Mysticism and history are two reasons the Kingdom of Bhutan is so unique. So how to balance progress and introduce reforms to modernize the country without destroying the culture of Bhutan is one of the challenges. And this is what makes a Bhutan visit so worthwhile.
Bhutan, landlocked in the Eastern Himalayas, is remote which has allowed the culture of Bhutan to develop its own personality. So different to anywhere else we have traveled.
Tourism in Bhutan is still in its infancy as the country carefully opens itself up to the rest of the world. Therefore, now is a great time for a Bhutan visit.
Read on to discover some of the fascinating Bhutanese traditions. Bhutan takes the happiness of its population seriously, measuring Gross National Happiness! Modern reforms are ensuring Bhutan happiness continues as Bhutan develops economically and opens its arms to tourists.
The Kingdom of Bhutan: A History of Mysticism and Deities
Religion plays a big part in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutanese people are roughly 92% Buddhist, 5% Hindu, 3% Christian. Prior to the arrival of Buddhism around the 8th century, the Bon belief system existed. Worship of nature was important and Bon rituals are still an important part of festivals in Bhutan. Strong migration from Tibet around the 9th Century moved Bhutan away from Bon and toward Buddhism.
Over time, these two belief systems became intertwined with a strong connection to mysticism and deities.
The famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery came into existence some 1,250 years ago. According to legend, Guru Rinpoche flew on the back of a tigress. After 3 month’s meditation, he took the form of Guru Dorji Drole to subdue local demons and convert them into protector deities. He consequently converted the people in the Paro Valley to Buddhism.
Note how the guru doesn’t slay the demon. He converts the demon into a protector deity to the benefit of the community.
This is a very common, Bhutanese theme. It probably explains why the Bhutanese respect all life (other humans and all fauna and flora). And it is also a strong theme at festivals in Bhutan. Spectacular dances and music commemorate these important beliefs.
Many of the mountains of Bhutan have names but not like those in other countries: in the Haa Valley, on the border with Tibet, 3 prominent hills (prosperity, wisdom, compassion) represent the guardian deities. Guru Rinpoche himself reputedly named the Haa Valley. It means “mystical”.
These myths and stories form the cornerstone of culture in Bhutan. And as a visitor, this just adds to the romance of a Bhutan visit.
Blessings and in the Culture of Bhutan
Part of the experience on a Bhutan visit is the many blessings, learning about the religious practices and seeing the temples. Here are just a few of our favorite experiences and great memories:
- Receiving a white welcome scarf upon meeting our guide at the airport and again upon arrival at our first hotel to wish us well on our travels;
- All temples, monasteries and dzongs contain prayer wheels. Prayer wheels are cylindrical wheels containing scrolls repeatedly inscribed with mantras. The Bhutanese believe turning the prayer wheels clockwise, activates and releases the mantras. The mantras purify negativity, generate compassion, remove barriers to enlightenment and therefore bring benefit to all sentient beings. Spinning the wheel is the same as saying the mantra.
Hanging prayer flags in windy places so Lung Ta will carry the blessings depicted on the flags to all sentient beings. The colors represent the 5 basic elements: blue for space, white for air, red for fire, green for water and yellow for earth. Buddhists believe balancing these elements brings harmony to the environment and good health to the body and the mind. You can read more here. We added our prayer flag to the highest pass we crossed on our visit, Chele La Pass, at 13,000 ft on the way to the Haa Valley.
- Many Bhutanese use prayer beads, which are not unlike rosary beads. In the 8th century a female demon was preventing the spread of Buddhism. So King Songsten Gampo built 108 temples (in Tibet and Bhutan) to pin her down. The 108 beads represent the 108 temples.
- Almost all homes in Bhutan have a room containing an alter which the Bhutanese use for rituals and reflection.
- Monks reciting blessings from Bhutanese books (very long, rectangular unbound books- you can see them in the video below). Some are very ancient looking. You will likely observe this whenever you visit a temple.
- Blessings inside Bhutanese temples where monks pour saffron-laced water on your hands.
