Sunday, November 4, 2012


Tucked away in the Himalayas Mountains, there lies a small country, isolated from the rest of the world until recently. Uninfluenced by outside effects, its ancient traditions are still very much a part of mainstream life in Bhutan. While it’s been “opened” to the world in recent years – only getting television and Internet in the past 15 years or so – the Bhutanese have been somewhat reluctant to shed its old traditions. By their own accord, they calculate their wealth by a Gross National Happiness factor instead of the Gross National Product. It’s considered by many to be one of the happiest places on earth. (Sorry, Disneyland.)

The origin of the name Bhutan is somewhat vague, and there are many theories as to its origin. The traditional etymology is stemmed from the Sanskrit word “Bhota-anta” which means “end of Tibet.” Many of the European explorers had their own names for the area as well.

Profoundly guided by Buddhist traditions and ideologies, Bhutan boasts strong sentiments towards preserving ecology and environmental issues. In fact, it has even limited the number of tourists that come into the country by imposing a fee equal to US $250 per day. For that reason alone, I’m not sure if it’s a place I’d be able to afford to go. Bhutan has many protected areas that are known for its forest cover and its rare and exotic animals. It’s actually established a decree that demands at least 60% of the country remain forest-covered. An animal called the takin – something new to me – is Bhutan’s national animal. It’s considered a goat-antelope, a type of animal that comparative to the muskox and is part of the same family that includes sheep and goats.

Bhutan, landlocked right between China and India, became the location where many Tibetans fled from religious persecution. Bhutan came in contact with the British Empire after the controlled India, and after a few skirmishes that led to a war and a treaty, it pretty much ended all ill-feelings between the two. Even after India’s independence from the British Empire, Bhutan and India have remained on “friendly country” status with each other. In fact, Indian rupees are considered legal tender in Bhutan as well as their own currency.  Indians (as well as Bangladeshis) can enter the country freely.

Their government is a constitutional monarchy, which basically means that while it is ruled officially by a king (King Wangchuck), there is also a council of ministers put in place to make other policy and administrational 
decisions. They’ve even put in place the ability to impeach the king, but no one feels it necessary to do so. 

The official language of Bhutan is called Dzongkha, part of the Tibetan language family. The writing script is the same as classical Tibetan. (I actually found a place here in Indianapolis at a Buddhist center where I could take Tibetan language classes on Saturdays.) However, English is the language that is used in education while Dzongkha is listed as the official/national language. There are many other minor languages spoken in Bhutan that include Nepali, Tshangla, Kheng, and Dzala.

The capital city is Thimphu, the country’s largest city with a population (metro area) of around 98,000. The entire country has about as many people as in the city of Detroit, Michigan. While in the past 50 years, Thimphu and Bhutan has been making efforts in expansion, but it has come somewhat slowly. They tried installing traffic lights, but the people requested that it be taken down, saying that it seemed unsightly and marred the landscape. They opted for the traffic cop instead. (It’s only one of two capital cities in the world without a traffic light: Pyongyang, North Korea being the other one.) It’s hard to believe that in a national capital, the drivers also share the road with people moving their cattle without much sign of roadrage at all. Perhaps there may be something to that Buddhist patience and happiness factors. Archery is the national sport and the city of Thimphu is the headquarters of the Bhutan Olympic Committee, headed by the king himself. Bhutan has sent several archers to the Olympics, but no medals have been won. Yet.

Even though Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure happiness, there’s a sad part there as well. Homosexuality is punishable by prison. Those who leave the country without express written permission of the government hold their citizenship at stake, and many who do become stateless refugees. The Lhotshampas (meaning “southerners” in Dzongkha) are those of Nepali ethnicity and suffer governmental discrimination when it comes to education, employment, and the ability to own land. It’s even been said that the government has forced all the people to wear the traditional dress of the majority while out in public. They’ve also imposed that Buddhist-only buildings are allowed to be erected. Only 47% of the total population is literate. Clean water and sanitation aren’t available in many areas, especially in the rural areas. There aren’t enough doctors, and there is a surprisingly high number of maternal deaths. The life expectancy at birth is only about 67 years old. And yet, despite all of this, they’re still happy.

Much of Bhutan remains untouched and unseen by outsiders. Called the Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan is subject to many storms that pop up out of the mountains. It’s the only country in the world that has banned tobacco. (However, marijuana grows freely. The thing is, is that no one smokes it. Rather, it’s fed to the pigs. But before you start planning your trip to “trip,” not all weed is smokable.) The purity, isolation, and mystique of this practically unknown country keeps many people vaguely even aware of its existence. Bhutan itself may be shrouded with mist from the mountains, but hopefully we can unveil its culture and cuisine this week.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

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