The Bhutanese Way of Life
Bhutan was relatively isolated until the early 1950s; this tiny country has witnessed more change in the last 65 years than in the previous 400 years. To date, Bhutan has retained many of its traditional social structures and has actively sought to preserve its cultural identity in the face of modernisation and increasing external influences.
The Bhutanese Character
Bhutan decided long ago that we will never be a military power, we will never be an economic force, so to survive we must have a distinct identity. This is the identity you see; our clothes, language, the architecture. You look around and you feel that you are in a different world. This is not an accident.
Dasho Kinley Dorji, Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication
The smiles of the children walking to school in the morning light, the laughter overheard in a family house, the shy greetings from women weaving outside their homes – these will quickly entrance the traveller. The Bhutanese are a warm and open people – quick to smile and laugh. As with the other peoples of the Himalaya, the Bhutanese have an infectious sense of humour and quickly overcome barriers to communication. You should not be surprised to be offered a seat and a cup of tea even if you do not speak Dzongkha or one of the other 18 languages of Bhutan. These simple acts are spontaneous and provide the traveller with both fond memories and a brief insight into the generous nature of the Bhutanese.
The music scene in Bhutan is small and the most popular music, rigsar, is still evolving. Rigsar is typically performed on modern instruments, notably electric piano and synthesiser. Rigsar blends elements of traditional Bhutanese and Tibetan tunes, and is influenced by Hindi film music. Popular male and female rigsar performers often appear in locally produced films.
While contemporary and traditional Bhutanese music is widely available from little booths throughout Bhutan, groups struggle in a small market where massively popular karaoke has all but plundered every centimetre of available stage space. Check out Mojo Park in Thimphu for the latest in live music.
Dzoe – Spirit Catcher
Sometimes you will come across a strange construction of twigs, straw and rainbow-coloured thread woven into a spider-web shape. You may see one near a building or by a roadside, with flower and food offerings. This is a dzoe (also known as a tendo), a sort of spirit catcher used to exorcise something evil that has been pestering a household. The malevolent spirits are drawn to the dzoe. After prayers the dzoe is cast away, often on a trail or road, to send away the evil spirits it has trapped.
Doma is an integral part of Bhutanese culture. A popular gift throughout Bhutanese society, it is made up of three main ingredients: doma or areca nut (Areca catechu), pani or betel leaf (Piper betel) and tsune or lime (calcium carbonate).
Eating doma was an aristocratic practice, with the various ingredients kept in ornate rectangular silver boxes called chaka, while lime had a separate circular box with conical lid called trimi. JC White, the British political officer who attended Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck's enthronement in 1907, reports that doma was served to those attending the enthronement. Today people may keep their doma in bamboo bangchung or a cloth pouch called a kaychung. While the red sprays of doma spit still stain many walls and floors, young people appear to be slowly turning away from the habit as health warnings begin to make inroads.
The Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal established a code of etiquette for monastic and government officials. Over the centuries this system of etiquette spread to lay people. Called driglam namzha, the code of conduct specifies how to dress when visiting a dzong (fort-monastery), the polite way to greet one's boss and officials, the correct way to sit, eat and so forth. Many of the ceremonies performed at the start of an official event (chipdrel, marchang), or an archery match are part of driglam namzha.
The government has actively promoted driglam namzha since 1989 in an attempt to preserve Bhutanese traditions, notably enforcing the requirement to wear gho and kira when visiting government offices, dzongs and temples.
Closely linked to driglam namzha, thadamthsi refers to the Bhutanese belief in respect towards one's parents, elders and other members of the community. Based on the Buddhist teachings on devotion, thadamtshi is an important concept in Bhutanese society. It is often illustrated by the story of the Four Friends.
Linked to thadamtshi and less formal than driglam namzha is the concept of bey cha. Bey cha emphasises the aesthetics of performing everyday tasks gracefully and with care and consideration for others.
The first feature film produced by a Bhutanese film-maker for a non-Bhutanese audience was The Cup by Khyentse Norbu, which was nominated as best foreign-language film for the 2000 Academy Awards. Travellers and Magicians (2003), also produced by Khyentse Norbu, is the first Dzongkha-language film to be made for an international audience. The film contains two parallel tales and its main theme remains pertinent to contemporary Bhutan. The main story focuses on a young frustrated civil servant, Dhundup, who dreams of leaving Bhutan for the USA. He likes rock and roll and Western clothes. Yet on the road to the capital, he encounters a series of people who suggest that contentment can be found among his own people.
Bhutanese of all ages enjoy these films, and part of the enjoyment for many is identifying friends and relatives, as well as the locations. Bhutanese films such as Khorwa, made for a Bhutanese audience, often tackle contemporary social problems such as domestic violence, alcoholism and unemployment. The production values and acting are of varying quality, yet a stronger sense of Bhutanese film-making is gradually appearing, with annual awards recognising local film-makers. At the 15th National Film awards in Thimphu 2016, Drukdra Lingpai Tashi scooped 8 awards, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor (Female). But it wasn't all good news: a few months later the award for best screenplay was revoked when a protest that the screenplay was a little too close to Tess of the D'Urbervilles was upheld.
Maybe it's your first sight of the monumental Buddha that watches over the Thimphu valley, or the way your driver swerves clockwise around a chorten stuck in the middle of the road, but as a new visitor you quickly realise how Buddhism permeates life in Bhutan. Prayer flags flutter throughout the land, prayer wheels powered by mountain streams clunk gently by the roadside, images of the Buddha and other religious figures are carved into cliffs, reminding the visitor that every aspect of daily life is shaped by Buddhist beliefs and aspirations. This can be daunting, even alien, for many Western visitors, and a basic knowledge of Buddhism will go a long way towards understanding the Bhutanese. The idea of accumulating merit, having a deep respect of the natural and often sacred environment, respect for religious practitioners: all are central elements of the unique fusion of Buddhism and older non-Buddhist beliefs.
Buddhism is practised throughout the country; however, in the south, most Bhutanese people of Nepali and Indian descent are Hindu. Relations between Buddhists and Hindus are very good, with major Hindu festivals marked by national holidays. Minority groups practise various forms of ancient animistic religions, including Bon, which predates Himalayan Buddhism.
Until the 1960s, there were no major urban settlements. Since then Thimphu, Paro and Phuentsholing have both grown significantly, leading to pressure on land availability in these areas. Elsewhere there has been an increase in land acquisition and settlement, most notably in Gelephu.
As a result of the opportunities created by education and the development of service-industry jobs (such as civil servants, teachers, travel guides, army personnel or police), Bhutan has experienced unprecedented social mobility in recent decades. The rate of rural–urban migration continues to increase, and there has been growing concern over the increasing unemployment rate among educated school leavers, abandoned farms, as well as rapidly rising property values and rents in Thimphu.
The Living Standard Survey 2012 revealed that 34% of Bhutanese now live in urban areas, and over half of the country's household income is generated by wages. Averaged across the country, agriculture accounts for only 10% of income. For many living in urban areas, average household expenditure can represent all or most of their salary, which is why many Bhutanese women now work to supplement the household income through some form of small business enterprise.
Despite rapid urbanisation, the majority of people still live in rural Bhutan and most are dependent on the cultivation of crops and livestock breeding.
Life for most rural households starts around dawn and ends with sunset; daily life revolves around the care of crops and livestock. Each morning the family will make offerings, typically of water, before the household shrine and a simple breakfast of rice is prepared. Men and women share equally in the day-to-day care of the children, and although women are usually in charge of the household, men are equally able, and expected, to assist with the cooking. Meals consist of rice and a selection of simple shared dishes – ema datse (chillis with cheese), perhaps a meat dish or some buckwheat noodles. Children are expected to help with the household and farm chores, like cleaning, collecting water or firewood, or herding the livestock.
In the evening, the water from the offering bowls will be poured away and a butter lamp may be lit and left to burn before the household shrine.
Traditionally Bhutanese were very self-sufficient, often making their own clothing, bedding, floor and seat covers, tablecloths, and decorative items for daily and religious use. There remains a degree of self-sufficiency among the rural Bhutanese, though many everyday items are imported from Bangladesh, China, India and Thailand.
Goongtong - a word for our times
The migration from rural zones to the bright lights of urban areas is not unique to Bhutan. The Bhutanese do, however, have their own word for it: goongtong (goong referring to households and tong meaning empty). The number of empty households and fallow fields, especially in the east, is a hot topic. To help stem the flow and revitalise rural enterprises by improving access to markets, the Bhutanese government are double-laning the National Highway from Thimphu to Trashigang and improving road connections to remote gewogs. Visitors to Bhutan cannot fail to notice the extensive road building and widening. The government is also investigating solar energy to provide power to small remote communities and helping farmers buy farm vehicles. However, the flow of young people to the urban centres seems to be unabated.
Until the introduction of Western-style education by the third king in the 1960s, the only education available in Bhutan was from the monasteries. Prior to this a few students travelled to Darjeeling or Kalimpong to receive a secular education. Western-style education has expanded to cover the whole country.
The school system aims to provide basic literacy skills, and knowledge of Bhutan's history, geography and traditions. Most villages have a primary school, though it is not uncommon for children to board at a junior high school or high school. Free education and textbooks are provided to all students until tertiary level. Morning prayers and the national anthem start the day for all students throughout Bhutan. The government provides adult education classes, especially aimed at improving literacy.
A key aspect of Bhutan's development plan involves training doctors, engineers and other professionals, as well as teaching important trade skills such as plumbing, construction and electrics. The Royal University of Bhutan was established in 2003 and the Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan was established in 2015 to provide tertiary education in Bhutan.
Women in Bhutan
Compared to other areas of South Asia, Bhutanese women enjoy greater equality and freedom with men. The right to inherit often passes property to the woman of the household rather than the man.
Traditionally, women look after the household, preparing food and weaving textiles for family use and for sale. However, they also work in the fields, notably at harvest times when all available labour is required. Usually women brew the homemade alcohol such as arra, bang chhang or sinchhang. Decisions affecting the household are jointly made.
Travelling in Bhutan you will notice that Bhutanese women are independent minded and possess a strong entrepreneurial spirit. In Thimphu and the emerging urban centres such as Trongsa, Gelephu and Phuentsholing, women may seek to boost family income by engaging in trade, selling goods from home or renting a small shop.
The introduction of education in the 1960s enabled Bhutanese women to become literate and to seek employment outside of their homes and their local villages. Teaching, the civil service and other office positions provided important opportunities for young, educated Bhutanese women.
However, there are areas in which Bhutanese women are still not equal with their male counterparts. Levels of literacy remain higher among men than women, though this is being tackled by the government through adult learning classes. Although some women have been appointed to higher positions in the government and NGOs, including the first female district court judge appointed in 2003, there remains a gender imbalance at all levels of government. In the first and second elections for the parliament's National Council, women accounted for four and none, respectively, of the successful 20 candidates. For the 47-member National Assembly elections in July 2013, only three women (all from the victorious People's Democratic Party; PDP) were successful.
The major women's organisation in the country is the National Women's Association of Bhutan. It was established in 1981 and headed by Dasho Dawa Dem, one of the few women to have received the honorific title of Dasho. In 2004, Respect, Educate, Nurture & Empower Women (Renew; www.renew.org.bt), an NGO for women, was established by HM Queen Mother Sangay Choeden Wangchuck. Renew is highly respected and tackles major issues facing contemporary Bhutanese women. It is at the forefront of initiatives to combat domestic and gender-based violence.
In the past, marriages were arranged. However, since the 1970s the majority of marriages are love matches. The minimum age is 18 for both women and men. In rural areas, it is quite common for the husband to move into his wife's household and if they divorce he will return to live with his own family.
Polyandry, the practice of taking more than one husband, still exists in certain parts of Bhutan and polygamy is restricted. There remains a large number of Bhutanese couples who, although living together as a couple, are not formally married. The divorce rate is increasing and there is legal provision for alimony to be paid to take care of children.
The system for personal names in Bhutan differs between the north and south of the country. In the north, with the exception of the royal family, there are no family names. Two names are given to children by monks a few weeks after birth. These are traditional names of Tibetan origin and are chosen because of their auspicious influence or religious meaning. Two names are always given, although a few people have three names.
It is often impossible to tell the sex of a Bhutanese person based on their name. A few names are given only to boys, and others apply only to girls, for example Choekyi, Drolma and Wangmo, but most names may apply to either.
In the south, with an evident Hindu influence, a system resembling family names exists. Brahmans and Newars retain their caste name, such as Sharma or Pradhan, and others retain the name of their ethnic group, such as Rai or Gurung.
Health & the Wheel of Life
Bhutan's rapid modernisation has included significant progress in its provision of health facilities; it provides free health care to all its citizens. Over 98% of Bhutanese have access to clean drinking water.
The main hospital is the National Referral Hospital in Thimphu, with two further regional referral hospitals in the south and east. There are also smaller hospitals in each district, with a total of 32 in the country. In remote areas, health care is provided through Basic Health Units staffed with a health assistant, nurse midwife and a basic health worker.
The Wheel of Life, often evident at the entrances to goembas (monasteries), reminds Bhutanese that death is part of the cycle of samsara separating loved ones and leading to rebirth. Accordingly, death is treated as a major life event. Family and friends are informed and monks, gomchen (lay or married monks) or nuns begin to recite from the Bardo Thodrel to guide the deceased through the intermediate phase.
Until the cremation, the deceased is placed in a wooden box and covered in a white cloth and kept separate from the family. At the cremation, the corpse is placed on the pyre facing the officiating lama. The first funeral service is held on the seventh day after death, with other rituals performed on the 14th, 21st and 49th days. The lama reminds the deceased that they are dead and during the ritual seeks to help them move on to their next and (it is hoped) fortunate rebirth, either as a human being or preferably in a Buddha realm.
At the end of the 49 days, the ashes of the deceased may be scattered; some are placed in a sacred image and donated to a monastery or temple. The anniversary of the death will be marked for the following three years.
Historically, Bhutan was referred to as the 'Land of Medicinal Herbs' and exported herbs to Tibet. Bhutanese were trained in medicine, known as So-ba Rig pa. It represents a blending of Ayurveda from India with Chinese medicine, in the reading of pulses. The earliest medical works date from the 7th and 8th centuries and the main medical teachings are believed to have been transmitted from the Medicine Buddha, Sangye Menlha. They are contained in four volumes, called the Gyuzhi.
