Bhutan - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Bhutan, constitutional monarchy in South Asia, in the eastern Himalayas, on the Indian subcontinent. It is bounded on the north by the Tibet region of China, and to the south, east, and west by India. During most of its early history, Bhutan was divided into a number of independent principalities located in the major valleys. A unified Bhutan emerged with a dual system of civil and spiritual rule in the 16th century. Since 1907 it has been ruled by a hereditary monarch of the Wangchuck family. Bhutan remained a secluded country until the 1950s. In 1960 the government began to transform the country into a modern nation with economic aid from India. While the development process has gained considerable momentum in recent years, Bhutan is still grouped by the United Nations (UN) among the least developed countries of the world. Democratic reforms began to be introduced in 1998, launching Bhutan’s transition from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. The name Bhutan means “Land of the Thunder Dragon” in Dzongkha, the country’s official language. The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu.


Bhutan has an area of 47,000 sq km (18,100 sq mi). Despite its small size, it is a land of great diversity, with dense, swampy jungles, valleys of rice fields, bleak alpine highlands, and towering peaks of the Himalayas in close proximity to one another.

Bhutan has three major land regions: the Great Himalayan region, in the north; the Middle Himalayan region, in central Bhutan; and the Duars, a plain along the southern border with India. The Great Himalayan region rises more than 4,300 m (14,000 ft) along the Tibetan border and contains Kula Kangri (7,554 m/24,783 ft), Bhutan’s highest peak. Northern Bhutan is uninhabited except for a few scattered settlements in the high valleys, where hardy Bhutanese yaks graze in the high mountain pastures in the summer months.

The Great Himalayas radiate southward into central Bhutan, creating the Middle Himalayan zone. The Middle Himalayas enclose fertile valleys lying at elevations between about 1,500 and 2,800 m (about 4,900 and 9,200 ft). These are relatively broad and flat valleys, with moderate rainfall and a temperate climate; they are well populated and cultivated.

South of the Middle Himalayan valleys and foothills lies the Duars, which is a plain 8 to 13 km (5 to 8 mi) wide. Here rivers flowing to the south have cut deep gorges into the mountains that rise sharply from the narrow plain. The rainfall is heavy and the hillsides are covered with thick vegetation. The climate of the Duars tract is unhealthy; the valleys are hot and humid and the forested foothills are wet and misty. The southern section of the Duars, once covered with dense savanna and bamboo jungle, has been largely cleared for rice cultivation. The northern part of the Duars, including the foothills, is rugged, irregular land that is covered with dense vegetation; deer, tigers, and other wild animals roam this area.

Bhutan’s main rivers, from west to east, are the Torsa, Raidak, Sankosh, and Manas. Rising in the Great Himalayas, these rivers flow south through Bhutan to India. Flooding is rare in the upper courses but can be a serious problem in the low-lying areas of the Duars. None of the rivers is navigable.

In Bhutan, differences in altitude, exposure to sunlight, and rain-bearing winds result in intricate variations in climate. The northern interior has bitterly cold winters and cool, temperate summers; the southern foothills and the Duars, less than 160 km (100 mi) away, have a humid, tropical climate all year. In the capital, Thimphu, in west central Bhutan, average temperatures range from about -4°C (25°F) to about 16°C (61°F) in January and from about 15°C (59°F) to about 26°C (79°F) in July, during the monsoon season. The average annual precipitation is about 650 mm (about 25 in), with most of it falling between June and September.

Mineral resources in Bhutan include limestone, dolomite, and coal. Limestone and dolomite are mined in southwestern Bhutan; coal is extracted in the southeast. Forests cover 68 percent of Bhutan’s total land area. Most of the forests are located in the Middle Himalayan ranges and foothills of central and eastern Bhutan. Vegetation varies with altitude, slope, moisture, and drainage. Deciduous woodlands are found in the south, mixed forests in central Bhutan, and coniferous forests in the north.

Population growth is increasing the demand for fuelwood and causing pressure on the small amount of land that can be used for farming or pasture. The more accessible forests have been depleted through overcutting, poor management, and soil erosion. Poor access to potable water and sanitation are also serious problems in Bhutan. Nevertheless, preservation of the environment is part of the country’s tradition and government policy, and 26.4 percent (2007) of the land is protected.


