The Land of the Thunder Dragon

Druk Yül

Bhutan is a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional place; In this brief space we can only begin to touch on some of its wonders. For a more detailed look at the facts around Bhutan, a good place to start is Wikipedia:

  • The Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked country in the Eastern Himalayas, bordering China to the north and India on all other sides.
  • It is separated from Nepal in the West by Indian Sikkim.
  • Bhutan’s capital and largest city is Thimphu.
  • The King of Bhutan is known as the Druk Gyalpo, Dragon King.
  • There are many climatic zones in Bhutan: subtropical plains in the south, alpine Himalayan mountains in the north.
  • There are eight main mountain passes as you traverse the country from East to West.
  • The highest mountain in Bhutan is the Gangkhar Puensum.

Tibet and Bhutan have always had a close historic relationship. It was part of the Silk Road between China and the India, as a group of small fiefdoms. In the 17th century lama and military leader Ngawang Namgyal, the first Zhabdrung Rinpoche, unified it into modern-day Bhutan and is revered as the patron founder of the country. Through the relations it developed with Britain and India, it avoided the fate of its neighbor Tibet during the Chinese invasion of that country, and remains an independent Kingdom. In 2008, Bhutan transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a Constitutional monarchy and now holds regular democratic elections to its parliament.

The People

The 770,000 or so citizens of Bhtuan think of themselves mostly as Western or Eastern Bhutanese, though identify with their local region or city, ie. Mongars, Paropas, etc. There are some 24 different languages and dialects, with some radical differences between them, but Dzonka (using the Tibetan script and sharing the same general structure and many word roots, is spoken by almost all. Since English is now taught in all schools, the younger generations, and those who have taken higher studies in Universities, etc, are fluent in English, especially in the larger centers of Paro and Thimpu.

Local Customs
The most striking and obvious aspect of Bhutanese customs is the traditional dress worn by men and women. These beautiful and colorful garments are mandatory for all Bhutanese that work in, or even visit government offices or in any official capacity, but most workplaces require this in general. Otherwise, Western dress, including the best and worst of it, is popular today. Shoes are not worn inside monasteries and other religious spaces, but is optional for homes in general. The men’s outfit is called a GOH, and they can be purchased in local stores. It is quite acceptable for non-Bhutanese to wear them! The women’s clothing consists of a number of pieces: The kira is the national dress, and is accompanied by the onju (blouse) and a short jacket (tego).

Vajrayana Buddhism

The Diamond Path or Vajrayana Buddhism that flourished in Tibet since the 8th century also pervades Bhutanese culture and influences every aspect of life. Unlike Tibet however, there are only two sects in Bhutan: The Drukpa Kagyu and the Nyingma (Old School). From the inception of Bhutan, the Drukpa Kagyu have dominated the majority of the landscape, with the Nyingma retreating to the Eastern section. In modern times, there is much more exchange and interaction, but the great Dzongs (fortresses), monastic centers and government administration are intrinsically allied to the Drukpa lineage, itself founded in Tibet in the 1100’s. While the practice of the Nyingma (the original or ancient school of Tibetan Buddhism) and Kagyu are different in many religious details, they share basic concepts and practices of Vajrayana. Their approaches to the purpose and aim of human life, and the duty to help liberate all sentient beings from suffering is at the core of their philosophy. And though personal enlightenment is a major goal, Buddhism has tremendous roots within the community, ethics and way of life of common people. A more important social distinction is the difference between monastic and non-monastic lamas and Rinpoches (Precious ones or high lamas). The non-monastic are largely Nyingma, and live as married householders, distinguished by their burgundy and white stripped upper robes (zen) or wearing red from head to toe—this later style unique to Bhutan and not seen anywhere else.