Bhutan

Introduction:

Bhutan, officially the Kingdom of Bhutan, is a landlocked country in South Asia. Located in the Eastern Himalayas, it is bordered by the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China in the north, the Sikkim state of India and the Chumbi Valley of Tibet in the west, the Arunachal Pradesh state of India in the east, and the states of Assam and West Bengal in the south. Bhutan is geopolitically in South Asia and is the region’s second least populous nation after the Maldives. Thimphu is its capital and largest city, while Phuntsholing is its financial center.

Bhutan on the Globe

The independence of Bhutan has endured for centuries and it has never been colonized in its history. Situated on the ancient Silk Road between Tibet, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, the Bhutanese state developed a distinct national identity based on Buddhism. Headed by a spiritual leader known as the Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the territory was composed of many fiefdoms and governed as a Buddhist theocracy. Following a civil war in the 19th century, the House of Wangchuck reunited the country and established relations with the British Empire. Bhutan fostered a strategic partnership with India during the rise of Chinese communism and has a disputed border with China. In 2008, Bhutan transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and held the first election to the National Assembly of Bhutan. The National Assembly of Bhutan is part of the bicameral parliament of the Bhutanese democracy.

The country’s landscape ranges from lush subtropical plains in the south to the sub-alpine Himalayan mountains in the north, where there are peaks in excess of 23,000 feet. Gangkhar Puensum is the highest peak in Bhutan, and it may also be the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. The wildlife of Bhutan is notable for its diversity.

In South Asia, Bhutan ranks first in economic freedom, ease of doing business, and peace; and is the least corrupt country as of 2016. However, Bhutan continues to be a least developed country. Hydroelectricity accounts for the major share of its exports. The government is a parliamentary democracy; the head of state is the King of Bhutan, known as the “Dragon King.” Bhutan maintains diplomatic relations with 52 countries and the European Union, but does not have formal ties with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. It is a member of the United Nations, SAARC, BIMSTEC and the Non-Aligned Movement. The Royal Bhutan Army maintains a close relationship with the Indian Armed Forces.

Map of Bhutan

Bhutan is also notable for pioneering the concept of gross national happiness.

Etymology:

The precise etymology of “Bhutan” is unknown, although it is likely to derive from the Tibetan endonym “Bod” used for Tibet. Traditionally, it is taken to be a transcription of the Sanskrit Bhoṭa-anta “end of Tibet”, a reference to Bhutan’s position as the southern extremity of the Tibetan plateau and culture.

Since the 17th century the official name of Bhutan has been Druk yul (country of the Drukpa Lineage, the Dragon People, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon, a reference to the country’s dominant Buddhist sect) and Bhutan only appears in English-language official correspondence.

Trashigang Dzong 1659

Names similar to Bhutan — including Bohtan, Buhtan, Bottanthis, Bottan and Bottanter — began to appear in Europe around the 1580s. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s 1676 Six Voyages is the first to record the name Boutan. However, in every case, these seem to have been describing not modern Bhutan but the Kingdom of Tibet. The modern distinction between the two did not begin until well into the Scottish explorer George Bogle’s 1774 expedition — realizing the differences between the two regions, cultures and states, his final report to the East India Company formally proposed labelling the Druk Desi‘s kingdom as “Boutan” and the Panchen Lama‘s as “Tibet”. The EIC’s surveyor general James Rennell first anglicized the French name as Bootan and then popularized the distinction between it and greater Tibet.

Locally, Bhutan has been known by many names. One of the earliest Western records of Bhutan, the 1627 Relação of the Portuguese Jesuits Estêvão Cacella and João Cabral, records its name variously as Cambirasi (among the Koch Biharis), Potente, and Mon (an endonym for southern Tibet). The first time a separate Kingdom of Bhutan appeared on a western map, it did so under its local name as “Broukpa”. Others including Lho Mon (“Dark Southland”), Lho Tsendenjong (“Southland of the Cypress”), Lhomen Khazhi (“Southland of the Four Approaches”) and Lho Menjong (“Southland of the Herbs”).