Foreign sources placed Bhutan’s population at 691,141 in 2009. According to Bhutan’s 2005 census, however, the country at that time had a population of about 670,000. The discrepancy is due to the fact that, beginning in 1990, the official census has excluded people of Nepalese origin. Using either estimate, Bhutan’s population density is low. Based on the 2009 estimate, the country has 15 persons per sq km (38 per sq mi). The annual growth rate is estimated at 1.3 percent.

About 92 percent (2003) of the people live in rural areas. The population is dispersed widely. Large tracts are virtually empty; others are relatively crowded. The Middle Himalayan valleys contain nearly half of the nation’s population, concentrated in the middle portion of the Wong, Sankosh, and Manas river valleys and in the valleys of their tributaries. The southern zone, close to the Indian border, contains approximately 40 percent of the kingdom’s population. The Black Mountain Range and its associated highlands, which extend from east to west across south central Bhutan, are thinly populated. The Great Himalayan region in the north has vast areas that are nearly uninhabited.

Thimphu and Phuntsholing, in southwestern Bhutan near the Indian border, are the major urban centers. Other cities and towns include Paro, Punākha, Wangdü Phodrang, Tongsa, Tashi Gang, Mongar, and Chirang.

Ethnic Groups in Bhutan

There are four major ethnic groups or groupings in Bhutan: Bhutia, Sharchops, a cluster of indigenous groups, and Nepalese. These groups are distinguished by language, religion, and socioeconomic characteristics. The most populous group is the Bhutia, who are descended from Tibetans. The Bhutia mostly live in northern and central Bhutan. They, like most Bhutanese, speak languages from the Tibeto-Burman language family (see Sino-Tibetan Languages). They practice a form of Buddhism closely related to Tibetan Buddhism. The Bhutia dominate Bhutanese political life: Top government officials and lamas (monks) come from this group.

The Sharchops reside mainly in eastern and southeastern Bhutan and are thought to be the region’s earliest inhabitants. They are ethnically related to hill tribes in the nearby Indian states of Assam and Arunāchal Pradesh and are Indo-Mongoloid in origin. The Sharchops speak both Hindi, due to their proximity to India, and languages of the Tibeto-Burman language family. They follow indigenous religions that are influenced considerably by Tibetan Buddhism.

Clusters of smaller, indigenous ethnic groups, such as the Lepcha, are scattered throughout Bhutan. The strongest concentration inhabits the narrow fringe of the Duars in the southern foothills near the Indian border. These people are ethnically related to groups in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal. They speak Indo-Aryan languages (see Indo-Iranian Languages) and follow Hinduism.

Nepalese people constitute a significant portion of Bhutan’s population. They are the most recent settlers, occupying south central and southwestern Bhutan. The Nepalese are mainly Rai, Gurung, and Limbu ethnic groups from the eastern mountains of Nepal. Nepalese immigration has been banned since 1959, when the Bhutanese government feared the minority would become too populous. Nepalese are not permitted to live in the central Middle Himalayan region because the Bhutanese government wants to maintain Bhutanese identity in this area; this ban has caused resentment and inner political turmoil for Bhutan. There has been little assimilation of the Nepalese people with the predominant Tibetan culture.

Language and Religion in Bhutan

Dzongkha is the official national language of Bhutan. It is based on Tibetan and uses chhokey (the Tibetan script) for writing. English is also widely used, particularly in education. Ngalopkha, also derived from Tibetan, is spoken in western Bhutan. Sharchopkha, which is an Indo-Mongoloid language, is the dominant language in eastern Bhutan. Nepali is spoken in the south.

The Drukpa sect of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan. Nearly 75 percent of Bhutan’s population practices this form of Buddhism, which is closely related to Tibetan, or Lamaist, Buddhism. The rest mainly practice Hinduism, which varies in Bhutan from traditional Hinduism to a fusion of Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, in which the beliefs and practices as well as the gods and shrines of both religions are worshiped. Although religious and secular authority is vested in the king, Buddhist lamas (monks) also exercise a powerful influence on national affairs.

Education in Bhutan

The adult literacy rate was estimated at 56 percent in 2007. Until the early 1960s no formal schools existed in Bhutan except for religious ones. Since that time the country has developed free and noncompulsory schooling that provides both primary and secondary education. Due in part to a lack of access to facilities, the attendance rate at Bhutan’s schools is relatively low. A greater percentage of boys attend school than girls.

