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Bhutan | Facts and History


The nation of Bhutan is overwhelmingly Mahayana Buddhist.

Buddhist monk in a temple doorway, Thimphu, Bhutan.

Photographers' Choice / Getty Images.

Beautiful, quirky, paternalistic, happy... How to describe a place like Bhutan?

Devoutly Buddhist, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan ranks low on development measures such as literacy, life expectancy, and per capita GDP. Yet the people of Bhutan are among the happiest in the world.

Successive kings of Bhutan have stressed moderation and have been very careful about adopting the trappings of "modern" life - television was only introduced in 1999. The results seem to suggest that a simple, spiritual lifestyle makes people happier than wealth and rampant consumerism. This may be the Kingdom of Bhutan's lesson for all of the rest of us.

Capital and Largest Town:

Capital: Thimphu, pop. 55,000

Largest Town: Phuentsholing, pop. 11,170

Government of Bhutan:

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy as of 2008, with sufferage for all citizens aged 18 and above. King Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck has been in power since his father abdicated in 2006; the new king had to impose democratic reforms on his subjects, most of whom were content with the previous absolute monarchy model.

The king is the head of state, and the Prime Minister serves as head of government. In the bicameral legislature, the National Council consists of 25 members who serve 4-year terms - one each from the twenty districts, plus five selected by the King. The National Assembly includes 47 members elected directly by the people for 5-year terms.

Bhutan's judicial system includes the High Court, or Thirmkhang Gogma, and district courts. The King is the "court of last resort" - a citizen can bring his or her complaint before the monarch if he/she is dissatisfied with the High Court's ruling.


The official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, with about 160,000 speakers. Bhutan's citizens also speak an addition 18 languages from the Tibeto-Burman family, plus Nepali, an Indo-European language.

The most commonly-spoken language in Bhutan is Sharchhopka or Tshangla, at 28%. It is followed by Lhotshmakha, at 26% and Dzongkha, at 24%. Other common minority languages include Dzala, with 11%, Limbu at 10% and Kheng with 8% of the population. The remaining languages are spoken by limited populations, in some cases as small as 500 or 1,000 people.


As of July 2011, the Bhutanese population is estimated at about 708,000. Earlier estimates vastly inflated the number, perhaps because the UN required a population of at least 1 million for membership during the 1970s, when Bhutan was applying to join.

The major ethnic groups include the people known as Drukpa, Ngalops, Sharchops or Bhote, who are of Tibetan origin, at about 50% of the population, and Nepalese or Lhotsampas at 35%. Different small tribes make up the remaining 15%.

65% of Bhutanese live in the countryside. A staggering 94% of the workforce is employed in agriculture. The average life expectancy is 67.3 years. Literacy rates are estimated at 60% for men and 34% among women.


The state religion of Bhutan is a Lamaistic form of Mahayana Buddhism called Drukpa Kagyupa or Ningmapa, which is practiced by approximately 75% of the population. Almost all of the remaining 25% follow various forms of Hinduism, specifically the Puranic, Vaishnavite, Shakta, Shaivite, Ghanapathi and Vedic schools.

Mixed in with these imported belief systems are remnants of Bön, the pre-Buddhist animist or shamanist belief system of the area. Bhutanese people generally don't adhere strictly to Bön today, but rather include some of these ancient beliefs and rituals in their practice of Buddhism or Hinduism.

Bhutan's Geography:

Bhutan covers a section of the south-eastern Himalaya mountains, between Tibet (currently part of China) and India. Although it is culturally similar to Nepal in some ways, and has a large Nepali minority, a small arm of Indian territory separates the two smaller Himalayan nations.

The highest point in Bhutan is Gangkhar Puensum at 24,840 feet (7,570 meters); the lowest point is in the Drangme Chhu valley, at a surprising 322 feet (98 meters).

Much of Bhutan's landscape is either high alpine meadows or peaks above the snow-line. Only about 2.3% of the land is arable (capable of producing crops). Deep river valleys do provide some timberland, however, as does the southern fringe of lowland along the border with India.


