Secluded from the rest of the world for centuries and without a tinge of foreign influence, Bhutan developed its own civilization. For eons, people lived in close harmony with nature, their lives bed rocked on strong religious and cultural beliefs. This led to the evolution of a country with a very unique identity, which is manifested in the lives of the 680,000 people that the country today has. Branded as the “Last Shangrila” and labelled as an epitome of untarnished beauty and splendor, visitors from around the globe flock into the Kingdom to see and experience what many parts of the world have lost.
Defined by some as a perfect blend of the medieval and the modern, Bhutan’s culture, which has stood the test of time; its pristine ecology and wildlife which did not fall preys to development, and the unparalleled scenic beauty of its majestic peaks and lush valleys, makes it a traveler’s dream.
A Kingdom never colonized
That Bhutan was never colonized add to the uniqueness of the small Kingdom. This is a matter of great pride to all Bhutanese. Historical accounts, comprising a mixture of the oral tradition and classical literature, is a narrative of a largely self-sufficient population which had limited contact with the outside world until the turn of the century.
In the eight century, the Indian saint, Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava), came to Bhutan and established several sacred religious sites which are important places of pilgrimage for the Buddhist world today.Following this, many other saints and religious figures helped shape Bhutan’s history and develop its religion.
Beginning of a new era – The Zhabdrung
Perhaps the most significant period in Bhutanese history begins in the 17th century with the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the great leader of the Drukpa school of Mahayana Buddhism, in 1616. Apart from unifying the country and establishing the foundations for national governance, the seeds of a unique Bhutanese identity was sown under his reign.
Another important legacy of the Zhabdrung was the dual system of government – the temporal and theocratic – with Je Khenpo (chief abbot) as the religious head and the temporal leader known as the Desi. This was followed till the turn of the 19th century, until the birth of the Wangchuck dynasty and establishment of hereditary Monarchy.
Another important chapter in Bhutanese history was penned in 1907. In a historic Assembly of the clergy, the official administration, and the people, Gongsar Ugen Wangchuck was unanimously elected as the first hereditary King of Bhutan. This brought an end to the internal civil turmoils and marked the beginning of a new era in Bhutan.
Soaked in Spiritualism
Spiritualism envelopes all aspects of Bhutanese lives and is profoundly visible in the every day life of the lay population and the hundreds of religious structures that dot all parts of the country. Sacred monasteries, stupas, religious institution, prayer flags and prayer wheels are embodiment of the people’s living faith.
Performance of religious ceremonies and rituals are an integral part of Bhutanese lives, both in urban and rural Bhutan. Buddhist scriptures are the basis from which the horoscopes of Bhutanese life is drawn. Festivities, at the national and regional level, which coincides with the seasons, are events celebrated with jubilation the year round. It is thus justifiable that Bhutan is regarded as the last bastion of Mahayana Buddhism.
Religious teachings form the crux of Bhutanese language and literature, the arts and crafts, ceremonies and events, and basic social and cultural values. Despite development making rapid inroads, the tradition of fine art is very much alive today. The manifestations are manifold and expressed through exquisite traditional paintings on monasteries and houses, which adds not just color but beauty to the unique architecture.
Architecture is another feature that distinguishes Bhutanese identity. Engineering skill blended with aesthetic beauty elevates Bhutanese architecture to a class of its own. From the massive monastic fortresses to houses and bridges, the range and diversity of traditional architecture, complemented by traditional shapes, colors and patterns on the walls, doors, windows, etc make Bhutanese architecture an icon in its own right.
Just as interest in Bhutan has snowballed over time, so has people’s interest in Bhutan’s textile tradition. In recent years it has gained international recognition, with textile specialists, collectors, and users increasingly appreciating the distinct technique, color and style of indigenous Bhutanese weaving.
Bhutan’s cultural wealth is also embodied in the music, dance, and handicrafts, which play an important role at the national, village, or domestic functions and festivals. These are performed both by the clergy and the lay population.
While Dzongkha is Bhutan’s national language, people also speak more than 18 dialects across the country. English, which is taught in schools is used as the official working language. However, the development and use of Dzongkha has been emphasized in recent times.
Bhutan has been aptly described as a natural paradise. It has emerged as a champion of sustainable development, a country that believes in preserving for the future. The country’s Constitution mandates that 65 percent of the land should be under forest cover for all times to come. The forests are home to some of the most endangered flora and fauna.
Located between China and India, Bhutan’s terrain ranges from the sub-tropical foothills in the south, through the temperate zones, to heights of over 7,300 meters (24,000 feet). Historical records say that Bhutan was known as Lhojong Menjong – ‘the Southern Valley of Medicinal Herbs.’ Besides these, wild flowers and plants add to the splendor of the Bhutanese seasons.
More than 70 percent of the people live on subsistence farming, scattered in sparsely populated villages across the rugged terrain of the Himalayas. With rice as the staple diet in the lower regions, and wheat, buckwheat, and maize in other valleys, the people farm narrow terraces cut into the steep hill slopes.
Bhutanese communities settled in the valleys with limited communication in the past. It is for this reason that the sense of individuality and independence emerges as a strong characteristic of the people.
It is for the same reason that, despite the small population, it has developed a number of languages and dialects. The Bhutanese are, by nature, physically strong and fiercely independent with open and ready sense of humor. Hospitality is an in-built social value in Bhutan.
Trials and change – at the crossroads
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 deliver services to the people. Bhutanese have availed the luxury of a modern telecommunication system, thereby increasingly in contact with the international community. Urbanization is on the rise and the then nascent private sector is growing. All these are agents of change that the Himalayan kingdom is exposed to.
But, the determination to balance development and change is intrinsic to the Bhutanese psychic. Learning from mistakes made by other nations, Bhutan embarks on the developmental plan with caution. The soul of modernization in Bhutan has been a blend of tradition and progress. This is embodied and visible in the many policies framed by the government, such as the controlled tourism policy and environmental protection.
Realizing that development is a double edged sword, Bhutan has long decided that its unique national identity cannot be sacrificed at the altar of economic progress. However, this cautious approach to development is not without challenges. Western influence in all spheres are seeping into the country, posing a threat to what Bhutan has maintained in the last couple of centuries.