Bhutan is wedged between India and China along the slopes of the eastern Himalayas, where you can see some of the most beautiful and breathtaking landscapes in the world.
Unpolluted, clean and environmentally rich, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan is one of those scarcely visited country, hidden within the folds of the mighty Himalayas where people practice peace and a philosophy of happiness.
It is full of myths and legends of ancient Buddhist masters and stories of their miraculous powers. Dzongs, or grand fortresses built in the seventeenth century, can be seen throughout the country.
Thimphu is the capital city and houses the throne room and the royal palaces. Most of the government head offices are also located here including international organizations, diplomatic offices and the parliament halls.
Bhutan is globally recognized for its strong conservation efforts and the country is carbon negative. Its rich natural environment is home to around one percent of the world’s total bio-diversity.
The Bhutanese people are usually warm, hospitable and friendly. Most of them speak several languages including their mother tongue, the national language dzongkha and a few other local languages.
English is the medium of instruction in all the schools and therefore, majority of the people can speak and understand English. Many are also well versed in Hindi due to the popularity of Bollywood films.
Bhutan remained as an absolute monarchy until 2008 when it transitioned into a constitutional monarchy, with the King as the head of state and the prime minister running the government.
The concept of Gross National Happiness or ‘development with values,’ guides all plans, policies, programs, investments and activities of the government to make sure they are all aimed at increasing happiness.
This development philosophy seeks to balance material pursuit with spiritual values while also respecting the natural environment.
Winters are usually cold and summers are rainy in Bhutan. Therefore spring and autumn makes the best time to travel to this mystical Kingdom. It is warm and pleasant with nature in its full bloom.
Autumn is also the time of the Thimphu tshechhu, the largest festival of mask dances in the country that draws thousands of tourists from all over the world.
Travel to this Kingdom in the Himalayas through us and we will show you the true treasures of this country. You will enjoy the lush green forest, amazing natural landscape, a rich colorful history, friendly people, a vibrant culture and its unique architecture.
“…If the government cannot create happiness and peace for its people, then there is no purpose for the government to exist,” – this is an old passage from the legal code of Bhutan that was drawn in 1729.
Almost 250 years later in 1972, the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” Subsequently, Bhutan adopted the GNH index as a measure of the nation’s progress.
Essentially, Gross National Happiness seeks to create the necessary environment where everyone is given the opportunity to pursue happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
Therefore, all government policies are screened and tested before implementing, to ensure that they are in line with the idea of GNH and does not bring about harm to the people, destruction of the environment and dilution of culture.
In other words, GNH is a sustainable and holistic approach towards development, balancing material pursuit with spiritual values. It seeks to achieve a balanced development.
The idea of prioritizing peoples’ happiness as well as physical and mental wellbeing rather than economic growth has inspired many around the world while also gaining the respect of scholars, leaders and economists.
The philosophy of gross national happiness rests on four pillars: good governance, environmental conservation, sustainable economic development, and cultural preservation.
Primary education and health care is completely free in Bhutan, 72 percent of the total land area is forested, cultural preservation is a priority and economic activities are aimed at improving living standard and quality of life.
When the world is facing some of the greatest challenges such as climate change, consumerism, inequality, natural resource depletion, political instability, conflicts and species extinction, the GNH philosophy of Bhutan addresses these issues.
Generally, Bhutanese people are happy and contented. According to the last GNH survey carried out in 2015, around 91.2 percent of Bhutanese people are happy. Men are happier than women.
Bhutan’s famous past time is the national game, archery, Men shoot arrows and women sing, cheer, jeer and dance for the players in traditional Bhutanese style. At the end of the match, everyone sits together to eat, drink, dance and make merry.
Witness one of the most interesting, and highly exciting festivals of mask dances in Bhutan. Watch men in beautiful robes and colorful masks performing sacred Buddhist dances that were composed in the eighth century and passed down since, unbroken.
Tshechus or the festivals of mask dances are held in the courtyard of dzongs and monasteries. It is an annual event where Bhutan’s religion, culture and tradition manifest in their finest form.
Lasting for three days, men and monks perform the mask dances while women sing and dance in traditional Bhutanese costumes. People from all walks of life gather at the festival wearing their finest dress to partake in the festivities.
Long before the great Indian tantric master, Guru Padmasambhava, visited Bhutan in the eighth century, bon practice was predominant. To convert people to Buddhism, the guru subdued harmful spirits, demons and deities of the bon religion.
To celebrate his victory, Guru Padmasambhava composed the sacred dances, which are today represented during the Tshechus.
Some of the highlights of the tshechhu include the Dance of the Judgment Day, The Dance of the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, the Black Hat Dance and the Dance of the Cremation Ground.
The dance of the Judgement day is one of the longest performances where an individual, in the realm of bardo (intermediate state between death and re-birth) is brought to justice in the court of the Lord of Death.
In Buddhist culture, a human being after death will eventually be re-born in another world or as other beings. The conditions of re-birth are dependent on your good and bad karma.
The dance of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche represents him in all of his various wrathful and peaceful manifestations that he transformed into while vanquishing evil.
It is believed that watching the sacred mask dances has the energy to cleanse you of your sins and earn good karma. The dance of the Judgement day reminds all of us to follow the righteous path and avoid sinning.
The tshechhu closes on the third day with the unfurling of a large Buddhist tapestry known as Thongdrel of Guru Padmasambhava. By witnessing the image and taking its blessings, one is believed to accumulate immense merit.