Unsurprisingly, the climate of Bhutan is determined by two primary factors: altitude, and the monsoon cycle. The southern lowlands are tropical, hot and humid with a monsoonal rainy season from June to September. The moutainous regions are cool in the summer and extremely cold in the winter; the highest peaks have permanent snow-caps.

The capital at Thimphu is situated at 7,375-8,688 feet, (2,248-2,648 meters). Thimphu's average temperature in January is 39° F (4° C); in July, the average is 63° F (17° C).


Bhutan's economy is based on forestry, tourism, electricity generation and agriculture - mostly animal husbandry and herding, rather than crops. Bhutan has one of the smallest economies in the world, but it is growing rapidly. Growth industries include a tightly-controlled tourism sector and hydroelectric power generation via Himalayan river dams.

The Bhutanese government strictly controls the number of tourists allowed in each year, and encourages low-impact ecotourism to protect the country's ecosystems and culture. The country produces 1.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricty, but only consumes 184 million kilowatt hours. India buys the majority of Bhutan's electric power output.

The unemployment rate is just 4% (2009 estimate), but over 23% of the population lives below the poverty line (2008 estimate). The per capita GDP is $5,500 US.

Bhutan's currency is the ngultrum, which is pegged to the Indian rupee. $1 US = 50 ngultrum (as of November, 2011).

History of Bhutan:

The area now known as Bhutan has been inhabited for at least 4,000 years, according to archaeological evidence. However, the historical record really begins with the introduction of Buddhism to the area in the seventh century CE.

The Tibetan king Songtsan Gampo (r. 627-649) sponsored the costruction of two Buddhist temples in what is now Bhutan after his own conversion to the faith. Buddhism got a further boost in 747 CE, when King Chakhar Gyalpo invited the Buddhist saint Padmasambhava to Bhutan; he introduced Vajrayana (Tantric or Diamond Vehicle) Buddhism to the mountain kingdom. Padmasambhava likely was born in the Swat Valley of what is now Pakistan. Like Siddhartha Gautama, he was born into a Brahmin family but abandoned a life of ease in order to search for enlightenment.

Politics and competition among various Buddhist sects continued to intermingle in Bhutan over the centuries. However, a uniquely Bhutanese syncretic version of Buddhism, called drukpa, developed and came to dominate the country by 1600 CE. (Druk means "dragon," and is the self-reference used by the majority of Bhutanese citizens, also known as the Drukpa.

In 1634, an exiled Tibetan monk called Ngawang Namgyal unified all of Bhutan after prevailing in the Battle of the Five Lamas. He ruled from the Thimphu Valley as the Shabdrung until his death in 1651; incredibly, his death remained a secret for more than fifty years afterward, and others ruled in his name.

The British East India Company attacked Bhutan in 1774, driving the country out of the southern region of Cooch Behar. Border raiding continued, however, eventually leading up to the Duar War of 1864-5. In the Treat of Sinchula that ended the Duar War, Bhutan was forced to cede parts of the Assam Duars, the Bengal Duars and Dewangiri to British India. In return, the British Raj paid a rent of 50,000 rupees to Bhutan up until 1910.

Meanwhile, an escalating power struggle in the 1870s developed into an outright civil war between 1882 and 1885. The young governor of Trongsa, Ugyen Wangchuck, prevailed and reunited the country. In 1907, he was unanimously selected by a council of Buddhist clergy, aristocrats and government officers as the first hereditary monarch of all Bhutan.

Today, the fifth monarch of the House of Wangchuck, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, rules Bhutan. His father formally abdicated the throne in 2006 after pressing for democratic reforms; the new king was crowned two years later in order to ensure an auspicious alignment of the stars for his coronation, and to give his father a chance to instruct him in statecraft. In 2008, the new constitution changed the Kingdom of Bhutan from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy.

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