History:

Early History:

Stone tools, weapons, elephants, and remnants of large stone structures provide evidence that Bhutan was inhabited as early as 2000 BC, although there are no existing records from that time. Historians have theorized that the state of Lhomon (literally, “southern darkness”), or Monyul (“Dark Land”, a reference to the Monpa, the aboriginal peoples of Bhutan) may have existed between 500 BC and AD 600. The names Lhomon Tsendenjong (Sandalwood Country), and Lhomon Khashi, or Southern Mon (country of four approaches), have been found in ancient Bhutanese and Tibetan chronicles.

Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan in the 7th century AD. Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo (reigned 627–649), a convert to Buddhism, who actually had extended the Tibetan Empire into Sikkim and Bhutan, ordered the construction of two Buddhist temples, at Bumthang in central Bhutan and at Kyichu (near Paro) in the Paro Valley. Buddhism was propagated in earnest in 746 under King Sindhu Rāja (also Künjom; Sendha Gyab; Chakhar Gyalpo), an exiled Indian king who had established a government in Bumthang at Chakhar Gutho Palace.

Dzong Paro Valley 1646

Much of early Bhutanese history is unclear because most of the records were destroyed when fire ravaged the ancient capital, Punakha, in 1827. By the 10th century, Bhutan’s political development was heavily influenced by its religious history. Various subsects of Buddhism emerged that were patronized by the various Mongol warlords. After the decline of the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century, these subsects vied with each other for supremacy in the political and religious landscape, eventually leading to the ascendancy of the Drukpa Lineage by the 16th century.

Until the early 17th century, Bhutan existed as a patchwork of minor warring fiefdoms, when the area was unified by the Tibetan lama and military leader Ngawang Namgyal, who had fled religious persecution in Tibet. To defend the country against intermittent Tibetan forays, Namgyal built a network of impregnable dzongs or fortresses, and promulgated the Tsa Yig, a code of law that helped to bring local lords under centralized control. Many such dzong still exist and are active centers of religion and district administration.

European Contact:

Portuguese Jesuits Estêvão Cacella and João Cabral were the first recorded Europeans to visit Bhutan in 1627, on their way to Tibet. They met Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, presented him with firearms, gunpowder and a telescope, and offered him their services in the war against Tibet, but the Zhabdrung declined the offer. After a stay of nearly eight months Cacella wrote a long letter from the Chagri Monastery reporting on his travels. This is a rare extant report of the Zhabdrung.

When Ngawang Namgyal died in 1651, his passing was kept secret for 54 years[1651-1705]. After a period of consolidation, Bhutan lapsed into internal conflict. In the year 1711 Bhutan went to war against the Mughal Empire and its Subedars, who restored the kingdom of Koch Bihar in the south. During the chaos that followed, the Tibetans unsuccessfully attacked Bhutan in 1714.

1786 Map of Bhutan

In the 18th century, the Bhutanese invaded and occupied the kingdom of Koch Bihar. In 1772, the Maharaja of Koch Bihar appealed to the British East India Company which assisted by ousting the Bhutanese and later in attacking Bhutan itself in 1774. A peace treaty was signed in which Bhutan agreed to retreat to its pre-1730 borders. However, the peace was tenuous, and border skirmishes with the British were to continue for the next hundred years. The skirmishes eventually led to the Duar War (1864–65), a confrontation for control of the Bengal Duars. After Bhutan lost the war, the Treaty of Sinchula was signed between British India and Bhutan. As part of the war reparations, the Duars were ceded to the United Kingdom in exchange for a rent of Rs. 50,000. The treaty ended all hostilities between British India and Bhutan.

During the 1870s, power struggles between the rival valleys of Paro and Tongsa led to civil war in Bhutan, eventually leading to the ascendancy of Ugyen Wangchuck, the poenlop (governor) of Tongsa. From his power base in central Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck defeated his political enemies and united the country following several civil wars and rebellions during 1882–85.

