"A nation, a people"
Bhutan or Kingdom of Bhutan is a country in South Asia located in the eastern Himalayas and sharing its borders with India and China. It has no opening on the sea.
Bhutan has lived for a long time, but he has been trying to open himself to the outside world for a few years. This isolation explains a particularly well preserved environment.
Bhutan at a glance
Administrative divisions: 20 dzongkhags (districts)
Population: more than 700,000 inhabitants
Main languages: tshangla, dzongkha, nepalese
Main religion: Tibetan Buddhism, State religion
Current monarch: Jigme Khesar Namgyel
Currency: Ngultrum (1 ngultrum = 100 chetrum)
Conversion into euro: 100 ngultrum = 1.39 euros
Tourism: Little restriction. We must remain vigilant especially in the regions near the borders of India and protect against insect bites. It is essential to go through a travel agency to have a tourist visa.
A landlocked country
Because of its geographical location without access to the sea, Bhutan is an essentially mountainous country. However, three distinct geographical areas can be distinguished:
• The narrow Duars Plain of approximately 15 kilometers occupies the south of the country. This territory is characterized by a beautiful tropical forest and a savannah area but also by rice fields.
• The plain extends to the north through the Middle Himalayas, an area of mountains and valleys covered with forests. Bhutan is the most fertile part of the country.
• The northern part of the country is occupied by the Great Himalayas, with peaks covered in eternal snow overlooking the pastures. The highest peak of the country is the Kula Kangri culminating at 7,554 meters above sea level. However, this summit on the border is claimed by China, which claims it is on Tibetan territory.
Southern Bhutan enjoys a subtropical humid climate, temperatures can exceed 40 ° in summer and hardly ever fall below 15 ° in winter.
The valleys of the Middle Himalayas experience a temperate climate, the temperatures gradually falling to become very cold in the north.
70% of Bhutan's land is covered with forests and their preservation has enabled them to become one of the richest ecosystems in the world. There are more than 5,000 plant species, more than 750 species of birds and 165 species of different mammals.
Some endangered animals such as red panda, snow leopard, and primordial langur are protected in the country's parks and nature reserves.
The renewable energy production, the low meat consumption, a negative carbon footprint, essentially organic agriculture and a policy based on ecological resilience are one of the four axes for defining the NBB. Gross National Happiness is a Bhutanese system used to determine the spiritual standard of living in the country in opposition to Gross National Product (GNP).
A history that remains in the shadows
The origin of Bhutan's settlement is still uncertain and if some archaeological findings seem to indicate a human presence around 2000 BC, most historians support the thesis of a stand during the first millennium BC, Monta people followers of a Tibetan religion, bön.
Moreover, a serious fire devastated the old winter capital of the country in 1827, destroying all the archives that could enlighten us on the history of the country.
It seems that this history would really begin when the Buddhist master Padmasambhava founded a monastery in Tibet in the 7th century AD. One who is nicknamed Guru Rinpoche (precious master) is considered a second Buddha by the inhabitants of Tibet but also from Nepal, the Himalayan states of India and Bhutan.
According to legend, the master arrived in Bhutan from Tibet in the company of a dakini, a divinity which he subdued and transformed into a flying tigress to protect Dharma (the set of Tantric Buddhist precepts). It is on the back of the dakini, that the master arrives at the top of a cliff overlooking the valley of Paro. He built the monastery of Taktsang, also called "tiger's nest" in reference to the legend.
This monastery has seven temples and can be reached on foot or by donkey on a steep path. A little higher up in the mountain, the "Tiger of the Tiger" hosts hermits who come to isolate themselves entirely for a period of three years. They do not see or talk to anyone.
It is from this sacred place that Buddhism spreads throughout the country. Since then, the religion has always been part of the everyday life of the population, which scrupulously respects all its teaching and its rules.
The country was in the 11th century divided into several feudal principalities dominated by Mongolian warlords who supported one or the other form of Buddhism.
Birth of Bhutan
In the 17th century, a Lama and Tibetan warlord, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal will unify the country. He is considered the founder of Bhutan.
To succeed in his project, he established laws to be respected by all chiefs of fiefs. The fortresses called dzong are founded throughout the country. The dzong are both administrative and spiritual centers.
It was also during this period that the first Europeans crossed the country. They offer their help to the Shabdrung to fight the Tibetans but this assistance is refused.
The death of the Shabdrung in 1651 will be killed for more than half a century, enabling the country to experience a long period of peace.
The conflicts with the British
At the beginning of the 18th century, Bhutan faced both internal conflicts and a war against the Mughal Empire that occupied the state of Cooch Behar (now West Bengal). The Bhutanese will briefly occupy this territory before being driven out in 1772 by the English East India Company. For nearly a century, the British and Bhutanese clashed in border areas to control the regions of the Bengali Duars. This long conflict ended with the defeat of Bhutan, which had to surrender several territories to the English.
Once again, Bhutan is shaken by a civil war between the inhabitants of the Paro valley to the west and those of the Trongsa valley in the center. The latter will emerge victorious from the conflict, with the help of the British army, in 1885.
