Arts and Crafts
Bhutanese arts and crafts stand a pulsating testimony to the country’s rich cultural heritage. Apart from its roots in the intrinsic religious significance, it possesses a boundless creativity in its style.
From the majestic fortresses (Dzongs) to people’s homes, the country’s unique arts and crafts embody the common national consciousness. Its simplicity, use of rich natural colors, and the religious thematic undertones create a poignant expression of the human will to achieve perfection. Although the style resembles that of Tibet, the country’s artisans have however departed from the dictates of easy influence to more experimental self-creativity. Thus, the themes and forms remain uniquely Bhutanese, heavily influenced by the country’s culture and religion.
Bhutan’s thirteen traditional arts and crafts (Zorig Chusum) is a legacy from the 17th century masters. They include: Woodwork (Shing Zo), Stonework (Dho Zo), Carving (Par Zo), Painting (Lha Zo), Sculpting (Jim Zo), Casting (Lug Zo), Wood Turning (Shag Zo), Blacksmithy (Gar Zo), Ornament Making (Troe Ko), Bamboo Work (Tsha Zo), Paper Making (De Zo), Tailoring and Embroidery (Tshem Zo), and Weaving (Thag Zo).
The Institutes of Zorig Chusum, in Thimphu and Trashiyangtse, promote the country’s arts and crafts.
The two institutes have played a pivotal role in propagating the country’s traditional arts and crafts. The very many cottage industries located around the country also engage in specific arts or crafts. Despite the imminent threat from the forces of globalization and liberal trade, the government of Bhutan has helped preserve these arts and crafts through various national initiatives.
For example, Zhemgang, in central Bhutan, is the main producer of bamboo products. Similarly, Trashiyangtse in the east produces paper and wooden bowls. Bumthang is known for its vegetable dyed wool textile called yathra, and Lhuentse for its pure silk weaving Kishuthara. And Thangka painting is almost a divine art with strict geometric proportions.
In the past, the arts and crafts hugely contributed toward the socio-economic need of the people. It continues to remain a major source of cash income for the farmers of Bhutan. Above all, they continue to reflect the way of life and culture of Bhutanese people.
Ancient stone implements and other archaeological findings indicate that there were settlements in the country dating back to 2000 B.C. The chronicled history of the kingdom, however, begins with the advent of Buddhism in the 8th century.
In 747 A.D. the Buddhist saint, Padmasambhava, popularly revered in Bhutan as Guru Rinpoche or the Precious Master, visited the country and introduced Buddhism. In the 17th century, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1594-1652), a leader of the Drukpa Kargyu school of Buddhism, consolidated the country and established the Chhoesi or dual system of government, whereby both the temporal and religious authority were separated and vested in the Druk Desi and Je Khenpo respectively. By the end of the 17th century, the country emerged with a distinct national and cultural identity as well as an unprecedented degree of political stability.
By the second half of the 18th century, the country witnessed a resurgence of political instability. The external threats in the latter half of the 19th century added a new dimension to the political quandary. It was against this background that the need for strong national leadership emerged. Peace and stability was restored with the enthronement of His Majesty King Ugyen Wangchuck as the first hereditary monarch of the kingdom in 1907.
The establishment of the monarchy ushered in a new era of peace and stability and most significantly unified the country under a central authority. It also set in motion a steady process of engagement with the outside world and laid the foundations for the country as a modern nation state.
The third King, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (1952-1972), instituted far-reaching political, social and economic reforms. He instituted the National Assembly, the High Court, and the Royal Advisory Council. He started the planned development process in 1961. He also guided Bhutan to membership in the UN in 1971.
Since his coronation in 1974, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth King, has dedicated himself to defining and realizing a long-term vision and direction for the country. He promoted an approach of development known as Gross National Happiness (GNH) which calls for careful balance between creation of material wealth and the spiritual, cultural and social needs of the society. He also pursued a process of democratization and involvement of the people in their own affairs from the national to the community level.
On 14 December 2006, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck voluntarily abdicated the throne and handed over the responsibilities of the Monarch and the Head of State to the Crown Prince His Royal Highness Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck who has since assumed responsibilities as the Fifth King of Bhutan.
His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was adorned with the Raven Crown at an ornate coronation ceremony in Thimphu on 6 November 2008, becoming the world’s youngest reigning monarch and head of the newest democracy.
Bhutan experiences four different seasons. Most tourist visit Bhutan in spring and autumn.
Spring is the time when Bhutan’s rich flora gets at it best as many and various flowers blossom. And during this time around the skies are clear and you can see towering snow-covered mountains of the Himalayas. Tourists say spring is the best season to visit Bhutan.
Even in spring Bhutan’s fierce winter, especially in high altitude would be over. Tourists who intend to visit during this time are advised to be equipped with some winter clothes.
Spring season starts from March and ends roughly in June. And another good time of the year – autumn – begins from September and lasts till the end of November.
However, Bhutan’s climatic conditions are different at different places and locations. It is because the country’s geography is mixed of mountains, plains, valleys, and hills.
