the far Northern reaches of the kingdom the weather is cold during winter. Mountain peaks are perpetually covered in snow and lower parts are still cool in summer owing to the high altitude terrain.

The Indian summer monsoon lasts from late-June through late-September and is mostly confined to the southern border region of Bhutan. It brings heavy rain and high humidity, to the southern region.

Annual precipitation ranges widely in various parts of the country. In the northern border region to Tibet gets about forty millimeters of precipitation a year, which is primarily, snow. In the temperate central regions, a yearly average of around 1,000 millimeters is more common, and 7,800 millimeters per year has been registered at some locations in the humid, subtropical south, ensuring the thick tropical forest, or savanna.

Thimphu experiences dry winter months (December through February) and almost no precipitation until March, when rainfall averages 20 millimeters a month and increases steadily thereafter to a high of 220 millimeters in August for a total annual rainfall of nearly 650 millimeters.

Bhutan’s generally dry spring starts in early March and lasts until mid-April. Summer weather commences in mid-April with occasional showers and continues to late June. The heavier summer rains last from late June through late September which are more monsoonal along the southwest border.

Autumn, from late September or early October to late November, follows the rainy season. It is characterized by bright, sunny days and some early snowfalls at higher elevations.

From late November until March, winter sets in, with frost throughout much of the country and snowfall common above elevations of 3,000 meters. The winter northeast monsoon brings gale-force winds at the highest altitudes through high mountain passes, giving Bhutan its name – Drukyul, which in the Dzongkha language mean Land of the Thunder Dragon.

Environment

Due to Bhutan’s location and unique geographical and climatic variations, it is one of the world’s last remaining biodiversity hotspots.

Bhutan pristine environment, with high rugged mountains and deep valleys, offers ecosystems that are both rich and diverse. Recognizing the importance of the environment, conservation of its rich biodiversity is one of the government’s development paradigms.

The government has enacted a law that shall maintain at least 60% of its forest cover for all time. Today, approximately 72% of the total land area of Bhutan is under forest cover and approximately 60% of the land area falls under protected areas comprising of 10 national parks and sanctuaries.

Each of Bhutan’s National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries are an essential part of the Bhutan Biological Conservation Complex – a system of national parks, protected areas and forest corridors covering 60% of the country. Each of these parks and sanctuaries has its own special character and are home to endangered animals, birds and plants.

Flora & Fauna

Bhutan is one of the last remaining biodiversity hotspots in the world, forest cover has now increased to over 72% of the country, with 60% of the country under protection.

The array of flora and fauna available in Bhutan is unparalleled due to conservation and its wide altitudinal and climatic range. Physically, the country can be divided into three zones:

1. Alpine Zone (4000m and above) with no forest cover;
2. Temperate Zone (2000 to 4000m) with conifer or broadleaf forests;
3. Subtropical Zone (150m to 2000m) with Tropical or Subtropical vegetation.

Forest types in Bhutan are fir forests, mixed conifer forest, blue pine forest, Chir pine forest, broadleaf mixed with conifer, upland hardwood forest, lowland hardwood forest, and tropical lowland forests. Almost 60% of the plant species found in the eastern Himalayan region are present in Bhutan.

Bhutan boasts of about 300 species of medicinal plants and about 46 species of rhododendrons. Some common sights for the visitors are the magnolias, junipers, and orchids, gentian, medicinal plants, Daphne, giant rhubarb and trees such as fir, pine and oaks.

A wide range of rare and endangered animals can also be found frequenting the dense jungles and high mountains of Bhutan. Due to the countries conservation efforts and its unspoiled natural environment Bhutan supports thriving populations of some of the rarest animals on earth and has thus been classified as one of the last biodiversity hotspots in the world.

Some high altitude species are the snow leopard, Bengal tiger that are found at altitude ranging 3000 to 4000 meters, the red panda, the goral and the langur, the Himalayan black bear, Sambar, wild pigs, barking deer, blue sheep and musk deer.

In the tropical forests of Southern Bhutan one can come across clouded leopard, the one horned rhinoceros, elephant, water buffaloe and swamp deer. You can even find the Golden Langur, a species of monkey that is unique to Bhutan.

Bhutan also has a great variety of bird species. It is recognized as an area of high biological diversity and is known as the East Himalayan ‘hot spot’, the hub of 221 global endemic bird areas. The recorded number of bird species is over 670 and is expected to rise as new birds are discovered.

In addition, 57% of Bhutan’s globally threatened birds and 90% of the country’s rare birds are dependent on forests. Bhutan has about 415 resident bird species. These birds are altitudinal refugees, moving up and down the mountains depending upon the season and weather conditions. About 50 species of birds that migrate during the winter are buntings, waders, ducks, thrushes and the birds of prey. Some 40 species are partial migrants and they include species such as swifts, cuckoos, bee-eaters, fly catchers and warblers.

