Bhutan

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Bhutan is officially known as the Kingdom of Bhutan

Bhutan is located in the Eastern Himalayas, it is bordered by the Tibet Autonomous Region of China in the north, the Chumbi Valley of Tibet, China and the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal in the west, and the Indian states of Assam, West Bengal and Arunachal Pradesh in the south and east.

Thimphu is its capital and largest city, while Phuntsholing is its financial center.

Official language: Dzongkha.
National currency is called ngultrum: 1 BTN = 100 chhertum = 0,013 USD (2021).
Time zone in Bhutan: GMT+6

The government is a parliamentary democracy; the head of state is the King of Bhutan, known as the “Dragon King.”
Bhutan is also notable for pioneering the concept of gross national happiness.

Geography & Administrative division

The country’s landscape ranges from lush subtropical plains in the south to the sub-alpine Himalayan mountains in the north, where there are peaks higher than 7,000 meters.
Gangkhar Puensum is Bhutan’s highest peak and may also be the highest unclimbed mountain in the world.

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Bhutan is on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, landlocked between the Tibet Autonomous Region of China to the north and the Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam to west, and south and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh to the east.

The land consists mostly of steep and high mountains crisscrossed by a network of swift rivers that form deep valleys before draining into the Indian plains. Elevation rises from 200 m in the southern foothills to more than 7,000 m. This great geographical diversity combined with equally diverse climate conditions contributes to Bhutan’s outstanding range of biodiversity and ecosystems.

Bhutan’s northern region consists of an arc of Eastern Himalayan alpine shrub and meadows reaching up to glaciated mountain peaks with an extremely cold climate at the highest elevations. Most peaks in the north are over 7,000 m above sea level; the highest point is Gangkhar Puensum, at 7,570 meters, which has the distinction of being the highest unclimbed mountain in the world.

The lowest point, at 98 m, is in the valley of Drangme Chhu, where the river crosses the border with India. Watered by snow-fed rivers, alpine valleys in this region provide pasture for livestock, tended by a sparse population of migratory shepherds.

The Black Mountains in Bhutan’s central region form a watershed between two major river systems: the Mo Chhu and the Drangme Chhu. Peaks in the Black Mountains range between 1,500 and 4,925 m above sea level, and fast-flowing rivers have carved out deep gorges in the lower mountain areas.

The forests of the central Bhutan mountains consist of Eastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests in higher elevations and Eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests in lower elevations. Woodlands of the central region provide most of Bhutan’s forest production. The Torsa, Raidak, Sankosh, and Manas are Bhutan’s main rivers, flowing through this region. Most of the population lives in the central highlands.

In the south, the Shiwalik Hills are covered with dense Himalayan subtropical broadleaf forests, alluvial lowland river valleys, and mountains up to around 1,500 m (4,900 ft) above sea level. The foothills descend into the subtropical Duars Plain. Most of the Duars is in India, but a 10 to 15 km wide strip extends into Bhutan. The Bhutan Duars is divided into two parts, the northern and southern Duars.

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

Data released by the Ministry of Agriculture showed that the country had a forest cover of 64% as of October 2005.

Nature & Wildlife

The wildlife of Bhutan is notable for its diversity.

Demographics & Languages

There are two dozen languages of Bhutan, all members of the Tibeto-Burman language family except for Nepali, which is an Indo-Aryan language, and Bhutanese Sign Language.

Dzongkha, the national language, is the only language with a native literary tradition in Bhutan, though Lepcha and Nepali are literary languages in other countries.

Other non-Bhutanese minority languages are also spoken along Bhutan’s borders and among the primarily Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa community in South and East Bhutan.

Origin of the name & Local symbols

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

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

Names similar to Bhutan—including Bohtan, Bhutan, Bottanthis, Bottan and Bottanter—began to appear in Europe around the 1580s. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s 1676 Six Voyages is the first to record the name Boutan. But these names seem to have referred not to modern Bhutan but to the Kingdom of Tibet.

The modern distinction between the two did not begin until well into the Scottish explorer George Bogle’s 1774 expedition. Realizing the differences between the two regions, cultures and states, his final report to the East India Company formally proposed calling the Druk Desi’s kingdom “Boutan” and the Panchen Lama’s “Tibet”.

The EIC’s surveyor general James Rennell first anglicized the French name as Bootan and then popularized the distinction between it and greater Tibet.

Locally, Bhutan has been known by many names. One of the earliest Western records of Bhutan, the 1627 Relação of the Portuguese Jesuits Estêvão Cacella and João Cabral, records its name variously as Cambirasi (among the Koch Biharis), Potente, and Mon (an endonym for southern Tibet).

The first time the separate Kingdom of Bhutan appeared on a western map, it did so under its local name “Broukpa”. Others include Lho Mon (“Dark Southland”), Lho Tsendenjong (“Southland of the Cypress”), Lhomen Khazhi (“Southland of the Four Approaches”) and Lho Menjong (“Southland of the Herbs”).

History & Timeline

Bhutan’s independence has endured for centuries. It has never been colonized in its history. Situated on the ancient Silk Road between Tibet, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, the Bhutanese state developed a distinct national identity based on Buddhism.

