The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan lies along the lofty ridges of the eastern Himalayas, bordered by China (Tibet) to the north and northwest, and by the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim on the east, south and west respectively.
With an area of 38,394 square km., the kingdom is peopled sparsely, with a population approaching close to 700,000. It is amazing to see that this small nation has a huge diversity of ethnic groups.
Bhutan is the only extant Mahayana Buddhist kingdom in the world of today and the teachings of this school of Buddhism are a living faith among its people. The air of spirituality is pervasive even in urban centres, where the spinning of prayer wheels, the murmur of mantras and the glow of butter lamps are still commonplace features of everyday life. Bhutan’s religious sites and institutions are not museums, but the daily refuge of the people.
One of the most striking physical features of Bhutan is its architecture. The characteristic style and colour of every building and house in the kingdom is a distinct source of aesthetic pleasure. The dzongs – themselves imposing 17th century structures built on a grand scale without the help of any drawings and constructed entirely without nails – are outstanding examples of the best in Bhutanese architecture. Patterns of rich colours adorn walls, beams, pillars and doors in traditional splendour.
As with its architecture, art and painting are important aspects of Bhutanese culture and they bear testimony to the spiritual depth of Bhutanese life. Whether it is on a wall, or one of the renowned thangkhas, painters use vegetable dyes to give their work an unparalleled subtle beauty and warmth. Bhutan also boasts a wealth of cottage industries, and the skills of its wood carvers, gold and silversmiths, and weavers (to name only a few) are all representative of highly developed art forms.
No-where in the Himalayas is the natural heritage more rich and varied than in Bhutan. In historical records, the kingdom is referred to as the “Valley of Medicinal Herbs”, a name that still applies to this day. The country’s richly diverse flora and fauna result from its unique geographic location in the eastern Himalayas where the Tibetan plateau meets South Asia, its annual rainfall which is significantly higher than in the central and western Himalayas, and its considerable altitudinal variation, from 200m above sea level in the south to over 7,000m above sea level in the north, and consequent dramatic climatic variations. Because of the deep traditional reverence which the Bhutanese have for nature, the kingdom is one of the leading countries in environmental conservation. Over 65% of Bhutan’s land area is still under forest cover. The constitution of the country demands that Bhutan remains a carbon-sink for the future generations. Many parts of the country have been declared wildlife reserves, and are the natural habitats of rare species of both flora and fauna.
Opened for tourism in 1974, after the coronation of the 4th King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan is perhaps the world’s most exclusive tourist destination. The country still retains all the charm of the old world, and travellers experience the full glory of this ancient land as embodied in the monastic fortresses, ancient temples, monasteries and stupas which dot the countryside, prayer flags fluttering above farmhouses and on the hillsides, lush forests, rushing glacial rivers, and – perhaps most important of all – the warm smiles and genuine friendliness of the people. Each moment is special as one discovers a country which its people have chosen to preserve in all its magical purity.
As of 2008, the kingdom became a Constitutional Monarchy. The 5th King- His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck took the reins as the head of the state in Nov. 2008. The present government is the third elected one. The total members in the parliament are 72 (with 47 in the lower house and 25 in the upper house. There are 10 ministries and tourism is an autonomous body called the Tourism Council of Bhutan with the Foreign Minister as the Chairperson.