Institutions of higher education in Bhutan include a four-year degree college (located in Kanglung), one junior college, and two technical schools. With the assistance of grants and fellowships, many Bhutanese students annually receive higher education abroad, mainly in India, Japan, Australia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Under a national service plan, students returning from their studies abroad take short courses that inform them of Bhutan’s current needs and also of the parameters of its development and resources. The students are then required to work in rural areas for a specified period of time (generally about six months), assisting the villagers in constructing schools, installing irrigation systems, improving the drinking water supply, or running health centers.

Way of Life and Culture of Bhutan

Some 92 percent of Bhutan’s population lives in 4,500 rural settlements, which vary in size and organization from a group of 20 or more houses in the Duars to scattered groups of houses in the Middle Himalayan valleys and small settlements in the Great Himalayan region. Most of the populated valleys of Bhutan have a dzong, a fortified monastery that also serves as an administrative center. Dzongs are typically built on an outcrop on the steep side of the valley and guarded by rows of Buddhist prayer flags. Bhutan’s architecture is influenced by that of both India and Tibet.

Before the mid-20th century there were three social classes in Bhutan: the monastic community, led by the nobility; lay civil servants, who ran the government; and farmers, the largest class, living in self-sufficient villages. Elements of these traditional social classes still survive, but since the 1960s society has changed; class division is based on occupation and social status. Also, increased mobility outside the village has led to the development of nuclear family units.

Although men still dominate the politics and economy of Bhutan, development programs that were begun in the 1960s have led to increased opportunities for women in the fields of teaching, nursing, and administration. The National Women’s Association of Bhutan (founded in 1981) is working to improve the socioeconomic status of women in the country.

Food staples for the Bhutanese include rice and, increasingly, corn. They also eat beef, pork, poultry, goat, yak, and fish. Yak cheese is part of the diet of upland people. Meat soups, rice or corn, and spiced chilies comprise daily food; beverages include buttered tea and beer distilled from cereal grains.

Traditional clothing is worn throughout Bhutan. Women wear the kira, an ankle-length dress made of a rectangular piece of cloth held at the shoulders with a clip and closed with a woven belt at the waist; underneath they wear a long-sleeved blouse. Social status is indicated by the colors of the kira, the amount of decorative details, and the quality of the cloth. Men wear the gho, a wraparound, coatlike, knee-length garment with a narrow belt. Both men and women sometimes wear elaborate earrings. Both sexes also wear scarves or shawls, white for commoners and carefully specified designs, colors, and manner of folding for higher-ranking individuals.

Dance performances are a popular form of entertainment in Bhutan. Masked dances and dance dramas are held several times a year during Buddhist religious festivals in dzongs throughout Bhutan. Dancers wearing colorful wooden masks and special costumes create a splendid display of heroes, demons, animals, gods, and caricatures of common people. Many of Bhutan’s dances tell religious, historical, and other types of stories.

A national library is in Thimphu, and a national museum featuring paintings, decorative art, arms, and jewelry is in Paro. Bhutan’s national sport is archery. Competitions are often held weekly as well as throughout the Lunar New Year celebrations in February.


The United Nations (UN) classifies Bhutan as one of the world’s least developed nations. The country is predominantly agricultural with limited industrial activity and services. Bhutan’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $1,096 million in 2007.

Agriculture, animal husbandry, and forestry employ 94 percent of the workforce and contribute 21 percent of GDP. Agriculture of Bhutan is primarily devoted to the cultivation of cereal crops to meet subsistence needs. Rice, corn, barley, millet, and wheat are the main crops. Farming methods are generally traditional and labor intensive. Only 3.8 percent of Bhutan’s total land area is cultivated. Livestock such as cattle, yaks, hogs, goats, sheep, and horses are commonly raised. Timber production is also important; oak, pine, and tropical hardwood trees are harvested from the country’s forests.

Trade and other services, including tourism, employ 5 percent of the workforce and contribute 36.3 percent of GDP. In 1975 Bhutan was opened to tourism, which became the country’s largest source of foreign exchange. However, the government restricts the number of visitors in an attempt to minimize any negative impact on Bhutan’s traditions, culture, and natural environment. Only 1 percent of the labor force is employed in industry (including manufacturing, mining, and construction), although this sector of the economy contributes 43 percent of GDP.

Bhutan relies on hydroelectric power resources for 100 percent (2006) of its domestic electricity consumption (see Waterpower). Hydroelectric facilities in Bhutan produce a surplus of electricity, which is exported to India.

