Bhutan- the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon
A beautiful state located entirely within the Himalayan Mountain Range, Bhutan is the kingdom of the thunder dragon. The least populous nation in South-East Asia, Bhutan has endured independence for centuries and has never been colonized in its history. With a national identity based on Buddhism, Bhutan is situated on the ancient Silk Road between Tibet and the Indian Subcontinent. With Thimpu as its capital, Bhutan was headed by a spiritual leader known as Zhabdrung Rinpoche, with its territory composed of many fiefdom governed by a Buddhist theocracy. With a king that is also known as “the Dragon King”, Bhutan is notable for pioneering the concept of gross national happiness. With a landscape that ranges from lush subtropical plains in the south to the sub-alpine Himalayan Mountains in the north, Bhutan has peaks in excess of 7,000 meters. With the highest mountain in Bhutan being the Gangkhar Puensum, the country also has a very diverse wildlife. Ranking first in economic freedom, ease of doing business and peace in South Asia, Bhutan gets its name from the Tibetan anonym “Bod”- a reference to its position as the southern extremity of the Tibetan plateau and culture. Bhutan has also been referred to as Druk Yul, which means “the country of the Drukpa Lineage- the Dragon People”. In 1999, the government of Bhutan lifted a ban on television and the Internet, making Bhutan one of the last countries to introduce television. Located on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is landlocked between Tibet to the north and the Indian states of Sikkim, west Bengal and Assam to the west and south. The land of Bhutan mainly consists of steep and high mountains crisscrossed by a network of swift rivers which form deep valleys before draining into the Indian plains. Elevations rise from 200 meters in the southern foothills to more than 7,000 meters in the mountains. 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 vegetation reaching up to glacial mountain peaks. With most peaks in the north being over 7,000 meters, Bhutan’s lowest point measures about 98 meters in the valley of Drangme Chhu, where the river crosses the border with India. Watered by snow-fed rivers, alpine valleys in Bhutan’s northern region provide pastures for livestock, tended by a sparse population of migratory shepherds. The Black Mountains in the central region of Bhutan 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 meters above sea level, and fast-flowing rivers have carved out deep gorges in the lower mountain areas. With most of the people living in the central highlands, Bhutan’s central region is responsible for providing most of the country’s forest production. The Torsa, Raidak, Sankosh, and Manas are the main rivers of Bhutan, flowing through the central region. In the south, the Shiwalik Hills are enveloped with dense Himalayan subtropical broadleaf forests, alluvial lowland river valleys, and mountains up to around 1,500 meters.
The foothills descend into the subtropical Duars Plain. Northern Himalayan foothills Duars have sloping terrains and dry, porous soil with dense vegetation and abundant wildlife. The southern Duars has moderately fertile soil, heavy savannah grasslands, dense, mixed jungles, and freshwater springs. Mountain Rivers, fed by either the melting snow or the monsoon rains, empty into the Brahmaputra River in India. Abundant in rich primate life, Bhutan is a home of the rare species of Golden Langurs. Majestic animals like the Bengal tigers, clouded leopards, hispid hares and the sloth bears live in the lush tropical lowland and hardwood forests of the country. More than 770 species of bird have been recorded in Bhutan. The country also has a rich and unique cultural heritage that has largely remained intact because of its isolation from the rest of the world until the mid-20th century. One of the main attractions for tourists is the country’s culture and traditions. Bhutanese tradition is deeply steeped in its Buddhist heritage. Because of its largely unspoiled natural environment and cultural heritage, Bhutan has also been referred to as The Last Shangri-la. Bhutan is also the first nation in the world to ban smoking.
