BHUTAN is a country residing in the eastern Himalayans, sandwiched between China and India. Travellers and visitors to the country are surprised seeing the culture and the traditional lifestyle is still richly intact and at the degree to which it permeates all strands of modern day secular life. From the traditional woven garments to the prayer flags on high mountain slopes, from the built environment to the natural environment, from the religious mask dances to the folk dances, this cultural heritage is proudly evident and offers a unique cultural setting.
The Kingdom of Bhutan, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon, basks in a secluded spot in the eastern Himalaya. Magnificent mountains lush fields, thick forests, traditional lifestyles, and serene atmosphere are what Bhutan offers. Life goes on as it used to in the past, uncomplicated and peaceful, in this quiet sanctuary of art, culture and Buddhism. The Mahayana school of Buddhism flourishes in Bhutan in its purest form. The country is dotted with monasteries which are repositories of Buddhist texts, impressive images and exquisite scroll paintings. The monasteries hum with the sound of monks reciting the scriptures and gaily decorated houses brighten up its quaint towns. Bhutan is like a trip into another world, into an exotic era untouched by modernization.
Our journey stats with a spectacular flight from Kathmandu to Paro air port on Druk Air (Royal Bhutan Airlines). From Paro we move on to Punakha and Wangdiphodang via the Dochula pass (3,090 m ) The capital of Bhutan, Thimpu, is a thriving town on the banks of the Thimpu Chhu river. Its center of attraction is the massive Tashichhodzong building, the administrative and religious center of Bhutan . Tours in Bhutan are organized through the Bhutan Tourism Corporation.
Sikkim, a state in northeast India, clings to the southern slopes of the Himalaya between Nepal and Bhutan. Until 1973, the land was ruled by a chogyal. Tibetan Buddhist culture permeates Sikkim and it used to be an important stop on the trans-Himalayan trade routes. Sikkim attracts travelers with its abundant wildlife (notably the snow leopard), and varied flora (like the rock orchid and blue poppy). rekking in Sikkim takes you close to Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. The famed Rumtek monastery and the charming town of Gangtok, the capital, are other allures of Sikkim.
The Buddhist faith has played and continues to play a fundamental role in the cultural, ethical and sociological development of Bhutan and its people. It permeates all strands of secular life. The State religion is Drukpa Kagyupa a branch of Mahayana Buddhism. It has been institutionalised in the Dratshang (Central Monk body), headed by the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) who is chosen from among the most learned lamas and enjoys an equal rank with the King. Bhutan is the only country in the world to have adopted Mahayana Buddhism in its Tantric form as its official religion.
Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan which lies in a beautiful, wooded valley, on the bank of the Thimphu Chhu (river.) Thimphu has been able to maintain its charm and is awash with brightly painted, elaborately decorated facades which give the town a attractive medieval feel.
If you come to Bhutan by air, you'll probably land in Paro. Western Bhutan is the heartland of the Drukpa people and you will be confronted with the largest, oldest and most spectacular dzongs in the kingdom. You will immediately realise you are off the beaten track of world tourism.
Bumthang is the spiritual heartland of Bhutan and home to its most ancient and precious Buddhist sites. In the centre of Bhutan, Bumthang encompasses four major valleys; the main one, Choskhor, is home to the most important dzongs, temples and palaces. Jakar is at the foot of the Choskhor valley and likely to be your base. Jakar Dzong is the largest in Bhutan with a circumference of more than 1500m (4920ft), and was founded in 1549. Wangdichholing Palace was formerly the humble abode of King Uygen Wangchuck.
Phobjika is a glacial valley on the western slopes of the Black Mountains, and is a designated conservation area nudging the borders of the Black Mountain National Park. It is one of the most important wildlife preserves in the country because of the large flock of rare, endangered black-necked cranes that winter there. These birds have a special place in Bhutanese folklore, and one of the most popular folk songs laments the time when the cranes leave the valley to return to Tibet. With permission from the Nature Conservation Section in Thimphu, you can view the roosting place of these birds. It's an awesome spectacle at dusk when all the birds from the valley congregate for the night.
Bhutanese are a mongolid race of people who originally migrated into and settled the country in the 7th Century AD. A nomadic and pastoral society at first, they gradually turned to agriculture in the fertile valleys. There are three main ethnic groups - the Ngalongs in the western and central regions are the descendants of Tibetan immigrants who arrived in Bhutan from the 9th century. The Sharchops who live in the east of the country, are recognized as the original inhabitants of Bhutan. The third group is known as Lhotshampas. They represent the Nepali speaking ethnic group. The total population of Bhutan is about 600,000.
The Festivals in Bhutan have reputations for being a joyous affairs. The most popular for tourists are those held in Thimphu, Paro and Bumthang. They mark the busiest time of year for the tourism industry. Airplane tickets and hotel rooms are frequently difficult to come by. The dzongs come to life with color, music, and dancing as valley dwellers and townsfolk dress in their finest clothes and join together to exorcise evil spirits and rejoice in a new harvest. Rare masked and sword dances and other rituals are performed in dzong courtyards and temples. Most of the dances date back from before the middle ages and are only performed once or twice each year. Each dance has its own spiritual importance and can be performed by monks or lay village elders dressed in bright costumes. Certain festivals end with the unveiling and worship of huge religious appliqués or throngdrels. The moment of the unveiling is shrouded in secrecy and creates great excitement among all the participants. Tourists are allowed into the dzongs to watch the festivals, but are not allowed into the inner sanctuaries. Photography should always be discreet. It is generally allowed for photographs to be taken at tsechus but not at dromches.