When the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal came to Bhutan, he brought with him a highly esteemed physician, Tenzin Drukey, who spread the teachings on So-ba Rig pa in Bhutan. Although the basic texts are the same, the Bhutanese tradition of So-ba Rig pa developed independently from its Tibetan origins. Since 1967 the Bhutanese tradition has been formally incorporated into the national health system.
The decision about the kind of treatment necessary for a particular condition is made mainly through reading of the pulses. Unlike Western medicine, which only uses reading of pulses to detect anomalies of the circulatory system, using the So-ba Rig pa method it is possible to detect diseases of organs. The eyes, tongue and urine are also examined for signs that will help with the diagnosis.
Several forms of treatment are applied in Bhutanese traditional medicine. Hundreds of medicinal plants, minerals and animal parts form the basic medicines that are used by the practitioner. These basic ingredients are processed and mixed in different combinations to make 300 medicines in the form of pills, tablets, syrups, powders and lotions. The practitioner may also offer advice on, or treatment for, diet and lifestyle.
There are also procedures that include gtar (bloodletting), bsregs (cauterisation by herbal compounds), gser bcos (acupuncture with a golden needle), tshug (cauterisation with instruments of different materials), dugs (applying heat or cold to parts of the body), byugs pa (medicated oil massage), sman chu (stone heated bath), tsha-chhu (bath at a hot spring, such as the springs in Gasa) and lum (vapour treatment).
Titles & Forms of Address
Titles are extremely important in Bhutan. All persons of rank should be addressed by the appropriate title followed by their first or full name. Members of the royal family are addressed as 'Dasho' if they are male, and 'Ashi' if female. A minister has the title 'Lyonpo' (pronounced 'lonpo').
The title Dasho is given to those who have been honoured by the king, receiving also the accompanying red scarf. In common practice, many senior government officials are addressed as Dasho even if they have not received the title, but officially this is incorrect.
You would address a senior monk or teacher with the title 'Lopon' (pronounced 'loeboen') or, if he has been given the title, as Lam. A trulku (reincarnate lama) is addressed as 'Rinpoche' and a nun as 'Anim'.
A man is addressed as 'Aap' and a boy as 'Busu'; a woman is addressed as 'Am' and a girl as 'Bum'. If you are calling someone whose name you do not know, you may use 'Ama' for women and 'Aapa' for men. In the same situation, girls are 'Bumo' and boys 'Alou'. When Bhutanese talk about a foreigner whose name they don't know, they use the word 'Chilip', or in eastern Bhutan 'Pilingpa'.
White silk scarves called kata are exchanged as customary greetings among ranking officials and are offered to high lamas as a sign of respect, but they are not exchanged as frequently as they are in Tibet and Nepal.
Dress: Gho & Kira
Bhutan's traditional dress is one of the most distinctive and visible aspects of the country. It is compulsory for all Bhutanese to wear national dress in schools, government offices and on formal occasions. Men, women and children wear traditional clothing made from Bhutanese textiles in a variety of colourful patterns.
Men wear a gho, a long robe similar to the Tibetan chuba. The Bhutanese hoist the gho to knee length and hold it in place with a woven cloth belt called a kera. The kera is wound tightly around the waist, and the large pouch formed above it is traditionally used to carry a bowl, money and the makings of doma. One man suggested that the best part of the day was when he was able to loosen his uncomfortably tight belt.
According to tradition, men should carry a small knife called a dozum at the waist. Traditional footwear is knee-high, embroidered leather boots, but these are now worn only at festivals. Most Bhutanese men wear leather shoes, trainers or trekking boots.
Ghos come in a wide variety of patterns, though often they have plaid or striped designs. Flowered patterns are taboo, and solid reds and yellows are avoided because these are colours worn by monks; otherwise patterns have no special significance. Historically, Bhutanese men wore the same thing under their gho that a true Scotsman wears under his kilt, but today it's usually a pair of shorts. In winter it's correct to wear thermal underwear, but it's more often a pair of jeans or a tracksuit. Formality in Thimphu dictates that legs may not be covered until winter has arrived, which is defined as the time that the monks move to Punakha.
Formal occasions, including a visit to the dzong (fort-monastery), require a scarf called a kabney that identifies a person's rank. The kabney has to be put on correctly so it hangs in exactly the right way. In dzongs, and on formal occasions, a dasho or someone in authority carries a long sword called a patang.
Ordinary citizens wear a kabney of unbleached white silk and each level of official wears a different coloured scarf: saffron for the king and Je Khenpo; orange for lyonpos; blue for National Council and National Assembly members; red for those with the title Dasho and for senior officials whom the king has recognised; green for judges; white with a central red stripe for dzongdags (district governors); and white with red stripes on the outside for a gup (elected leader of a village).
Women wear a long floor-length dress called a kira. This is a rectangular piece of brightly coloured cloth that wraps around the body over a Tibetan-style silk blouse called a wonju. The kira is fastened at the shoulders with elaborate silver hooks called koma and at the waist with a belt that may be of either silver or cloth. Over the top is worn a short, open, jacket-like garment called a toego. Women often wear large amounts of jewellery. The whole ensemble is beautiful and Bhutanese women are very elegant in their finery.
The kira may be made from cotton or silk (usually synthetic these days) and may have a pattern on one or both sides. For everyday wear, women wear a kira made from striped cloth with a double-sided design, and on more formal occasions they wear a kira with an embellished pattern woven into it. The most expensive kiras are kushutaras (brocade dresses), which are made of handspun, handwoven Bhutanese cotton, embroidered with various colours and designs in raw silk or cotton thread. Lhuentse is celebrated for its kushutara designs.
When visiting dzongs, women wear a cloth sash called a rachu over their shoulders or simply over their left shoulder in the same manner as men wear a kabney.
Bhutanese at Play
Bhutan's national sport is archery (datse). It is played wherever there is enough space and remains the favourite sport for all ages. There are archery tournaments held throughout the country.
Archery contests act as an affirmation of Bhutanese cultural identity as well as popular entertainment. The tournaments begin with a short ceremony and breakfast. The targets are placed 140m apart. Players often stand close to the targets and call how good or bad the aim of their opponent is – if the contestant hits the target, his team mates will perform a slow dance and sing his praises, while he slips a coloured scarf into his belt. If he misses, the opposition mock his ability.
Women, usually wearing their finest clothes and jewellery, often stand to one side of the archery field and act as cheerleaders. They dance and sing during breaks from the shooting. Their songs and shouts can be quite ribald! While it remains a male-dominated sport there is a growing interest in women's archery
Khuru is a darts game played on a field about 20m long with small targets similar to those used by archers. The darts are usually homemade from a block of wood and a nail, with some chicken feathers for flights. If a chicken can't be found, bits of plastic make a good substitute. Teams compete with a lot of shouting and arm waving, designed to put the thrower off his aim. The game is a favourite of monks and young boys but women's teams and competitions are on the rise; beware of dangerous flying objects if you are near a khuru target or an archery field.
Other sports, notably football (soccer), basketball, cricket, cycling, golf, tae kwon do and tennis, continue to grow in popularity with both men and women. There are national men's and women's teams for both football and basketball.
Sidebar: Urban Population
Until the mid-20th century there were no large urban settlements in Bhutan. By 2016, the population of Thimphu was over 115,000.
The main crops grown in central Bhutan are rice, buckwheat, barley and potatoes. Chillies are also grown, then dried on the roofs of houses before being stored.
Literacy in Bhutan is 72% for males and 55% for females (2012). For more information on education in the Himalaya, and on supporting young students, see www.loden.org.
Sidebar: Women of Laya
The women of Laya are particularly noted for their distinctive conical bamboo hats and long black wool dresses.
Of approximately 5000 formal monks in Bhutan, half are under the patronage of the Je Khenpo; the other half are subsidised by private support.
Sidebar: Attracting Ghosts
Bhutanese do not shout a person's name at night, as it's believed this may attract a ghost.
Sidebar: Fashion Magazine
Yeewong magazine (www.yeewongmagazine.com) is Bhutan's women's glossy, launched in 2009 and published twice a year. While the poses and the prettiness are globally glamorous, the food and fashions are decidedly Bhutanese.
Sidebar: Bhutan & the Olympics
Bhutan's first foray into the Olympic Games happened when an archery team of three men and three women participated in the 1984 games. Since then Bhutan has participated in all the Olympics.
Sidebar: Bhutanese Football
Bhutanese footballers came to the world's attention in 2002 when Bhutan played against the small island of Montserrat. The Other Final documentary narrates the lead-up to the football match between the world's two lowest ranked teams and the crowd's enthusiastic participation.
Sidebar: Rural Women
Rural women are often presented as the custodians of traditional values. Urbanisation and increasing rural–urban migration have brought new challenges for women separated from their families and social networks.
Buddhism in Bhutan
Buddhism is inscribed into the very landscape of Bhutan – fluttering prayer flags, gleaming white chortens and portraits of Buddhist saints carved into the rock dot the countryside. Whether you are visiting a dzong or chatting to your guide, if you want to understand Bhutan, it is essential to have a basic understanding of Buddhism. In essence, everything from festival dances and monastery art to government policy serves the same purpose in Bhutan: to encapsulate and promulgate basic Buddhist teachings.
Not all Bhutanese are Buddhist. Many of the Lhotshampas, the descendants of Nepali migrants, are Hindu – as are the majority of the casual labourers from Assam and Bengal. There are still traces of animistic pre-Buddhist beliefs in the countryside and there's a small number of Christian converts. Bhutan is tolerant of all religions but does not permit proselytisation. The constitution upholds freedom of belief and does not make any religion the official religion of Bhutan. It does, however, recognise the importance of Bhutan's Buddhist heritage to the country's cultural identity.
Schools of Buddhism
Buddhism is perhaps the most accommodating of the world's religions. As Buddhism has spread, it has adapted to local conditions and absorbed local beliefs and aesthetics, creating new schools of thought. Over the centuries two principal schools of Buddhism emerged: Theravada and Mahayana.
Theravada, sometimes referred to as Hinayana, focused on pursuing liberation for the individual. Mahayana took Buddhism in a different direction, emphasising compassion and the liberation of all living beings. The Theravada teachings retreated to southern India before becoming established in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia. The Mahayana teachings were developed in the new Buddhist universities in northern India before being transmitted northwards in a huge arc along the Silk Road to China, Tibet, Bhutan, Japan and Korea. It is the Mahayana teachings on compassion that permeate the religious beliefs and practices of the Bhutanese.
Despite these differences, the basic tenets of Buddhism have remained the same and all schools of Buddhism are united by their faith in the value of the original teachings of Buddha.
A new school called Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) emerged from the Mahayana in about AD 600. Both the Theravada and Mahayana schools studied the Sutras that recorded the teachings of Sakyamuni; however, the followers of Tantrism believed that he had left a collection of hidden esoteric teachings to a select few of his early disciples. These were known as Tantra (gyu).
Over the centuries Tantric Buddhism in Tibet gradually divided into various schools, each with their own philosophical, spiritual and political emphasis. In central and eastern Bhutan, the oldest school of Himalayan Buddhism, Nyingmapa, is most popular. The Nyingmapa school was introduced during the earliest phase of Buddhist propagation and experienced a revival through the discovery of terma (hidden texts believed to have been buried by Guru Rinpoche at various sites across Bhutan). In other parts of Bhutan, particularly the west, the Drukpa Kagyupa school is pre-eminent. The Drukpa school was founded in Ralung in Tibet by Tsanpa Gyare (1161–1211) and spread to Bhutan in the 13th century.
Tantra (Sanskrit meaning 'continuum') most often refers to the literature dealing with tantric teachings. Tantrism relies heavily on oral transmission between teacher and student, as well as the practice of identifying with a tutelary deity through meditation and the recitation of mantras. The two most well-known mantras are om mani padme hum of Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara) and om vajra guru padme siddhi hum of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava).
In Bhutan ritual objects such as the dorji (thunderbolt), drilbu (bell), skull cup and hand drum are all derived from tantric teachings, as is much of the imagery on the walls of monasteries and temples. They display the many different aspects of enlightenment – at times gentle, at other times wrathful.
Dos & Don'ts when Visiting Temples
Himalayan Buddhism has a generally relaxed approach to religious sites, but you should observe a few important rules if you are invited to enter a lhakhang (chapel) or goemba (monastery).
- It is customary to remove one's shoes and hat upon entering the important rooms of a temple. You will most likely be escorted by a caretaker monk, and you can follow his example in removing your shoes at the appropriate doorway. Leave cameras, umbrellas and hats outside.
- Always move in a clockwise direction and do not speak loudly. If there is a ceremony being performed inside, always check first that it's OK to enter.
- It is customary to leave a small offering of money (Nu 10) on the altar. When you make this offering, the monk accompanying you will pour a small amount of holy water, from a sacred vessel called a bumpa, into your hand. You should make the gesture of drinking a sip of this water and then spread the rest on your head.
- While male visitors may be permitted to enter the goenkhang (protector chapel), always ask before entering and remember that these are off-limits to all women. Do not walk behind an altar set before the goenkhang.
Luso (Folk Religion)
Vestiges of Bon, the pre-Buddhist belief system prevalent across the Himalaya, can still be found in Bhutan and are closely tied to the rich folk religion known as luso. Customs such as hanging prayer flags from a mountain pass have their roots in Bon practice. Every locality, mountain, lake, river or grove of trees in Bhutan has its own sacred geography and the invocation of these local and protective deities is an essential part of daily ritual in Bhutan. In the morning, most Bhutanese burn aromatic herbs (juniper) or incense as an offering to the mountain deities. On certain days, a single flag is raised on every house and particular deities are invoked.
Bhutanese folk beliefs are also concerned with a range of spirits or nep (local deities) who act as the custodian of particular valleys, such as Chungdu in Haa, or Radak in Wangdue Phodrang. There are also tshomen, mermaid-like goddesses who inhabit the lakes, and lu or naga – snake-bodied spirits who dwell in lakes, rivers and wells. Sadak are lords of the earth and tsen are air spirits who can bring illness and death.
