Tergo Travels, Bhutan

Tergo Travels, Bhutan

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For centuries, Bhutanese have treasured the natural environment and have looked upon it as the source of all life. This traditional reverence for nature has delivered Bhutan into the 21st century with an environment still richly intact. More than 72% of the land area is still under forest cover. The country has been identified as one of the ten bio-diversity hot spots in the world and as one of the 221 global endemic bird areas. It’s eco-system harbors some of the most exotic species of the eastern Himalayas with an estimated 770 species of birds and 50 species of rhododendrons, besides an astonishing variety of medicinal plants and orchids. Many parts of the country which have been declared as wildlife reserves are the natural habitat of rare species of both flora and fauna .During the second half of the 20th century, Bhutan has seen its isolation steadily eroded by the inexorable forces of progress and development. Until then it was a country shrouded in mystery, untainted by any foreign influence. Although its seclusion prevented the Kingdom from fully benefiting from many developments of the modern world but it also shielded the country from many of the detrimental side effects of unplanned or haphazard development. As a result, while most of the Himalayan region has seen its natural resource base severely compromised through deforestation, soil degradation, erosion and pollution, while natural patrimony of extensive and varied forests, limited yet fertile and productive farmland, and pristine water and air remains largely intact.

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Brief History

Bhutan is called Drukyul and the Bhutanese people Drukpas. Drukyul translates as the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. Legend says that when Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorji was consecrating a new monastery in Tiber at the end of 12th century, he heard thunder (signifying the voice of a dragon-druk), and hence he named the monastery “druk”When the drukpas unified Bhutanin the 17th century, they called it Drukyul. Bhutan was also called by various names before Drukyul. Lho Jong – The valley of the South. Lho Jong Menjong – The southern valley of medicinal herbs. Lho Mon Tsenden Jong – The southern valley where the sandalwood cypress grows.

Buddhism came to Bhutan in the 7th century when a Tibetan king, Songtsen Gyampo, constructed the first Buddhist monasteries, the Kyichu in Paro valley and the Jampa in Bumthang valley. The tantric Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan by a Padmasambhava (or the Lotus born) also known as Guru Rimpoche (the Precious Master) in the 8th century. Guru Rimpoche is the founder of the Nyinmapa religious school. Before Buddhism came to Bhutan, the people used to practice animistic type of religion closely related to Bon.

The end of the 12th century saw a gradual spread of Buddhism in Bhutan, Gyelwa Lhanangpa arrived in western Bhutan and founded the Lhapa school, a branch of the Kagyupa school. Phajo Drugom Shingpo came in the 13th century and founded the Drukpa school, another branch of the Kagyupa school. However, it was only in the 17th century when Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel unifed Bhutan under the Drukpa authority. But before that Shabdrung had to fight numerous enemies inside Bhutan as well as outside.

Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel gave Bhutan a remarkable system of administration and law. A state clergy under a religious leader, the Je Khenpo, was established with a political system administered by monks headed by a chief, the Desi. Bhutan was divided into three parts – Paro, Trongsa and Dagana headed by governors or the Penlops. Each Dzong was administered by Dzongpons and Nawang Namgyel also gave Bhutan a legal system based on Buddhist moral principles.

Shabdrung passed away in 1651 but his death was kept a secret to avoid turmoil in the country until his successor was being sought. The theory of the triple reincarnation – the body, mind and speech of the Shabdrung was finally established in the first half of the 18th century. However, only the mind reincarnations were recognized in order place successors to the head of the state. However, from the middle of the 18th century, power struggles between the Desis, Penlops and the Dzongpons started various turmoil leading to many civil wars in the country.

Up until the middle of the 18th century Bhutan had maintained foreign relations with the Kingdom of Cooch Bihar and with Tibet, Ladakh and Sikkim. Now British missions started seeking trade relations with Bhutan. This was not successful due to the conflicting interests between the two parties on the Duars and these conflicts lead to the Duar War. It was only in 1865 the Sinchula treaty where Bhutan lost the Duar but received an annuity from the British.