20th Century:

In 1907, an epochal year for the country, Ugyen Wangchuck was unanimously chosen as the hereditary king of the country by the Lhengye Tshog of leading Buddhist monks, government officials, and heads of important families, with the firm petition made by Gongzim Ugyen Dorji. John Claude White, British Political Agent in Bhutan, took photographs of the ceremony. The British government promptly recognized the new monarchy, and in 1910 Bhutan signed the Treaty of Punakha, a subsidiary alliance which gave the British control of Bhutan’s foreign affairs and meant that Bhutan was treated as an Indian princely state. This had little real effect, given Bhutan’s historical reticence, and also did not appear to affect Bhutan’s traditional relations with Tibet. After the new Union of India gained independence from the United Kingdom on 15 August 1947, Bhutan became one of the first countries to recognize India’s independence. On 8 August 1949, a treaty similar to that of 1910, in which Britain had gained power over Bhutan’s foreign relations, was signed with the newly independent India.

Rice Planting

In 1953, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established the country’s legislature – a 130-member National Assembly – to promote a more democratic form of governance. In 1965, he set up a Royal Advisory Council, and in 1968 he formed a Cabinet. In 1971, Bhutan was admitted to the United Nations, having held observer status for three years. In July 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended to the throne at the age of sixteen after the death of his father, Dorji Wangchuck.

Bhutan’s political system has recently changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck transferred most of his administrative powers to the Council of Cabinet Ministers and allowed for impeachment of the King by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly.

In 1999, the government lifted a ban on television and the Internet, making Bhutan one of the last countries to introduce television. In his speech, the King said that television was a critical step to the modernization of Bhutan as well as a major contributor to the country’s gross national happiness, but warned that the “misuse” of this new technology could erode traditional Bhutanese values.

A new constitution was presented in early 2005. In December 2005, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced that he would abdicate the throne in his son’s favour in 2008. On 14 December 2006, he announced that he would be abdicating immediately. This was followed by the first national parliamentary elections in December 2007 and March 2008.

On 6 November 2008, 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, eldest son of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was crowned King.

Geography:

Bhutan is located on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, landlocked between the Tibet Autonomous Region to the north and the Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh to the west and south. The land consists mostly of steep and high mountains crisscrossed by a network of swift rivers, which form deep valleys before draining into the Indian plains. Elevation rises from 660 feet in the southern foothills to more than 23,000 feet.

Topographic Map of Bhutan

The northern region of Bhutan consists of an arc of Eastern Himalayan alpine shrub and meadows reaching up to glaciated mountain peaks with an extremely cold climate at the highest elevations. Most peaks in the north are over 23,000 feet above sea level; the highest point in Bhutan is Gangkhar Puensum at 24,840 feet, which has the distinction of being the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. The lowest point, at 322 feet, is in the valley of Drangme Chhu, where the river crosses the border with India. Watered by snow-fed rivers, alpine valleys in this region provide pasture for livestock, tended by a sparse population of migratory shepherds.

The Black Mountains in the central region of Bhutan form a watershed between two major river systems: the Mo Chhu and the Drangme Chhu. Peaks in the Black Mountains range between 4,921 and 16,158 feet above sea level, and fast-flowing rivers have carved out deep gorges in the lower mountain areas. The forests of the central Bhutan mountains consist of Eastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests in higher elevations and Eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests in lower elevations. Woodlands of the central region provide most of Bhutan’s forest production. The Torsa, Raidak, Sankosh, and Manas are the main rivers of Bhutan, flowing through this region. Most of the population lives in the central highlands.

In the south, the Shiwalik Hills are covered with dense Himalayan subtropical broadleaf forests, alluvial lowland river valleys, and mountains up to around 4,900 feet above sea level. The foothills descend into the subtropical Duars Plain. Most of the Duars is located in India, although a 6.2 to 9.3 mile wide strip extends into Bhutan. The Bhutan Duars is divided into two parts: the northern and the southern Duars.