Many of the local deities are believed to have originally been Bon deities converted to Buddhism by Guru Rinpoche. Bon traditions and rituals are still practised in parts of Bhutan, especially during the celebration of local festivals. Many Bon traditions have subsequently merged into mainstream Buddhism.
An interesting, if rare, category of female religious figures is the delog. A delog is a woman, occasionally a man, who has died and travelled to the other side, where they have watched the judgement of the dead and encountered various Buddhas (eg Chenresig or Guru Rinpoche), before returning to life. The delogs stress the importance of leading virtuous lives and refraining from causing harm to living beings.
Prayer flags are ubiquitous in Bhutan, found fluttering on mountain passes, rooftops, and dzong and temple courtyards.
Prayer flags come in five colours – blue, green, red, yellow and white – symbolising the elements of water, wood, fire, earth and iron, respectively. They also stand for the five dhyani (meditation Buddhas); the five wisdoms; the five directions; and the five mental attributes or emotions. The prayer for the flag is carved into wooden blocks and then printed on the cloth in repeating patterns.
The smallest prayer flags, goendhars, are those mounted on the rooftops of homes. These white banners have small blue, green, red and yellow ribbons attached to their edges. They invoke the blessings and patronage of Mahakala, the main protective deity of Bhutan. The flags are replaced annually during a ceremony that honours the family's personal local deities.
The lungdhar (wind flag) is erected on hillsides or ridges and can be for good luck, protection from an illness, the achievement of a personal goal, or the acquisition of wisdom. These flags are printed with the Wind Horse (Lungta), which carries a wish-fulfilling jewel on its back.
The manidhar is erected on behalf of a deceased person, and features prayers to the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Chenresig. These white prayer flags are generally erected in batches of 108 and are placed at strategic high points from which a river can be seen. In this way, the belief is that the prayers will waft with the wind to the river, and be carried by the river on its long and winding journey.
The largest flag in the country is the lhadhar (god flag). These huge flags can be seen outside dzongs and other important places and represent victory over the forces of evil. There is normally no text on these flags; they are like a giant version of the goendhar. The only difference, apart from size, is at the top, where the lhadhar is capped by a colourful silk parasol. You must be formally dressed in traditional Bhutanese attire for Bhutanese and in appropriate dress for foreigners to enter any place where a lhadhar stands.
Spinning prayer wheels are a ubiquitous sight in Bhutan. The revolving cylinders are filled with printed prayers that are 'activated' each time the wheel is turned. Prayer wheels can be intricately decorated hand-held affairs (mani lhakhor) or building-sized (mani dungkhor) and every size in between. Some are effortlessly turned by diverted streams of water (mani chhukhor) or even hot air above a flame, whereas monks and devotees turn man-powered wheels to gain merit and to concentrate the mind on the mantras and prayers they are reciting. Remember to always turn a prayer wheel clockwise.
Buddhism originated in northern central India around the 6th or 5th century BC, from the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama – better known as Sakyamuni Buddha. Little is known for certain about the young Siddhartha. According to legend his parents, King Suddhodana and Queen Maya, lived in a small kingdom, Sakya, which lay on the border between the present-day states of Nepal and India. Shortly after his birth, a wandering ascetic prophesied to King Suddhodana that the young prince would either be a world-conquering king or a liberator of living beings from suffering. The king took various precautions to ensure that his son would never have cause to follow a spiritual path. However, the young prince grew restless and during various excursions from his palace Siddhartha Gautama saw a number of examples of suffering that inspired him to escape from his sheltered palace life.
After fleeing the palace (and leaving his wife and child behind), Siddhartha became a wandering ascetic, fasting and meditating. Finally at Bodhgaya in Bihar, India, Siddhartha began meditating beneath a bo (pipal) tree, declaring that he would not stop until he had achieved enlightenment. He had realised there must be a middle path between the extremes of his luxurious palace life and the severe ascetic practices that brought him only exhaustion. As dawn broke on the morning of his third night of meditation Siddhartha became a Buddha (an awakened one).
Shortly after gaining enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first public teaching in the Deer Park at Sarnath. The Buddha started his teachings by explaining that there was a middle way that steered a course between sensual indulgence and ascetic self-torment. The Middle Way can be followed by taking the Eight Fold Noble Path, underpinned by the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths set out the laws of cause and effect. Buddhism is thus not based on a revealed prophecy or divine revelation but rather is firmly rooted in human experience. In a modern sense, Buddhist thought stresses nonviolence, compassion, equanimity (evenness of mind) and mindfulness (awareness of the present moment).
Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths underpin Buddhist philosophy and are the basic tenets linking ignorance and enlightenment, suffering and freedom set forth by the Buddha in his first formal discourse in Sarnath.
The first Noble Truth is that life is suffering, the Truth of Suffering. This suffering is the result of an unenlightened life and is maintained by the constant process of rebirth in the different realms of existence. Inherent in the suffering of life is the pain of ageing, sickness and death, the loss of things we are attached to and the failure to achieve the things we desire.
The reason for this dissatisfaction and suffering is contained in the second Noble Truth, which refers to our desire for things to be other than they actually are. This dissatisfaction leads to actions and karmic consequences that merely prolong the cycle of rebirths.
The third Noble Truth was described by the Buddha as True Cessation – the stopping of all delusions, desires and attachment to samsara (the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation). With the cessation of desire and attachment, we are able to break the cycle of rebirth and suffering and reach a state of nirvana, the ultimate goal of Buddhism.
The Fourth Noble Truth, True Paths, set out by the Buddha refers to the correct means through which an individual is able to overcome attachment and desires in the pursuit of liberation from samsara. These are often described as the Eight-Fold Path: with dedication and practise it may lead to accumulation of merit, then enlightenment and liberation. The eight components of the path to enlightenment: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
The doctrine of the Four Noble Truths is the foundation on which the whole path to liberation and enlightenment is built. Therefore a deep understanding of these truths, cultivated through reflection and meditation, is an indispensable basis for following the Buddhist path.
As beings are reborn in samsara, their rebirths in the different realms of existence are determined by their karma, a kind of psychic baggage that follows each being from rebirth to rebirth. In Buddhist doctrine, karma refers to three important components: actions, their effects and their consequences. Buddhist teachings liken karma to a seed (action) that ripens into a fruit (effect).
Mahayana teachings say it is important to dedicate the merit of one's wholesome actions to the benefit of all living beings, ensuring that others also experience the results of one's positive actions. The giving of alms to the needy and to monks, the relinquishing of a son into the monkhood and acts of compassion are all meritorious and have a positive karmic outcome.
Rebirth & the Wheel of Life
In Buddhism, life is seen as a countless cycle of rebirths as living beings 'wander' in samsara. There is not just one world but myriad worlds in which beings may be reborn – according to Buddhist doctrine, there are six different realms of existence. It is important during one's lifetime to accumulate enough merit to avoid being reborn in one of the three lower realms. Rebirth, or cyclic existence, emerges from fundamental ignorance through a process known as the 12 links of dependent origination. When this fundamental ignorance is reversed, cyclic existence itself can be reversed and nirvana attained, free from suffering and the processes of rebirth. The six realms of existence and the 12 links of dependent origination are what is depicted in the popular Wheel of Life illustration at monastery entrances.
Buddhism in Modern Bhutan
The modern state of Bhutan reflects an age-old system constructed by the first Zhabdrung. At the pinnacle of the new structure was the Zhabdrung. Below him he created the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot), who was responsible for all religious matters. His secular counterpart was the desi, who was responsible for all political matters.
Organisation of the Religious Community
The dratshang (central monk body) refers to the government-supported monks who are under the authority of the Je Khenpo. He is assisted by five lonpons (masters), each in charge of religious tradition, liturgy, lexicography or logic. The Je Khenpo moves between Punakha Dzong in winter and Thimpu's Trashi Chhoe Dzong in summer. During this two-day journey, the roads are lined with Bhutanese seeking his blessings.
Each dzong has a lam neten, who is responsible for the monk body in each dzongkhag. Each dzong will have a master of grammar, master of liturgy, master of philosophy, an umdze (choirmaster) and a kundun (disciple master), who carries a rosary of large beads and a whip.
Traditionally, Bhutanese families would, if they were able, send one son to join a monastery. This was viewed as creating merit for the family and household and a blessing for the child. The fourth desi, Tenzin Rabgye, introduced a monk tax in the late 16th century. The reason for this tax, which required one child to be sent to become a monk, was to promote the Drukpa Kagyu sect.
Although there is no longer a monk tax, young boys continue to enter the monkhood. Visitors to Bhutan will see long snaking lines of maroon-robed boy monks walking near the dzongs in Paro and Punakha. Often they come from poor rural families and may or may not have expressed an interest in becoming a monk. Once in the monastery, their daily lives revolve around learning to read and write.
Typically, the young monks will sit in class with a monk-teacher in the mornings and in the afternoon sit with friends in small groups, reciting their texts. Monastic schools for younger monks are known as lobras, as opposed to more advanced shedras. Throughout a monk's education there is an emphasis on memorisation. So each day the monk will memorise a set amount of text and prayers, and will be tested by his teacher. When they are still young, the monks do not understand the meaning of the texts. Once they are in their mid-teens, they will be examined individually and they will either proceed to the shedra (Buddhist college) or perhaps join the ritual school. The shedra develops the young monk's knowledge and understanding of a range of Buddhist texts and teachings, while the ritual college trains the monk in the correct procedures for a wide range of rituals.
While the government currently provides basic needs (accommodation, food and clothing), the monks are permitted to keep money received from lay people for performing rituals. They may be requested to attend the blessing of a new house, the consecration of a new chorten or to conduct prayers for the wellbeing of the household. These events take a great deal of preparation for the sponsor, who will need to ensure that all the necessary ritual items are available. The sponsor will provide food for the monks and often the household will be filled with neighbours attending the ceremony. These events renew and strengthen the bonds between the lay and religious community.
Monks continually take vows, as they progress from novice to fully ordained monk. A few monks join monastic orders after adolescence, but they are not the norm. Monks may renounce or return their vows at any time in order to return to lay life, often to start a family, and have to pay a token fine. These former monks are called getres or 'retired' monks and there is no social stigma attached to this choice. Some may even act as lay religious figures, called gomchens, and perform prayers and ceremonies for a range of daily activities, especially if there is no monastery nearby.
Every house has a choesum (altar or shrine room). Each altar usually features statues of Sakyamuni, Guru Rinpoche and the Zhabdrung. In most homes and temples, devotees place seven bowls filled with water on altars. This simple offering is important because it can be given without greed or attachment. If offerings are made to the protective deities, such as Mahakala, then there are only five offering bowls. As all Himalayan Buddhists do, Bhutanese devotees prostrate themselves in front of altars and lamas, first clasping hands above the head, again at throat level and then at the chest. This represents the ultimate desire to attain the body (ku), speech (sung) and mind (thug) of a Buddha.
Rites are performed for events and crises in life such as birth, marriage, promotion, illness and death. The rituals take place in front of the household shrine, or outside with an altar erected with an image of Buddha (representing the Buddha's body), a religious text (representing the Buddha's speech) and a small stupa or chorten (representing the Buddha's mind). The basic rituals of initiation, purification, consecration and the offering of a torma are included. For example, a water or incense purification ceremony is performed after a birth, while more elaborate rituals involving the offering of the eight auspicious symbols (ie Tashi Tagye) may be offered at a promotion or marriage. Astrology may be used to decide the timing of the rituals. Bhutanese often consult tsips (astrologers) before embarking on a journey or a new undertaking. Astrology plays an important role in overcoming misfortune and deciding the most appropriate time to perform rituals to avert misfortune.
Ordinary men and women do not typically engage in meditation or Buddhist philosophical studies, though many will attempt to complete the preliminary practices and will seek the blessings of lamas before embarking on new ventures, for their children and prosperity.
Important Figures of Buddhism in Bhutan
This is a brief guide to the iconography of some of the main figures of Buddhism in Bhutan. This guide is neither exhaustive nor scholarly; rather it seeks to enable you to identify the main figures on altars and in the temple murals encountered during your trip. The Bhutanese names are generally given first with the Sanskrit (where applicable) in parenthesis.
Sakyamuni is the historical Buddha (of the present age), whose teachings are the foundation of Bhutanese Buddhism. Typically in Bhutan, as in Tibet, Sakyamuni is represented as seated with his legs crossed on a lotus-flower throne. His tightly curled hair is bluish-black and there is a halo of enlightenment around his head. His right hand touches the ground in the 'witness' mudra (hand gesture) and his left rests on his lap, usually with an alms bowl in the left palm. His body is marked with 32 signs of enlightenment, including a top knot, three folds of skin on his neck and elongated ear lobes. He is often seen in the Dusum Sangye; the trinity of past, present and future Buddhas. A bowl of drilbu sits in front of all Sakyamuni statues in Bhutan, a recent gift from the fifth king to his people.
The Buddha of Infinite Light is one of the five dhyani (meditational or cosmic) Buddhas and resides in the Blissful Pure Land of the West (Sukhavati in Sanskrit or Dewachen in Dzongkha – also the name of several hotels in Bhutan). He is closely associated with Tsepame and Chenresig and represents the transformation of lust into wisdom. He is depicted seated cross-legged on a lotus throne, with his hands resting on his lap in meditative pose and holding an alms bowl. His body is red in colour.
The future Buddha is said to be residing as a bodhisattva in Ganden (Tushita), a heavenly realm where bodhisattvas reside awaiting full enlightenment and rebirth, until his time to incarnate on earth as a Buddha. Statues of Jampa, often giant, are the focal point in most older lhakhangs built before the visit of Guru Rinpoche. He is shown seated with his feet on the ground and hands in front of his chest, in the 'turning the wheel' mudra.
A deep-blue Buddha who emanates healing rays of light and teaches the science of medicine (men). Buddhism values medicine as a means to alleviate suffering and prolong human life, thereby improving the opportunity to attain enlightenment. The Medicine Buddha sits cross-legged on a lotus throne, with a bowl containing three medicinal fruits. He may be surrounded by a group of eight other medicine Buddhas.