- An impressive and emotional drum ceremony by the nuns of the Pema Choeling Nunnery in our honor. A clip is below but the ceremony lasted over 30 minutes.
You can see a short, video clip of the drum ceremony below:
The sheer number of dzongs, monasteries, nunneries and temples throughout Bhutan is staggering. They all contain beautiful carvings, textiles, statues, ritual cakes (made from butter) and a variety of other beautiful, Buddhist paraphernalia.
But as you will see below, the Kingdom of Bhutan has a plan in place to ensure Bhutanese artisans never lose the knowledge of how to continue making these artifacts.
Traditional Bhutanese Arts and Crafts are Still Important in the Modern Era
The Kingdom of Bhutan encourages the ongoing use of traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts. Modern technology could result in the mass production of “cheap” alternatives. Yet the Bhutanese maintain the old ways of making these beautiful items.
A visit to the National Institute for Zorig Chusum is eye-opening. Such facilities protect the traditional handicrafts and culture of Bhutan. Here, young students receive instruction in 13 traditional arts. Courses last between 4 and 6 years and include:
- Clay sculptures, all made by hand, using the wooden tools made by the students themselves. Given the number of small statues in Bhutanese temples and monasteries, such skills provide jobs for life.
- Magnificent, painted, wooden carvings used in housing and all public and religious buildings.
- We observed the students using sewing machines to make clothes and wall hangings. Wall hangings adorn the walls and roofs of dzongs, monasteries and temples.
- Fine embroidery work is found on wall hangings in the temples. This highly skilled embroidery work traditionally was done by men, but this is changing and we saw several girls in the class.
- Making the drawings and paintings telling traditional Buddhist stories found inside temples in Bhutan.
We spoke to the student making the sculpture pictures above. Currently, in year 3, it will take him about 2-3 months to complete the piece. By the time he graduates he will be able to complete this piece in 2-3 weeks!
In addition to the school, there are many small businesses which focus on producing such items. Hand-made, beautiful paper, prayer books, and paintings. Many make great souvenirs and gifts to take home to remember your Bhutan visit.
Balancing Bhutan Happiness while Introducing Reforms
The Kingdom of Bhutan has quite a challenge to carefully introduce modernization without destroying Bhutanese culture. But it is a challenge, they are rising to:
Education in government schools is free. They teach in English, except for religious and traditional studies, which are taught in Bhutanese. A smart strategy to maintain your traditional language and yet prepare people to participate in the global economy.
- The Bhutanese Government offers a program for sending university students abroad to places like Australia, England and the United States. The Kingdom of Bhutan pays the cost of the tuition. In return, the students agree to return home to Bhutan for a minimum period of time enabling the community to benefit from their education. The result it is a win-win solution.
- Many local businesses invest in their staff by sending them overseas for specific training needs, especially in hospitality and tourism.
- The government provides health services. Depending on the population, a minimum level of service is provided, meaning small villages have a doctor, not a hospital.
- Like many places, young Bhutanese have been migrating to the larger towns for employment. Gross National Happiness surveys have taken a dip as a result, with rural areas scoring lower than larger towns. The Kingdom of Bhutan acknowledges this concern.
- Government finances the temples.
- The national highway is receiving a major upgrade. Japanese contractors build many of the bridges providing expertise.
- Several hydro-electric schemes are underway to provide reliable power. These projects hold true to the environmental sensitivities of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the desire to remain “carbon neutral”. India provides the financing, and agrees to buy the excess power thus enabling Bhutan to pay back the loan.
And Where Else Would this Happen but the Kingdom of Bhutan?
To allow everyone to own land there is a limit of owning 25 acres. Many wealthy landowners with large land holdings saw their land holdings substantially reduced as these were re-distributed to others with no land. Can you honestly imagine this happening in any other country?
I enjoy observing the culture of places I visit. Despite some challenges facing Bhutan (every country has those) I see a government that listens. People acknowledge and respect the government for it.
Most countries around the world could take a lesson from Bhutan and their citizens would be much happier for it.
We traveled as guests of Yangphel Adventure Travel. As always, all opinions are our own.