From the Jacket:
Long regarded as the Forbidden Land Bhutan-or Druk Yul the Land of the Thunder Dragon- was virtually closed to the outside world until the 1960s. Even today little is known about this remote Himalayan Buddhist kingdom nestled between two giant neighbours, India and China. Often described as the Last Shangri La Bhutan is still a country of pristine forests alpine valleys and glacial lakes rich in rare flora and fauna such as the blue poppy the golden langur and the red panda. As spectacular as its natural beauty are the architecture of its towering dzongs and the art treasures that fill its monasteries and temples.
Her country is a captivating blend of personal memoir history folklore and travelogue. It provides unique and intimate insights into Bhutanese culture and society with its vivid glimpse of life in Bhutan's villages and hamlets, monasteries and palaces. Her engaging account of her childhood growing up in a village in western Bhutan and the changes she witnessed when the country decided to end its isolation also tells a larger story- that of Bhutan's rapid translation from a medieval kingdom to a modern nation within the space of a decade.
The author shares with us her delight in some of the hidden treasure of her country, which she discovered during her journeys on foot to every corner of Bhutan-from highland villages in the shadow of the great Himalayan peaks to serene monasteries wreathed in myth and legend to the rainforest in the south and a centre of the country, which are among the world's richest biodiversity hotsposts. This book with its specially commissioned illustrations by young Bhutanese artists and photographs from the author's family album is essential reading both for those who plan to visit the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon and for armchair travelers who yearn to experience the magic of Bhutan through their imaginations.
About the Author:
Her Majesty the Queen of Bhutan was born in 1955 in Nobgang western Bhutan and educated in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal India. Her previous book of Rainbows and Clouds a family history was published in 1999. She heads the Tarayana Foundation, which provides medical educational and social support to people and communities living in the most remote areas of Bhutan.
'Bhutan? Isn't that the place they call the Last Shangri La?'
'Bhutan? Isn't it that kingdom frozen in the medieval ages?'
The outside world's reactions to Bhutan tend to swing between two extremes-it is perceived either as a paradise on earth or as a country completely isolated from the rest of the world and trapped in a time warp. Neither image is true. But it is true that Bhutan is like no other place in the world. Its spectacular natural beauty and pristine environment, its fabulous architecture and living spiritual culture, and its wise kings whose unique philosophy of governance measures the country's progress and development not by its gross domestic product (GDP) but its gross national happiness (GNH)-this is the stuff of which legends, and romantic flights of fancy, are born.
The Land and the People
For centuries, until the building of roads in the 1960s made the country accessible, Bhutan was known as the forbidden land. Its isolation was not a deliberate political or historical choice, but more a consequence of its geography. As Captain Pemberton of the English East India Company noted in 1838: 'The whole of Bootan territory presents a succession of the most lofty and rugged mountains on the surface of the earth ... The consequence is that the traveller appears to be shut out on every side from the rest of the world.' A later British colonial official, who seemed terror-struck at the prospect of a journey to Bhutan, wrote in 1894: 'No one wishes to explore that tangle of jungle-clad and fever-stricken hills, infested with leeches and the pips a fly, and offering no compensating advantage to the most enterprising pioneer. Adventure looks beyond Bhutan. Science passes it by . . .'
Such misconceptions and exaggerations about Bhutan were typical until about fifty years ago, and are not uncommon even today. So perhaps it is best if I begin with some facts. Bhutan is a small country in the Eastern Himalayas, nestled between two giant neighbours, India and China. It is bordered on the north by China's Tibet Autonomous Region and on the east, south and west, respectively, by the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam, and Sikkim.