Bhutan is also home to about 16 bird species that are endangered worldwide. These include the White bellied heron, Pallas Fish eagle and Blyth’s King fisher to name a few. Phobjikha valley in Wangdue Phodrang and Bomdeling in Trashi Yangtse are also two especially important locations of the endangered Black Necked Cranes.

As one of the ten global hotspots, Bhutan is committed to preserve and protect its rich environment through its government and environmental organizations. This commitment is apparent in the fact that the kingdom has the distinct honor of being one of the only nations whose forest cover has actually grown over the years.

Food

The most distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese cuisine is its spiciness. Chilies are an essential part of nearly every dish and are considered so important that most Bhutanese people would not enjoy a meal that was not spicy. Rice forms the main body of most Bhutanese meals. It is accompanied by one or two side dishes consisting of meat or vegetables. Pork, beef and chicken are the meats that are eaten most often. Vegetables commonly eaten include Spinach, pumpkin, turnip, radish, tomato, river weed, onions and green beans. Grains such as rice, buckwheat and barley are also cultivated in various regions of the country depending on the local climate.  The following is a list of some of the most popular Bhutanese dishes:

Ema Datshi: This is the National Dish of Bhutan. A spicy mix of chilies and delicious local cheese known as Datshi. This dish is part of nearly every meal and can be found throughout the country. Variations on Ema Datshi include adding green beans, ferns, potatoes, mushrooms or swapping the regular cheese for yak cheese.

Momos: These Tibetan-style dumplings are stuffed with pork, beef or cabbage and cheese. Traditionally eaten during special occasions, these tasty treats are a Bhutanese favorite.

Phaksha Paa: Pork cooked with spicy red chilies. This dish can also include Radish or Spinach. A popular variation uses sun-dried pork known as Sicam.

Jasha Maru: Spicy minced chicken, tomatoes and other ingredients that is usually served with rice.

Red Rice: This rice is similar to brown rice and is extremely nutritious and filling. When cooked it is pale pink, soft and slightly sticky.

Goep (Tripe): Though the popularity of tripe has diminished in many countries it is still enjoyed in Bhutan. Like most other meat dishes, it is cooked with plenty of spicy chilies and chili powder.

Economy

Despite Bhutan’s small population there has been much economic development in recent years and the economy is growing rapidly.

While a large part of the Bhutanese population is still illiterate and reside in rural areas with approximately 1 in 5 still living under the poverty line, the majority of all Bhutanese have shelter and are self-sufficient. Rapid modernization has brought about vast improvements in the living standard of the Bhutanese people. All villages now have access to basic amenities such as education, running water, basic healthcare and are connected by roads and electricity. Even the most remote villages have connection to the telecommunication network including mobile phone service.

The Bhutanese economy is predominantly agricultural. Farmers supplement their income through the sale of animal products such as cheese, butter and milk. Farmers’ markets are common throughout the country, supplying the people with fresh, organic, local produce.

The main staple crops are rice, maize, wheat and buckwheat while cash crops are predominantly potatoes, apples, oranges, cardamom, ginger, and chilies. A fruit based industry has been established in the capital allowing farmers from the nearby areas to sell their produce and thereby earn additional revenue.

Cottage Industries

Bhutan’s rich biodiversity provides the country with ample forest resources and this has brought about the development of a thriving cane and bamboo handicraft industry. Craftsmen weave a number of beautiful and intricate items out of bamboo and cane including hats, backpacks, floor mats and traditional bowls. These items are then sold to tourists or Bhutanese, supplying a secondary income source.

Tourism

The Bhutanese Tourism Industry was first opened in 1974. Since then it has grown to become, a major contributing factor to the Bhutanese economy creating countless employment opportunities and generating additional revenue for the government.

The government is committed to building a sustainable tourism industry that is not only financially viable but also limits the negative cultural and environmental impacts commonly associated with the culture of mass tourism. By establishing a policy of “High Value, Low Impact’ tourism, the kingdom of Bhutan seeks to ensure that it attracts only the most discerning visitors with a deep respect for cultural values, traditions and the natural environment.

To this end efforts have been made to ensure that even remote areas are publicized and able to reap the benefits of tourism while still respecting their traditions, culture and natural environment.

Hydroelectricity

Due to its fast flowing, glacier-fed rivers, Bhutan has enormous potential to produce hydroelectricity. With the construction of several major dams, the power sector has undeniably been the biggest contributor to the Bhutanese exchequer. The Chukha Hydro Power Corporation, the Tala Hydro Power Corporation, the Baso Chu Hydro Power Corporation and the Kurichu Hydro Power Corporation, under the umbrella of Druk Green Power Corporation, are some of the existing mega projects in the country. The 1500 MW of power they generate, most of which is exported to our neighboring country India, barely scratches the surface of Bhutan’s untapped hydroelectric potential. With its abundant water resources, Bhutan still has the capacity to generate another 30,000 MW of electricity. However, the government is proceeding cautiously with new construction projects in order to minimize the impact upon the surrounding areas.

