Drukyul the Dragon Kingdom
KUZOOZANGPO LA! Heartfelt greetings from Drukyul (the realm of the Thunder Dragon), the Land Beyond the Sky & Clouds, the Last Shangri La, also known as the Kingdom of Bhutan and our home in the Himalaya.
Perhaps you were also aware that 80% of Bhutan remains under forest, tigers and snow leopards happily roam the land and we have a designated national park for the protection of the yeti (migoi).
Fun Facts About Bhutan
Here we share some of the more colourful, intriguing and quirkier aspects of our homeland and shed some light on what you might experience as a traveller in Bhutan – some of the many joys, surprises, fascinating encounters, and crazy inspirational wisdom waiting to be discovered as you explore our magical realm.
THE SACRED HUNDRED AND EIGHT
The number 108 is revered as sacred in many religions not least Hinduism and Buddhism. For many it is the basis of all creation – the number ‘one’ signifies God’s consciousness, ‘zero’ is for null or void, while the ‘eight’ is the embodiment of infinity. Garlands of prayer beads, come in strings of 108 beads (plus one for the “guru bead,” around which the others turn like the planets around the sun), mantras are chanted and koras (circular pilgrimages around temples or shrines) performed in rounds of 108.
THE SACRED ONE “0” EIGHT AND A DEMONESS
Legend has it that around AD 638 a demoness held sway across the land halting the spread of Buddhism. To overcome her, King Songtsen Gampo decided to build 108 temples in one day, pinning her to the earth. She was one giant demoness as the Jokhang temple in Lhasa was built on her heart and her left knee is secured by Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro.
KEEP TO THE LEFT
You can’t go far wrong if you go with the flow and always walk, cycle and drive to the left or clockwise round anything and everything that looks sacred (chortens, stupas, temples, statues, monasteries, fluttering prayer flags and spinning prayer wheels). Not only will you receive great merit in your next life it may well extend your time in this one, as sensibly the Bhutanese drive on the left and negotiate roundabouts in a clockwise direction.
Archery is Bhutan’s golf equivalent – the action is over in an instant after the swing or loose, followed by a long walk. Both sports involve nifty paraphernalia with cool names – the nock and fletch on an arrow and then there’s irons, woods and birdies etc. Like golf, furious networking goes on at the archery field, business deals are struck, and everyone is a self-appointed expert. Above all both pastimes entail wayward projectiles and then comes the Bhutanese twist – up here in the Himalaya you have to take into account the spirits (tsips) and your karmic balance.
The highly prized Cordycep (Yartsa Goenbub) or “summer plant – winter insect” only grows just below the snowline at around 17,000 feet. The result of moth larvae being infected and then mummified by a fungus they have magical healing and libido boosting qualities. This makes them so highly prized that locals from both sides of the Tibetan border spend weeks on their hands and knees on the hunt for them. Chinese athletes are said to dope with cordyceps and the wonder fungi’s best price per kilo recently hit US$40,000.
DRESSED TO THE NINES
As a sign of respect, whenever the Bhutanese visit any temple, monastery, government office or attend an important event, they adorn their national dress with a kabney for a man and rachu for a woman. The kabney is a fringed, rough woven cloth which is draped ceremoniously around one shoulder and the torso with its colour representing your rank – white for commoners, yellow for His Majesty the King and orange for the Lynpos (Government Ministers). The rachu is a colourful woven band worn draped over the left shoulder and its colour can denote a woman’s profession.
Not only do Bhutanese men get to show off their legs in their traditional dress, the gho also boasts a 360-degree pocket/pouch. It’s great for hiding a beer belly but the world’s biggest pocket is used to store anything from snacks to iPhone, wallets to office files or school books and sometimes even more precious cargo like a baby.
A typical prayer flag has at its central image a horse (windhorse or lung-ta) bearing three flaming, wish fulfilling jewels on its back. About 20 mantras – powerful ritual utterances – surround the horse, each dedicated to a particular deity. In addition to the mantras are prayers for long life and good fortune of the person who erects the flags. Prayer flags are printed from wooden blocks on to coloured cotton – traditionally the five colours are blue, white, red, yellow and green.
CELEBRATE THE CRANE
The deeply revered “auspicious harbingers of hope and prosperity”, throng throng karm or black-necked cranes, are celebrated with a festival of song and dance at Gangte Goenpa (monastery) on 11th November each year. The first arrivals fly over the Himalayan range from Tibet in October, circling the monastery three times before wintering in the valley.
