Bhutan - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Bhutan - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture


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The tiny Kingdom of Bhutan, at the eastern end of the Himalayas, nestles between the giant nation states of China and India. Often called the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” it remained secluded until recent times—the first ever “tourist” set foot in Bhutan in 1974 and was followed by the introduction of television and new technology at the turn of the 21st century. In 2008, Bhutan became the world’s youngest democracy, moving from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in a historic change initiated by the revered and much-loved Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. A sovereign country throughout the ages, Bhutan is now establishing its place on the world stage and demonstrating leadership on climate and environmental issues. It is determined to maintain its Buddhist culture and way of life as it evolves and adapts to political change and economic challenges. Its unique development policy of “Gross National Happiness,” which measures progress not through material gain but on a happiness scale, is generating global interest. The abundant hospitality of the Bhutanese, the variety of Bhutan’s ancient monasteries and colorful festivals, and its near-perfect ecosystem and natural beauty never fail to reward the traveler. Culture Smart! Bhutan will give you a deeper insight into the country’s history, values, and customs, as well as practical guidance on how to develop a meaningful rapport with the Bhutanese.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781857338751
Publisher: Kuperard
Publication date: 02/01/2018
Series: Culture Smart! Series
Pages: 168
Sales rank: 1,263,790
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Karma Choden is a freelance writer, the founder of Simply Bhutan Travels, and a commissioner and focal person for the National Commission for Women and Children in Bhutan. Dorji Wangchuk is a management consultant who worked as a civil servant in the Bhutanese government for many years.

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Bhutan is a landlocked country lying between 89° and 92° east and 27° and 28° north. Its immediate neighbors are India, which surrounds it in the west (Sikkim), south (West Bengal and Assam), and east (Arunachal Pradesh); and China, with which it shares its entire northern border. It was an important part of the trade route to Tibet, particularly to Tibet's Chumbi Valley, connecting India with Lhasa, Tibet's capital.

Bhutan is about 186 miles (300 km) long and about 93 miles (150 km) wide, encompassing an area of around 14,826 square miles (38,400 sq. km), roughly the size of Switzerland, with elevations ranging from 984 feet (300 m) in the southern foothills to 22,965 feet (7,000 m) in the north. Great geographical and climatic variations provide a perfect setting for a rich and spectacular biodiversity.


Bhutan is a mountainous land, which consists of three broad physiographical zones: the southern belt, made up of the Himalayan foothills adjacent to the flatlands along the Indian border; the inner Himalayas, consisting of the main river valleys and steep mountains; and the high Himalayas, featuring alpine meadows and snow-capped mountains.

The southern foothills, also called the Terai region, run from 984 feet (300 m) to 3,281 feet (1000 m) in elevation. Except for a narrow strip of flatland and some terrace farming, most of the foothills are densely forested. This area, extending across the border to India, is called The Duars (Sanskrit for "passes"), with each duar named after a river that runs through it. These lands were once under the control of the Bhutanese before they were annexed by British India following wars leading up to the 1865 Treaty of Sinchula.

The mid-region, the inner Himalayas, is mostly comprised of valleys and forested hillsides ranging from 3,609 feet (about 1,100 m) to 11,483 feet (about 3,500 m) in elevation, and occupies the largest part of the country. Most of the major towns in Bhutan, including the capital city, Thimphu, lie in this belt. The topography features broad valleys, deep gorges, and fast-flowing rivers. Only a few valleys are suitable for extensive farming, with most of the hillsides still covered in forests. Most of the high passes between towns, such as the Dochhu-la (10,006 ft; 3,050 m), Pelela (11,483 ft; 3,500 m), Yotongla (11,237 ft; 3,425 m), and Thrumshingla (12,402 ft; 3,780 m) lie within this band, often becoming secondary watersheds for major rivers such as the Manas in Assam, India.

