Bhutan - land of monasteries, fortresses
The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan lies along the lofty ridges of the eastern Himalayas, bordered by China (Tibet) to the north and northwest, and by the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim on the east, south and west respectively. With an area of 46,500 square km., Bhutan is comparable to Switzerland both in its size and topography. It was the mighty Himalayas which protected Bhutan from the rest of the world and left the Kingdom blissfully untouched through the centuries. The Drukpa Kagyupa school of Mahayana Buddhism provided the essence of a rich culture and a fascinating history. The Bhutanese people protected this sacred heritage and unique identity for centuries by choosing to remain shrouded in a jealously guarded isolation. The Kingdom is peopled sparsely, with a population of only 678,000. Four main linguistic groups constitute Bhutan's population: the Sharchopas, who are held to be indigenous inhabitants, the Bumthangpas and the Ngalongpas who originate in neighboring Tibet, and the Lhotshampas, recent immigrants of Nepalese origin. The inhabitants of Bhutan are gracious, gentle and very hospitable.
They are peace loving and possess a lively sense of humor. The history of the Kingdom dates back to the 8th century, with Guru Padmasambava's legendary flight from Tibet to Bhutan in 747 A.D, on the back of a tigress. The Guru, also considered as the second Buddha, arrived in Taktsang (Tiger's Nest), on the cliffs above the valley of Paro, and from there began propagation of the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism. In the ensuing centuries many great masters preached the faith, resulting in the full bloom of Buddhism in the country by the middle ages. Although sectarian at first, the country was eventually unified under the Drukpa Kagyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism in the early 17th century, by the religious figure, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The Shabdrung codified a comprehensive system of laws and built dzongs which guarded each valley during unsettled times, and nowadays serve as the religious and administrative centers of their respective regions. In the next two centuries, the nation was once again fragmented into regional fiefdoms with intermittent civil wars.
At the end of the 19th century, the Tongsa Penlop, Ugyen Wangchuck, who then controlled the central and eastern regions, overcame all his rivals and united the nation once again. He was unanimously accepted as the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan in 1907. Bhutan is the only extant Mahayana Buddhist Kingdom in the world of today, and the teachings of this school of Buddhism are a living faith among its people. The air of spirituality is pervasive even in urban centers where the spinning of prayer wheels, the murmur of mantras and the glow of butter lamps are still commonplace features of everyday life. Bhutan's religious sites and institutions are not museums, but the daily refuge of the people. One of the most striking physical features of Bhutan is its architecture. The characteristic style and color of every building and house in the Kingdom is a distinct source of aesthetic pleasure. The dzongs - themselves imposing 17th century structures built on a grand scale without the help of any drawings and constructed entirely without nails - are outstanding examples of the best in Bhutanese architecture. Patterns of rich colors adorn walls, beams, pillars and doors in traditional splendor.
As with its architecture, art and painting are important aspects of Bhutanese culture and they bear testimony to the spiritual depth of Bhutanese life. Whether it is on a wall, or one of the renowned thangkhas, painters use vegetable dyes to give their work an unparalleled subtle beauty and warmth. Bhutan also boasts a wealth of cottage industries, and the skills of its wood carvers, gold and silversmiths, and weavers (to name only a few) are all representative of highly developed art forms.