The Kingdom of Bhutan

The Land of the Thunder Dragon or "Druk Yul", shrouded in mystery to many, is a tiny Buddhist kingdom tucked in the Himalayas. Sandwiched between Tibet/China to the north and India to the south, the country is home to about 650,000 people who can be separated into three ethnic groups. The Sharchops, settled in the east, are considered to be of Mongolian origin and are indigenous to Bhutan. The Ngalops of the western and central region are of Tibetan descent and were the importers of Buddhism into the Kingdom. The Lhostampas, settled in the southern foothills, are historically immigrants of Nepalese origin.

Roughly 70 percent of Bhutanese are farmers of livestock or seasonal crops, who produce income from the harsh and rugged Himalaya terrain. Small settlements are scattered throughout the mountain ranges and picturesque valleys. There exist 19 different dialects in Bhutan, but the official language is Dzongkha, a term that means" the language of the Dzong. Dzongs are usually colossal fortresses that are the centers of religion and administration in each district. English is taught in schools and spoken throughout the country.

Daily life in Bhutan is permeated by the official religion, the tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism (Kagyu tradition), introduced by the eighth-century saint, Guru Rinpoche (meaning "The precious master"). The nation's history is characterized by religious landmarks; the influence of religion is visible in the everyday life of the people. Colorful prayer flags flying high on mountain tops, prayer wheels turned by the hands of devotees or cold water streams, sacred monasteries and temples which dot the countryside with ornate and detailed religious artwork on their walls and roofs, bear testimony to the strength of Buddhism and are unmistakable characteristics of this majestic country.

Embracing their spiritual and cultural uniqueness and nurturing a collective will to preserve the country's cultural identity, Bhutanese customarily wear their traditional dress - gho for the men and kira for the women). The gho is held tight at the waist by a traditional woven belt called "kera" and is hoisted at the knee. The women's kira is a body-length piece of hand woven cloth wrapped around the body over a silk blouse called wonju and, like the gho, held tight at the waist by a belt.

Bhutanese architecture is unique. Dzongs are the perfect illustrations of the impressive design and construction with intricate detail. They also serve as showcases for the 13 traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts that are closely associated with Buddhism. These massive structures were erected in commanding locations, usually on hilltops overlooking expansive river valleys. Bhutanese history recounts many instances where dzongs were proved to be the difference between victory and defeat against invading armies from Tibet and beyond. Even today, they stand as the most prominent structures in each valley.

With its pristine landscape ranging from snow-clad Himalayan peaks in the north to tropical forests in the south, Bhutan is blessed with unparalleled scenic beauty and a rich plethora of flora and fauna. The country is home to 165 species of mammals, many of which are extremely endangered. About 26% of the forested land remains protected - as either wildlife sanctuaries or national parks - providing natural habitat for many species of animals and plants. The officially protected animals of Bhutan include the Royal Bengal tiger, the snow leopard, the clouded leopard, bears such as the Himalayan black bear, sloth bear, as well as the red panda, the samber deer, the musk deer, water buffalo, the one horned rhino, the elephant and the Takin, which is the national animal of Bhutan. There are also as many as 675 species of birds found in Bhutan, a figure that reflects the Bhutan's wide range of ecological environments. Some parts of Bhutan are wintering grounds for rare and endangered black necked cranes. The blue poppy, Bhutan's national flower, which was once believed to be mythical - like the yeti - also, exists in higher altitude. Bhutan is ranked among the world's top ten global hotspots and is often referred to as the "Last Jewel of the Himalayas".

Bhutan's climate varies widely, depending on the elevation. For instance, places like Haa, Paro, Thimphu and Bumthang of higher altitude enjoy pleasant spring and autumn seasons, cold winters and wet summer; while the lower southern and central regions of Punakha, Wangduephodrang, Mongar, Trashigang and Lhuntshi have semi-tropical climate with cool winters and torrentially rainy summers. However, the extreme north of the country, most of which lies above 3000 meters, experiences harsh snowy winters during which most settlements and mountain passes become inaccessible.

Bhutan is perhaps the only nation that measures development in terms of "happiness". Its model of development, called "Gross National Happiness" (as opposed to Gross National Product), places environmental, cultural, and spiritual well-being as important as material development.

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