Manufacturing

The Manufacturing sector is another major contributor to national revenue. With the industrial sector established in Pasakha, small scale industries such as cement plants, calcium and carbide, steel and Ferro silicon, Coca Cola and also wood based industries have started developing.

As a result of the recent economic development, Bhutan has one of the highest per capita incomes in South Asia at US$1,321. However despite this high level of growth and development, efforts stringent regulations have been enacted in order to protect Bhutan’s natural environment.

Arts & Crafts

Zorig Chusum: The Thirteen Traditional Crafts of Bhutan

An essential part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage are the thirteen traditional arts and crafts that have been practiced from time immemorial. These arts were formally categorized during the reign of Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay, the fourth temporal ruler of Bhutan. The thirteen arts and crafts are categorized as follows:

Thag-zo

The textile industry is an integral part of Bhutanese life and culture. As such the art of weaving is widely practiced.

Women of eastern Bhutan are skilled at weaving and some of the most highly prized textiles are woven by them. In the past, textiles were paid as a form tax to the government in place of cash and people from western Bhutan travelled all the way to Samdrup Jongkhar to acquire/barter for woven textiles. Bhutanese textiles are woven from cotton, raw cotton and silk with intricate motifs woven into the cloth.

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Khoma village in Lhuentse is famous for Kushithara, while Rahi and Bidung are known for bura textiles, namely Mentsi Matha and Aikapur. One type of cotton fabric woven in Pemagatshel is the Dungsam Kamtham. Which lends its name to the village Decheling (Samdrup Jongkhar)Adang village in Wangdue Phodrang is known for textiles such as Adang Mathra, Adang Rachu and Adang Khamar while the Bumthaps in central Bhutan are known for Bumthap Mathra and Yathra, both textiles woven out of Yak hair and sheep wool. It’s interesting to note that the people of Nabji and Korphu in Trongsa are known for textiles woven out of nettle fibers. Weaving is also a vocation amongst the Brokpas of Merak and Sakteng.

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Men contribute through spinning yak hair and sheep wool into thread. There are four types of looms that are used by Bhutanese weavers. They are the back-strap loom, the horizontal fixed loom, the horizontal-framed loom and the card loom. The predominant type is the indigenous back-strap loom. It is used mostly by weavers from eastern Bhutan and is set up on porches or in thatched sheds to protect weavers and the cloth from the sun and rain. The horizontal frame loom and the card loom were brought into Bhutan from Tibet and are still used today.

Tsha-zo

Most of the forests in Bhutan are richly stocked with bamboos and canes of various species.

Taking advantage of these abundant natural resources, the Bhutanese people have mastered the skill of weaving cane and bamboo products. Widely known as Tshar Zo, this art is spread throughout the country and products such as baskets, winnowers, mats, containers known as Palangs and bangchungs are all made. The people of Kangpara in eastern Bhutan and the Bjokaps of Central Bhutan are the pioneer’s and masters of this craft. Their products are now sold to tourists earning them additional income and keeping this craft alive.

Shag-zo

The art of wood turning is known as Shag-Zo and is traditionally practiced by the people of Trashiyangtse in eastern Bhutan.

The master craftsmen of this vibrant art are known as Shag Zopa. They are famed for the wooden cups and bowls traditionally known as dapas and phobs. These wooden bowls are made of special wooden knots known as Zaa and are highly valued. Until the advent of steel and brass, these bowls were widely used by the Bhutanese. Today they are typically sold at craft markets and offered as gifts.

Khengkhar is a small village in eastern Bhutan where the villagers are well known for producing traditional wooden wine containers known as Jandup.

Lha-zo

Bhutanese paintings are quintessential of the arts and crafts tradition known as Lha-zo.

An ancient art that has been practiced since antiquity, paintings captures the imagery of the Bhutanese landscape. Master painters are known as Lha Rips and their work is apparent in every architectural piece from the massive Dzongs to glorious temples and spiritual monasteries and even in modest Bhutanese homes.

Paintings and their varied colors and hues epitomize the Bhutanese art and craft. A perfect example of this art form are the massive thongdrols or thangkas, huge scrolls depicting religious figures that are displayed during annual religious festivals. The mere sight of these enormous scrolls is believed to cleanse the viewer of his sins and bring him closer to attaining nirvana. Thus, it brings merit not only to the believers but for the painters as well.

The materials used in Bhutanese paint are the natural pigmented soils that are found throughout the country. These natural soil pigments are of different colours and are named accordingly. The black lumps of soil is known as ‘sa na’, and red lumps as ‘Tsag sa’, for instance.