Some places in Bhutan are as low as 100m and as high as more than 7,000m above the sea level.
Winters in Bhutan are cold and dry with most high lying places snow-covered. And summers are humid and experience heavy rains and frequent road blocks.
Bhutan has three different climatic zones: subtropical in the south, temperate in the central region, and alpine in the north.
Don’t be surprised if you come across a person who says “What can I do for you?” And “would you like to have something?” or “You can stay at my place tonight”. These are some of the important gestures most Bhutanese usually show to strangers. The offers are genuine.
The Bhutanese are helpful and hospitable. They believe these are some social values that keep the social harmony intact and society together.
Family bond, friendship, love and respect relationship among elders and the young are human values that most Bhutanese are proud of to practice.
The people by nature are open, friendly and take crude jokes as humor. They are karmic conscious and firmly believe being good to living beings is a license to happy life, both in the present and next life.
Of the total population of about 0.7 million more than 75% live in the rural areas. Agriculture is the source of their livelihood. People in the west and south grow a plenty of paddy and is their staple. And those in the east and central regions live off maize, wheat, buckwheat, and barely.
Bhutan’s population consists of three major ethic groups. They are Ngalong, Sharchop and Nepalese.
Ngalongs live in the western region, Sharchops in the east and Nepalese in the south.
Ngalongs are considered to be the origins of Mongoloid and Tibetans. Sharchops are supposed to be the earliest inhabitants of Bhutan. But their origins are still not known. And the Nepalese are the economic immigrants who settled in the country in the early 19th century.
The national language is Dzongkha. It is the mother tongue of the people living in the western region. But most Bhutanese can speak it.
Interestingly, most Bhutanese who attended school can speak English as it is used as the medium of instruction. Since English is spoken widely it is considered one of Bhutan’s selling points.
Bhutanese men wear the dress called gho. It is a robe pulled upward till the knee forming a fold at the waist. The fold is mocked at by foreigners as the biggest pocket in the world.
The dress Bhutanese women wear is known as kira. The dress is worn ankle length and resembles kimono. And the top women wear is called tego. The ghos and kiras are mostly woven with intricate designs.
People of Bhutan consider the natural environment as a home to gods and goddesses. The belief explains the commitment of the country to protect its environment.
The Constitution mandates that at least 60% of the total area of the country to be under forest cover in all times to come. Moreover, Bhutan’s development philosophy of Gross National Happiness recognizes the conservation of environment as one of its important pillars.
Today at least 72% of Bhutan’s total land area is under forest cover. And more than 50% of the total forest has been declared as the protected biodiversity corridors.
The protection and conservation of environment has been one of the significant national goals since the start of the modern development in the 1960s.
It is must for every development activity to pass an environment impact assessment. The stringent environment policy of the country creates an environment where the nature and mankind coexist in harmony.
To show to the rest of the world how even a small country like Bhutan can be environmentally responsible, it declared as a carbon-neutral country at COP 15 in Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009.
Given its large verdant forest cover Bhutan is a home to rich flora and fauna including endangered species. The country has been ranked one of the top 10 biodiversity hot spots in the world.
Majority of the Bhutanese are Buddhists. There are people who follow other faiths like Hinduism and Christianity. Hinduism is followed by the minority ethnic group called Nepalese and Christianity by a few Bhutanese. And Buddhism is the state religion.
Bhutan is today known as one of the bastions of Tantric Vajrayana form of Mahayana Buddhism.
The ways of life and living of most Bhutanese are woven around the principles and tenets of Buddhism. That is why the two major sects of Buddhism – Drukpa Kayugpa and Ningmapa are state-sponsored.
Making it a secular state, the Constitution of the country grants a freedom to the people to choose their religious faith. However, the supreme law prohibits proselytizing.
In Bhutan religion is considered above politics. The religious figures do not participate in politics. They do not vote and are not allowed to field themselves as political candidates for elections. And religious personalities are restricted from having any political association.
The centers of the 20 districts house both the district administrative machinery and the state monastic institution. This symbolizes a peaceful coexistence between religious values and modern governance principles.
The sight of an altar in every Bhutanese home, aesthetic architecture of several temples and monasteries, hills adorned with prayer flags, and chanting monks show how religious Bhutan is as a Buddhist community.
Despite Bhutan’ small population there has been much economic development in recent years and the economy is growing rapidly.
While a large part of the Bhutanese population is still illiterate and reside in rural areas with approximately 1in 5 still living under the poverty line, the majority of all Bhutanese have shelter and are self-sufficient. Rapid modernization has brought about vast improvements in the living standard of the Bhutanese people. All villages now have access to basic amenities such as education, running water, basic healthcare and are connected by roads and electricity. Even the most remote villages have connection to the telecommunication network including mobile phone service.
The Bhutanese economy is predominantly agricultural. Farmers supplement their income through the sale of animal products such as cheese, butter and milk. Farmers’ markets are common throughout the country, supplying the people with fresh, organic, local produce.
