The Kingdom of Bhutan:

The Kingdom of Bhutan is known for its culture, architecture and archery, but in many ways, it has remained a mystery until half a century ago. The serene country, which is about half the size of Indiana, is cradled between its husky neighbors China to the north and India to the south. Its lands include subtropical savannahs to forests to the unforgiving Himalayas that guard the country’s eastern border. Its isolation, domestic policies and decision to limit tourism have helped to protect its culture and its natural beauty. These are among the reasons it is referred to as the Last Shangri-la and the crown jewel of the Himalayas. On the other hand, the Bhutanese call their country Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon, because of the violent snow storms.

Geography:

The country has three horizontal regions. The southern layer is the most agricultural where farmers grow fruit, rice, spices, tea and tobacco. The middle portion has thick forests and copper and coal mines. Agriculture and timber make up about 60 percent of the country’s small and under-developed economy. The northern part, which includes the Himalayas, is non-agricultural and, frankly, can be downright inhospitable. The landlocked country spans 18,147 square miles. It is served by several small rivers that eventually empty into the Bay of Bengal.

Population:

Many of Bhutan’s population, an estimated 8,21,703, live in the central valleys. The median age is 23.5 years, with population growth at about 1.3 percent. The country’s three main ethnic groups are the Ngalongs, Sharchops and the Lhotshampas. The Ngalongs live in the western and central regions. They are descendants of Tibetan immigrants who arrived in Bhutan in the 9th century. The Sharchops live on the east side of the country. They are considered the original inhabitants of Bhutan. The Lhotshampas are the ethnic Nepalese who live in the south.

Culture:

The staples of the Bhutanese diet are rice, buckwheat and corn. The language is Dzongkha, but several Tibetan or Nepalese dialects are used throughout the country. Dzongkha means, “The language spoken in fortresses.” It has 30 consonants and four vowels. Most Bhutanese men wear the gho, which is a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt called a kera. Women wear akira, a bright, woven ankle-length dress with traditional patterns. It is clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. The females also wear a long-sleeved blouse, a toego, under the kira. Hand-woven fabrics, from simple cotton to more intricate designs using different materials including silk, are among the pride of Bhutan. Bhutan's national sport is Dha, or archery. Matches are conducted regularly in most villages. It differs in some ways from Olympic standards including technical details such as the placement of the targets 140 feet away, as opposed to 55 yards in the Olympics. Bhutanese have begun to participate in other sports including cricket, wrestling, darts and digor, which is like a combination of throwing the shot put and a horseshoe. During the last few decades, international sports including basketball, soccer, tennis, volleyball and ping-pong also have become popular. Masked dances and dance dramas accompanied by traditional music are common features at festivals. Energetic dancers, wearing colorful wooden or composition face masks and stylized costumes, depict heroes, demons, animals, and gods. The dancers enjoy royal patronage. In fact, the government opened its Royal Academy of Performing Arts in 1967 to preserve the country’s connection to folk dancing and mask making.

Politics, Economy and Religion:

Politically, five generations of the Wangchuck family have ruled the country since 1907. Every king has moved Bhutan a little farther out of the shadows. Some examples include approval of a friendship agreement with India, the creation of a National Assembly for greater local representation in government, and the recent effort to move toward a constitutional monarchy. The country had its first democratic elections in March 2008. Bhutan’s economy is small and continues to develop slowly. That is a directive of the monarchy. As the country’s leaders weave five-year economic development plans, they incorporate their desire to preserve and promote their culture. His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck wrote about this philosophy in a 1997 foreword in the book, “Bhutan – Mountain Fortress of the Gods.” “We have come to realize that economic criteria alone could not provide a program for human dignity and well-being. In the march of economic development, people need to reinforce their life in meaningful values and their sense of identity as responsible members of society.” The state religion is Buddhism. Prior to the monarchy, the country followed a Buddhist theocracy. About 75 percent of the population is Buddhist. Most of the rest believe in Hinduism. Most of those followers live in the southern part of the country. Both religions co-exist peacefully and receive government support. The major religious festivals are called Tshechus. They last three to five days and involve music, dance and drinking. Technology and natural curiosity have brought a lot of what Bhutan is about to the forefront, but there is so much more for the country to share and for the rest of the world to learn about the Jewel of the Himalayas.