The northern part of the country, separated from Tibet by a chain of glacial mountains with several peaks over 22,500 feet (7,000 m), is a part of the Greater Himalayas. It remains snowbound throughout the year, and forms a watershed with waters that flow south into India's great Brahmaputra River. While most rivers flow south, there are a few that flow into Tibet from the northern mountains. This part of the country remains inaccessible for most of the year. Some of the highest peaks, traversing from west to east, include Jomolhari (23,996 ft; 7,314 m), Jichu Drake (22,881 ft; 6,974 m), Masang Gang (23,484 ft; 7,158 m), Tsherigang (23,163 ft; 7,060 m), Gangkar Phuensum (24,738 ft; 7,540 m), and Kuhla Gangri (24,783 ft; 7,554 m). Bhutan as a Buddhist country worships nature, and a number of these mountains remain unclimbed and unexplored as they are regarded as the abodes of gods and deities and not to be soiled by human activity. Gangkar Phuensum remains the highest unclimbed peak in the world.


Bhutan experiences great variations in climate, given its topography and variant altitudes. The southern foothills enjoy a subtropical climate with a monsoon season: hot, humid summers, when temperatures reach 97°F (36°C) from April to June, followed by a monsoon rain respite; and warm, balmy winters, with temperatures of 59°F (15°C). The southern belt receives a significant amount of rainfall, as high as 197 inches (5,000 mm) a year. The heavy rain often causes travel havoc, with landslides completely washing away parts of roads and destroying bridges, stranding travelers for days. The far north, above 14,763 feet (4,500 m) has a harsh climate, with most areas permanently covered in snow and ice. The lower-lying northern areas enjoy a few months free of ice and snow in the summer, usually between June and August, during which most of the trekking expeditions popular with tourists are undertaken.

In the mid-belt temperate region, where the major towns are located and most of the tourist activities are concentrated, summers can be hot, with temperatures up to 86°F (30°C) from May until mid-July, before the onset of the monsoon, which lasts until September. The winter months from November until mid-February are dry, with temperatures averaging 59°F (15°C) to 65°F (18°C) during the days, and plenty of sunshine and clear blue skies. By contrast, the temperatures drop below the freezing point at night. There is snow in some valleys, such as Thimphu, Bumthang, Paro, and Haa, during the winter, but it does not last long on the valley floors; the surrounding mountains remain covered in snow.

The best times to visit the country are in spring and fall. Spring arrives in February and lasts until mid-May, when the whole countryside is a lush green and comes alive with wild flowers in full bloom — particularly rhododendrons, locally called etho metho, of which there are forty-six different species in the wild jungles of Bhutan. Every April there is a three-day Rhododendron Festival at Lamperi Botanical Park, near Thimphu, to celebrate the flowers in their natural habitat.

September sees the last of the big rains as the monsoon retreats to usher in the pleasant season of fall, with blue skies and sunny days. Although it can be chilly at night the days are warm, and this is the perfect season to trek and explore the wilderness.


Bhutan is blessed with an outstanding natural environment, and is recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot. Within the three broad physiographical zones, Bhutan has recorded the existence of 5,603 species of vascular plants, including 369 species of orchid and the 46 species of rhododendron mentioned above. Of the recorded plant species, 105 species are found nowhere else in the world.

Mammal species in the wild number close to two hundred, and Bhutan is home to some of the world's most threatened species, such as the Bengal tiger, snow leopard, Asian elephant, red panda, golden langur, and takin — Bhutan's national animal. Bird life is also impressive: 678 species have been recorded, including 14 globally threatened species, which include the rare black-necked cranes that come to roost every winter in the central and eastern valleys.

Bhutan has demonstrated a strong will and leadership in maintaining this rich natural biodiversity: 42.71 percent of the country has been declared as protected areas, which include five national parks, four wildlife sanctuaries, and a strict nature reserve. These protected areas are connected by biological corridors, amounting to 8.61 percent of the country, to ensure the contiguity of the natural habitats and allow the movement of wildlife between them. Having started such development in recent years, Bhutan has been able to learn from the mistakes of others.

Forests account for more than 70 percent of the country's land cover — one of the highest in the world, with the constitution mandating that at least 60 percent of Bhutan is maintained under forest cover at all times. As a result of this vast forest cover and the limited number of polluting industries, Bhutan is among the few countries in the world with a negative net greenhouse gas (GHG) emission.


While Bhutan covers an area similar to Switzerland's, its population is minuscule in comparison. The current estimated population is 768,577 (National Statistics Bureau, 2016) — the lowest population density of all countries in South Asia. Bhutan's population growth has stabilized over the last decade, growing at a rate of around 2 percent. However, the pressure is on urban areas, where rural migrants increasingly come to seek opportunities.