The Buddha of Longevity, like Opagme, is red and holds his hands in meditation gesture, but he holds a vase containing the nectar of immortality. He is often seen in groups of nine.
A bodhisattva (hero of enlightenment) seeks enlightenment for the sake of all living beings, out of heartfelt compassion and self-sacrifice, rather than seeking liberation from samsara for her or himself. This altruistic attitude is referred to as bodhicitta (mind of enlightenment).
Unlike Buddhas, bodhisattvas are often shown decorated with crowns and princely jewels. Keep a look out in goembas and lhakhangs for the Rigsum Goenpo – a trinity of Chenresig, Jampelyang and Chana Dorji.
The white Bodhisattva of Compassion is probably the best-known deity in Bhutanese Buddhism. Chenresig appears in a variety of forms. He is the 'glorious gentle one' – one of the four great bodhisattvas and the special guardian of Bhutanese religion – pictured sitting in a lotus position, with the lower two (of four) arms in a gesture of prayer.
There is also a powerful 11-headed, 1000-armed version known in Bhutan as Chaktong Chentong or Chuchizey. The head of this version is said to have exploded when confronted with myriad problems to solve. One of his heads is that of wrathful Chana Dorji (Vajrapani), and another (the top one) is that of Opagme (Amitabha), who is said to have reassembled Chenresig's body after it exploded. Each of the 1000 arms has an eye in the palm.
The 'princely lord of wisdom' – the embodiment of wisdom and knowledge – carries a flaming sword in his right hand to cut through delusion. As the patron of learning and the arts he cradles a scripture in his left arm. He is generally yellow.
Chana Dorje (Vajrapani)
'Thunderbolt in hand' – this is the god of power and victory. His thunderbolt, representing power, is a fundamental symbol of Tantric faith; it is called a dorji in Tibetan and vajra in Sanskrit. He is pictured in a wrathful blue form with an angry face and one leg outstretched. You'll often see him flanking the entryway to chapels alongside the red deity Tamdrin.
There are 21 emanations of Drolma. The two most common representations are as Drolma, a green, female bodhisattva seated on a lotus flower with her right leg extended and said to have been born from a tear of compassion falling from Chenresig's face. The other form, known as Drolkhar (White Tara), is seated in the full lotus posture and with seven eyes, including one in her forehead and two on her palms and the soles of her feet. Drolma is often seen as part of the Tsela Nam Sum longevity trinity, alongside Tsepame (Amitayus) and Namgyelma (Vijaya).
Even the smallest lhakhang has a goenkhang (protector chapel) chock full of terrifying wrathful deities, often engulfed in flames, dripping blood and holding an array of fearsome weapons. These can be specific local guardian deities, more general yidam (tutelary deities) or dharmapala (protectors of Buddhism), or symbols of malevolent beings that were subdued and converted by tantric forces. On an entirely other level they can also represent powerful attributes of the mind or ego, man's inner psychological demons if you will, with their many arms and weapons symbolising different powers. Often you'll see a protector deity in the yab-yum pose of sexual union with a female consort, in a symbolic representation of compassion and wisdom.
Most of Bhutan's valleys have their own local protective deity. Statues of Thimphu's protector, Gyenyen Jagpa Melen, appear in Dechenphu Lhakhang near Dechenchoeling and in Neykhang Lhakhang next to the dzong. He is also seen as a national protective deity, with Bhutanese visiting his temple to seek his blessings before a new venture or if leaving the country for any length of time. Among the other regional protective deities are Jichu Drakye in Paro, Chhundu in Haa, Talo Gyalpo Pehar in Punakha, Kaytshugpa in Wangdue Phodrang and, in Bumthang, Keybu Lungtsan and Jowo Ludud Drakpa Gyeltshen. These deities are gods who have not left the world and therefore have not gained enlightenment.
Nagpo Chenpo (Mahakala)
Mahakala (Great Black One) appears in a variety of forms in Bhutan and is one of the fiercest protective deities, aptly recognised as the guardian deity of Bhutan. He is also known as Yeshe Goenpo, often described as the overlord of all the mountain gods, and is a tantric Buddhist form of the Hindu god Shiva. Most Bhutanese monasteries and temples have a shrine dedicated to him and he is invoked to help remove obstacles to a new undertaking, or in times of danger. His worship in Bhutan was popularised by the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who adopted the protector as his personal deity. According to legend, Mahakala appeared to the Zhabdrung in his raven form (Gompo Jarodanden) and advised him to go to Bhutan. The raven-headed Mahakala is the inspiration for the Raven Crown worn by the Bhutanese monarchs.
Mahakala is black with reddish hair that rises upwards. He has three eyes, wears a cloak of elephant skin, and is surrounded by fire and smoke. He wears various bone ornaments and a skull garland. He carries a curved knife in his right hand and a skull cup in his left. Depending on the form depicted, he may have two, four, six or more arms.
Palden Lhamo (Mahakali)
The Glorious Goddess is a fierce protective deity and is closely associated with Yeshe Gompo (Mahakala). Palden Lhamo is invoked in times of difficulty and special pujas are performed to avert misfortune, like natural disasters and wars. She has a ferocious appearance and is quite distinctive. Her body is dark blue, while the palms of her hands and the soles of her feet are red. She holds the moon in her hair, the sun in her belly and a corpse in her mouth, and wears a crown of five skulls and earrings made of snakes. She carries a skull cup in her left hand and brandishes a club in her right. She rides on a wild ass and her saddle cloth is a flayed human skin.
Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava)
'The Lotus Born' was an Indian Buddhist adept, saint and tantric magician who, according to local tradition, helped found Buddhism in Bhutan in the 8th century. Popularly known as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Teacher), but also known as Pema Jungne or Padmasambhava (Lotus Born) in Sanskrit, he was born in Oddiyana (Ugyen in Dzongkha) in the modern-day Swat valley. He is viewed as nothing less than the Second Buddha by the Nyingma lineage. Dozens of caves and rock markings across Bhutan claim a sacred connection with the guru.
He is depicted seated in a half-lotus position on a lotus throne. He wears a blue inner robe with a golden robe and an outer red cloak. His hat is known as the 'lotus cap' and is adorned with a crescent moon, the sun and a small flame-like protuberance that signifies the union of lunar and solar forces. The hat is surmounted by a dorji (thunderbolt) and also an eagle's feather, which represents the Guru's soaring mind, penetrating the highest realms of reality. He has long flowing hair, bug eyes and a curly moustache. In his extended right hand he holds a dorji and in his left hand, resting on his lap, is a skull cup filled with nectar. A staff, known as a katvanga, topped with a freshly severed head, a decaying head and a skull rests in the crook of his left arm. A phurba (ritual dagger for subduing demons) is tucked into his belt.
Guru Rinpoche commonly appears in eight manifestations known as the Guru Tshengye, of which the most eye-catching is the tiger-borne Dorji Drolo. He is often flanked by his two consorts Yeshe Tsogyel and Mandarava and is joined by his 25 main disciples. He is often depicted in his Copper Mountain paradise known as Zangto Pelri.
A great Tibetan magician (1040–1123) and poet of the Kagyu lineage, the 'Cotton Clad' magician-poet is believed to have attained the supreme enlightenment of Buddhahood in the course of one life. He travelled extensively throughout the Himalayan borderlands and is said to have meditated at Taktshang in Bhutan, where he composed a song. Most images of Milarepa picture him smiling and holding his hand to his ear as he sings. He is normally depicted in green due to his extended diet of nettle soup.
The wandering ascetic, Drukpa Kunley (1455–1529), is one of the main figures of the Druk Kagyu. His ribald songs and poems were unconventional and have earned him the affection of the Bhutanese. In Bhutan he is often depicted with a bow-and-arrow case and accompanied by a small hunting dog. In Chimi Lhakhang, Drukpa Kunley is depicted dressed similarly to the great Indian sages known as the Mahasiddhis, with a bare torso and a loincloth. Elsewhere he is shown wearing normal lay dress with boots.
The blacksmith and terton (treasure finder) Pema Lingpa (1450–1521) was born in Tang valley, Bumthang. The best-known statue of Pema Lingpa was made by Pema Lingpa himself and is kept at Kunzangdrak Goemba, Bumthang. Pema Lingpa holds a bumpa (vase symbolising long life) in his hands and wears a hat similar to that worn by Guru Rinpoche, with the notable addition of two dorjis crossed at the front of it.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651) is regarded as the founder of Bhutan, where he arrived from Tibet in 1616. The Zhabdrung has a distinctive white, pointed beard and wears monastic robes, and is seated in the lotus posture. In his left hand he holds a bumpa and his right hand is in the 'witness' mudra. Over his right shoulder is a meditation belt. The Zhabdrung wears a distinctive ceremonial hat of the Druk Kagyu order.
Sidebar: Tibetan Buddhism
To learn more about Tibetan Buddhism try the book What Makes You Not a Buddhist, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, the celebrated Bhutanese rinpoche (reincarnated lama) and director.
Sidebar: Auspicious Symbols
The Eight Auspicious Symbols (Tashi Tagye) are associated with gifts made to Sakyamuni and appear as protective motifs across Bhutan. They are the knot of eternity, wheel of law, lotus flower, fair of golden fishes, victory banner, previous umbrella, white conch and vase of treasure.
Sidebar: Spiritual Guide
Seeds of Faith: A Comprehensive Guide to the Sacred Places of Bhutan (Volume 1, West Bhutan), by the KMT Research Group, is an expensive but excellent locally produced guide to Bhutan's spiritual places.
Sidebar: Monastic Artists
Some monks may be trained as painters or sculptors, or as tailors and embroiderers for the various items required for the monastery.
Monks are celibate and must abstain from smoking and drinking alcohol, but they are not required to be vegetarian and may eat in the evening, unlike their counterparts in Southeast Asia.
On special occasions monks prepare torma (ritual cake), multicoloured sculptures made from tsampa (barley flour) and butter, as symbolic offerings to deities. Each deity is associated with a particular form of torma.
Sidebar: Oldest Temples
Bhutan's oldest Buddhist temples are the Kyichu Lhakhang in the Paro valley and Jampey Lhakhang in the Bumthang valley. Both were built by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century.
Pilgrims earn merit from the donation of food, money and oil for butter lamps, from sponsoring religious ceremonies or prayer flags, or from simply attending a festival or religious ritual on a particularly auspicious date.
Sidebar: First Sermon
Buddha's first sermon at Sarnath's Deer Park is commemorated by the bronze statues of two deer flanking the Wheel of Law that adorns each monastery roof.
Arts & Architecture
Bhutan's vibrant art, dance, drama, music and even its characteristic architecture has its roots in Buddhism. Almost all representation in art, music and dance is a dramatisation of the Buddha's teachings about the path to liberation and the constant struggle to overcome the delusions that lead to the cycle of rebirth in samsara.
The Artistic Tradition in Bhutan
The development of Buddhist arts and crafts in Bhutan can be traced to the 15th-century terton (discoverer of sacred texts) Pema Lingpa, who was an accomplished painter, metalworker, sculptor and architect. The country's artistic tradition received a further boost when, in 1680, the fourth desi (secular ruler), Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye (r 1680–94), opened the School of Bhutanese Arts & Crafts, which has evolved into the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.
Traditional Bhutanese artistry is maintained through the support of all levels of society. The royal family, nobility and clergy continue to provide important patronage. Meanwhile, the common people support the arts because they depend on artisans to provide the wide variety of wooden and metal objects indispensable to typical Bhutanese households and painting, both inside and outside homes.
Traditional art has two important characteristics: it is religious and anonymous. The Bhutanese consider commissioning paintings and statues as pious acts, which gain merit for the jinda (patron). The name of the jinda is sometimes written on the work so that their pious act may be remembered. However, the artist's name is rarely ever mentioned, although there are some artists whose names do become well known due to the exceptional quality of their work.
There are strict iconographical conventions in Bhutanese art and the Bhutanese artists observe them scrupulously. However, artists do express their own personality in minor details (for example, the shading of clouds or background scenes).
The Thirteen Arts
The Thirteen Arts are the 13 traditional arts and crafts (Zorig Chusum) believed to have been categorised during the reign of the fourth desi, Tenzin Rabgye. Zorig Chusum refers to those physical activities that assist, teach or uplift others.
Skilled carpenters are involved in a range of activities ranging from building dzongs (fort-monasteries) and temples, houses and palaces, to making tools and other practical instruments used in the everyday life of the Bhutanese people.
This covers the building of chortens, dzongs and temples as well as making the heavy millstones and stone pestles.
The Bhutanese are highly skilled at wood, stone and slate carving. Examples of their work are evident throughout Bhutan, from the slate carvings depicting the Buddha and other religious figures inserted in stupas, to the wooden printing blocks used for printing sacred texts.
Lhazo encompasses drawing and painting in Bhutan. It includes the painting of thangkas (religious pictures), murals and frescoes in temples and dzongs, as well as the colourful images on the exterior walls of Bhutanese homes. Drawing and painting are governed by strict geometric rules of proportion and iconography.
One of the arts in which the Bhutanese excel is the creation of delicate clay sculptures, occasionally set in amazing landscapes. These sculptures, ranging from small- to large-scale statues, are generally created around a hollow frame with the mud or clay built up to form the image.
As well as statues, jinzo includes the production of a range of ritual items, notably the moulded offerings (torma) and masks worn during tsechu, and the more prosaic activity of preparing mud walls on new buildings.
Casting, usually in bronze, refers to the production of musical instruments, statues, tools and kitchen utensils, as well as slip casting for pottery and jewellery.
Generally, these craftsmen produce axes, plough blades, chains, knives and swords and other practical items.
Troko (Gold- & Silver-smithing)
This includes all ornaments made from gold, silver or copper. They are often cut out, beaten, drawn or engraved.
Tshazo (Bamboo work)
There is a wide variety of these products, as seen in the markets across the country. They include bangchung (covered bowls with intricate designs, used to carry food), long palang (used to store beer or other liquor), the tshesip (box), belo (small hat worn for sun protection), redi (mat), luchu (used for storing grain), balep (bamboo thatch) and, of course, the bow and arrow.