India is Bhutan’s primary trading partner, although trade is conducted with a number of other countries, as well. Bhutan’s major imports include rice, manufactured goods, fuel, and machinery. Major exports include wood products, cement, agricultural products such as apples and oranges, handicrafts, and electricity. Bhutan’s monetary unit is the ngultrum (41.30 ngultrum equal U.S.$1; 2007 average), which is at parity with the Indian rupee. The rupee is also an official currency in Bhutan.

The first road linking India with the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu was opened in 1962. Since then Bhutan has developed a skeletal road system linking most of the Middle Himalayan valleys. These roads have opened up large areas of central and eastern Bhutan. The roads cut into steep hillsides and mountains; during the rainy season frequent landslides block the roads, and remote settlements revert to the isolation of earlier times. About 62 percent of the roads are paved. The Bhutan Government Transport Service operates a bus service to all parts of the country. An international airport is located in Paro. Druk Air, Bhutan’s national airline, was founded in 1981 and started flights between Paro and Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1983; service has since been expanded to include flights to such cities as Bangkok (Thailand), Dhaka (Bangladesh), and Kathmandu (Nepal). Modern telecommunications link major towns.

Although government ownership of the country’s print and broadcast media ended in 1992, the government still exerts control over the media. The country’s only newspaper, Kuensel, is published weekly in multiple languages in Thimphu. Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) offers radio and television programming. The government lifted a ban on broadcast television in 1999. Cable television is also available in the country.


From 1907 until 1998 Bhutan was an absolute monarchy. Its king, called the druk gyalpo (dragon king), served as both head of state and government. In governing Bhutan the king consulted with his royal advisory council, a 150-member National Assembly (instituted in 1953), and the head abbot of Bhutan’s Buddhist monks.

In 1998 the reigning king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, voluntarily relinquished his role as head of government and introduced a modified form of constitutional monarchy. Under reforms that he introduced by royal edict, executive power was vested in a Council of Ministers. The chairman of the Council of Ministers served as head of government. The 1998 reforms gave the National Assembly the power to vote, by a two-thirds majority, to require the king to abdicate in favor of his successor. In 2001 the king issued a decree setting up a committee to draft Bhutan’s first constitution, which would formally establish a constitutional monarchy with a democratic system of government. The draft constitution, unveiled to the public in 2005, was to be approved by referendum.

A new bicameral (two-chamber) parliament was established in 2008, comprising the National Assembly and the National Council. The National Assembly has 47 members, who are directly elected in multimember constituencies. In the 25-seat National Council, 20 members are directly elected in single-member constituencies and 5 members are appointed by the monarch. Members of both chambers serve 5-year terms.

Civil laws in Bhutan have been influenced by traditional Buddhist law. Village heads resolve minor civil disputes. The principal trial courts are a High Court and district courts; the king is the final, highest level of appeal in Bhutan.

Bhutan joined the UN in 1971. It receives most of its foreign aid for development from India and from international organizations such as the Asian Development Bank and the UN. India is Bhutan’s de facto military protector and weapons supplier. It also provides advanced training to the Royal Bhutan Army, which numbers about 6,000. Bhutan pays India an annual sum in return for these services.


Little is known of Bhutan’s early history. Archaeological evidence suggests that people may have lived in the area as early as 2000 BC. The state of Monyul is thought to have existed here between 500 BC and AD 600. The people of Monyul practiced a shamanistic religion that emphasized the worship of nature and the existence of good and evil spirits. Buddhism was introduced into the area in the 7th century, and Buddhist chronicles provide a recorded history of Bhutan. Buddhist temples were built in Bumtang and Paro valleys. At this time there was no central government in the country; separate valleys were ruled by feudal lords. As Buddhism matured within Bhutan, it became a unifying element for the country.

By the 10th century, the monks of the Kargyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism began to build dzongs (fortified monasteries) in the valleys of Bhutan. The Drukpa subsect of the Kargyupa sect spread through Bhutan and became a dominant religion. In 1616 the theocratic government of Bhutan was founded by a Drukpa monk, Ngawang Namgyal. After a series of victories over rival subsect leaders, Ngawang Namgyal became the leader of Bhutan. He was the first leader to unite the powerful Bhutanese families into one country. During Ngawang Namgyal’s rule, the administration of Bhutan developed a dual system of government including two leaders: a spiritual leader entitled dharma raja and a civil government leader entitled deb raja. The seat of the government was at Thimphu; the winter capital was at Punākha. This system of dual administration for spiritual and civil matters continued until 1907.