The main staple crops are rice, maize, wheat and buckwheat while cash crops are predominantly potatoes, apples, oranges, cardamom, ginger, and chilies. A fruit based industry has been established in the capital allowing farmers from the nearby areas to sell their produce and thereby earn additional revenue.
Bhutan’s rich biodiversity provides the country with ample forest resources and this has brought about the development of a thriving cane and bamboo handicraft industry. Craftsmen weave a number of beautiful and intricate items out of bamboo and cane including hats, backpacks, floor mats and traditional bowls. These items are then sold to tourists or Bhutanese, supplying a secondary income source.
The Bhutanese Tourism Industry was first opened in 1974. Since then it has grown to become, a major contributing factor to the Bhutanese economy creating countless employment opportunities and generating additional revenue for the government.
The government is committed to building a sustainable tourism industry that is not only financially viable but also limits the negative cultural and environmental impacts commonly associated with the culture of mass tourism. By establishing a policy of “High Value, Low Impact’ tourism, the kingdom of Bhutan seeks to ensure that it attracts only the most discerning visitors with a deep respect for cultural values, traditions and the natural environment.
To this end efforts have been made to ensure that even remote areas are publicized and able to reap the benefits of tourism while still respecting their traditions, culture and natural environment.
Due to its fast flowing, glacier-fed rivers, Bhutan has enormous potential to produce hydroelectricity. With the construction of several major dams, the power sector has undeniably been the biggest contributor to the Bhutanese exchequer. The Chukha Hydro Power Corporation, the Tala Hydro Power Corporation, the Baso Chu Hydro Power Corporation and the Kurichu Hydro Power Corporation, under the umbrella of Druk Green Power Corporation, are some of the existing mega projects in the country. The 1500 MW of power they generate, most of which is exported to our neighboring country India, barely scratches the surface of Bhutan’s untapped hydroelectric potential. With its abundant water resources, Bhutan still has the capacity to generate another 30,000 MW of electricity. However, the government is proceeding cautiously with new construction projects in order to minimize the impact upon the surrounding areas.
The Manufacturing sector is another major contributor to national revenue. With the industrial sector established in Pasakha, small scale industries such as cement plants, calcium and carbide, steel and Ferro silicon, Coca Cola and also wood based industries have started developing.
As a result of the recent economic development, Bhutan has one of the highest per capita incomes in South Asia at US$1,321. However despite this high level of growth and development, efforts stringent regaliations have been enacted in order to protect Bhutan’s natural environment.
The Political System of Bhutan
The political system of Bhutan has evolved over time together with its tradition and culture. It has developed from a fragmented and a disoriented rule of the different regions by local chieftains, lords and clans into the parliamentary democracy we have in place today.
The first move towards a systematic scheme of governance came in 1616 with the arrival of Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal from Tibet. He introduced the dual system of governance with the Je Khenpo as the spiritual head of the nation and the Desis, as the head of the temporal aspects.
But a major breakthrough came about in 1907 when the people unanimously enthroned Ugyen Wangchuck as the fist hereditary King of Bhutan. He was the man who had proven his mettle by banding together the different Dzongpons and Penlops (governors of fortress), ending centuries of strife and bringing much needed stability and peace to the country. Since then, the country has been ruled by successive monarchs of the Wangchuck dynasty.
In a move to ensure a more democratic governance of the country, the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck instituted the National Assembly (Tshogdu) in 1953. Every gewog has an elected member representing it in the National assembly. It became a platform where the people’s representatives enacted laws and discussed issues of national importance.
The establishment of the Royal Advisory Council (Lodoe Tshogde) in 1963 as a link between the king, council of ministers and the people was another move towards democratization. It also advised the king and the council of ministers on important issues and ensured that projects were implemented successfully.
The institution of Dzongkhag Yargay Tshogdu (District Development Assembly) in 1981 and Gewog Yargay Tshogchung (County Development Assembly) in 1991 by the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was another move towards decentralization.
But the devolution of the power of the King in 1998 to the cabinet ministers was the highest form of decentralization. The King, thereafter, began to serve as the Head of the State while the government was managed by the Prime Minister.
In November 2001, on the advice of the Fourth king, a committee chaired by the Chief Justice of Bhutan, was formed to draft the constitution of Bhutan. The constitution was launched in 2008 and with it a parliamentary democracy introduced. The progression from Hereditary Monarchy to that of a Parliamentary Democracy has been a carefully managed process that culminated in 2008 when Bhutan held its first elections country wide. The Druk Phunsum Tshogpa was mandated by the people to head the new government with a major victory with 45 elected members, Lyonchen Jigme Y Thinley steered the government with just two opposition members from the People’s Democratic Party in 2008.The term of DPT (Druk Phuensum Tshogpa) has ended and people have chosen PDP (People’s Democratic Party) on 13th July 2013 as the new government.Today Tshering Tobgay is the Prime Minister of the new government.
The organs of the Bhutanese government comprise of the Legislature, Judiciary and the Executive. The ruling political party, the opposition and the National Council now forms the legislative body.