Thagzo covers the whole process: the preparation of the yarn, dyeing and the numerous designs. This is the largest craft industry in terms of the variety and number of craftspeople involved throughout Bhutan.
There are two special categories within this craft. The first are those items which are sewn and embroidered (ranging from clothing to intricate and rare embroidered thangkas). The second refers to appliqué and patchwork items made from stitching cloth together. This includes the large thondrols displayed during tsechu festivals, as well as hats and the elaborate boots worn with the gho on official occasions.
Skilled woodturners produce a range of delicate wooden bowls, turned with expertise from special parts of a tree or roots. The large wooden dapa (serving dishes), wooden plates, buckets, ladles and phop (small cups), as well as the various small hand drums beaten during religious ceremonies, are among the products of this craft.
The art of making paper from the bark of daphne plant, and more recently bamboo and rice stalks, is under threat from the loss of skilled craftsmen. The word de refers to the daphne plant.
Aside from spectacular architecture, the most visible manifestation of Bhutanese art is painting. There are three forms of traditional painting: thangkas, wall paintings and statues. A painting is invariably religious in nature depicting a deity, a religious story, a meditational object or an array of auspicious symbols (such as the Tashi Tagye – Eight Auspicious Symbols – or Four Friends). Paintings were traditionally done not for sale, but for specific purposes – though this is slowly changing.
Paintings, in particular the portrayal of human figures, are subject to strict rules of iconography. The proportions and features must be precise, and there is no latitude for artistic licence in these works. The initial layout is constructed with a series of geometrical patterns, using straight lines to lay out the proportions of the figure, which are defined in religious documents called zuri pata. In other cases the initial sketch is made with a stencil of the basic outline, which is transferred to the canvas by patting the stencil with a bag filled with chalk dust. Traditionally, paints were made from earth, minerals and vegetables, though now chemical colours are also used. The material is first reduced into powder and then mixed with water, glue and chalk. The brushes are handmade from twigs and animal hair.
Thangkas are painted on canvas that is stretched and lashed to a wooden frame. When the painting is completed it is removed from the frame and given a border of colourful brocade, with wooden sticks at the top and bottom used for hanging. Although some thangkas are hung permanently, most are rolled up and stored until they are exhibited at special occasions. This applies particularly to the huge appliqué thondrols that are displayed briefly in the early morning during a tsechu. The same iconographical rules apply to the images on a massive thondrol, which demonstrates the skills of the Bhutanese artisans.
The interior walls of dzongs and lhakhangs are usually covered with paintings. In Bhutan most wall murals are painted on a thin layer of cloth applied to the wall using a special paste. Nowadays old paintings are treasured because of their historic and artistic value; however, until quite recently old wall paintings were often repainted or even painted over during restoration work.
Most statues are finely painted to sharply define the facial features, which are individualised for each figure. Many religious statues in lhakhangs, especially the larger statues, are made from unfired clay. In addition to the face, the entire surface of these large figures is painted, often in a gold colour, giving them a bronze aspect. Examples of these statues can be seen in Punakha Dzong. On bronze statues, some of which are quite small, only the face is painted.
Statues only gain their sanctity when sacred texts and juniper incense are secreted inside the statue; they are blessed and their eyes are painted open. You'll sometimes see unfinished statues with bandages around their unpainted eyes.
The Four Friends
One of Bhutan's favourite paintings is based on the popular fable of the Four Friends. In Dzongkha the name of the story is Thuenpa Puen Shi (Cooperation, Relation, Four) and it illustrates the concept of teamwork. You will see paintings illustrating this story on temples, homes and shops throughout the country.
The story tells how the elephant, monkey, peacock and rabbit combined forces to obtain a continual supply of fruit. The peacock found a seed and planted it, the rabbit watered it, the monkey fertilised it and the elephant guarded it. When the fruit was ripe, the tree was so high that they could not reach the top. The four animals made a tower by climbing on one another's back, and plucked the fruit from the high branches.
Weaving, more than the other Zorig Chusum, is the most distinctive and sophisticated of Bhutanese arts and crafts. The richness of this art form can be seen at the permanent exhibition in the National Textile Museum in Thimphu. Everyday articles such as clothing, wrappers for goods and cushion covers are stitched from cloth woven at home. Until the mid-20th century, certain taxes were paid in cloth and collected at the regional dzong. The authorities distributed the cloth as 'payment' to monastic and civil officials and to monasteries. Until quite recently, it was common to present cloth as a gift to mark special occasions or promotions. Bhutanese women still have trunks filled with fine fabrics that may be sold when money is required.
Unlike thangka painting, which has very precise religious rules, weaving provides the weaver with an opportunity to express herself. Designs, colours, sizes and even the finish have always reflected the materials available and the changes in technology and fashion. Bhutan's weavers specialise in working additional decorative warps and wefts into the 'ground' fabric. The most elaborate weavings are usually for the traditional kira and gho and these garments may take up to a year to weave in silk.
Legend states that weaving was introduced to Bhutan by the wife of Songtsen Gampo. Each region has its own weaving traditions and designs; that of Lhuentse, the ancestral home of the royal family, is the most renowned. The weavers in Lhuentse specialise in decorating kira and other textiles with intricate patterns that resemble embroidery. Other parts of eastern Bhutan are famous for their distinctive striped garments woven from raw silk. Bumthang weavers produce another popular fabric – yathra, hand-woven strips of woollen cloth, stitched into blankets, jackets, cushion covers and even car seats.
Though yathra was traditionally produced on back-strap looms, pedal looms were introduced from Tibet in the mid-20th century, while Indian spinning wheels are faster than the drop spindle. Today, all these technologies can be seen being used by weavers in their homes.
More recently, with assistance from the government, items such as bags, decorations and even bed and table linen have been developed both for the local and international markets.
Watching the mesmerising weaving and appreciating the fine skills and sheer hard work is just part of the fun of chasing traditional textiles. With your guide you can start conversing with the weavers, perhaps picking up a few century-old tricks of the trade. Some friendly bartering is sure to follow. Handwoven fabric is the most traditional and useful item you can buy in Bhutan. The quality is almost always good, but the price will vary depending on the intricacy of the design and whether any expensive imported silk was used in the weaving. Handwoven fabric is sold in 'loom lengths' that are 30cm to 45cm wide and 2.5m to 3m long. Bhutanese sew three of these lengths together to make the traditional dress of gho and kira.
The traditional centres of sophisticated weaving are in eastern Bhutan, especially Dungkhar and Khoma in Lhuentse, Khaling and Radi in Trashigang, and Duksum in Trashi Yangtse. Zungney village in Bumthang is the centre for the weaving of wool into strips called yathra. For those interested in textiles, visits to these places, in addition to Thimphu's National Textile Museum, will provide an invaluable insight into Bhutan's cultural identity.
The development of jo yig, the cursive Bhutanese script, as distinct from a Tibetan script, is credited to a monk by the name of Lotsawa Denma Tsemang. However, the Bhutanese script is based on the Tibetan script introduced by Tonmi Sambhota during the reign of the Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo. For the most part, the literary culture of Bhutan has been dominated by Buddhism; first as a means of translating Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit, and second as local scholars began to emerge, as a means of developing Himalayan Buddhist thought.
Wood-block printing has been used for centuries and is still the most common form of printing in the monasteries. Blocks are carved in mirror image, then the printers working in pairs place strips of handmade paper over the inked blocks and a roller passes over the paper. The printed strip is then set aside to dry. The printed books are placed between two boards and wrapped in cloth. There is an excellent exhibition in the National Library, Thimphu, showing the printing process as well as examples of rare texts.
There are four main traditional instruments in Bhutan, beyond the ritual instruments used in religious ceremonies: the ornate drangyen or Bhutanese lute; the pchewang, with only two strings; lyem (bamboo flute); and the yangchen (zither) made from hollow wood, with 72 strings which are struck lightly with two thin bamboo sticks.
There are various performers who specialise in folk or religious songs, like Am Thinlay. Jigme Drukpa (Folk Songs from Bhutan) performs a wide selection of the two main styles of folk singing: zhungdra, which developed in Bhutan in the 17th century, and boedra, influenced by Tibetan folk music.
There is a series of four CDs from the Monasteries of Bhutan, with the misleading title Tibetan Buddhist Rites (John Levy, Lyrichord). This collection includes a wide range of sacred and folk music, including a hauntingly beautiful recording of a manip (an itinerant ascetic) reciting a song recollecting the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal's arrival in Bhutan.
Theatre & Dance
The main forms of dance are the spectacular and theatrical masked dances called cham, performed at the tsechus and other religious festivals held throughout Bhutan.
The main dances performed at tsechus are described here.
Durdag (Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds)
Four dancers mostly clad in white and wearing white skull masks and long white gloves stamp out this dance with white boots on the first day of the tsechu. The dancers bend backwards, touching the earth to liberate the spirits of the deceased. The dance was composed by the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and the dancers represent the protectors of the religion who live in the eight cremation grounds on the edges of the symbolic Mount Meru.
Pacham (Dance of the Heroes)
This energetic dance based on a vision by Pema Linga is thought to lead believers directly to the presence of Guru Rinpoche. The dancers wear yellow skirts and golden crowns but do not wear masks. They cary a dri-lbu (small bell) and a damaru (small drum).
Shawa Shachi (Dance of the Stag & Hunter)
Based on the story of Milarepa's conversion of the hunter Gonpo Dorji to Buddhism, the dance is split into two parts. The first part is comic, with the hunter preparing to set out on a hunting expedition and his servants joking very irreverently with him. The second part is more serious. The hunter and his dog are in pursuit of a deer when the deer seeks shelter with the yogi Milarepa, identifiable by his white cotton robe, who sings a song that converts all three to Buddhism. The conversion is symbolised by a rope that both the dog and hunter must jump over.
Dranyeo Cham (Dance with the Dranyen)
This dance celebrates the diffusion of the Drukpa lineage in Bhutan by the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The dancers carry swords and wear a circular headdress, felt boots and heavy woollen clothes. One dancer carries a drangyen, a stringed instrument similar to a lute.
Sha Na Cham (Black Hat Dance)
This dance, on one level, commemorates the killing of the anti-Buddhist Tibetan king Langdarma in 842 by the Buddhist monk Pelkyi Dorji. It also represents the transformation of the dancers into powerful tantric yogis, who take possession of the dancing area and drive out all evil spirits as they stamp the ground. The dancers wear brocade dresses, wide-brimmed black hats and black aprons with an image representing protective deities.
Pholay Molay (Dance of the Noblemen & Ladies)
This is less a dance than a crude play about the two princesses left with an old couple by two princes who leave for war. The two princesses and an old woman are corrupted by some atsaras (clowns). On their return, the princes are furious and punish the women by cutting off their noses. Eventually, everybody is reconciled and the princes marry the princesses.
Drametsi Nga Cham (Dance of the Drametsi Drummers)
Based on a vision by Kunga Gyeltshen, the son of Pema Lingpa, this dance depicts 100 peaceful and wrathful deities. The dancers wear animal masks and knee-length yellow skirts, and carry a large hand drum in their left hand and a drumstick in their right.
Dungtam (Dance of the Wrathful Deities)
In this dance, the deities are the entourage of one of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, Dorji Drolo. Dorji Drolo and his entourage are armed with phurba (special daggers) that execute and thereby redeem an evil spirit (represented by a small mannequin). This represents Buddhist teachings on the liberation of consciousness from the body. The dancers' costumes are beautiful brocade dresses, boots and terrifying masks.
Raksha Mangcham (Dance of the Rakshas & the Judgement of the Dead)
This is one of the highlights of the tsechu. It represents a spiritual drama as two newly deceased men are brought before the Lord of the Underworld, represented by a large mannequin surrounded by an entourage of rakshas (a figure or spirit of the underworld). The first to be judged is a sinner, dressed in black. After hearing from Black Demon and White God, the prosecution and defence, his sins outweigh his good actions and he is dragged to the hell realms. The second figure is dressed in white; again the Lord of the Underworld hears about his good and bad actions, and he is found to be virtuous. After a brief attempt by Black Demon to grab the virtuous man, he is led to the pure lands.
Guru Tshengay (The Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche)
The eight manifestations are different forms of Guru Rinpoche, who is accompanied by his two consorts, Yeshe Tshogyel (on his right) and Mandarava (on his left). This is both a dance and a drama and starts with Dorji Drolo, wearing a terrifying red mask, entering the dance area, followed by a long procession with the eight manifestations.
Chhoeshey (Religious Song)
This commemorates the opening of the eastern gate to the pilgrimage site at Tsari in Tibet by Tsangpa Gyarey, the founder of the Drukpa Kagyu.
Buying a Dance Mask
The extravagantly emotive and downright fearsome masks worn by the cham dancers at the tsechu are popular souvenirs. In marked contrast to neighbouring India and Nepal, the masks sold to tourists are often of the same quality as those used by the locals. They portray the full range of characters and deities seen at the popular dance festivals and may be carved from wood or molded from paper mache, but are always brightly painted. As well as full-sized models, there are smaller half-size masks for the home. Of course, one should consider the outcome of encountering such a mask while half asleep on a stormy night!
Bhutanese architecture is one of the most striking features of the country. Massive dzongs (fort-monasteries), remote goembas (monasteries) and lhakhangs (temples), as well as the traditional houses all subscribe to a characteristic Bhutanese style. The absence of written plans, however, means there are many variations on the theme, with designs dictated by local topography and available building materials.
If, for the moment, we ignore the concrete blocks that are steadily taking over the major towns, the Bhutanese build distinctive housing depending on the region, particularly the elevation. Thatched bamboo houses predominate in the lower altitudes in the south of the country, whereas at very high altitudes most homes are simple stone structures or even yak-hair tents. In central and eastern Bhutan, houses are often made of stone, whereas in the west the walls are usually made of compacted earth, an extremely strong and durable structure.
A typical western Bhutanese house is two storeys high with a large, airy attic used for storage. In rural areas, the ground floor is always used as a barn and the upper floor as the living quarters. In most houses, one elaborately decorated room called a choesum serves as a chapel.