The northern Duars, which abut the Himalayan foothills, have rugged, sloping terrain and dry, porous soil with dense vegetation and abundant wildlife. The southern Duars has moderately fertile soil, heavy savannah grass, dense, mixed jungle, and freshwater springs. Mountain rivers, fed by either the melting snow or the monsoon rains, empty into the Brahmaputra River in India.

Economy:

Bhutan’s economy is based on agriculture, forestry, tourism and the sale of hydroelectric power to India. Agriculture provides the main livelihood for 55.4 percent of the population. Agrarian practices consist largely of subsistence farming and animal husbandry. Handicrafts, particularly weaving and the manufacture of religious art for home altars, are a small cottage industry. A landscape that varies from hilly to ruggedly mountainous has made the building of roads and other infrastructure difficult and expensive.

This, and a lack of access to the sea, has meant that Bhutan has not been able to benefit from significant trading of its produce. Bhutan has no railways, though Indian Railways plans to link southern Bhutan to its vast network under an agreement signed in January 2005. Bhutan and India signed a ‘free trade’ accord in 2008, which additionally allowed Bhutanese imports and exports from third markets to transit India without tariffs. Bhutan had trade relations with the Tibet region until 1960, when it closed its border with China after an influx of refugees.

Bhutan Export Map

The industrial sector is in a nascent stage, and though most production comes from cottage industry, larger industries are being encouraged and some industries such as cement, steel, and ferroalloy have been set up. Most development projects, such as road construction, rely on Indian contract labour. Agricultural produce includes rice, chilies, dairy (some yak, mostly cow) products, buckwheat, barley, root crops, apples, and citrus and maize at lower elevations. Industries include cement, wood products, processed fruits, alcoholic beverages and calcium carbide.

Bhutan has seen recent growth in the technology sector, in areas such as green tech and consumer Internet/e-commerce. In May 2012, Thimphu TechPark launched in the capital and incubates start-ups via the Bhutan Innovation and Technology Centre (BITC).

Bhutan’s exports, principally electricity, cardamom, gypsum, timber, handicrafts, cement, fruit, precious stones and spices, total €128 million (2000 est.). Imports, however, amount to €164 million, leading to a trade deficit. Main items imported include fuel and lubricants, grain, machinery, vehicles, fabrics and rice. Bhutan’s main export partner is India, accounting for 58.6 percent of its export goods. Hong Kong (30.1 percent) and Bangladesh (7.3 percent) are the other two top export partners. As its border with Tibet is closed, trade between Bhutan and China is now almost non-existent. Bhutan’s import partners include India (74.5 percent), Japan (7.4 percent) and Sweden (3.2 percent).

Transportation:

Air:

Paro Airport is the only international airport in Bhutan. Yonphula Domestic Airport in Trashigang is a small domestic airport that underwent upgrades through 2010. National carrier Druk Air also operates flights between Paro Airport and airports in Jakar (Bumthang Dzongkhag) and Gelephu (Sarpang Dzongkhag) on a weekly basis.  Druk Air connects internationally to: Delhi, Kathmandu, Dhaka, Singapore, and Bangkok.  Additional destinations in India include: Siliguri, Gaya, and Guwahati.

Paro Airport

Road:

The Lateral Road is Bhutan’s primary east–west corridor, connecting Phuentsholing in the southwest to Trashigang in the east. In between, the Lateral Road runs directly through Wangdue Phodrang, Trongsa and other population centres. The Lateral Road also has spurs connecting to the capital Thimphu and other major population centres such as Paro and Punakha. As with other roads in Bhutan, the Lateral Road presents serious safety concerns due to pavement conditions, sheer drops, hairpin turns, weather and landslides.

