Bhutan or Druk Yul – the Land of the Thunder Dragon – as the Bhutanese themselves call their country, is a small kingdom in the heart of the Himalayas. In the hot southern lowlands, on the edge of the great Indian plains, Bhutan has a common boundary with India; and in the snow and ice-covered high Himalayas a disputed boundary with China.
Bhutan is fiercely proud of its independence and of the fact that the country has never been colonized. Through the centuries Bhutan and her small population have been almost wholly self-sufficient. Bhutan’s history has been handed down from generation to generation as a combination of oral tradition and classical literature.
Bhutanese society is deeply influenced by the Buddhist religion which is a strong and living element of everyday life. The official language is Dzongkha which is related to Tibetan, which however is the mother tongue of only 25-30% of the population. In the Center and East other languages are spoken, and in the South of the country Nepali dominates.
After a long period of almost total isolation, Bhutan has, since the end of the 1800’s and particularly during the last fifty years, slowly established contacts with the outside world and begun a careful and selective adaptation to it. In 1865, following the Duar Wars, Bhutan and Britain signed the Treaty of Sinchula and three years later a second treaty was signed whereby Britain agreed not to interfere in Bhutan’s internal affairs. This treaty was assumed by India at Independence in 1947. It has now been replaced. The present monarchy dates from 1907. In 2007, the Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk abdicated in favour of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. One year later, in 2008, the King signed Bhutan’s first Constitution whereby Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy with a multi-party democratically elected two-chamber government.
With heights ranging from 300 m above sea level in the south to over 7 000 m in the north, the terrain and natural vegetation vary widely from hot lowlands and dense, tropical forest to Arctic tundra. Bhutan is crossed from north to south by a series of steep-sided valleys with strident rivers fed by the snows and ice in the north and running out into the great Indian rivers in the south. In the forests in the south there are elephants, rhinos and tigers; in the north there are bears and snow leopards.
Bhutan has an area of 38 394 km2 (2008) and is thus somewhat smaller than Switzerland. According to a census sponsored by the UN and carried out in May 2005, the population was 653 000 and according to the latest census from May 2017 it was 735 000, of which 682 000 were citizens and 54 000 foreigners, almost all guest workers. The population of the rapidly developing capital, Thimphu, was 114 000. 62 % of the population lived in rural areas and 38 % in urban areas. 26% of the population was under the age of 15.
Bhutan’s only international airport is at Paro from where the national airline Drukair and private Bhutan Airlines have regular flights to five destinations in India, to Kathmandu, Dhaka, Singapore and Bangkok. Flying to Bhutan is an exiting and unforgettable experience. Communications within Bhutan are mainly by road; there are limited domestic flights to three local airports. Physical conditions make road building and maintenance both difficult and expensive. The roads are narrow and winding and follow narrow ledges cut into the steep hill slopes. Landslides are frequent in the monsoon season and often causes blockages. There is one main road from east to west; there are three main roads between Bhutan and India but no road connections with China.
Modern telecommunication systems have been installed and cover the whole country, even the most remote areas, and (mobile) internet is also widely available. Mobile phone, and increasingly smartphones, are a common attribute in both rural and urban areas,
Bhutan’s official language is Dzongkha, which is related to Tibetan, and is the mother tongue of 25-30% of the population. Because of the many isolated valleys there are many other languages and dialects, In the south of the country the dominant language is Nepali, which is an Indo-European language. Schooling is in English and Dzongkha.
Over 70% of Bhutan is covered by forest: tropical in the south and oak and pine further north giving way to tundra in the far north. The government has formulated a rigorous programme for protecting and preserving these valuable natural resources. The amount of cultivatable land is small and is found along the narrow valley floors and on the terraced hill slopes. Subsistence agriculture dominates, but commercial agriculture is increasing with outlets to the huge markets in India and Bangladesh. Irrigation is common.
Bhutan lacks an outlet to the sea and therefore is to a high degree dependent on India for exports and imports. The Bhutanese currency, the Ngultrum, is pegged to the Indian rupee. Trade with China/Tibet is very limited. The economy is predominantly rural and based on non-commercial agricultural and animal products. A number of cash crops such as potatoes, cardamom and fruit are produced for export. The production of these crops is increasing. There is a large demand for timber and timber products, particularly from the Indian market. There is limited industrial development in the expanding urban centres along the border to Assam and West Bengal, mainly for the production of cement and steel. There are also a number of agro-based industries such as dairies. Bhutan’s high-quality, local handicraft industry which includes weaving and basket making is a source of income for the rural population. In Bhutan there are also centres for the production of quality religious articles, paintings and sculpture. The most important source of export income is the supply of hydroelectricity to India where the demand is almost insatiable. Huge investments are being made in the construction of hydro-electric power facilities with support from India. Generally, Bhutan’s imports largely exceed her exports, principally because of the demand for rice and other food products, fuel, oil and paraffin oil as well as more advanced products such as industrial products, vehicles and plant, IT products, paper and textiles.
Other recommended reading for those who require more detailed information include:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhutan (only the English version is recommended)
Updated June 2018