On the lower floor, an opening for a door, and perhaps some windows, is left in the earth wall that forms the front of the house, which traditionally faces south. The upper floor is supported by wooden beams that fit into holes in the wall. Central columns support the beams, because it is difficult to find a single piece of timber to span the entire width of the house. The earthen walls for the upper floor form only the rear wall and back half of the two exterior side walls. The front portion of the living area is always built of timber, which is sometimes elaborately decorated, with large divided windows facing south. The wooden portion of the house extends out over the front and side earthen walls, giving a top-heavy appearance.
In older houses the windows are sliding wooden panels, not glass. Above all, windows in Bhutan comprise a cut-out of a curved trefoil motif, called a horzhing. In Bhutan there are often several explanations for everything, and this motif is said to be either of Persian influence or simply a practical design that allows a person to look out of the window while the smoke blows out through the opening above.
An elaborate wooden cornice is usually built along the top of the wall, directly under the roof of the house. Traditional roofs are pitched and covered with wooden shingles (often weighed down by large stones as safeguards from the wind), but shingles need to be replaced frequently and many people now choose corrugated iron for their roofs. A feature missing in traditional Bhutanese architecture is a gutter – unless a retro-fitted plastic gutter has been installed, expect a soaking when you enter or leave a house during rain.
The internal walls, and often parts of the external walls, are built with a timber frame that is filled in with woven bamboo and plastered with mud. This construction is called shaddam (weave-mud).
Stairways to the upper floors and attic are often crude ladders made by carving steps into a whole tree trunk. If you find yourself climbing one of these ladders, reach around behind the right edge and you may find a groove cut there to serve as a handrail. Traditional Bhutanese long-drop toilets hang precariously off the side of the upper storey of old houses.
After a house is built, the all-important decoration begins. Wooden surfaces are painted with various designs, each with a special significance. Swastikas, floral patterns representing the lotus, cloud whirls and the Tashi Tagye (Eight Auspicious Symbols) are the most common. Beside the front door are larger paintings, often of mythical animals such as the garuda, or large red phalluses. The phallus is not a fertility symbol; it is associated with the Lama Drukpa Kunley and is believed to ward off evil. A prayer flag called a goendhar is erected on the centre of the roof of all Buddhist homes.
Pounding the Walls
The massive compacted earth walls of typical western Bhutanese houses are 80cm to 100cm thick. To build these walls, a wooden frame is constructed then filled with mud. The mud is compacted by being pounded with wooden poles to which a flat ram is attached. When the wall reaches the top of the frame, the frame is shifted upwards and the process begins again.
The pounders are usually teams of women, who sing and dance as they beat the walls. Although Bhutanese women are usually shy and modest with outsiders, they traditionally loosen their inhibitions and exchange ribald comments with men as they perform the pounding, which can take several weeks for a large house. Once the mud wall is finished, it is either left in its natural colour or is whitewashed.
Bhutan's dzongs are perhaps the most visibly striking architectural aspect of the kingdom. They are outstanding examples of grand design and construction. These huge, white citadels dominate the major towns and serve as the administrative headquarters of all 20 dzongkhags (districts) and the focus of secular and religious authority in each.
As well as the large, active district dzongs, there are a few dzongs that have been destroyed or abandoned, or are now used for other purposes, such as Dobji Dzong, south of Chhuzom. And not all dzongs are ancient monuments; for example, a new dzong was inaugurated in Chhukha (near Phuentsholing) in 2012.
Many dzongs had a ta dzong (watchtower), which was either part of the building, as in Jakar Dzong, or a separate structure, as in Paro and Trongsa Dzongs. This structure was also used as an ammunition store and dungeon. Many dzongs were accessed by cantilever bridges as an additional protective measure. Most dzongs have inward-sloping walls, an architectural feature known as battered walls, which can fool the eye and make the building look imposing and larger than its actual dimensions.
Bhutan's dzongs were built of stone or pounded mud, and a considerable amount of timber, including massive beams and wooden shingle roofs. This, combined with the large number of butter lamps used in temples, has caused fires in almost all dzongs. All important dzongs have been (or are being) rebuilt using traditional construction methods, though in many places corrugated-iron roofs have replaced wooden shingles.
Bhutanese proclaim proudly that no nails are used to construct dzongs. Furthermore, dzong architects don't prepare any plans or drawings. They rely only on a mental concept of what is to be built, and this was how Thimphu's Trashi Chhoe Dzong was reconstructed in 1966.
Each dzong has unique details, but most follow the same general design principles. Most dzongs are divided into two wings: one containing temples and monks' quarters and the other for government offices. The monastic wing of many dzongs actually serves as a monastery, with the resident monk body called a rabdey. In early days, most dzongs had a rabdey, but today only the dzongs of Thimphu, Chhukha, Punakha, Paro, Mongar, Trongsa, Jakar, Gasa and Trashigang serve as monasteries. The dratshang (central monk body) maintains monastic schools in the dzongs of Punakha, Trongsa and Paro. Punakha Dzong is the seat of the Chief Abbot, His Holiness the Je Khenpo.
The main courtyard of the dzong is the dochey, which is paved with large flagstones. Along the outer walls of the dzong are several storeys of rooms and galleries overlooking the paved courtyard; these rooms are the monks' quarters and classrooms. Because the monastic wing of the dzong is physically separate from the secular wing, many dzongs have two docheys, the second being surrounded by administrative offices.
The central structure of the dzong is a tower-like building called the utse. In most dzongs, the utse has a series of lhakhangs, one on each floor. On the ground floor of the utse is the primary lhakhang.
Defending the Dzong
During the time of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651), the dzongs served their primary function as fortresses well. Each was the stronghold of a penlop (governor). Many of the feuds and battles for control during the 17th to 20th centuries were waged by penlops whose troops attacked neighbouring dzongs. The key to success in these battles was to capture the dzong of the opposing penlop, thereby gaining control of that district. Dzongs often feature defensive windows with firing positions and usually have only one massive door, which leads into a small passage that makes two right-angle turns before it enters the main courtyard. This is a design feature to obstruct invaders from storming the dzong.
Goembas & Lhakhangs
In Dzongkha, a monastery is called a goemba, and the word is pronounced quite differently from the corresponding Tibetan word, gompa. A primary reason for selecting the location of a monastery is to have a remote location where the monks can find peace and solitude. This is particularly evident in Bhutan where goembas are built atop rocky crags or on remote hillsides.
All Bhutanese goembas are different, but they all possess certain common features. They are self-contained communities, with a central lhakhang (temple) and separate quarters for sleeping. The lhakhang is usually at the centre of a dochey, similar to that of the dzongs, which is used as a dance arena during festivals. The term lhakhang can be a bit confusing because it can refer to both the building itself and to the primary chapel inside the building. Some goembas have several lhakhangs within the central building.
On all religious buildings in Bhutan, and on dzongs too, a painted red band called a khemar runs just below the roof. One or more circular brass plates or mirrors representing the nima (sun) are often placed on the khemar.
The following are often depicted at the entrance to goembas:
- The Wheel of Life, which is held and turned by Yama, Lord of Death; it is a representation of the cycle of samsara, separating loved ones and leading to rebirth. The inner circle depicts a cockerel (representing desire or attachment) biting a pig (ignorance or delusion) biting a snake (hatred or anger). Surrounding this is a band of figures ascending and descending according to their karma. Outside this are six segments, each depicting the six realms of samsara or rebirth. And outside this are the 12 segments that depict the 12 links of dependant origination representing the processes by which we all live, die and are reborn.
- The Six Symbols of Longevity (Tshering Samdrup) are of Chinese origin and include an old man, peach tree, conch-shaped rock, river, cranes (usually a pair) and a deer.
- The geometric poem set in a grid of squares (looking somewhat like a quilt) that is dedicated to the Zhabdrung.
A typical lhakhang has a cupola and a gilded bell-shaped ornament, called a serto, on top of the yellow-painted roof. Most have a paved kora path around the circumference of the building. On the outside wall are racks of prayer wheels, which monks and devotees spin as they circumambulate the building.
The entrance to the lhakhang is through the gorikha (porch), which is covered with murals, usually depicting the Guardians of the Four Directions or the Wheel of Life. Entry is via a large painted wooden door that is often protected by a heavy cloth or yak-hair curtain. The door opens to a tshokhang (assembly hall), also called a dukhang or kunre. The hall is usually so large that it has rows of pillars to hold up the roof, and the walls are storyboards of Buddhist paintings.
At the far end of the tshokhang is an elaborately decorated altar (choesum) that can be part of the main room or else be housed in a separate room or lhakhang. The two-tiered choesum, with its large gilded statue, is a focal point of the lhakhang, and depending on when and why the lhakhang was built, the statue may be of Sakyamuni, Guru Rinpoche or another figure. Jampa is the central figure in many lhakhangs built before Guru Rinpoche's visits to Bhutan.
On a monastery or chapel altar, you'd see sacred rocks with self-arisen (Rangjung) hand or footprints; a ewer of holy water with a peacock feather in it; a mandala-shaped offering of seeds; a pair of dice used to divine the future; dried seeds; plus elephant tusks and seven bowls of water, referring to the first seven footsteps of Buddha or the first seven ordained monks at Samye in Tibet. On the altar you will also see delicately carved and usually garishly coloured torma (ritual ornamental cake), made from sugar, butter and flour.
The halls often have cymbals, conch shell (dungkhar), oboes (jaling), and long telescopic trumpets known as dungchen. The altar often has the bell (drilbu) and thunderbolt (dorji), tantric implements that symbolise wisdom and compassion, respectively. Also in the halls are libraries of traditional texts and prayer books, usually wrapped in cloth.
In most lhakhangs, often on the upper floor, is a chapel called a goenkhang, which is devoted to the protective deities. The statues in these rooms are usually covered except when rituals are performed. Weapons are stored in this room and may include old muskets, armour, and round shields made from rhinoceros hide. Teams of archers sometimes sleep in a goenkhang before a major match, but women are never allowed to enter and the monks are often reluctant to allow entry to visitors.
Guardians of the Four Directions
Paintings or statues of the Guardians (or Kings) of the Four Directions appear on the gorikha (verandah) to guard the entrance to most lhakhangs. The guardians have an origin in ancient Mongolian tradition, and each one holds a different object. They are warriors who guard the world against demons and earthly threats.
- Chenmizang The red king of the west; holds a chorten and a snake, and is the lord of the nagas (serpents).
- Yulkhorsung The white king of the east; plays the lute and is the lord of celestial musicians.
- Namthose The gold king of the north; holds a mongoose and a banner of victory. He is a god of wealth and prosperity.
- Phagchepo The blue king of the south; holds a sword in his right hand.
A chorten is literally a receptacle for offerings, and in Bhutan all chortens contain religious relics. Chortens are often situated in locations considered inauspicious – river junctions, crossroads, mountain passes and bridges – to ward off evil. The classical chorten shape is based on the ancient Indian form of a stupa. Each of the chorten's five architectural elements has a symbolic meaning. The square or rectangular base symbolises earth. The hemispherical dome symbolises water. The conical or pyramidal spire symbolises fire (the spire has 13 steplike segments that symbolise the 13 steps leading to Buddhahood). On top is a crescent moon and a sun, symbolising air, and a vertical spike symbolising ether or the sacred light of the Buddha. Inside is placed a carved wooden pole called a sokshing, which is the life-spirit of the chorten.
Some chortens, such as the National Memorial Chorten in Thimphu, are built in memory of an individual. Others commemorate the visit of a saint or contain sacred books or the bodies of saints or great lamas. Bhutan has three basic styles of chorten, usually characterised as Bhutanese, Tibetan and Nepali.
The Nepali-style chorten is based on the classical stupa. On Nepali chortens the four sides of the tower are painted with a pair of eyes, the all-seeing eyes of Buddha. The prototypes for the Nepali chortens in Bhutan are Swayambhunath and Bodhnath in Kathmandu. The large Chorten Kora in Trashi Yangtse and Chendebji Chorten near Trongsa are two examples of the Nepali style of chorten.
The Tibetan-style chorten has a shape similar to the stupa, but the rounded part flares outward instead of being a dome shape. Thimphu's National Memorial Chorten is an excellent example of this style.
The Bhutanese design comprises a square stone pillar with a khemar near the top. The exact origin of this style is not known, but is believed to be a reduced form of the classical stupa, with only the pinnacle and square base. Some Bhutanese chortens have a ball and crescent representing the moon and sun on top.
Several other types of chorten are also found in Bhutan. The khonying (two legs) is an archway that forms a gate over a trail. Travellers earn merit by passing through the structure, which is decorated with interior wall paintings and a mandala on the roof. The mani chukor is shaped like a Bhutanese chorten but is hollow and contains a large prayer wheel. It is built over or near a stream so that the water turns a wooden turbine below the structure, which then turns the prayer wheel.
Sidebar: Handicraft Authenticity
Bhutan's Agency for Promotion of Indigenous Arts has introduced the Bhutan SEAL to establish a quality and authenticity benchmark for handicraft products.
Sidebar: Thangka Painting
If you are interested in creating your own Bhutanese art, look out for Tibetan Thangka Painting: Methods and Materials by David P Jackson and Janice A Jackson.
Sidebar: Wooden Bowls
Bhutan's wonderful wooden bowls are turned from lumpy 'burls' that usually grow around an infection or insect attack on a tree. Only the most intricately patterned burlwood goes into making the magnificent and highly valued woogzo bowls, so named for their owl-feather patterns.
Sideba: Lhuentse Weaving
The royal Wangchuck dynasty's ancestral home is in the pre-eminent weaving district of Lhuentse, and perhaps this is why royal patronage has been so influential in the development of textile art, with dozens of weavers employed by all the royal households.
Sidebar: Artistic Masters
Paintings and sculptures are usually executed by monks or laymen working in specialist workshops. The disciples of a master, as part of their training, will do all the preliminary work, while the fine work is executed by the master himself.
Sidebar: Weaving Looms
Most weaving in Bhutan is done on a simple back-strap loom, similar to looms found throughout Southeast Asia and Tibet. The loom is easily transported and is ideal for setting up in a warm kitchen, on the porch of a house or beside a tent.