Since 2014, road widening has been a priority across Bhutan, in particular for the North-East-West highway from Trashigang to Dochula. The widening project is expected to be completed by the end of 2017 and will make road travel across the country substantially faster and more efficient. In addition, it is projected that the improved road conditions will encourage more tourism in the more inaccessible eastern region of Bhutan. Currently, the road conditions appear to be deterring tourists from visiting Bhutan due to the increased instances of road blocks, landslides and dust disruption caused by the widening project.

Rail:

Bhutan has no railways, though it has entered into an agreement with India to link southern Bhutan to India’s vast network by constructing an 11 mile-long broad gauge rail link between Hashimara in West Bengal and Toribari in Bhutan. The construction of the railway via Satali, Bharna Bari and Dalsingpara by Indian railways will be funded by India. Bhutan’s nearest railway station is Hasimara.

Flag of Bhutan:

The national flag of Bhutan is one of the national symbols of Bhutan. The flag is based upon the tradition of the Drukpa Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and features Druk, the Thunder Dragon of Bhutanese mythology. The basic design of the flag by Mayum Choying Wangmo Dorji dates to 1947. A version was displayed in 1949 at the signing of the Indo-Bhutan Treaty. A second version was introduced in 1956 for the visit of Druk Gyalpo Jigme Dorji Wangchuk to eastern Bhutan; it was based upon photos of its 1949 predecessor and featured a white Druk in place of the green original.

Flag of Bhutan

The Bhutanese subsequently redesigned their flag to match the measurements of the flag of India, which they believed fluttered better than their own. Other modifications such as changing the red background color to orange led to the current design, in use since 1969.

Origins:

Historically Bhutan is known by numerous names, but the Bhutanese call the country Druk after the name of the Bhutanese thunder dragon. This tradition dates to 1189 when Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje, founder of the Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, was in Phoankar (Tibet) where he reportedly witnessed the Namgyiphu valley glowing with rainbow and light. Considering this an auspicious sign, he entered the valley to choose a site for the construction of a monastery, whereupon he heard three peals of thunder – a sound produced by the druk (dragon) according to popular Bhutanese belief. The monastery that Tsangpa Gyare built that year was named Druk Sewa Jangchubling, and his school of teaching became known as Druk. The Druk school later split into three lineages. One of these three, Drukpa, was founded by Tsangpa Gyare’s nephew and spiritual heir Önrey Dharma Sengye and afterward spread throughout Bhutan. The nation itself would also later become known as Druk. This legend offers one explanation for how the symbolism of the dragon came to form the basis of the national flag of Bhutan. An alternative hypothesis maintains that the notion of symbolizing sovereign and state in the form of a dragon emerged in neighboring China and was adopted by the rulers of Bhutan as a symbol of royalty in the early 20th century.

Current Flag:

The current flag is divided diagonally from the lower hoist-side corner, with the upper triangle yellow and the lower triangle orange. Centered along the dividing line is a large black and white dragon facing away from the hoist side. The dragon is holding a norbu, or jewel, in each of its claws.

Symbolism:

According to The Legal Provisions of the National Flag of the Kingdom of Palden Drukpa as Endorsed in Resolution 28 of the 36th Session of the National Assembly held on June 8, 1972, and as restated in the Constitution of 2008, the yellow signifies civil tradition and temporal authority as embodied in the Druk Gyalpo, the Dragon King of Bhutan, whose royal garb traditionally includes a yellow kabney (scarf). The orange half signifies Buddhist spiritual tradition, particularly the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma schools. Druk, the Thunder Dragon, spreads equally over the line between the colors. The placement of Druk in the center of the flag over the dividing line between the flag’s two colors signifies the equal importance of both civic and monastic traditions in the Kingdom of Druk (Bhutan) and evokes the strength of the sacred bond between sovereign and people. The white color of Druk signifies the purity of inner thoughts and deeds that unite all the ethnically and linguistically diverse peoples of Bhutan. The jewels held in Druk’s claws represent Bhutan’s wealth and the security and protection of its people, while the dragon’s snarling mouth symbolizes Bhutanese deities’ commitment to the defense of Bhutan.

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