Par-zo

Par-zo is the art of carving and another traditional Bhutanese art form that has been perfected over generations.

Major carvings are carried out on stone, wood and slate. The traditional designs crafted on these materials create beautiful and distinctive art works unique to the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

As Bhutan has been blessed with an exceptionally abundant variety of trees, woodcarving is seen in a variety of forms. The wooden masks featured during the annual religious festivals (Tsechus) as well as the many traditional motifs that are engraved on the Bhutanese houses and on Dzongs are all carved out of wood.

A unique wood carving that draws attention from visitors are the phalluses of various sizes and shapes that are hung on the four corners of traditional Bhutanese houses and placed over the main entrance door. These carved wooden phalluses are also wielded by the Acharyas- the clowns during religious festivals as a sign to bless spectators and drive away their evils and misfortunes.

The art of slate carving is also practiced and the master craftsmen are known as Do Nag Lopens. Slate which is found in both Western and Eastern Bhutan are used in such carving. While slate carving is not as diverse as stone or wood works, it is found in many religious scriptures, mantras and deific engravings and Slate carvings are quite common place in religious places such as Dzongs, temples and Chortens. Stone carving while less evident, is found in huge grinding mills that are still used by people in the far flung villages of Bhutan. One can also come across hollowed–out stones used for pounding grains and troughs for feeding cattle and horses.

Jim-zo

Jim zo or clay work is an ancient craft that has been practiced and passed down over the centuries.

This art form preceded other sculpture works such as bronze and other metal works. Statues of deities, gods and goddesses and other prominent religious figures exemplify clay work in Bhutan.

Every monastery, temple and Dzong in the country has intricately molded clay statues from where pilgrims and devout Buddhists draw their inspiration. Master sculptors are known as Jim zo lopens and impart their skills to young novices over several years of rigorous training. In addition to sculpting clay statues, the tradition of crafting clay pottery is still alive. However, these days most of the potteries are being used as show pieces.

While the art of modeling statues is confined to men, the art of pottery is normally reserved for women. While there are three distinctive types of clayware: earthenware, stoneware and the china-clayware, in Bhutan, we find only earthenware. When crafting clay pottery, success depends upon the composition of the clay, the crafter’s skill in shaping the clay and baking the material to the correct temperature.

The baked items are then coated with lac to render them waterproof. While this tradition is nearly dying out in some areas, the women of Lhuentse and Paro actively practice it and are still keeping the venerable art form alive.

Lug-zo

Bronze was commonly used to cast containers such as cups, urns, and vases. People also shaped bronze into weapons and armor such as battle-axes, helmets, knives, swords and shields. Bronze casting in Bhutan was introduced only in the 17th century and was mainly spread through the visiting Newari artisans that came from Nepal. The Newars were first invited by Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal to cast bronze statues and religious items such as bells and water offering bowls. It was through these artisans that the art was introduced and today, quite a few Bhutanese practice bronze casting.

Troe-ko

The vibrant craft of traditional ornament making is still designed today and is known as Troe-ko.

aIts products are widely used by Bhutanese women. A master craftsman skilled in shaping beautiful ornaments is regarded as Tro Ko Lopen. Using precious stones and metals such as corals, turquoise, silver and gold, these master craftsmen create all manner of ornaments and implements including necklaces, bangles, earrings, rings , brooches, amulets to contain ritual objects, traditional containers to carry the much chewed beetle nut, ritual objects and much more.

De-zo

Paper-making is another art that has deep roots in Bhutan. People engaged in producing the traditional Bhutanese paper or De zo are known as Dezop.

This traditional paper is made from the bark of the Daphne tree and was widely used in the past. Most religious scriptures and texts were written on Dezho using traditional Bhutanese ink or occasionally in gold. While the presence of readily available modern paper has overtaken the market, people still produce and use Desho as carry bags, wrapping for gifts and envelopes. The art still continues in Trashiyangtse where the raw material is readily available.

Tshem-zo

Tzhem zo or the art of tailoring is a popular art amongst the Bhutanese.

This art can be broadly classified as Tshem drup the art of embroidery, lhem drup the art of appliqué and Tsho lham, the art of traditional Bhutanese boot making. The art of embroidery and appliqué are normally practiced by monks. Using this art they produce large religious scrolls known as Thangkas that depicts Gods and Goddesses, deities and saints.

Traditional boot making is normally the work of Bhutanese lay men. These boots, worn by officials during special functions and gatherings are made of leather and cloth. While boot making is an old craft, its origin is unknown. Special craftsmen in the villages also make simple boots from uncured leather. However, this is a vanishing practice but with the government’s support it has seem a recent revival in the kingdom’s urban centers.

The third category is tailoring. These craftsmen are skilled at sewing the traditional Bhutanese garments known as Gho and Kira.