Buddhism is the predominant religion in Bhutan and most Bhutanese are devout Buddhists. Although Buddhism existed in sparse form before the eighth century, Guru Padmasambhava is credited to have introduced the religion in the country.
During the dark age of Bonism, a King lay ill in his deathbed in Bumthang, central Bhutan. A powerful local deity was believed to have stolen the King’s life force. In India, Guru Padmasambhava was revered as a highly practiced tantric master.
He was invited by the King to treat his illness with gifts of gold, silver and treasures. The Guru, through his miraculous powers subdued the evil spirit and performed a ceremonial dance.
Fully recovered and impressed of this miraculous feat, the King promised to convert himself and his subjects to Buddhism. This incident was heard across distant parts of the country and many Bhutanese shed their ancient bon practice to embrace Buddhism.
In the seventeenth century, the rise of a powerful Buddhist sect in Tibet forced many lamas of other sects to flee Tibet. One of them was Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who visited Bhutan, overcame other religious sects, unified the country and founded the nation state of Bhutan.
Today, the Drukpa Kagyud school of Buddhism is the dominant religious practice in Bhutan with the Je Khenpo as the spiritual leader, who also heads the central monastic body.
All traditional Bhutanese homes have a separate space for an altar. One section of the attic is dedicated as a shrine where clean water, flower and butter lamps are offered at the shrine every day.
Most Bhutanese visit temples and monasteries on weekends with their friends and family or during holidays to make offerings and conduct prayers.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel who founded the modern state of Bhutan is also attributed to have created an identity for Bhutan through its unique culture, dress code and are guided by Driglam Namzha or the official code for etiquette and social behavior. Bhutanese men wear the traditional Gho and women wear the Kira during office hours and official gatherings.
One of the finest examples of true Bhutanese architectures can be seen in the 17th century Bhutanese fortresses called dzongs that were built on strategic locations to defend against Tibetan invasions.
Bhutan’s architecture reached its highest point in the 17th century when Bhutan’s founder Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel built several of these dzongs across the country in various locations.
Today the country is divided into 20 districts, each governed from the dzong, which is the power center for both spiritual and secular administration, a dual system of governance established by the Zhabdrung.
The dzongs were often built based on the visions of the Zhabdrung and are usually constructed on hilltops, important trade routes, and between rivers. Trongsa dzong in central Bhutan is the largest dzong built on an ancient trade route.
In western Bhutan, the Punakha dzong is considered one of the most beautiful, located between the male and the female river. Built in the image of the heavenly abode of Guru Padmasambhava, the dzong is a major tourist attraction, drawing hundreds of tourists every day.
You will have to cross a traditional Bhutanese cantilever bridge, which is also built without using a single nail.
Temples, monasteries, stupas and traditional Bhutanese homes also bear unique Bhutanese architecture with lavish paintings of gods, deities and phalluses. The inner temple walls are adorned with paintings depicting the life and works of important religious figures.
The Taktshang (Tiger’s Nest), monastery in Paro, located precariously on the face of a cliff is an architectural wonder in Bhutan. It is the site where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have flown on the back of a tigress to meditate in the 8th century.
Traditional Bhutanese homes are usually three storied, the ground floor is used as a barn to keep livestock and granary, the living quarters and kitchen lie on the middle floor and the attic is used as a place for the shrine.
Wooden phalluses hang on doors or at the entrance to ward off evil spirits and protect the home from negative energy. Some homes bear large paintings of phalluses on the walls.
While in Thimphu, make sure to also visit the largest sitting statue of Gautama Buddha in the world. The statue houses 100,000 smaller Buddha statues made of bronze and gilded in gold, in its sanctum.
Pristine and untouched, Bhutan is a natural paradise with more than 70 percent of the country covered in forests. Its constitution requires a minimum of 60 percent forest coverage at all times.
Due to its rich natural wealth, Bhutan is one of the rare carbon negative countries in the world, releasing more clean air than pollutants in the atmosphere.
Bhutan lies at the eastern Himalayan biological hotspot. It also sits on the exact dividing line between the two major biogeographic zones in the world, the northern Palearctic and the southern Indo Malayan zone.
Due to this unique location, Bhutan is endowed with a rich variety of plants and animal lives and they continue to thrive and evolve in an undisturbed, untouched environment.
Environmental conservation is one of the important pillars of gross national happiness index. The other three pillars are cultural preservation, good governance and sustainable development.
Many parts of the country today are designated as parks, biological corridors and sanctuaries, which are home to some endemic and rare species in the world. Despite the smallness, the country is divided into three vegetation zones; the southern subtropical forest, the central temperate region and the northern alpine mountains.
Bhutan is home to around 300 Royal Bengal tigers, the elusive snow leopard, golden langurs, black-necked cranes, white-bellied herons, hornbills, Golden Mahseer, red panda and the national animal Takin.
Today, there are over 200 species of mammals, 150 amphibians and reptiles, 740 species of birds, 2,000 insect species, 580 butterflies and 100 species of fish. In total there are 11,248 species in Bhutan, which is almost one percent of the total biodiversity in the world.
Of the total global population of 200 white belied herons, about 24 of them reside in the rivers of Bhutan.
Takin, a mythical looking species of wild goat found in the northern mountains is the national animal of Bhutan. According to legends, the Takin was created when the maverick lama Drukpa Kuenley, who is famously known as the divine madman, joined the head of a goat and the carcass of a bull to prove his miraculous power.