Country, south-central Asia.
Area: 14,824 sq mi (38,394 sq km). Population (2008 est.): 682,000.
Capital: Thimphu. There are three main ethnic groups: the Buddhist
Sharchop (Assamese) in the east; the Tibetan Buddhist Bhutia, about half
of the population, in the northern, central, and western areas; and the
Hindu Nepalese in the southwest. Languages: Dzongkha (official), other
Sino-Tibetan languages, Nepali. Religions: Tibetan Buddhism; also
Hinduism. Currency: ngultrum. The northern part of the country lies in
the Great Himalayas, with peaks surpassing 24,000 ft (7,300 m) and high
valleys lying at 12,000–18,000 ft (3,700–5,500 m). Spurs radiate
southward, forming the Lesser Himalayan ranges. Several fertile valleys
there, at elevations of 5,000–9,000 ft (1,500–2,700 m), are fairly well
populated and cultivated. South of these mountains lies the Duars Plain,
controlling access to the strategic mountain passes; much of it is hot
and steamy and covered with dense forest. The Bhutanese economy is
mainly agricultural; nearly all exports go to India. Bhutan is a
monarchy with a bicameral legislature; the head of state is the monarch,
and the head of government is the prime minister. Bhutan’s mountains and
forests long made it inaccessible to the outside world, and its feudal
rulers banned foreigners until well into the 20th century. It
nevertheless became the object of foreign invasions; in 1865 it came
under British influence, and in 1910 it agreed to be guided by Britain
in its foreign affairs. It later became oriented toward British-ruled
India, though much of its trade continued to be with Tibet. India took
over Britain’s role in 1949, and ties between India and Bhutan
strengthened. In the late 20th century, Bhutan’s rulers, aware of the
need to increase international interaction and improve the standard of
living, embarked on a program to build roads and hospitals and to create
a system of secular education. The kings also slowly divested themselves
of authority. The transition from an absolute monarchy to a
parliamentary democracy was completed in March 2008, and a new
constitution was promulgated in July.
Official name Druk-Yul (Kingdom of Bhutan)
Form of government constitutional monarchy1 with two legislative houses
(National Council ; National Assembly )
Chief of state Monarch
Head of government Prime Minister
Official language Dzongkha (a Tibetan dialect)
Official religion 3
Monetary unit ngultrum4 (Nu)
Population estimate (2008) 682,000
Total area (sq mi) 14,824
Total area (sq km) 38,394
1Bhutan’s first constitution was promulgated on July 18, 2008.
2Includes 5 nonelected members.
3Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan per article 3.1 of the
4Indian currency is also accepted legal tender; the ngultrum is at
par with the Indian rupee.
country of south-central Asia, located on the eastern ridges of the
Himalayas. Historically a remote kingdom, Bhutan became less isolated in
the second half of the 20th century, and consequently the pace of change
began to accelerate. With improvements in transportation, by the early
21st century a trip from the Indian border to the Bhutanese capital,
Thimphu, that once took six days by mule could be made in just a few
hours by car along a winding mountain road from the border town of
Phuntsholing. The governmental structure also changed radically. Reforms
initiated by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk (reigned 1952–72) in the 1950s
and ’60s led to a shift away from absolute monarchy in the 1990s and
toward the institution of multiparty parliamentary democracy in 2008.
The economic core of Bhutan lies in the fertile valleys of the Lesser
Himalayas, which are separated from one another by a series of high and
complex interconnecting ridges extending across the country from north
to south. The political nucleus of Bhutan is centred in the Paro and
Thimphu valleys in the Lesser Himalayan region. Its location between the
Assam-Bengal Plain of India to the south and the Plateau of Tibet of
southwestern China to the north gives the country considerable
Bhutan’s northern and western boundary with the Tibet Autonomous
Region (part of China), although undefined, generally follows the crest
of the Great Himalayas. In the Duars Plain to the south of the Himalayan
range lies Bhutan’s boundary with the Indian states of West Bengal and
Assam. Bhutan borders the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh to the east
and Sikkim to the southwest.
Physically, Bhutan may be divided into three regions from north to
south: the Great Himalayas, the Lesser Himalayas, and the Duars Plain.
The Great Himalayas
The northern part of Bhutan lies within the Great Himalayas; the
snowcapped peaks in this region reach an elevation of more than 24,000
feet (7,300 metres). High valleys occur at elevations of 12,000 to
18,000 feet (3,700 to 5,500 metres), running down from the great
northern glaciers. Alpine pastures on the high ranges are used for
grazing yaks in the summer months. To the north of the Great Himalayas
are several “marginal” mountains of the Plateau of Tibet that form the
principal watershed between the northward- and the southward-flowing
rivers. A dry climate is characteristic of the Great Himalayan region.
Until about 1960 the tempo of life in the Great Himalayas continued
much as it had for centuries. Long relatively undisturbed in their ways,
Bhutanese traders carried cloth, spices, and grains across the mountain
passes into Tibet and brought back salt, wool, and sometimes herds of
yaks. The absorption of Tibet by China, however, necessarily pushed
Bhutan toward ending its isolation; the event brought major changes to
the way of living in those high regions, as military precautions were
taken to guard against the potential danger of a Chinese incursion from
The Lesser Himalayas
Spurs from the Great Himalayas radiate southward, forming the ranges
of the Lesser Himalayas (also called Inner Himalayas). The north-south
ranges of the Lesser Himalayas constitute watersheds between the
principal rivers of Bhutan. Differences in elevation and the degree of
exposure to moist southwest monsoon winds determine the prevailing
vegetation, which ranges from dense forest on the rain-swept windward
slopes to alpine vegetation at higher elevations. Several fertile
valleys of central Bhutan are in the Lesser Himalayas at elevations
varying from 5,000 to 9,000 feet (1,500 to 2,700 metres). These valleys,
notably the Paro, Punakha, Thimphu, and Ha, are relatively broad and
flat, receive moderate rainfall (from 40 to 50 inches [about 1,000 to
1,270 mm] or less a year), and are fairly well populated and cultivated.