The second half of the 19th century marked a progressive weakening of the central government and emergence of two powerful powers – the Paro Penlop who controlled the western Bhutan and the Trongsa Penlop who controlled the central and the eastern Bhutan. When the Trongsa Penlop bequeathed his position to his son, Ugyen Wangchuck, the new Penlop strengthened his alliances and finally became victorious in 1885. Bhutan started enjoying political stability from thereon. Ugyen Wangchuck became the First King of Bhutan on 17 December 1907.

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Culture

Buddhism is a way of the life of the Bhutanese and has a powerful influence in the Bhutanese culture. Monasteries, chortens (stupas), prayer flags, images of Buddha and other religious figures carved and painted on the cliffs and red robed monks are the sign which confirms just that. Bhutanese are warm and open people and one does not need to know the language (Dzongkha or any other 18 spoken languages and dialects) to experience the hospitality of the Bhutanese.

Development started relatively late in Bhutan. It was only in the 1960s that Bhutan started opening her doors to the outside and hence roads, schools, hospitals and other social services started in Bhutan. There is a notably result in terms of development from there and now. The per capita income is US$ 2,155. Bhutan’s biggest revenue comes from her hydropower which is imported to India. The country is doing well in terms of reaching the United Nations Millennium Development Goals in the Education, Health, Poverty and Environment sectors.

Bhutan is one of the least populated places in the world with 672,425 people in a area of 46,000 square km (the size of Switzerland). About 79 percent of the Bhutanese live in rural Bhutan. Life in rural Bhutan is relatively simple and revolves around agriculture and livestock. Rural urban migration is fast becoming a reality. It is not uncommon to find woman as the head of the household. Birth of daughter is celebrated as much as that of a son.  Bhutanese society is matriarchial where groom move to the houses of the bride. And girls inherit family property. But this is fast changing with modernization where property is now divided equally between daughters and sons. Bhutanese are closely knit society and it is not surprising to find elderly grandparents living in the family.  The staple diet of the Bhutanese is rice. Chillies are eaten as vegetables and visitors do not leave Bhutan without a taste of ema datse (chillies and cheese curry). The medium of instruction in schools is English and is spoken widely in the country.

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Environment

The law of Bhutan states that 60 percent of the country must remain under forest cover for all times to come. Today more than 70 percent of the country is under forest cover and the people of Bhutan have received the award for the Champions of the Earth in 2005. The total area under parks and protected areas represent 51% (19,750 sq. km) of which close to 10% consists of biological corridors allowing free movement of genes between the protected areas. Diversity in wild flora and fauna, which includes more than 5,600 species of plants, 778 species of birds and close to 200 species of mammals, one of the highest in Asia.

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Economy

The economy of Bhutan is the smallest in the world with agriculture and forestry being the main livelihoods of the Bhutanese. More than 60 percent of the population is dependent on subsistence farming. Hydropower is one of the main revenue boosting sectors. Electricity is exported to India.  Bhutan’s economy is closely linked with India through strong trade and monetary links.The Bhutanese currency is pegged to the Indian currency. The geographic nature of the terrain and the inaccessibility of places make building of roads and infrastructure difficult and expensive. The industrial sector is in its fledging stage with most of the production like the cottage industry type. Developments in the social sectors like education, health, poverty alleviation are underway with support from multilateral development organizations. Development programmes are scrutinized thoroughly to ensure protection of the country’s environment and cultural traditions. For example, the high value low volume tourism policy is one of such strategy to encourage only high-end, environmentally conscientious tourists.

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Government

The Government of Bhutan has evolved from a traditional absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. In fact, the process of democratization has been a peaceful one with the Fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, spearheading and ushering the democracy in 2009. The political structure is the King is the Head of the State with the executive power exercised by the Council of Ministers. Although the King is the head of the state, he can be removed by a two-thirds majority vote by the National Assembly (parliament). The head of the government is the prime minister.

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GNH

The principal of the GNH was coined by The Fouth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972 and is the foundation for development in Bhutan. The concept basically revolves around “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”. This translates into while efforts are needed for economic development equal efforts are also required for spiritual and social needs for a holistic development. GNH is based on the ideology that the pursuit of happiness is found in all people and is the strongest force of desires.  Included in GNH is a “middle path” approach in which spiritual and material pursuits are balanced.

Gross National Happiness contains four main pillars:

  • Sustainable and equitable socio-economic development
  • Conservation of environment
  • Preservation and promotion of culture
  • Promotion of good governance