Our own name for our country is Druk Yul. The legend goes that when the great Tibetan saint Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorji (AD 1161-1211) was consecrating a new monastery in Tibet, he heard thunder which he believed to be the voice of a dragon (druk), loudly proclaiming the great truths of the Buddha's teachings. He named the monastery 'Druk', and the religious sect he founded, 'Drukpa Kargyupa'. When this school of Mahayana Buddhism became Bhutan's state religion in the seventeenth century, the country was named Druk Yul, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
The profusion of temples and monasteries throughout the country-there are more than 2000 of them-and the ubiquitous presence of red-robed monks indicate the important role that Buddhism plays in almost every aspect of Bhutanese life. Every district in the country has a dzong-an enormous fortress-which houses the official monk body and several temples. And every village has a temple, around which the life of the community revolves. Hinduism, the other major religion in Bhutan, is followed by people of Nepali origin belonging to different castes such as Chhetri, Rai, Tamang and Gurung, who are collectively known as the Lhotsampas. They are settled mainly in southern Bhutan.
Bhutan's official language is Dzongkha, spoken mainly in western Bhutan, but there are two other major languages-Sharchopkha, spoken in eastern Bhutan, and Nepali, in southern Bhutan. In addition, there are as many as nineteen major dialects, which have survived in pockets, in isolated valleys and villages which are cut off from neighbouring areas by high mountain barriers.
Bhutan's area is 38,394 square kilometres-about that of Switzerland-and its population is about 600,000. So the population density is low-about eighteen persons per square kilometre-and every Bhutanese owns his own land. We are still predominantly "an agrarian country, with 64.4 per cent of the population dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. However, only 8 per cent of our land is arable. Some 81 per cent of Bhutan's territory is under forest cover, and nearly 20 per cent is under perpetual snows.
Our national dress is the kira for women and the gho for men. The kira, a rectangular piece of woven cloth about the size of a single bed sheet, is wrapped around the body, secured at the shoulders by a pair of silver clasps called koma, and at the waist by a tight belt called the keyra. An inner blouse with long sleeves called the wonju and an outer jacket called the tyoko complete the outfit. The art of weaving, which is only done by women, is highly developed in Bhutan, and an elaborate kira can take a whole year to weave. Unusually for Asian women, most Bhutanese women have short-cropped hair, cut in a fringe across the forehead, though young women in our urban centres increasingly sport long hair. The man's gho is a one-piece costume rather like a kimono with broad white cuffs, which is pulled up to knee-length and fastened at the waist with a belt, forming a deep pouch across the chest. This pouch is like a vast pocket, used to carry all sorts of things-money, important papers, a wooden bowl for drinking tea, some hard cubes of dried cheese to munch as a snack and a little round box for carrying doma (betel nut, wrapped in a paan leaf smeared with lime paste)--chewing doma is a Bhutanese passion!
The most important events in the Bhutanese calendar are religious festivals. The major ones, which attract enormous crowds, are the domchoes and tsechus, held annually at big monasteries and dzongs all over the country. The dates vary, but most tsechus are held in autumn, which is a leisure period for farmers (though the famous tsechu in the Paro Valley is held in spring). The highlight of a tsechu is the religious dances that are performed by monks as well as laymen in fabulous costumes and masks, while clowns known as atsaras, often carrying large wooden phalluses, entertain the crowds with their slapstick routines in between the dances. Many households also hold their own private annual prayers, called choku, followed by a feast for the whole village. (I have written in more detail about domchoes, tsechus and chokus in Chapter 2.) Dasain, also in autumn, is the big festival of the Lhotsampas, with prayers at their temples, joyous drumming and dancing, and lavish feasts, with everyone dressed in new clothes.
Archery, or datse, is undoubtedly Bhutan's most popular sport, traditionally played with bamboo bows and arrows, with two small targets placed at either end of the field, 140 metres apart (in international archery the target is at a distance of a mere 50 metres). On holidays, you can usually see several archery matches in progress, and people driving by an archery ground tend to hastily roll up their car windows-unlucky passers-by have been known to be hit by stray arrows, sometimes fatally. Every village has an archery ground, and at important matches the two competing teams are supported by lively groups of women 'cheerleaders' (see also Chapter 2). These days, expensive imported bows, with pulleys to increase the speed and force of the arrows, are coveted status symbols. Khuru, or darts, is another favourite sport, played outdoors, with the target placed at a distance of 20 metres.
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