The population is mostly concentrated along the east–west lateral highway in the central valleys and along the southern belt of the country. It is often broadly broken down into two groups — the Drukpa (people of the north, of Tibetan and indigenous–Burmese origin) and the Lhotshampa (people of the south, of Nepalese origin). The Drukpa are further divided into Ngalong, people from western Bhutan, and Sharchokpa, literally "people from the east."

The Ngalong inhabit the valleys of western Bhutan stretching from Haa to Wangduephodrang. They are believed to have descended from Tibetan immigrants as far back as the ninth century, similar to the semi-nomadic inhabitants of the northwestern regions of Lingzhi, Laya, Gasa, and the Lunana highlands. They speak Dzongkha, the official national language.

The Sharchokpa of eastern Bhutan, the most populous group, are believed to be of indigenous–Burmese descent and speak Tshangla, a Tibeto–Burman language. The Ngalong and Sharchokpa together comprise around 75 percent of the overall population and are predominantly Buddhist.

The Lhotshampa dominate the southern foothills, and are fourth- and fifth-generation descendants of Nepali immigrants who settled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They represent numerous Nepali-speaking ethnic groups such as the Chhetri, Gurung, Rai, Limbu, and Newar, and form around 25 percent of the population. They have maintained their distinct culture, their traditional dress, and their Nepali language, and are mainly Hindu.

There are also numerous small indigenous tribal groups that make up the rest of the population. The Monpa of the Black Mountains in central Bhutan and the Lhop or Doya of the southwest have recently been identified as the aboriginal population, predating all the other population groups.


Until the 1600s, Bhutan existed as a collection of little kingdoms across different valleys in the region, unified only by reverence for the Buddhist saints from Tibet and India. A dual system of governance was established in the mid-seventeenth century, to be replaced in 1907 by the crowning of the first king of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck. Then, after more than a century of security, prosperity, and peace, Bhutan, under the far-sighted leadership of the fourth king, transitioned into a democratic constitutional monarchy in 2008. Bhutan is currently governed by the second elected government.

Down the centuries, Bhutan has been known by multiple names. The people like to call themselves "Drukpa," derived from the name of the country, Druk-Yul or "Land of the Thunder Dragon." The name has its origins in the twelfth century, when the respected Lama Tsangpa Gyare Yeshey Dorje (1161–1211) heard thunder from the direction of Bhutan as he was consecrating a monastery in Tibet.

Bhutan was called other names, including Lho Jong ("Valleys of the South"), Lho Mon Kha Zhi ("The Southern Country with Four Approaches"), Lho Jong Men Jong ("The Southern Valleys of Medicinal Herbs"), and Lho Mon Tsenden Jong ("The Southern Valleys where Cypress Grows"). The name Bhutan is believed to be derived from "Bhootan," referring to the rising lands, by the Indians. Throughout its history, Bhutan has existed as an independent nation, never completely conquered or governed by another power.

Early History

Archaeological evidence suggests that Bhutan was inhabited as long ago as 2000 bce. Much of Bhutan's history, however, is strongly tied to Buddhism and the saints and religious personalities from India and Tibet who traveled there. Before the arrival of Buddhism, the inhabitants of Bhutan were mainly nomadic herders following Bon — an animistic tradition that includes nature worship. Buddhism firmly established itself from about the seventh century ce, when the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo, who extended his influence as far as Nepal and Bhutan, built the Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro and the Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang — two of the 108 temples built to pin a demoness down to Earth in order to enable Buddhism to flourish in Tibet. It is believed that Kyichu and Jambay Lhakhang hold the left foot and the left knee of the demoness.

The Bhutanese consider the arrival of one of the favorite religious figures, the Indian Tantric master Padmasambhava (known popularly as Guru Rinpoche) in 746 ce as the turning-point in the country's history. The master was invited by Sendha Gyab (also called Sindhu Raja), the king of Bumthang, in central Bhutan, to exorcise demons. Through meditation on the site of Kurjey — where the main temple of Kurjey Lhakhang stands today — Guru Rinpoche captured the demons, resulting in the conversion of the king to Buddhism.

