??BHUTAN IS AN ANCIENT KINGDOM SECLUDED
HIGH IN THE HIMALAYAS WITH UNIQUE CUSTOMS
AND PEOPLE WITH DEEPLY HELD BELIEFS
HISTORY Mystery surrounds Bhutan's distant past, as priceless historical documents were lost in fires and earthquakes. In the eighth century CE, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava, or second Buddha) made his legendary trip from eastern Bhutan to western Bhutan on the back of a flying tigress to subdue the evil spirits who hindered Buddhism. After defeating them, he blessed them as guardians of the doctrine, thus introducing Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan. Taktshang, or Tigers Nest, in the Paro Valley is where he landed, and today it remains one of the most sacred places in Bhutan.
It is believed that the name Bhutan is derived from the Sanskrit Bhotant, meaning "the end of Tibet," or from Bhu-uttan, meaning "high land." Historically the Bhutanese have referred to their country as Druk Yul, "land of the thunder dragon." Bhutanese refer to themselves as Drukpa people.
Guru Rinpoche (Precious Master) is the father of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Tantric Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Bhutan. Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan lama of the Drukpa School, arrived in Bhutan in 1616 CE. He introduced the present dual system of religious and secular government, creating and building the system of dzongs throughout Bhutan. Shabdrung unified the country, established himself as the country's supreme leader, and vested civil power in a high officer known as the Druk Desi. Religious affairs were charged to another leader, the Je Khenpo (chief abbot of Bhutan). For two centuries following Shabdrung's demise, civil wars intermittently broke out, and the regional penlops (governors) became increasingly more powerful. This ended when an assembly of representatives of the monastic community, civil servants, and the people elected the penlop of Trongsa, Ugyen Wangchuck, the first king of Bhutan in 1907 to 1926. The monarchy has thrived ever since, and the fourth king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck (1972 to 2006) and his son the fifth king, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk (2006 to present), command the overwhelming support of their people.
The kingdom of Bhutan lies in the eastern Himalayas, between Tibet to the north, the Indian territories of Assam and West Bengal to the south and east, and Sikkim to the west. The kingdom has a total area of about 38,394 square kilometers, roughly the size of Switzerland. Located in the heart of the high Himalayan mountain range, Bhutan is a land-locked country. The sparsely populated Greater Himalayas, bounded to the north by the Tibetan plateau, reach heights of over 7,300 meters (23,950 feet) and descend southward to form the fertile valleys of the Lesser Himalayas, divided by the Wang, Sunkosh, Trongsa, and Manas Rivers. Monsoons promote dense forestation in this region and alpine growth at higher altitudes. The cultivated central uplands and Himalayan foothills support the majority of the population. In the south, the Duars ("the gates" or "doors"; the traditional 18 points of access into Bhutan from the Indian plain) drop sharply away from the Himalayas into the large tracts of semi-tropical forest, savannah grassland, and bamboo jungles.
PEOPLE Early records suggest scattered clusters of inhabitants had already settled in Bhutan when the first recorded settlers arrived 1,400 years ago. Bhutan's indigenous population is the Drukpa. Three main ethnic groups, the Sharchops, the Ngalops, and the Lhotsampas (of Nepalese origin), make up today's Drukpa population. Bhutan's earliest residents, the Sharchops (people of the east) reside predominantly in eastern Bhutan. Their origin can be traced to the tribes of northern Burma and northeast India. The Ngalops migrated from the Tibetan plains and are the importers of Buddhism to the kingdom. Most of the Lhotsampas migrated to the southern plains in search of agricultural land and work in the early 20th century. The current population is approximately 750,000––around the same population of San Francisco, California.
LANGUAGE Bhutan's official language is Dzongkha. Because of the geographic isolation of many of Bhutan's highland villages, a number of different dialects have survived. Bhutan has never had a rigid class system. Social and educational opportunities are not affected by rank or by birth. Bhutanese women enjoy equal rights with men in every respect. To keep the traditional culture alive, Bhutanese people wear the traditional clothing that has been worn for centuries. Bhutanese men wear a gho, a long robe tied around the waist by a small belt called a kera. A woman's ankle-length dress is called a kira, made from beautifully colored and finely woven fabrics with traditional patterns. Necklaces are fashioned from corals, pearls, turquoise, and the precious agate eye stones that the Bhutanese call "tears of the gods" or dzi beads.