Traditionally a feudal society, social statuses and classes were determined by the texture, colors and decorations that embellished the garments worn by the people of Bhutan. The country’s architecture is also distinctively traditional that involves employing rammed earth and wattle and daub construction methods, stone masonry, and intricate woodwork around windows and roofs. Traditional architecture uses no nails or iron bars in construction. Dzong- a type of ancient castle fortress can be found in Bhutan. These dzongs served as the religious and secular administration centers for their respective districts. Bhutan is also famous for its masked dances and dance dramas during traditional festivals. Accompanied by traditional music, energetic dancers, wearing colorful wooden or composition face masks and stylized costumes, depict heroes, demons, death heads, animals, gods, and caricatures of common people. The dancers enjoy royal patronage, and preserve ancient folk and religious customs and perpetuate the ancient lore and art of mask-making. Bhutan also has many highlighted sites and destinations that capture and present the country’s cultural and traditional aspects brilliantly. Here are some famous sites and destinations in Bhutan-
The Punakha Dzong is referred to the Palace of Great Happiness and Bliss. It is also known as Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong. The Dzong is the administrative centre of Punakha District in Punakha, Bhutan. The second oldest and second largest Dzong in Bhutan, Punakha Dzong was constructed by Ngawang Namgyal, the 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche. One of Bhutan’s most majestic structures, the Dzong houses the sacred relics of the southern Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, including the Rangjung Kasarpani and the sacred remains of Ngawang Namgyal and the tertön Pema Lingpa. Punakha Dzong was the administrative centre and the seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimpu. Located at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) rivers in the Punakha–Wangdue valley, the Punakha Dzong is located at only 1,200 meters elevation. Punakha is also the center of Bhutan’s longest suspension bridge- the Punakha Suspension Bridge. According to a local legend, the sage Padmasambhav prophesized that “a person named Namgyal will arrive at a hill that looks like an elephant”. Ngawang Namgyal, the 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, found the peak of the hill that was in the shape of the trunk of an elephant as prophesized, and built the Dzong in 1637-38. Another legend tells about Zowe Palep- the architect. According to the legend, the architect a vision in a dream after the Zhabdrung ordered him to sleep under a small structure that contained a statue of the Buddha, known as Dzong Chug- “small Dzong”. In his dream, prompted by the psychic powers of the Zhabdrung, he had a clear vision of a palace for Guru Rinpoche. The vision was imprinted on the architect’s mind, enabling him to conceive the plan for the Dzong without putting the vision on paper and to build it. On the basis of the dream vision of the architect, the building of the Dzong was started in 1637 and completed in 1638, at the place where the Dzong Chug had existed. A six-storied structure, the Punakha Dzong has a central tower or utse at an average elevation of 1,200 meters with a scenic, mountainous background. The materials used in building the Dzong consisted of compacted earth, stones and timber in doors and windows. Constructed as an “embodiment of Buddhist values”, Punakha Dzong was one of the 16 dzongs built by the Zhabdrung during his rule from 1594 to 1691. With three docheys(courtyards), the Dzong has defensive fortifications built into itself. To protect it from enemy attacks in ancient times, the Dzong consist of a steep wooden draw stairway and a heavy wooden door that is closed at night. A large, white-washed stupa and a Bodhi tree are also located in the first courtyard. There also is a mound of stones and a chapel dedicated to the queen of the nāgas. After a major refurbishing work carried out in the “zorig chusum tradition” (an ancient tradition of crafts in wood carving, masonry, metal work, painting and several other skills), the Dzong now has several new Lhakhangs, over 200 new religious images, and several other treasures. The Dzong has murals depicting the life story of Buddha done during the rule of the second druk desi. Large gilded statues of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and Zhabdrung which belong to mid 18th century, and gilded panels on pillars are also present. Demoche is the annual festival held at the Dzong, which is largely attended by people from all villages and far places of the district. During this five-day festival, also known as the Punakha festival, held in February/March, there are some very impressive displays. Important displays include the re-enactment of the Tibetan invasion of Bhutan in 1639 where the Tibetans were defeated. Another ritual observed every year at the Dzong is called the Lhenkey Dungchhur, and is the worship for departed souls.
The Tashichho Dzong
A Buddhist monastery and fortress on the northern edge of the city of Thimpu in Bhutan, the Tashichho Dzong lies on the western bank of the Wang Chu River. A traditionally seat of the Druk Desi (or “Dharma Raja”), the Dzong is an office which has been combined with the kingship since the creation of the monarchy in 1907, and is a summer capital of the country. It was built by the first Dharma Raja, who also founded the Lho-drukpa sect of Buddhism. “Tashichho Dzong” translates to “the fortress of auspicious doctrine”. The main structure of the whitewashed building is two-storied with three-storied towers at each of the four corners topped by triple-tiered golden roofs. There is also a large central tower or utse at the Dzong. Established as the main seat of the Southern Drukpa Kagyu and the summer residence of the monastic body, Tashichho Dzong has been the seat of Bhutan’s government since 1968. It presently houses the throne room and offices of the king, the cabinet secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance. There are thirty temples, chapels and shrines within the Tashichho Dzong. A small tower of Ney Khang Lhakhang houses a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha and protective deities west of the Dzong.