For a blend of traditional and modern music, look out for the beautiful recording of chants by Lama Gyurme and Jean-Philippe Rykiel, The Lama's Chants – Songs of Awakening (Sony, 1994) and Rain of Blessings (Real World Records, 2000).
Sidebar: Folk Dancing
Folk dances are often performed during breaks in the main tsechu performances. The dancers form a circle or a line and move in an intricate series of steps accompanied by graceful arm movements. One person may lead the singing, with the other dancers picking up the song or answering with a refrain.
Sidebar: Performing Arts
In Thimphu, the Royal Academy for the Performing Arts (www.rapa.gov.bt) trains young Bhutanese dancers and musicians in religious and folk dances. The quality of the dancing is exceptional and the program they offer is breathtaking in its colour and vitality.
Sidebar: Traditional Music
Music of Bhutan Research Centre (www.musicofbhutan.org) promotes traditional music and has recorded many of Bhutan's living repositories of rare and regional music. It sells CDs and books online.
Sidebar: Top Temples
- Taktshang Goemba (Paro)
- Kyichu Lhakhang (Paro)
- Chimi Lhakhang (Punakha)
- Kurjey Lhakhang (Chokhor Valley)
- Jampey Lhakhang (Chokhor Valley)
Sidebar: Don't-Miss Dzongs
- Punakha Dzong (Punakha)
- Paro Dzong (Paro)
- Trongsa Dzong (Trongsa)
- Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Thimphu)
Sidebar: Warding Off Evil
Many houses are decorated with carved wooden phalluses, often crossed by a sword, which are hung at the four corners of the roof or over the door to ward off evil.
Sidebar: Supplying the Dzongs
Because dzongs were usually placed on ridges, a tunnel was often constructed to the nearest water supply so that those in the dzong could survive a long siege.
Sidebar: Sacred Elephants
One way that lhakhangs in Bhutan differ from those in Tibet is that they feature a pair of elephant tusks alongside the altar to symbolise good. Buddhists revere the elephant because when the Buddha was born, his mother had a vision of a white elephant.
Sidebar: Keep Left
When approaching a chorten or mani wall, always walk to the left.
The Natural World
Bhutan is a fascinating corner of the globe. Scientists have long considered the eastern Himalaya to be globally important in terms of biological diversity. Add to this the relatively recent history of isolation, the inaccessibility of much of the country, a low human population coupled with their traditional reverence for all forms of life, and you have the ingredients for an outstanding showcase of nature.
The Lie of the Land
Bhutan is a landlocked country about 300km long and 150km wide, encompassing 46,500 sq km. It is bounded on the northwest and north by Tibet, and the remainder by India: on the east by the state of Arunachal Pradesh; on the south by Assam and West Bengal; and on the west by Sikkim. Tibet's Chumbi valley, the old trade and expedition route from India to Lhasa, lies between the northern parts of Bhutan and Sikkim.
Almost the entire country is mountainous and with elevations ranging from 100m to the 7541m Gangkhar Puensum peak on the Tibetan border. It can be divided into three major geographic regions: the high or Greater Himalaya of the north; the hills and valleys of the Inner Himalaya; and the foothills and plains of the south.
Bhutan on a Plate
The Himalaya continue to buckle and rise under the influence of plate tectonics and the consequences are regularly felt in Bhutan. In 2009, a 6.1 magnitude quake, centred in Mongar, shook the entire country, causing fatalities and destruction. In 2011, the 6.9 magnitude Sikkim earthquake also caused damage and one death in Bhutan. The devastating Nepal earthquake of 2015 was felt in Bhutan, but there was no significant damage. While Bhutan does not yet have a permanent seismometer network, a temporary network was set up in 2013–14, which indicated numerous small earthquakes occur on a daily basis, most of which are undetectable by humans.
The southern foothills rapidly drop down to the great plain of India, and with the great rivers flowing from the north they comprise a region of lush fertile valleys known as the duars, from the Sanskrit word meaning 'passes' or 'gates'. Before the British annexed Bhutan's southern regions, each duar was under the control of a Bhutanese dzongpen (lord of the dzong), but as they were malaria-infested they were largely unoccupied by the Bhutanese, who stayed in the northern hills.
Each duar is named after a river valley that leads out of Bhutan, though the duar itself is actually the land between two rivers. The land ranges from an elevation of about 100m to almost sea level at the Brahmaputra River, and the slope is barely perceptible.
Seven of the duars abut the border of Assam between the Dhansiri (Durlah) and Manas Rivers. The remaining 11, from the Manas River to the Teesta River in the east, border on the state of West Bengal.
A range of high Himalayan peaks forms much of the northern and western borders of Bhutan. These are the thrones of the gods; almost none has been climbed, many are virtually unexplored and some are not even named. There are several high mountain passes that cross the Himalaya, but for the most part it remains an impenetrable snow-clad barrier (20% of the country is under perpetual snow). The Himalayan range extends from Jhomolhari (7314m) in the west to Kulha Gangri (7554m), near the centre point of the northern border. A chain of lower peaks extends eastwards to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Lunana region, just south of the midpoint of Bhutan's border with Tibet, is an area of glacial peaks and high valleys that are snowbound during winter. A range of high peaks forms the southern boundary of Lunana, isolating it from the rest of the country.
South of the high peaks is an area of broad, deep valleys and steep forested hills ranging from 1100m to 3500m in elevation. This is the largest region of Bhutan and all the major towns, including Thimphu, are here. This region is a labyrinth of deep ravines formed by fast-flowing rivers. The hillsides are generally too steep for farming, and so most have remained covered in forest.
The greater part of Bhutan's western border is formed by the Himalayan range, including the peaks of Jhomolhari and Jichu Drakye (6989m). Several forested ridges extend eastwards from this range, and these define the large valleys of Thimphu, Paro, Haa and Samtse. Between Punakha and Thimphu lies a well-defined ridge that forms the watershed between Thimphu's Wang Chhu and Punakha's Puna Tsang Chhu. The east–west road crosses this ridge over a 3050m pass, Dochu La.
A range called the Black Mountains lies to the east of the Puna Tsang Chhu watershed, forming the major barrier between eastern and western Bhutan. Pele La (3420m) is the most important pass across the Black Mountains.
A north–south range of hills separates the Trongsa and Bumthang valley systems. The road crosses this ridge via Yotong La (3425m). Further east, the Donga range of hills follows the border separating the Bumthang and Lhuentse districts, with Thrumshing La (3780m) as the crossing point for the road. Eastern Bhutan, which encompasses most of the Manas Chhu watershed, lies to the east of this range.
Rivers (chhus) play an important role in Bhutan's geography, and their enormous potential for hydroelectric power has helped shape the economy. Most of the rivers have their headwaters in the high mountains of Bhutan, but there are three that flow across borders into the country. The Amo Chhu flows from Tibet's Chumbi valley across the southwestern corner of Bhutan, where it becomes the Torsa Chhu, and exits at Phuentsholing. Two tributaries of the Manas, in eastern Bhutan, originate outside the country. The Kuri Chhu has its headwaters in Tibet (where it is known as the Lhobrak Chhu) and crosses into Bhutan at an elevation of only 1200m; the other tributary, the Gamri Chhu, rises in India's Arunachal Pradesh.
All of Bhutan's rivers eventually flow through the fertile valleys known as the duars to become part of the Brahmaputra, which is known in Tibet as the Yarlung Tsampo, with a source near Mt Kailash in the far west. Duar is a Sanskrit word meaning 'passes' or 'gates', and is the origin of the English word 'door'.
Global Warming & Glacial Timebombs
It's no small tragedy that the tiny villages of rural Bhutan, which insignificantly contribute to greenhouse gases, are on the front line of global warming's consequences. Across the Himalaya, glacier lakes are filling up with many millions of cubic metres of meltwater, and in recent decades there has been a tenfold increase in glacier-lake outbursts. In Bhutan there are 25 lakes in danger of bursting.
In 1994, a glacier-lake outburst swept 10 million cu metres of water down the Po Chhu. It flooded a number of villages and killed 23 people in Punakha, 80km downstream. In 2015, Lemthang Tsho suddenly emptied its entire volume into the Mo Chhu system, thankfully without much damage. In addition to increased monitoring of glacial lakes, current mitigation efforts include reducing lake levels by digging outflow channels. However, the threat of a sudden outburst remains significant.
Bhutan's Green Vault
An astonishing array of plants grows in Bhutan: over 5000 species, including more than 600 species of orchid, 300 species of medicinal plants and about 46 species of spectacular rhododendrons. Few countries could boast the variety of habitats from tropical jungle to alpine tundra in such a compact area. Because glaciation had no impact on the lower reaches of the Himalaya, these foothills remain repositories of plants whose origins can be traced back before the ice age. This area is home to some of the most ancient species of vegetation on earth.
Forests are found up to 4500m and serve not only as a source of fuel, timber and herbs, but also as a cultural resource, as they form the basis of many folk songs and ritual offerings. Though the government policy is to maintain at least 60% of the land as forest, the present ratio is higher, and that is indeed good news. However, it's hard to separate myth from fact. Estimates as high as 72% forest cover include shrubland, abandoned farmland as well as conifer and broadleaf forests. Furthermore, in recent years there has been significant development in Bhutan's forests with increased efforts in forestry, mining, road building and hydro projects, plus an increase in forest fires, all impacting forest cover negatively. On the plus side there have been large-scale reafforestation initiatives. In 2015, Bhutan claimed a Guinness world record for planting 49,672 trees in one hour, and in 2016, in celebration of Prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck's birth, 108,000 saplings were planted across the nation.
Warm & Wet Subtropics
Subtropical evergreen forests growing below 800m are unique repositories of biodiversity, but much of the rich vegetation at these lower elevations has been cleared for pasture and terraced farmland. In the next vegetation zone (900m to 1800m) are the subtropical grasslands, including groves of fragrant lemon grass and bamboo. Forests here comprise chir pine, oak, walnut and sal. Numerous varieties of orchid and fern grace the branches of the forest giants.
Deep & Dark Forests
The subtropical vegetation of the lower altitudes gives way to the diverse, dense and dark forests of oak, birch, maple, magnolia and laurel of the temperate zone (1800m to 3500m). On most hills, the sunny south side takes on countless shades of green with a variety of broadleaf species. The damp, shady north side displays a more dour appearance with blue pine and soaring deodars and firs festooned with old man's beard. Spring is the time to see the magnificent red-, pink- or cream-flowering rhododendrons of Bhutan that feature on the mountain passes of Dochu La, Pele La and Yotung La.
Alpine Flower Meadows
Between the treeline and the snowline at about 5500m are found low shrubs, dwarf rhododendrons and flowering herbs. Junipers can also be seen in a dwarfed form at altitudes over 4000m.
As the snows begin to melt at the end of winter, the high-altitude grazing lands are carpeted with wildflowers, which remain in bloom until early summer. After the onset of the monsoon, in July, a second and even more vibrant flowering occurs, which extends until late August. Some of the magnificent blooms found at these higher elevations include anemones, forget-me-nots, dwarf irises, primulas, delphiniums and ranunculus.
The Blue Poppy
The blue poppy, Bhutan's national flower, is a delicate blue- or purple-tinged bloom with a white filament. In Dzongkha it is known by the name euitgel metog hoem. It grows to nearly 1m tall, on the rocky mountain terrain found above the treeline (3500m to 4500m). The flowering season occurs during the early monsoon, from late May to July, and the seeds yield oil. Adding to its mystery, fascination and appeal with plant lovers is its strange flowering behaviour. It takes several years to grow, then it eventually flowers for the first and last time, produces seeds, and dies. Poppies can be found atop some high passes from the far eastern parts of the country all the way across to the west.
At one time the blue poppy was considered to be a Himalayan myth, along with the migoi (yeti). In 1933 a British botanist, George Sherriff, who was in Bhutan studying Himalayan flora, found the plant in the remote mountain region of Sakteng in eastern Bhutan. Despite this proof, few people have seen one; a mystique surrounds the species in the same way it does the snow leopard.
Bhutan emerged into the 20th century with much of its forests and ecosystems intact. But now, with an increasing population, improved and expanding roads and limited farming land, a major effort is required to protect the country's natural heritage.
Growing awareness of environmental issues has prompted appropriate conservation measures. Among these are nationwide bans on the commercial export of raw timber and the use of plastic bags. While Bhutan has consciously decided to forego immediate economic gain from exploitation of its natural resources in order to preserve its environment for long-term sustainable benefits, the pressure to develop and keep up with neighbours China and India is a hot topic across the nation.
Poaching in Shangri La
While the Bhutanese generally observe their own conservation policies, the open southern and northern borders offer opportunities for poaching of both plant and animal life. Many species are sought for their alleged medicinal or other valuable properties. Killing and poaching are unacceptable in Buddhist tradition, but the high prices that wildlife products such as rhino horn, tiger bone, musk and caterpillar fungus command outside Bhutan present major challenges to conservationists.
The Department of Forests & Park Services operates effective antipoaching programs designed to protect endangered plants and animals, enforce forestry rules, and control trade in wildlife parts and products. A national network of foresters regulates timber harvesting, and there are road checkpoints throughout the country to monitor the transportation of forest products.
Managing firewood harvesting is a major problem in remote regions of Bhutan. Wood is still used as the primary heating and cooking fuel in rural areas and Bhutan's per capita consumption of firewood is one of the highest in the world. In urban areas cooking gas or kerosene is commonly used, but there are high hopes that both rural and urban Bhutan will receive electricity supplies from the large and small hydro projects currently in development, although the bulk of that energy is earmarked for sale to India. Nevertheless, rural electrification has made inroads in per-capita consumption of firewood and small electric cookers are being introduced throughout the country.
Grazing & Farming
Conservation issues centre on conflicts between humans and wildlife, such as crop and livestock depredation by wild predators, and the deterioration of high-altitude wildlife habitat from grazing pressure. There are government and NGO programs under way to balance the needs of traditional herders and farmers with wildlife protection.
A significant amount of shifting cultivation ('slash and burn', called tseri in Dzongkha) is practised in Bhutan, particularly in the east. The practice is officially banned and several methods, including education and fertiliser supply, are being implemented to change this practice.