In 1774 the deb raja signed a treaty of peace with the English East India Company. In the 1870s and 1880s regional rivalry between the pro-British governor of Tongsa and the anti-British governor of Paro resulted in the rise of Ugyen Wangchuck, the governor of Tongsa. Ugyen Wangchuck defeated his rivals and united the country under his leadership. After the dharma raja died in 1903 and no suitable replacement (who must be determined to be the reincarnation of the dharma raja) was found until 1906, the dual system of government was abolished. In 1907 Ugyen Wangchuck was installed as the first hereditary druk gyalpo (“dragon king”) of Bhutan. He reigned between 1907 and 1926. He was succeeded by his son Jigme Wangchuck, who reigned from 1926 to 1952. The third druk gyalpo, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, ruled from 1952 to 1972. During this period Bhutan began its program of modernization and development. Additionally, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck moved the capital of Bhutan to Thimphu year-round in order to increase efficiency. In 1972 the fourth druk gyalpo, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, began his rule.

In 1949 Bhutan and India signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship to govern their mutual relations. The treaty recognizes Bhutan’s sovereignty, guarantees noninterference by India in the internal affairs of Bhutan, and provides for free trade between the two countries and duty-free transit of Bhutan’s imports across India.

Refugee Crisis

In the late 1980s the monarchy of Bhutan began enforcing measures to promote Bhutanese national identity. New policies required all citizens to wear traditional Bhutanese dress and speak the official language, Dzongkha. The country’s Nepalese minority objected to these measures as cultural oppression. In addition, the government began rigorously checking citizenship registration, especially in the south where many Nepalese had settled illegally. (Bhutan officially banned Nepalese immigration in 1959.) In 1990 some factions of the Nepalese population began an insurgency campaign against the government. During the ensuing violence, which included a government crackdown on dissidents, thousands of Nepalese fled to Nepal.

Formal talks to resolve the refugee problem took place between Bhutan and Nepal in September 1999, but ended in deadlock over differences on the verification procedure. Bhutan claimed that only a few thousand of the refugees were citizens of Bhutan and refused to allow any others to return, while Nepal argued that they all had a right to return. Talks resumed in December 2000, and in early 2001 the two nations formed a joint verification team to determine the status of refugees for repatriation. According to the verification team, nearly 100,000 refugees from Bhutan were living in camps in eastern Nepal.

In 2003 the Royal Bhutan Army raided training camps that had been established in southeastern Bhutan by Maoist guerrillas and Assamese tribal militants in jungle areas. The raids were reportedly successful, but Maoist guerrillas were believed to have infiltrated the refugee camps in Nepal.

Democratic Reforms

In the early 1990s several political organizations emerged to oppose the king’s absolute rule, including the Bhutan National Democratic Party (BNDP). These organizations sought greater representation for Bhutan’s minority groups in government, which was completely dominated by the ethnic majority, the Bhutia. However, political parties remained officially banned in Bhutan.

In 1998 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck introduced a package of reforms in an effort to modernize Bhutan’s political system. The reforms reduced the role of the monarchy in governing the country. The king voluntarily relinquished his role as head of government, giving powers of daily governance to a new Council of Ministers, but retained his position as head of state. Among other changes, the reforms granted power to the legislature to call, through a vote of no confidence, for the king’s abdication in favor of his successor.

In 1999 television and Internet services were introduced to Bhutan for the first time. In 2001 King Jigme issued a decree calling for a special committee to draft a written constitution. The same year the chairman of the Council of Ministers became the country’s first prime minister. A preliminary draft of a constitution was presented to the king in 2002, and the final draft was unveiled to the public in 2005. It envisaged a two-party system with a directly elected legislature. In December 2006 King Jigme voluntarily abdicated the throne, and his son, Crown Prince Jigme Kesar Namgyel Wangchuck, succeeded him as king of Bhutan. The new king was formally coronated in November 2008.

Bhutan held its first direct parliamentary elections in 2007 and 2008, marking the transition to a constitutional monarchy. The elections established a new bicameral legislature. The initial round of voting was held in late December 2007 for the upper house, the National Council, in which political parties are not represented. In March 2008 voters cast ballots for the lower house, the National Assembly, in Bhutan’s first multiparty elections. Two parties participated: the pro-monarchy Druk Pheunsum Tshogpa (Bhutan Harmony Party, or DPT) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). The DPT won 45 of the 47 seats and its leader, Jigmi Thinley, was named prime minister.

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