The Paro Dzong, also called the Rinpung Dzong, is a large Dzong and a Buddhist monastery and fortress – of the Drukpa Lineage in Paro, Bhutan. It houses the district’s Monastic Body and government administrative offices of Paro. Inside the Rinpung Dzong, are fourteen shrines and chapels- the Kungarwa, the Monks’ assembly hall, the Sandalwood Stupa, the Protector’s shrine, a Temple of the Guru’s Eight Manifestations, the Chapel of the head lama, the Chapel of Amitayus, the Clear Crystal Shrine, the Chapel of the Eleven-faced Avalokitesvara, Apartments of the Abbot, a Chapel of Akshobhya, a Temple of the Treasure Revealer, Apartments of the King and a Temple of the Bursar. The Deyangkha Temple lies outside the main Dzong. On the hill above the Rinpung Dzong is a seven-storied watchtower fortress or the Ta Dzong, built in 1649. In 1968, this was established as the home of the National Museum of Bhutan. Just below Rinpung Dzong is a traditional covered cantilever bridge. A great annual festival or tshechu is held at the Rinpung Dzong from the eleventh to the fifteenth day of the second month of the traditional Bhutanese lunar calendar. The months usually align with March or April. On this occasion, holy images are taken in a procession followed by a series of traditional mask dances conveying religious stories which are performed by monks for several days. Before the break of dawn on the morning of the fifteenth day, a great sacred thongdrel banner Thanka depicting the Eight Manifestations of Padmasambhav is displayed for the public in the early morning hours, keeping the tradition of not allowing sunlight to fall on it.
Also known as the Taktsang Palphug Monastery, Paro Taktsang is a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site located in the Cliffside of the upper Paro valley in Bhutan. Often referred to as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Paro Taktsang was first built in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup Cave where Guru Padmasambhav is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century. Credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan, Guru Padmasambhav was an 8th-century Indian Buddhist master. Recognized as the tutelary deity of the country, Guru Padmasambhav is widely venerated as a ‘second Buddha’ across Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Himalayan states of India. Today, Paro Taktsang is the best known of the thirteen taktsang or “tiger lair” caves in which he meditated. The temple of the Guru with eight names, Paro Taktsang is a temple devoted to Padmasambhav and is the cultural icon of Bhutan. According to the legend related to this Taktsang, it is believed that Padmasambhav flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress. This place was consecrated to tame the Tiger demon. An alternative legend tells of a former wife of an emperor, known as Yeshe Tsogyal, willingly became a disciple of Padmasambhav in Tibet. She then transformed herself into a tigress and carried the Guru on her back from Tibet to the present location of the Taktsang in Bhutan. The popular legend of the Taktsang Monastery is further embellished with the story of Tenzin Rabgye, who built the temple here in 1692. It is mentioned that Padmasambhav had reincarnated and was seen by his friends concurrently inside and outside his cave. Legend says that even a small quantity of food was adequate to feed all visitors of the cave and that no one was injured during worship, in spite of the approach track to the monastery being dangerous and slippery. The people of the Paro valley also saw in the sky various animal forms and religious symbols- including a shower of flowers that appeared and also vanished in the air without touching the earth. Located 10 kilometers to the north of Paro, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery hangs on a precarious cliff at 3,120 meters, about 900 meters above the Paro valley, on the right side of the Paro River. The vertical rock slopes are very steep and the monastery buildings are built into the rock face. Though it looks formidable, the monastery complex has access from several directions, such as the northwest path through the forest, from the south along the path used by devotees, and from the north. It can also be accessed over the rocky plateau, called Bumda which translates as the “Hundred Thousand Fairies”. A mule track leading to it passes through pine forest that is colorfully festooned with moss and prayer flags. On many days, clouds shroud the monastery and give an eerie feeling of remoteness.
You can experience Bhutan’s culture and tradition with our Bhutan Experience Tour.