Bhutan boasts a tremendous diversity of plants and animals flourishing in a range of ecosystems, from subtropical jungle barely above sea level to snowbound mountains above 7500m. The country's various habitats are believed to contain close to 200 species of mammals and over 600 species of birds.
Mammals & Birds
Large mammals abound in the wilds of Bhutan, but unless you are trekking or exploring Royal Manas National Park you will be very lucky to see more than a few examples. The neighbourhood of Royal Manas is home to a large variety of well-known south Asian game species: water buffalo, gaur, serow, wild pig and several species of deer (sambar, muntjac, chital, and hog). It is also the best place to see Asian elephants and the very rare greater one-horned rhinoceros.
While trekking on the high trails you may well be lucky enough to spot herds of blue sheep (bharal). Blue sheep are goat-antelopes, taxonomically somewhere between goats and sheep, that turn a bluish grey in winter and are found at between 1800m and 4300m. Other mammals that prefer the high life include wolves, yaks and the diminutive, unusual musk deer. The male's musk gland is a highly valued perfume ingredient and this secretive deer is a target for indiscriminate poaching. Fat marmots whistle as you pass their burrows in the high alpine pastures and the curious takins can be seen in northwestern and far northeastern Bhutan. However, the most likely place to spot a takin is in the Motithang Takin Preserve in Thimphu.
The Takin – Bhutan's National Animal
The reason for selecting the takin as the national animal is based both on its uniqueness and its strong association with the country's religious history and mythology. When the great saint Lama Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman, visited Bhutan in the 15th century, a large congregation of devotees gathered from around the country to witness his magical powers. The people urged the lama to perform a miracle.
However, the saint, in his usual unorthodox and outrageous way, demanded that he first be served a whole cow and a goat for lunch. He devoured these with relish and left only the bones. After letting out a large and satisfied burp, he took the goat's head and stuck it onto the bones of the cow. And then with a snap of his fingers he commanded the strange beast to rise up and graze on the mountainside. To the astonishment of the people, the animal arose and ran up to the meadows to graze. This animal came to be known as the dong gyem tsey (takin) and to this day these clumsy-looking animals can be seen grazing on the mountainsides of Bhutan.
The takin continues to befuddle taxonomists. The famous biologist George Schaller called it a 'beestung moose'. In summer, takins migrate to subalpine forests and alpine meadows above 3700m to graze on luxuriant grasses, herbs and shrubs. By migrating they escape the leeches, mosquitoes, horseflies and other parasites of the monsoon-swept lower valleys. This is also the time when the alpine vegetation is richest in nutrition and takins gain weight easily: some males become massive, weighing as much as 1 tonne or more. Summer is also the time when takins mate. The gestation period is between seven and eight months, and their young – usually a single calf – are born between December and February. Sometimes the Himalayan black bear will follow a pregnant takin and immediately after she has given birth, chase her away and eat the calf.
In late August takins start their slow descent to the lower valleys where the herds begin to break up. They arrive at the winter grazing grounds in temperate broadleaf forests between 2000m and 3000m by late October.
Hunting is banned by law and poaching is limited since there is no high economic value placed on the body parts of the takin. In traditional medicine, however, the horn of the takin, consumed in minute amounts, is supposed to help women during a difficult childbirth.
The major threats that the takin faces are competition with domestic yaks for grazing in the alpine meadows and the loss of habitat in the temperate forests.
Several species of monkey are found in Bhutan and some of these are active throughout the day and may be seen not far from villages or a main road – so keep an eye on the roadside trees on those long drives. Most common are the Assamese macaques: reddish-brown, stumpy-tailed monkeys travelling on the ground in troops of 10 to 50 individuals. They are found throughout Bhutan up to 2900m. Rhesus macaques are similar and are the dominant monkey of the Indian plains. In Bhutan the bold rhesus is confined to the southern foothills.
Langurs are elegant, arboreal monkeys with graceful limbs, extraordinarily long tails and a charismatic presence. Three species of langur make a home in Bhutan's forests – up to 3600m in altitude, and usually high up in the forest canopy. The common grey or Hanuman langur is found west of Pele La; the capped langur is found east of the Manas Chhu in eastern Bhutan; while the famous golden langur is only found from the Puna Tsang Chhu in the west to the Manas Chhu in the east. Keep an eye out for troupes of them on the drive from Trongsa to Zhemgang. This beautiful primate's existence was not even known to the scientific community until the 20th century. Not surprisingly, its distinctive feature is its lustrous golden coat.
The grey, golden and capped langurs have a specially adapted stomach for digesting forest leaves and are not an agricultural pest.
Several species of cat, ranging from the moggy-sized jungle cat to the powerful tiger, prowl the forests, valleys and mountains of Bhutan. The other cats are the Asiatic golden cat, marbled cat, Pallas's cat, leopard cat, fishing cat, lynx, clouded leopard, common leopard and the enigmatic snow leopard.
The essentially solitary tiger is a symbol of great reverence in Bhutan. There are only around 100, mostly in and around Royal Manas National Park, though tigers roam throughout Bhutan, even to high altitudes (4100m), and as far north as Jigme Dorji National Park. In 2012, a tiger was photographed on a camera trap near Dochu La.
Several tiger-conservation measures have been implemented in Bhutan and, coupled with the strong protected-areas system, has provided a favourable environment for the animal. It is believed the protected regions of Bhutan and India provide sufficient habitat to sustain viable breeding populations.
With its extraordinarily beautiful dappled silver coat, the snow leopard has been hunted relentlessly throughout its range and is in danger of extinction. This elusive cat is almost entirely solitary, largely because a single animal's hunting territory is so vast and its prey is so scarce throughout its high-altitude habitat. However, when its favourite prey, the blue sheep, migrates to lower valleys in winter, the snow leopard follows them. It is then that the sexes meet.
The Caterpillar & the Fungus
According to one study, upwards of US$10 billion is spent each year by Asian markets on a fungus with purported powers matched only by rhino horns, elephant tusks and tiger penises. Most of the purchasers hope it will increase potency in males. Some Chinese swimming coaches and practitioners of traditional medicine have so talked up the value of yartsa goenbub (winter-worm summer-plant) that it is now one of, if not the, most valuable commodities by weight. Also known as caterpillar fungus or cordyceps, Ophioordyceps sinensis is a peculiar fungus that parasitises then kills its moth caterpillar host. It is only found in the high-altitude meadows of the Himalaya and Tibet.
Tibetan yak herders wandering in and out of Bhutan traditionally scooped up the fungus to augment their meagre living, but the increased demand for cordyceps in China has brought dramatic changes with gatherers swarming the meadows of Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Not surprisingly; at the time of writing prices were as high as US$100,000 per kilogram!
Bhutan legalised the harvesting of cordyceps in 2004, and since then there has been a massive increase in harvesting effort, raising concerns for its sustainablilty. Although the trade in cordyceps is officially regulated, the high stakes mean unlawful collection and black-market trading is rife.
A tragic knock-on effect linked to this sudden Himalayan wealth bonanza was a swath of poaching of big cats across Asia as increasingly wealthy Tibetans demanded cat skins for new chuba (cloaks) and for decorating their homes. This prompted a proclamation by the Dalai Lama for Tibetans to respect nature and discard their cat skins, which was popularly supported with thousands of Tibetans burning their cat skins. Nevertheless, China remains the main destination for products from poached big cats.
Bears & Red Pandas
There are two species of bear found in Bhutan. The omnivorous Himalayan black bear is a bane to farmers growing corn and fruit near the temperate forests (1200m to 3500m) it frequents, whereas the sloth bear is principally a termite eater and honey pirate found at lower altitudes. Bears do occasionally attack humans, probably because their poor eyesight leads them to interpret that a standing person is making a threatening gesture.
The red panda is known in Bhutan as aamchu donkha and is most commonly found near Pele La, Thrumshing La and parts of the Gasa district. It is bright-chestnut coloured, about 50cm long, including its bushy, banded tail, and has a white face. The red panda is nocturnal, sleeping in trees during the day and coming to the ground to forage on bamboo and raid birds' nests at night.
Each year Bhutan's extensive bird list grows longer, a consequence of Bhutan's rich biodiversity and relatively small amount of systematic birding that has been done in the kingdom. Nonetheless, over 600 species have been recorded and birdwatching tours are extremely popular.
Bhutan is rightly famous for its wintering populations of the vulnerable black-necked crane. Less well known are the winter populations, mainly as solitary individuals, of the critically endangered white-bellied heron, listed as one of the 50 rarest birds in the world with no more than 250 individuals worldwide. This graceful bird may – with luck – be seen from the road in the vicinity of Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang and Zhemgang, especially along the Mangde Chhu valley. For more on cranes, including a downloadable field guide, visit the International Crane Foundation (www.savingcranes.org).
Some bird species are even more transient, migrating through Bhutan between Tibet and northern India in autumn and spring. Pallas's fish eagle, which is considered rare, is regularly seen migrating up the Punak Chhu near Wangdue Phodrang in spring. It is often in the company of ospreys, a wide range of ducks, waders such as the pied avocet, and other birds that breed in Tibet.
The raven is the national bird of Bhutan. A raven guided the Zhabdrung to Bhutan in 1616, and it gives its name to the raven-shaped crown worn by the kings of Bhutan.
Winter brings numerous species down to lower altitudes, including accentors, rosefinches, grosbeaks, snow pigeons and pheasants, such as the satyr tragopan, the Himalayan monal and the blood pheasant. Observant early morning walkers can often find these on the mountains and passes around Thimphu. In summer many lowland species move to higher altitudes to breed; these species include the comic-looking hoopoe, various species of minivets, cuckoos (one can commonly hear at least five different species calling), barbets, warblers, sunbirds, fulvettas and yuhinas.
Given the density of forest cover and the steep vertical descents, the road is often the best place from which to spot birds. Recommended stretches include the road down from Dochu La to Wangdue Phodrang (the adventurous can take the old trail, which is even better), from Wangdue Phodrang to Nobding (on the way to Pele La), and before Trongsa. For those who go east, the 2000m descent between Sengor and Lingmethang is spectacular: the rufous-necked hornbill and Ward's trogon have been recorded in this area. But stay on the lookout on all the roads – we spotted a pair of rufus-necked hornbills near Gedu, on the road between Thimphu and Phuentsholing.
Trekking will provide you with a greater chance of seeing high-altitude birds, including the lammergeier, the Himalayan griffon, the raven, the unique high-altitude wader, the ibisbill, and several colourful pheasants.
The Black-Necked Crane
The rare and vulnerable black-necked crane occupies a special place in Bhutanese hearts and folklore. Its arrival every autumn from Tibet inspires songs and dances; it usually heralds the end of the harvesting season and also the time when farming families start migrating to warmer climates.
Many legends and myths exist about the bird, which the Bhutanese call thrung thrung karmo. Wetlands of the high mountain valleys of Phobjikha, Bomdeling and Gaytsa serve as the winter habitat for up to 600 birds. Like other cranes, these have an elaborate mating ritual, a dance in which pairs bow, leap into the air and toss vegetation about while uttering loud bugling calls. It can be difficult to distinguish the sexes because the colouration is so similar, but the females are slightly smaller. The crane's preferred delicacies include fallen grain, tubers and insects.
The world's entire population of 9000 to 11,000 black-necked cranes breeds in Tibet and Ladakh. As well as in Bhutan, they winter in south-central Tibet and northeastern Yunan province in China.
The Royal Society for Protection of Nature (www.rspnbhutan.org), which is involved in conservation, education and inspiring the Bhutanese populace, annually monitors the black-necked cranes in the Phobjikha and Bomdeling valleys and has produced videos of them.
National Parks & Protected Areas
There are five national parks, four wildlife sanctuaries and one nature reserve, which together constitute about 43% of the country, or 16,396 sq km. An additional 3307 sq km is designated as a network of biological corridors linking all nine protected areas, putting 52% of the country under some form of protection.
All but three of the protected areas encompass regions in which there is a resident human population. Preserving the culture and fostering local tradition is part of the mandate of Bhutan's national-park system. The government has developed an integrated conservation and development program to allow people living within a protected area to continue to farm, graze animals, collect plants and cut firewood.
Bhutan established its national-park system to protect important ecosystems, and for the most part they have not been developed as tourist attractions. Apart from one or two exceptions, you won't find the kind of facilities you may normally associate with national parks, such as entrance stations, campgrounds and visitors centres. In many cases you won't even be aware that you are entering or leaving a national park.
Sidebar: Tethys Sea
Millions of years ago the space now occupied by Bhutan was an open expanse of water, part of the shallow Tethys Sea. The Tibetan plateau ('Roof of the World') was beachfront property.
Sidebar: Pine Guide
You can easily distinguish the chir pine from the blue pine, because the needles of the chir pine are in groups of three and those of the blue pine are shorter and in groups of five.
Sidebar: Field Guide
Trees and Shrubs of Nepal and the Himalayas, by Adrian and Jimmie Storrs, is the best field guide to the forests of Bhutan.
Between March and May the hillsides are ablaze with the deep red flowers of the etho metho, the country's most famous rhododendron. Ranging from small shrubs to 20m trees, 46 species of rhododendron occur throughout the country.
Sidebar: Rhododendron in Print
Wild Rhododendrons of Bhutan, by Rebecca Pradhan, is a beautiful guide to Bhutan's rhododendrons, with photographs of all 46 species.
Sidebar: Bhutan's Birds
Birds of Bhutan, by Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp and Richard Grimmett, is a comprehensive, illustrated guide to Bhutan's avian treasures.
Sidebar: Best Places to Spot Wildlife
- Bomdeling – capped langurs
- Jhomolhari trek – blue sheep
- Kori La – hornbills, barbets and more
- Phobjikha valley – black-necked cranes
- Zhemgang – golden langurs
The most authoritative guide to Bhutan's mammals, their identification, behaviour and distribution is A Field Guide to the Mammals of Bhutan, by Tashi Wangchuk, available in most Thimphu bookshops.
Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti, by Kunzang Choden, describes Bhutanese beliefs about where and how this mysterious creature may live.
Sidebar: Musk Deer
The musk deer is a primitive deer that has no antlers; both sexes have oversized protruding canine teeth, up to 7cm long in males and used in territorial battles.