The Kingdom of Bhutan
On December 17th, 1907, Bhutan became a hereditary monarchy. The Wangchuck dynasty has been at the head of the country since then. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the 5th king of Bhutan.
The country was, however, placed under the British protectorate from 1910 to 1949. It then passed under India's authority when the country became independent.
If the country benefits from peace to develop, the law is tightened in order to preserve the character and traditions of the country, notably by imposing the Tibetan language or the obligation to wear the national costume by the whole population. The government wants to eliminate all traces of non-drupka culture or religion (Kagyupa or Tibetan Buddhism), which is what caused the exodus of Nepalese.
The country only has access to television and the Internet since 1999. The King wishes to demonstrate his desire to modernize the country, but he cautions Bhutanese against the dangers of television that could go against the country's values.
Since 2005, Bhutan has started a turning point to become a bicameral constitutional and parliamentary monarchy (National Assembly and National Council) and the first parliamentary elections were held in 2008. Paradoxically and almost unique in history, this policy change was not claimed by the people who believed that the old regime was good.
An economy based on the primary sector
The economy of Bhutan relies heavily on the agriculture, the yak farming and the logging. Even though this sector is not very developed, Bhutan does not experience the famine. In addition, the sale of electricity produced by a hydraulic system to India and the tourism also provide domestic revenue. Bhutan is historically and economically linked to India, which provides financial assistance.
The life is often very harsh for the farmers and ranchers who do not benefit from any technology and have to travel regularly to find new, fertile lands. Despite the government's determination to show that the country is happiness, the reality is often different for the population.
A traditional society
The official total population of Bhutan is approximately 750,000 people. However, this figure does not take into account the Nepalese residing in the country because the government has refused to grant them citizenship since 1988. By regrouping Nepalese living in Bhutan and Bhutanese, the population could exceed two million, but again these figures are uncertain and differ greatly from one source to another.
The Nepalese called "Lhotshampas" arrived in Bhutan in the 19th century and represent between 30 and 40% of the current population. Their refusal to speak the dzongkha and to change their religion is at the root of the government's decision to adopt a policy of discrimination. Bhutan's Nepalese are no longer considered citizens and therefore no longer have the right to vote. Moreover, certain professions are prohibited to them because they cannot enter the public service. The Nepali language is also prohibited in schools.
It is estimated that just over 100,000 Lhotshampas currently live in refugee camps in Nepal to accommodate them.
The other two ethnic groups in Bhutan are Bothias and Sharkopas. The latter probably arrived in the country before the Bothias and settled in the east of the country. They are enthusiastic followers of Tibetan Buddhism. At present, the Bothias are in the majority in Bhutan. They imposed their language, the dzongkha and their religion related to the Drukpa Kagyapa Buddhist sect but very close to that of the Sharkopas.
These two ethnic groups are semi-nomadic, the Sharkopas are farmers and the Bothias are yak breeders. They migrate to other lands when they are no longer fertile and when pasture is no longer sufficient to feed the herds.
The first towns were founded only after 1960, and a road network was also set up along the route of the caravans to facilitate trade with India. The capital Timphou is the most important city and welcomes about 80,000 people. Its architecture is characterized by the traditional Buddhist style, the only allowed for construction.
The dzongha is the official language of Bhutan. It is a language of Tibetan origin very similar to that spoken by the monks since their arrival in the country in the 17th century.
Dzongha and English are the only two languages studied at school.
Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism is the state religion of Bhutan and covers 75% of the population. A quarter of the inhabitants are therefore followers of Indian Hinduism (or Nepalese) even if this religion is prohibited.
Still with the idea of imposing a unique culture, the government requires wearing traditional costume at every public event. The women wear the kira, a colored fabric wrapped around the body and held by pins and a belt and the men are dressed in gho, a long tunic descending to the knees and held back by a belt. These costumes are directly inspired by the Shabdrung garments which unified the country in the 17th century.
The dance and the music mix Tibetan and Indian influences. A Bhutanese dance accompanied by drums has been inscribed on UNESCO's list of World Intangible Heritage.
Bhutanese cuisine is varied. The dishes are made with meat and poultry and vegetables accompanied by rice and raised with small ubiquitous red chilies.
The traditional drinks are the rancid butter tea, a local beer called Chang and the rice alcohols or cereals.
The tourists traveling through India must first learn about the situation because of instability and tensions in these regions. Note that the border between Bhutan and China is closed and the border regions are to be avoided.
It is impossible to travel to Bhutan without going through a travel agency because only the tour operators can get the tourist visas for their clients.
The tourism is very limited in Bhutan but the local population is very welcoming. The visit of the country allows to discover the secular traditions and admire the landscapes spared by the pollution and the industrialization.
The government wishing to preserve the environment and the culture of the country limits the influx of travelers and the infrastructures are often rudimentary and yet expensive. The overnight rates are set by the government and may exceed 200 euros per person.
Do not miss the visit of the monasteries (dzongs), the hiking, the trekking in the Himalayas, the dance performances and the religious ceremonies.