Headed by a spiritual leader known as the Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the territory comprised many fiefdoms and was governed as a Buddhist theocracy. Following a civil war in the 19th century, the House of Wangchuck reunited the country and established relations with the British Empire.

After the end of the British Raj, Bhutan fostered a strategic partnership with India during the rise of Chinese communism; it has a disputed border with China. In the early 1990s, the government deported much of the country’s Nepali-speaking Lhotsampa minority, sparking a refugee crisis in nearby Nepal.

In 2008, Bhutan transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy and held the first election to the National Assembly of Bhutan. The National Assembly is part of the bicameral parliament of the Bhutanese democracy.

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

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

Much of early Bhutanese history is unclear because most of the records were destroyed when fire ravaged the ancient capital, Punakha, in 1827. By the 10th century, Bhutan’s political development was heavily influenced by its religious history. Various subsects of Buddhism emerged that were patronized by the various Mongol warlords.

Bhutan may have been influenced by the Yuan dynasty with which it shares various cultural and religious similarities.
After the decline of the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century, these subsects vied with each other for supremacy in the political and religious landscape, eventually leading to the ascendancy of the Drukpa Lineage by the 16th century.

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

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

When Ngawang Namgyal died in 1651, his passing was kept secret for 54 years. After a period of consolidation, Bhutan lapsed into internal conflict. In 1711 Bhutan went to war against the Raja of the kingdom of Koch Bihar in the south. During the chaos that followed, the Tibetans unsuccessfully attacked Bhutan in 1714.

In the 18th century, the Bhutanese invaded and occupied the kingdom of Koch Bihar. In 1772, the Maharaja of Koch Bihar appealed to the British East India Company which assisted by ousting the Bhutanese and later in attacking Bhutan itself in 1774. A peace treaty was signed in which Bhutan agreed to retreat to its pre-1730 borders.

However, the peace was tenuous, and border skirmishes with the British were to continue for the next hundred years. The skirmishes eventually led to the Duar War (1864–65), a confrontation for control of the Bengal Duars. After Bhutan lost the war, the Treaty of Sinchula was signed between British India and Bhutan. As part of the war reparations, the Duars were ceded to the United Kingdom in exchange for a rent of Rs. 50,000. The treaty ended all hostilities between British India and Bhutan.

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

In 1907, an epochal year for the country, Ugyen Wangchuck was unanimously chosen as the hereditary king of the country by the Lhengye Tshog of leading Buddhist monks, government officials, and heads of important families, with the firm petition made by Gongzim Ugyen Dorji.

John Claude White, British Political Agent in Bhutan, took photographs of the ceremony. The British government promptly recognized the new monarchy, and in 1910 Bhutan signed the Treaty of Punakha, a subsidiary alliance that gave the British control of Bhutan’s foreign affairs and meant that Bhutan was treated as an Indian princely state.

This had a little real effect, given Bhutan’s historical reticence, and also did not appear to affect Bhutan’s traditional relations with Tibet. After the new Union of India gained independence from the United Kingdom on 15 August 1947, Bhutan became one of the first countries to recognize India’s independence. On 8 August 1949, a treaty similar to that of 1910, in which Britain had gained power over Bhutan’s foreign relations, was signed with the newly independent India.

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

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

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

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

On 6 November 2008, 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was crowned king.

Tourism & What to do in Bhutan?

All tourists need a Bhutanese visa to enter and exit Bhutan.

All visas are approved in the capital, Thimphu, and are only issued to tourists who have booked travel with a locally licensed tour operator, either directly or through a foreign travel agent.

Applications for tourist visas are submitted by the local tour operator. In 2014, Bhutan welcomed 133,480 foreign visitors. Seeking to become a high-value destination, it imposes a daily fee of 250 USD on every tourist that covers touring and hotel accommodation.

The country currently has no UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but it has had eight declared tentative sites for UNESCO inclusion since 2012:

  • Ancient Ruin of Drukgyel Dzong
  • Bumdelling Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Dzongs: the center of temporal and religious authorities (Punakha Dzong, Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, Paro Dzong, Trongsa Dzong, and Dagana Dzong)
  • Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP)
  • Royal Manas National Park (RMNP)
  • Sacred Sites associated with Phajo Drugom Zhigpo and his descendants
  • Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS)
  • Tamzhing Monastery

Bhutan also has numerous tourist sites that are not included in its UNESCO tentative list. Bhutan has one element, the Mask dance of the drums from Drametse, registered in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

Bhutan is also well known for mountain adventure trekking and hiking. Jhomolhari Base Camp Trek, Snowman Trek, and Masagang trek are some of the popular treks in Bhutan.

Climate & Best time to visit Bhutan

Bhutan’s climate varies with elevation, from subtropical in the south to temperate in the highlands and polar-type climate with year-round snow in the north.

Bhutan experiences five distinct seasons: summer, monsoon, autumn, winter and spring. Western Bhutan has the heavier monsoon rains; southern Bhutan has hot humid summers and cool winters; central and eastern Bhutan are temperate and drier than the west with warm summers and cool winters.

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