A closer look at the Kingdom of Bhutan

Geography, Culture and Religion

I would like to introduce you to a kingdom which has a reputation as the world’s last Shangri-La. Somewhere in the Himalayas, sandwiched between the two most populous countries in the world, China (Tibet Autonomous Region) and India, lies a land  of 38,000 sq km, slightly smaller than Switzerland. It rises from the plains in the south, barely higher than sea level, to the heights of the Himalayas, upwards of 7,500 meters and controls several key Himalayan mountain passes. The terrain is mostly mountainous with some fertile valleys. The climate ranges from the cool winters and hot summers taking place in the valleys to the severe winters and cool summers experienced in the Himalayas. The population of approximately 700,000 is mostly Buddhist, with a Nepali Hindu minority living in the plains. The official (and main) language is Dzongkha which is similar to Tibetan. This is the language of the Druk-Pa, the largest of 11 ethnic groups. Nepali is also spoken and all educated citizens can speak English. This land was among the last nations in the world to introduce television and the internet because concerted efforts are made to preserve a unique traditional culture and etiquette, the code of Driglam Namzha (I explain more in the next chapter entitled Traditions). This is exemplified by the wearing of national dress when appropriate. Pastimes such as archery and mythical symbolism based on the Druk (Dragon) are encouraged. Well, we are in the land of the Thunder Dragon, Druk Yul, or Bhutan as most of us might know it.

Another aspect of this culture is Bhutan’s unique brand of Buddhism, known as Vajrayana Buddhism. In fact, Bhutan is the only Vajrayana nation in the world and its teachings and traditions remain influential in all aspects of Bhutanese life. However, the custom that at least one son from each family should attend a monastic school is now superseded. Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as the “Diamond” or “Thunderbolt Vehicle,” is a form of Buddhism that likely developed in India during the 5th or 6th century AD. It remains uncertain whether it is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism or a distinct path beside Mahayana and Theravada.  Some believe it may have developed out of a transition from Mahayana’s speculative thought to the enactment of Buddhist ideas in the life of individuals through a complex philosophical and ritual system, a sort of esoteric and potentially more personal way towards enlightenment. As such Vajrayana is also known as Tantrism and the Sanskrit word Tantra (Continuum) relates to two aspects: first to the literature of tantric teachings and second to the continuum of development from ignorance to enlightenment. The goal of spiritual practice within the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions is to become a Bodhisattva and, after further reincarnation, attain the state of a Buddha. In contrast, Theravada disciples aim to become enlightened without necessarily returning, not even as a Buddha.

One dimension in Vajrayana involves expansion of above-noted bodhisattva (even inclusion of fierce deities) and reliance on religious teachers who have mastered its many aspects.  For example, a revered figure is Guru Rinpoche, a sage guru  from  Oddiyana, who is credited  with having transmitted Vajarayana  Buddhism to Bhutan, Tibet and other neighbouring countries in the 8th century. In fact, followers of the Nyingma school (one of four schools comprising Tibetan Buddhism) regard him as the Second Buddha. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche flew into Bhutan on the back of a tigress and landed in Taktsang near Paro, and indeed the monastery (Taktsang Palphug Monastery or Tiger’s Nest) that was built on this site is the most revered and distinguished religious and historical icon of Bhutan.

History and Politics

Let us turn to a short elaboration on history. Again, Buddhism was introduced in the 8th Century from Tibet, a country that has had an enormous influence on Bhutan throughout its history. After centuries of internal warfare, Bhutan united in the early 1600s under Ngawang Namgyal, himself a lama from Tibet. He brought about a period of relative peace, but the 1770s – 1860s were marked by a series of conflicts between Bhutan and British India, especially over the question of the Duars, the narrow strip in the Southern Plain. In fact, this issue resulted in the Duar War and ended with a settlement in which Bhutan lost the land in return for an annuity. Also, during the 1870s power struggles erupted between rival valleys which  led to a civil war in Bhutan. Ugyen Wangchuck, the  governor of Trongsa in central Bhutan, was able to defeat his political enemies and unite the country once again. Thus, in 1907 Bhutan became a hereditary monarchy with Ugyen Wangchuk as first Druk Gyalpo (King).