Guru Rinpoche came to Bhutan a second time, visiting Singye Dzong in Lhuentse and parts of eastern Bhutan. (A dzong is a fortified monastery and administrative complex unique to Bhutan.) As on his first visit, he left a body print and impression of his head with a hat at Gom Kora in Trashiyangtse, where the monastery stands today. Bhutan's famous Taktsang monastery (the Tiger's Nest) was the destination of his flight in the form of Dorji Drolo, one of his eight manifestations, on the back of a flaming tigress. All the numerous places Guru Rinpoche visited then are considered sacred throughout the country, and many valleys celebrate his great achievements with the colorful tshechus (festivals) described in Chapter 3.

Toward the latter half of the ninth century ce, Bhutan saw the arrival of Tibetans to settle in eastern and central Bhutan as a result of persecution at the hands of the Tibetan king Langdharma, who banished Buddhism. One of the brothers of the king, Prince Tsangma, was also banished to Bhutan. A number of Bhutanese families claim to be descended from him.

In the eleventh century Buddhism was reestablished in Tibet, with a corresponding increase in pilgrimage and revival of Buddhist practices in Bhutan. In Tibet, Lama Tsangpa Gyare Yeshey Dorje established the monastery of Druk and started the lineage of Drukpa Kagyu (also known as Drukpa Kagyupa), which was later to become the state religion of Bhutan.

There was a further significant influx of Tibetans, largely into western Bhutan, at the persecution of the Gelug sect of Buddhism. They established the Drukpa school of Buddhism in Bhutan and saw the growth of different sects within it, including the Lhagpa Kagyu lineage — the followers of Gyalwa Lhanangpa (1164–1224), himself a Tibetan. He built the popular Tango Goemba (monastery) north of Thimphu.

The first half of the thirteenth century saw the arrival of Phajo Drugom Shigpo (1184–1251), belonging to the Drukpa lineage founded in Ralung in Tibet. It is believed that Tsangpa Gyare had prophesied that Phajo would travel to Bhutan and establish the Drukpa school in the southern valleys. Phajo had to compete with the Lhapas to do so, and established the monasteries of Phajoding and Tango in Thimphu. Although Drukpa Kagyu was the dominant school, Bhutan saw many other sects of Buddhism, such as the Barawas, Nyingmapas, and Changzampas. Monasteries belonging to these sects currently exist in Bhutan.

Drukpa Kagyu grew and flourished between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries with the arrival of more lamas from Ralung, who built more monasteries. The more famous visitors include Lama Ngawang Choegyal (1465–1540), accompanied by his sons, who built a number of monasteries including Druk Choeding in Paro, and Pangri Zampa and Hongtsho in Thimphu. Lama Drukpa Kuenley, known as the "divine madman," visited Bhutan at the same time, establishing Chimi Lhakhang (known as the "temple of fertility") in Lobesa in Punakha, which is very popular with visitors (see page 67).

While Drukpa Kagyu was flourishing in western Bhutan, Nyingmapa — the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism — was flourishing in eastern and central Bhutan. Longchen Rabjampa (1308–63), a Nyingmapa lama, spent his exile in Bumthang, where he established the monasteries of Tharpaling, Samtenling, Shingkhar, and Ugyencholing.

This period was also the era of the treasure hunters, known as the tertons, who were prophesied by Guru Rinpoche to discover the sacred texts he hid in caves, rocks, and lakes. The tertons were Tantric masters and important religious figures, respected across Bhutan and the Himalayas. The first of the many tertons, Dorje Lingpa (1346–1405), came to Bhutan from Tibet and settled in the Chakhar and Ugyencholing Valleys of Bumthang. (See page 69.)

The best known of all the tertons, Pema Lingpa (1450–1521), was born in the Tang Valley in Bumthang, and was believed to be the reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche and Longchen Rabjampa. He recovered his first terma, or treasure, from the lake of Membartsho ("the burning lake") in Bumthang in 1725. He also founded the monasteries of Petsheling, Kunzangdra, and Tamshing in Bumthang, and crafted numerous sacred dances based on his visions.

The influence of these Buddhist masters extends through the parts played by their descendants in establishing strongholds of religion and many ruling clans and families, who continue to play significant roles into the modern era.

Bhutan continued to remain a collection of small communities until the arrival of the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1616 from Ralung, who later went on to unify the country.


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Table of Contents

Map of Bhutan,
Key Facts,
Chapter 6: TIME OUT,
Further Reading,

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