MAKE ROOM FOR A MUSHROOM
Bhutan boasts over 30 species of edible mushroom (shamu) and in the season (August/September) chanterelle or coral mushroom dishes will be on the menu for locals and visitors alike. If you’re really lucky you might get to sample a matsutake mushroom as they are snapped up by the Japanese who go crazy for them.
CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN… NO WAIT!
The highest mountain in Bhutan is known as Gangkhar Puensum (White Peak of the Three Spiritual Brothers) and lies on the border with Tibet. The peak is a strong candidate for the highest unclimbed mountain in the world with an elevation of 7,570 metres (24,836 ft) and like all peaks in the Kingdom is the abode of the gods so remains off limits to mountaineers.
HUG A TREE
You’ll find plenty to choose from in Bhutan as 72% of the kingdom is under forest – Bhutan’s constitution demands that a minimum of 60% of Bhutan’s land must remain under forest cover for all time.
The locals’ red stained lips are actually the by-product of chewing doma (a smear of burning lime and half an areca nut rolled up in a betel leaf). Doma is served after meals, during rituals and ceremonies and in winter a long chew generates a warming glow. It is definitely an acquired taste (as it stinks) but is a mainstay of daily social life in Bhutan served after meals, during rituals and ceremonies and even at work.
The National Holiday of Blessed Rainy Day marks the end of the monsoon season and the start of harvest in Bhutan. Natural water sources are considered to be sanctifying and families gather to bathe together out of doors cleansing themselves of bad deeds, obstructions, defilements and accumulated bad karma. It is said that in olden times this would be their last proper bath and not another drop of rain would fall until the spring.
In Bhutan nicknames are very popular and useful so you’d better earn yourself a cool one! Traditionally a monk bestows two names on each baby, which gets tricky as neither are surnames, so a stranger would have no idea that a family were all related to one another. If that wasn’t sufficiently confusing many names are not only interchangeable between the sexes, there aren’t all that many Buddhist names to choose from so you’ll meet a lot of Ugyens and Pemas.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
A good deal in Bhutan as it happens. Most names have a spiritual significance based on righteous Buddhist characters or principles. May we introduce a few of our friends? Sangay Dhendup (Enlightened Buddha, Wish Fulfilment), Ugyen Dorji (Birthplace of Guru Rinpoche, Thunderbolt of Enlightenment), Kinley Tshering (Everybody’s Friend, Long Life), Karma Tenzin (Destiny, Upholder of the Dharma).
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
Within Bhutan’s borders, about 19 different dialects are spoken, including Sharchop, Bumthap and Kurtoep but Dzongkha unifies them all – most young Bhutanese also speak Hindi, Nepali and English.
The public buses which brave the twisting, narrow and bumpy East-West Highway across the country are aptly named – Paro to Bumthang takes 12-15 stomach churning hours in one of these overloaded people carriers.
THE KING IS COOL
His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his wife Jetsun Pema are respected and adored throughout the country. Just like his forefathers his Majesty is known as a humble, farsighted and benevolent leader, with an open-door policy that allows any citizen to request a private audience in what is known as the kidu tradition. Affectionately known as “K5” His Majesty is also a keen and accomplished Mountain Biker, Archer and Basketball Player.
GMT vs BST
The fast and frantic pace of life in the modern world slows to a more equitable (some might say glacial) rate on reaching the mountains, with the concept of “Bhutan Stretchable Time” being the norm to live by.
GNP vs GNH
Enlightened monarchs have sought to develop their kingdom by balancing economic growth carefully with social development, environmental sustainability and cultural preservation. This holistic approach to development and good governance has prioritised Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product since the 1970’s.
HEP AND TREES
Bhutan’s forests sequester more than three times the amount of carbon dioxide that the country produces – Bhutan is not only Carbon Neutral it is in fact the only country in the world that is Carbon Negative. By exporting most of the renewable electricity generated from fast flowing rivers offsets even more C02 and once the target of harnessing half the Hydro Power potential of the country is reached it would offset all the CO2 New York City produces annually.
There really are tigers in Bhutan! Just ask the BBC wildlife filmmakers behind the TV documentary, Lost Land of the Tiger. Oh, and snow leopards, red pandas, Himalayan black bears, barking deer and Himalayan red foxes plus those strange takins. For the twitchers we have the hoary-bellied Himalayan squirrel, Assamese macaw, blood pheasant, grey backed shrike, grey-headed woodpecker, common hoopoe, rufous-vented tit and dark breasted rosefinch as well as those sacred black necked cranes.