Bhutan was never fully colonised, but to counteract Chinese influence, British India and subsequently independent India took control of Bhutan’s foreign affairs and defence policies. Nevertheless until 1952 Bhutan effectively remained sealed off from the rest of the world. Eventually, when the 3rd King succeeded to the throne, the period of modernisation commenced. Especially the construction of roads brought Bhutan out of isolation.  Bhutan joined the UN in 1971. In 2005, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, unveiled the government’s draft constitution – which introduced major democratic reforms – and pledged to hold a national referendum for its approval. In December 2006 he abdicated the throne in favour his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, largely to provide him with experience as the country’s head of state prior to its democratic transition. In early 2007 India and Bhutan renegotiated their treaty to allow Bhutan greater autonomy in conducting its foreign policy.  Democratic initiatives and the reduction of the monarchy from Absolute to Constitutional culminated in the first elections in 2008. At present, Bhutanese leaders and the press are engaged in debates on how to negotiate a meaningful foreign policy towards China and other nations as well as keeping the special bond with India.


Last, but not least, I want to tell you a bit about  the economy of this land and you will soon see that we all might be able to learn something. But first let’s look at some facts. By western standards Bhutan is poor but starvation is said to be non-existent and real poverty unknown. The economy itself is one of the world’s smallest and as such is closely aligned with India through trade and monetary links. A portion of the population engages in cottage industries. Major development projects, such as road construction, depend heavily on Indian labour.

Model education, health, social and environment programs are underway with support from multilateral development organisations. In fact, health care and education are free. The economy has seen a noteworthy increase in the last decade with the introduction of Five Year Plans. Much of this increase stems from hydro-electric power exported to India, which now is regarded as a permanent pillar of the economy. Tourism has increased by thousands, especially between 2002 and 2010, and is the main source of hard currency. Around 75% of all Bhutanese work in agriculture, often at subsistence level, with forestry also important. Around 6% of Bhutan’s population are semi-nomadic, with most living at an altitude exceeding 3000 meters.  Their livelihood depends on herding yaks and sheep. Nearly all imports and exports go to and from India, and the Bhutanese currency, the Ngultrum, is fixed with the Indian Rupee.  Bhutanese are given free-flow access to India, and Indian tourists to Bhutan are extended the same courtesy.

Bhutan’s Gross Domestic Product recorded approx. 6000 dollars per capita (CIA Fact Book), but this is perhaps irrelevant in a country where (here comes the special aspect) the fourth Druk Gyalpo, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, introduced another measurement of success – the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) – an instrument which certainly exemplifies Bhutan again as arguably the most unique place in the world. Some of us might want to examine (perhaps copy) this concept a bit and look at the individual pillars of GNH which are:

  • Sustainable Development
  • Preservation & Promotion of Culture
  • Conservation of Environment
  • Good Governance

Sounds good?  Bhutan sees this as a more holistic approach in its development principles and seeks to include the country’s religious and spiritual wisdom and combine it with the understanding of its incredible nature to effect a caring civil society and of course good governance and also have a state which  has a place in the modern world. I am sure we all are interested to learn more and discover to what extend Bhutan will succeed. However, even Bhutan cannot be ignorant of some other indices such as the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). At present the World Bank puts Bhutan under a moderate risk of stress. Why? Every Bhutanese walking around with 100 Nu in his pocket needs to realise that 89 Nu are borrowed. Simply, the debt to GDP ratio is a staggering 89% (Kuensel).

However, let us end this chapter with a quote from the previous prime minister (until 2013) of Bhutan (Lyonpo Jigme Thinley): ”….success in life is a state of being – when you can come home at the end of the day satisfied with what you have done, realizing that you are a happy individual not only because you have found happiness in yourself, but because you have given happiness, in this one day’s work, to your spouse, to your family, to your neighbours – and to the world at large.”