One of the most fascinating things about Bhutan’s history is how mystical it is. From gods flying on the back of tigers to reincarnation of leaders across generations, it is hard to distinguish between historical fact and religious belief. The underlying reason is that Buddhism is so fundamentally ingrained into the Bhutanese way of life. 75% of the population are Buddhist.
The origin of Buddhism in Bhutan began with the second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche. In the early 8th century he travelled from nearby Tibet and brought Buddhism to the region now known as Bhutan. Everywhere we went in Bhutan you couldn’t help but miss representations of Guru Rinpoche from paintings to statues to costumed dancers. Our tour guide, Tenzin, also had a seemingly endless number of stories to tell us about Guru Rinpoche. So as you can imagine, Guru Rinpoche is a really important figure in Bhutan.
To come to the origin of the Bhutanese national identity, you need to fast forward to the 17th century to the story of the “unifier of Bhutan”. Prior to then Bhutan was really only a number of separate states, often considered as a southern part of Tibet. This all changed when a man named Ngawang Namgyal established himself as a religious leader and unified the region of Bhutan separate from Tibet (hence, Bhutanese refer to him as the “unifier of Bhutan”). More than just a religious leader, he was also a military and administrative leader. One of his most important accomplishments was the construction of the system of “dzongs” as fortresses to allow Bhutan to successfully defend itself from Tibet and other rivals in the region. However, when the “unifier of Bhutan” died in the early 18th century, Bhutan underwent a period of instability as regional leaders vied for power and Bhutan again separated into smaller states. Around this period, Bhutan began to have contact with British explorers linked to the East India Company who were in search of goods of value in the regions of Bhutan and Tibet. At times, interactions were hostile including the “Duar Wars” over control of the region of Assam in the 19th century. However, one Bhutanese leader, by the name of Urgyen Wangchuck, found a way to use positive relations with the British to his and Bhutan’s advantage. His support of Britain’s invasion and subsequent treaty with Tibet gave him the backing of the British and credibility with his own countryman to emerge as the most powerful man in Bhutan. In 1907, he was elected unanimously by Bhutan’s chiefs and religious leaders as the hereditary ruler of Bhutan. And so began a new monarchy (among the youngest in existence today) with Ugyen Wangchuck as the first king.
Since then, there have been 5 kings of Bhutan, all coming from Urgyen Wangchuck’s lineage. The second king, Jigme Wangchuck reigned from 1926 to 1952. During his time he oversaw the establishment of a strong alliance with India as they gained independence from Britain. It was during this time that many of the treaties between Britain and Bhutan were transferred over to India and Bhutan.
The third king, named Jigme Dorji Wangchuck is known as the moderniser of Bhutan. Educated in India and England, he saw that a policy of isolation would not be feasible, particularly after seeing China taking control over Tibet. He oversaw the opening up of Bhutan to international relations (including recognition as a country in the UN) along with a series of modernisation projects to build out infrastructure in Bhutan.
The fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, took over in 1972 at age 17. He continued along the path of modernisation set by his father. As he formulated his development goals, he emphasised the need for Bhutan to strive for development that is for the good of Bhutan and its people, not just development for development’s sake. In stating this, he coined the term “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) as a counterpoint to GDP. Hence today, Bhutan is famous for assessing the merits of development on whether it promotes cultural and environmental good, not just economic good. Towards the end of the fourth king’s reign, he recognised that for Bhutan to truly be modernised, it needed to follow a path to democracy. The king is quoted as saying “monarchy is not the best form of government because a king is chosen by birth, not by merit.” This process started in 1998 leading to the country’s first democratic elections in 2008. At this time, Bhutan officially transformed from absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy.
The fifth king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk took over in 2006. Since his coronation he has continued along the path set by the kings before him to develop Bhutan along the tenets of maximising Gross National Happiness.
Bhutan has a number of unique quirks. To name just a few:
- Tourist visa requirements – A great example of Bhutan striving to maximise GNH, is their approach to sustainable high value tourism. To enter Bhutan as a tourist, you have to organise everything through a regulated tour company, and you must pay a set fee of $250 per person per day (the fee covers all expenses including accommodation, food, transportation, and sightseeing). This is prohibitively expensive for the typical “backpacker” style tourist looking for bars and craziness, and instead you get more of the older/retiree style tourist looking to learn about Bhutanese culture. Christine and I felt like we were definitely among the youngest tourists in Bhutan, which makes sense given that we’re only semi-retired :).
- The Takin – This odd looking creature is said to have been formed when the “Divine Madman” (another mystical Bhutanese historical figure) threw together the bones of a goat and a cow that he ate and formed the Takin. These animals are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The way they move seems so awkward; kind of like a poorly animated beast in a 1980’s horror film. And their two toed hooves made them look pre-historic-like.
- Cheese and chilly (ema datse) – Although Christine and I were served new and interesting dishes for each meal every day we trekked, the rest of our guides ate just one meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day: cheese and chilli (ema datse). The guides were initially hesitant to let us try it because they thought it would be too spicy. In the end, the spiciness wasn’t the problem for us. It was that the cheese was so rich that we struggled to eat more than a few spoons full.
- Target games –
We learned before we arrived that the national sport was archery. Once on the ground, we realised that archery is only one of many similar target games they play. The Bhutanese love darts and another game where you throw rocks at a target. Christine and I tried it on our trekking tour but were pretty miserable at it.
- Protective Phalluses –
Surprisingly, you see phalluses everywhere! Not your Washington Monument style impression of a phallus. The real deal! Generally you’ll see them painted or “hung” at the entrance to houses in order to provide protection. The history behind it, similar to the Takin, is said to date back to the antics of the Divine Madman, who would happily show his penis as a symbol of strength.
- Chewing “doma pani” – although the tradition is slowly being phased out due to health concerns (similar to tobacco smoking in western societies), the tradition of chewing areca nut wrapped inside of betelnut leaves with lime is still very popular with the older Bhutanese. What makes this practice so interesting is that the mixture makes your entire mouth turn red, and all over the place you see these red patches where people have spat out their doma pani out.
- National Dress: Gho & Kira – Christine and I both thought that the national dress in Bhutan looked really good: women looked beautiful and elegant in the colourful ankle length Kira dresses; men looked dapper and intellectual in the their Ghos.
What we did
- Paro: The main airport into Bhutan is in the city of Paro. Paro is not the capital nor the country’s biggest city (both of those honours belong to Thimphu) but it is nonetheless rich in history as one of the most prominent cities in west Bhutan. The scenery is beautiful, nested in the Himalaya range. The town is very quaint. The highlight of our time in Paro was the trek up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery (Taktshang Goemba).
This place is simply stunning, built up high in the side of a mountain. The story behind it relates to Guru Rinpoche, the father of Buddhism in Bhutan, who is said to have flown there on the back of a Tigress and meditated there a while.
- Trekking in the Himalayas:
One of the main reasons Christine and I wanted to come to Bhutan was to do a trek in the Himalayas. Christine will write more about this in a separate blog post, but suffice to say, it was a highlight. It was visually spectacular and we felt very rewarded for the effort to hike up those peaks where the air was thin and the wind was cold.
- Thimphu Tsechu Festival:
After our trek we spent 3 days in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. Although it’s the country’s most populated city, it still felt small and charming. The main attraction while we were there was the annual Tsechu festival, a Buddhist religious celebration of song and dance. Beyond the performances, it was also really fun to see the locals decked out in their best attire.