TAKIN THE MICKEY
Bhutan’s national animal has more than a passing resemblance to a Dr. Seuss creation – this creature has been likened to a bee-stung moose or a gnu goat but to be more scientific it is related to wild sheep. Ask a Bhutanese and they’ll tell you the real story – invited to perform a miracle for some villagers, the Divine Madman (Saint Drukpa Kinley) first demanded they cook a cow and a goat which he then devoured leaving just the bones. The Saint attached the goat’s head to the skeleton of the cow, clapped his hands and up it jumped and ran into the meadow to graze.
Struggling to conceive? A monk at Chimmi Lhakhang (temple) has a 10-inch wooden phallus that might help. After a tap on your head and the murmur of a blessing you’d better start agreeing on baby names. This is the temple of the Patron Saint of Bhutan, the deeply revered Divine Madman (The Well Hung Lama or Wise Crazy) who brought enlightenment to the world and subdued demons with his “Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom”. Be prepared as male “members” (sometimes of huge proportions and in comical states) adorn walls of houses, temples and shrines across the kingdom in his honour.
Since 1729, when Bhutan became the first country in the world to place restrictions on tobacco, it has been making history with its progressive stance on the product. In 2005, the sale of tobacco products was strictly prohibited, and anyone who wishes to light up must acquire a license so that they can smoke in designated areas. Even then, smoking is highly frowned upon and discretion advised.
WEED GROWS LIKE A WEED
Despite the Bhutanese’s stance on smoking, wild marijuana thrives in the country’s soil and climate flourishing in great swathes on hillsides. Before the advent of television in 1999 set them straight, the Bhutanese were blissfully unaware of the crops infamous properties and used it for pig food as it gave the beasts “the munchies” so fattening them up for market!
NO NO NO I COULDN’T POSSIBLY… OH, OK THEN THANK YOU
Bhutanese manners dictate that you should refuse food or drink whenever it’s offered to you. The tradition is to say the words “meshu meshu” and cover your mouth with your hands. You can give in, though, after two or three offers.
A yak cheese “gobstopper”. If locals aren’t chewing doma they are probably gnashing on chugo. Nomadic Yak herders dry cubes of cheese over their fires on strings of yak hair then sell or barter them at winter markets – definitely an acquired taste for visitors but loved by locals.
BHUTAN THE INDOMITABLE
How many countries can say that they have never been conquered? And no wonder, almost the whole country is guarded by ranks of mountains and brave bowmen used to regularly fend off waves of Tibetan invaders. The able and smart diplomacy of previous local kings and gurus also played its part in securing Bhutan’s independence. This lack of outside influence has made for a rich, unique and intact culture within Bhutan’s borders which is now being eroded by outside influences such as the internet and television which only reached Bhutan in 1999.
ABOMINABLE WILDLIFE SANCTUARY
Only in Bhutan would you find a 253 square mile area of forest dedicated to the conservation of the abominable snowman or yeti. Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in the wilds of Eastern Bhutan is the home of the migoi or “strong man” who, legend has it, stands 8 feet tall, walks backwards to evade trackers, can make itself invisible and brings bad luck to anyone it meets.
ZORIG CHUSUM AND VAST
Arts and crafts are thriving in the kingdom as demonstrated by the number of private art galleries, weaving centres and the Institute for the 13 traditional arts or Zorig Chusom and the more contemporary NGO the Voluntary Artists Studio (VAST).
Oh go on then, one more!
Traditional Bhutanese architecture is steeped in Buddhist belief and culture with no nails, screws or iron bars of any kind or indeed any plans used in the construction process. This fact makes the massive, handsome fortresses (dzongs) and monasteries (goenpas) all the more remarkable.
A highlight of any adventure in Bhutan is to join the throng of festival dressed up to the nines as they attend their local 3-5 day long Tsechu or Dromchoe. Adorned in bright costumes of yellow silk lined with rich brocade and often ornamented with carved bones, monks and laymen alike perform whirling and leaping masked dances. Their masks represent animals, fearsome deities, skulls, or manifestations of Guru Padmasambhava and reach as far back as the 8th century to tell of local legends and the life of the great Guru. The festival is not only an important sacred event in the Bhutanese calendar, but it is also one of the main social gatherings of the year with locals all dressed up in their finest clothes and jewellery. Many festivals culminate in the hanging of an enormous thongdrel or religious tapestry which might depict Guru Rinpoche or perhaps the Shabdrung from which festival goers can receive blessings and be absolved of all sin.
