Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon is definitely a land of intrigue and of what is old and new! It is a tiny Himalayan kingdom replete with myths and folklore, where the best of traditional culture coalesce and thrive even as the latest global developments are enthusiastically embraced.
Bhutanese History in Brief
Since the emergence of hereditary monarchy in 1907, after Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck was crowned as the first King of Bhutan, has followed a path of smooth and gradual modernization. The institution of the Monarchy has propelled Bhutan to where it is today.
Historically speaking, the first two kings were primarily focused on securing the power and legitimacy of the monarchy, as well as guiding the country through political changes and developments.
It was the third Druk Gyalpo (King) Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1952–1972), who was dedicated to political reforms and began the critical process of democratic institutionalization. Known as the Father of Modern Bhutan, he abolished serfdom and capital punishment shortly after he became king.
He also established the National Assembly in 1953, started the country’s socio-economic development with first Five Year Plan in 1961, set up the first council of ministers and judiciary in 1968, and was integral in Bhutan becoming a member of the United Nations in 1971.
In 2006, the 4th King suddenly announced his abdication which of course not only surprised the nation but the world over. This announcement shook the very institution of monarchy and his people, but His Majesty refused to retract the decision. It was definitely the very first time in world history that a monarch voluntarily, without any internal or external pressure whatsoever, gave up his powers for his commitment to political reforms and his nationhood.
The Origin of the Concept of Gross National Happiness
His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th King assumed the Golden Throne in 1974 at the tender age of 18. A few years into his reign, His Majesty made one of the most profound statements of the 20th Century on development philosophy ~ “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product”. This philosophy was conceived based on the fundamental belief that the purpose of development must create conditions that will allow the citizens to pursue happiness, where happiness is viewed as the greatest human wealth.
In March 2008, Bhutan successfully conducted its first parliamentary election, and in November 2008 His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned as the fifth Dragon King.
The transition to democracy did not happen overnight. It was a long process of successive developments beginning from the inception of the hereditary monarchy in 1907, and culminating in this statement by His Majesty, the fourth Druk Gyalpo – the “Monarchy is not the best form of government because a king is chosen by birth and not be merit. The people of Bhutan must be able to establish a system which works for them.” As such, democracy has always been a part of Gross National Happiness.
The world, probably to the very day, had never witnessed such a peaceful, unique, and voluntary transition to democracy. It’s a legacy of a great King and his love for his people and humanity.
Even his great son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck the present Dragon King took over the mantle of kingship, he has spoken this very sublime and profound words:
“…Throughout my reign, I will never rule you as a King. I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother and serve you as a son, shall give you everything and keep nothing; shall live such a life as a good human being that you may find it worthy to serve as an example for your children; I have no personal goals other than to fulfil your hopes and aspiration. I shall always serve you, day and night, in the spirit of kindness, justice and equality…”
Tree plantation in Bhutan
Carbon Negative/Neutral country in the world
Bhutan is known as a nature hub and eco-friendliest worldwide. Bhutanese maintain the sanctity of the environment like no other country in the world. The Constitution of Kingdom of Bhutan stipulates that at least 60% of land remain forested at all times and the Bhutanese people play a pivotal role in maintaining and protecting the environment for posterity and for our future generations and for the sake of our mother earth for all times to come.
Bhutan officially entered the Guinness World record by planting 49,672 trees in an hour over 25 acres of land to honour His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo’s 60th birth anniversary on June 2 of 2015.
High-Value –Low Volume
The government strongly adheres to a policy of ‘high value, low impact’ tourism, which serves the purpose of creating an image of exclusivity thereby protecting the government policy of conserving our very own unique tradition, culture and our rich cultural heritage. The principle of “high value, low volume” has been the overall tourism policy since 1974, which later changed to “high value, low impact” in 2008.
Bhutan is definitely not a budget destination or a place for backpackers. It only started opening up to outsiders in the 1970s and it still closely guards its heritage and ecology by intentionally restricting tourism. Travel must be arranged through government-approved agencies and be paid in full before you score a visa.
Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest)
Bhutan’s most famous and most visited monastery by both tourists and Bhutanese is called Taktshang Goemba or the Tiger’s Nest which is considered of the holiest and most venerated religious sites in Bhutan. It is popularly known as the Tiger’s nest because legend has it that Guru (saint) Rimpoche flew on this site on the back of a tigress to subdue a local demon, after which, he meditated there for three months. This beautiful temple appears to cling to the rocky outcrops soaring high above a whispering pine forest.
Trekking in the Himalayan Kingdom
Despite Bhutan’s treks being physically demanding owing to the topography and high altitude but they can be hugely rewarding. Trekking routes will take you beyond motorable roads and take you through ancient mountain paths with exhilarating views of great mountains and valleys replete with waterfalls, meandering rivers and sparkling mountain streams and invariably witness the rich and varied flora and fauna of the country which one could only find in fairy tales! What appears to be literally above swirling clouds, one can get glimpses or even merge with hardy farmers either tending to their crops or their animals like what their forefathers did since time immemorial.
Tsechus and Archery – The National Game of Bhutan
Bhutan literally appears to be a land of a happy people with Tsechus (religious festivals) and mask dance festivals and archery (their national game) wherever one could be (but of course that would greatly depend on the right time and place factor) in any part of the country. The mask dance festivals are performed by monks and lay people dressed in colourful costumes and the dancers taking on the forms of wrathful or compassionate deities, of heroes, demons or animals.
During such events, one will invariably come across “ATSARAS” (clowns) who tend to mimic the dancers even as they perform comic routines and perhaps even harass audience for money in exchange for a blessing with the wooden phallus they proudly carry in their hands!
Bhutan’s national sport of archery is both exhilarating and entertaining to watch with numerous tournaments held throughout the year. There are two classes of tournaments, one on traditional bamboo equipment or the other with high tech compound bows that could propel arrows at astonishing speeds.
Towering Dzongs (fortresses) and Buddhist Paintings
Every Dzongkhag (District) can boast of a Dzong (fortress) which for centuries have been the vanguard of the powerful feudal lords and the central monastic body which now also house the district administrative service. During times of war and civil strife, these imposing and formidable fortresses strategically positioned usually on steep spurs served useful purposes.
Since these dzongs were once occupied by feudal lords and the monastic body, the best of Bhutanese architecture, art and paintings besides spiritual pursuits of the monastic culture flourished. Therefore, the dzongs are the best places to come across Bhutanese architecture as well as witnessing Buddhist murals and frescoes.
If you wish to see Traditional hand-woven and embroidered textiles, then you have come to the right place as such exquisite textiles found nowhere else in the world is recognized as Bhutan’s premier handicraft. Centuries of tradition have honed the techniques of textile dyeing, weaving and stitching. If one wishes to get a unique and vibrant fabric to make an interesting or colourful souvenir to take back home, then ensure that you don’t pass up such a golden opportunity.
The Most Spectacular Flying Experience in the World!
Bhutan is well known for having one of the most spectacular airports in the world in the scenic valley of Paro. During travel in any of the Bhutanese airliners, one can view the greater Himalayas with pristine snows including the elusive Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga guaranteed to fill up your very senses with awe and respect thus reinforcing your belief that only the almighty god would be able to create such great wonders of nature.
One of the Largest Buddha Statues in the World
The giant bronze Buddha statue, measuring at 54 meters (177 ft) sited amidst the ruins of Kuensel Phodrang up on a hill overlooking the Northern part of Thimphu city, is considered as one of the largest and tallest in the whole wide world.