SPOT THE GUARDIANS OF THE FOUR DIRECTIONS
These four warrior kings adorn the entrances to many goenpas (monasteries), dzongs (fortresses) and lhakhangs (temples). They are said to guard against evil spirits, ogresses, demons and earthly threats:
Chenmizang – King of the West
Holds a chorten and a snake
Yulkhorsung – King of the East
Plays a lute and is Lord of Celestial Musicians
Namthoetse – King of the North
Holds a mongoose and victory banner
Phagchepo – King of the South
holds a sword in his right hand
SPOT THE EIGHT LUCKY SIGNS
On your travels look out for the Tashi Tagye – they are revered as deeply auspicious and carry significant meanings and life lessons:
Dug (Parasol) embodies notions of wealth or royalty and power experienced in the Buddhist life of detachment plus wholesome activities to keep beings from harm. Sernya (Pair of Golden Fish) symbolic of the rivers Ganges and Yamuna, but came to represent good fortune in general, for Hindus, Jain and Buddhists. Bumpa (Treasure Vase) a sign of the inexhaustible riches available in the Buddhist teachings, and also symbolises long life, wealth, prosperity. Lotus (Lotus Flower) refers to the complete purification of body, speech and mind, and the blossoming of wholesome deeds in liberation. Dungkar (Conch Shell) used as a horn to symbolise the reverberating sound of Dharma, awakening beings from the slumber of ignorance to accomplish welfare for all. Palbheu (Endless Knot) symbol of the nature of reality where everything exists as part of a web of karma and its effect. It also represents the infinite wisdom of the Buddha, and the illusory character of time, and long life as it is endless.
BHUTANESE BUDDHISM 101
Bhutan is not only the last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom in the world it is almost unique in managing to protect its traditional values while also looking to the future. Buddhism centres around the idea that earthly suffering can be relieved by attaining Enlightenment, the cessation of the eternal cycle of death and rebirth in which all sentient beings are mired. Over the last 2,500 years several sects have emerged, each with a unique take on the teachings of Buddha and daily practice. Tibetan Mahayana Tantric Buddhism is followed in Bhutan and venerates the bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who out of compassion stay back from Nirvana so as to help others to find salvation. Their deep rooted Buddhist origins have given the Bhutanese an inner peace so lacking in many parts of the world that it’s no wonder Bhutan has become such a draw.
SPOT THE BODHISATTVA
The Bodhisattva of Compassion and patron saint of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is regarded as a manifestation of Avalokithesvara. Look out for 11 heads and 1000 hands each with the eye of compassion in the palm.
The Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Literature. Scholars call and pray to him requesting gifts of knowledge and memory. His sword is a symbol of wisdom as he cuts the ties of ignorance. Another important symbol is the book by his side, resting on a lotus flower.
The Bodhisattva of Power Usually depicted as wrathful and flaming, he wears a crown and a tiger skin, holds a lasso in his left hand with which he captures the adversaries of Buddhism while in his right he carries a dorji or “thunderbolt of enlightenment”.
A Female Bodhisattva. There are five variations of her: green, white, blue, red and yellow. She is considered a great protector that guards people against the eight major dangers in life: pride, delusion, anger, jealousy, wrong views, greed, desire and doubt.
Elements of Bonism pervade Bhutanese beliefs and rituals intermingling with Buddhism to this day. Not least in the form of folklore encompassing powerful natural forces or tsips and the spirit catchers placed outside farmhouses to ward off evil. The ancient Tibetan religion known as Bon pre-dates Buddhism in the remote Himalaya and is almost shamanic in its focus on dervishes and deities rather than the philosophy or Dharma.
100% ORGANIC BHUTANESE SHOPPING LIST
Chillies & Cheese
The Bhutanese national dish is ema datshi, chilli peppers cooked with cheese to form a nice, warm gooey bowl of goodness.
Following the lead of the original Red Panda Weiss Beer from Bumthang several craft ales are now produced locally – try the Red Rice Lager at the Namgay Artisanal Brewery in Paro.
This co-operative supports local potato farmers look out for the Bhutanese Spices flavour – zhim bey!
The Bhutanese staple, delicious wholesome almost nutty and not widely available in shops because the Bhutanese covet it so much.
More co-operatives underpin organic honey production in Bhutan – sample their delicious white clover, mustard clover or buckwheat honeys.
A local herbal tea made from Safflower petals and the bark of Cinnamomum Tamala. The name Tshering means long life and the tea is said to treat the heart and nerves and aid digestion.