The Duars Plain
South of the Lesser Himalayas and the foothills lies the narrow
Duars Plain, which forms a strip 8 to 10 miles (12 to 16 km) wide along
the southern border of Bhutan. The Himalayan ranges rise sharply and
abruptly from this plain, which constitutes a gateway to the strategic
mountain passes (known as dwars or dooars) that lead into the fertile
valleys of the Lesser Himalayas. Subject to abundant rainfall (200 to
300 inches [5,100 to 7,600 mm] a year), the entire Duars tract is hot
and steamy and is covered with dense semitropical forest and
The northern part of the Duars, immediately bordering the mountains,
consists of a rugged, irregular, and sloping surface. At the foot of the
mountains, small villages are found in forest clearings, but most of the
area is thickly covered with vegetation inhabited by an array of large
wild animals. The southern part of the Duars, bordering India, is mostly
covered with savanna (grassy parkland) and bamboo jungle. In many areas
the savannas have been cleared for rice cultivation. The principal trade
routes between central Bhutan and India follow the valleys of the main
Bhutan’s mountainous territory is dissected by numerous rivers. The
main rivers from west to east are the Torsa (Amo), Wong (Raidak),
Sankosh (Mo), and Manas. All the rivers flow southward from the Great
Himalayas and join the Brahmaputra River in India.
Bhutan’s climate is perhaps more diverse than that of any other
similarly sized area in the world. The climate changes with elevation,
producing striking meteorologic contrasts, and differing exposures to
sunlight and moisture-laden winds result in complex local variations.
Three principal climatic regions can be distinguished: the hot, humid,
subtropical tract of the Duars Plain and its adjacent foothills; the
cooler region of the Lesser Himalayas; and the alpine tundra region of
the Great Himalayas. A temperate climate occurs only in the central
mountain valleys. For instance, in Thimphu, in the country’s
west-central region, in January, high temperatures are usually in the
low 50s F (about 12 °C) and low temperatures in the mid-30s F (about 2
°C); in July, Thimphu’s temperatures are somewhat warmer, typically
rising to the mid-60s F (about 19 °C) and dropping to the mid-50s F
(about 13 °C). The remainder of the country experiences either extreme
heat, as in the Duars, or extreme cold, as in the north.
Plant and animal life
Bhutan’s flora is notable for its great variety and its continuous
transition from tropical through temperate to exclusively alpine forms.
The moist zone of tropical deciduous vegetation occupies the south, in
the Duars Plain and adjoining hills. Tall, dense grasses used in the
manufacture of paper and pulp are an important plant resource in the
lower elevations. Forests of pine, with some oak, dominate the slopes
between 3,000 and 6,000 feet (900 and 1,800 metres). At higher
elevations the forests contain a mixture of many species—pine, oak,
walnut, rhododendron, ash, poplar, willow, aspen, and magnolia. The most
valuable forests are located between 6,000 and 9,000 feet (1,800 and
2,700 metres); these magnificent forests contain cypress, fir, spruce,
and juniper. Birch can be found up to the timberline at 14,000 feet
(4,200 metres). Alpine shrubs and grasses grow on the higher slopes of
the Great Himalayas.
Sambar deer, gaurs (type of wild ox), rhinoceroses, elephants,
tigers, and other animals are found in Bhutan, particularly along the
Manas and Sankosh rivers in the central and eastern regions and in the
country’s forest-covered hills. To preserve this wildlife and its
natural environment, the government of Bhutan has established a number
of protected areas, including the Royal Manas National Park (1966),
which adjoins India along the banks of the Manas River and is home to
the rare golden langur (a slender long-tailed monkey). The extensive
Jigme Dorji National Park (1974), in northwestern Bhutan, is unique in
spanning all three of the country’s climate zones.
Ethnic groups and languages
There are three major ethnic groups in Bhutan: the Bhutia (also
called Ngalop), the Nepalese, and the Sharchop. The Bhutia are the
largest ethnic group and make up about half of the population. They are
the descendants of Tibetan immigrants who came southward into Bhutan
beginning about the 9th century. The Bhutia are dominant in northern,
central, and western Bhutan. They speak a variety of Tibeto-Burman
languages, and the most common of these, Dzongkha, is Bhutan’s official
language; the written language is identical with Tibetan. The Bhutia
dominate Bhutan’s political life.
An ethnically mixed population is found in southern and southwestern
Bhutan. The Nepalese (including members of the Gurung ethnic group)
predominate in the region and constitute roughly one-third of the
country’s total population; they are the most recent arrivals in Bhutan.
Most speak Nepali. The growing numbers of Nepalese prompted the
Bhutanese government to ban further immigration from Nepal beginning in
1959 and to prohibit Nepalese settlement in central Bhutan. Relatively
little assimilation has taken place between the Tibetan and Nepalese
groups, and tension between the two communities has remained a major
internal political problem for Bhutan.
Most of the people in eastern Bhutan are ethnically related to the
hill tribes living in adjacent areas of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The
Sharchop, as these people are called, are believed to have been the
earliest inhabitants of Bhutan.
Nearly three-fourths of Bhutan’s population follows Buddhism,
primarily of the Tibetan variety; formerly the official state religion,
it is now described in the 2008 constitution as the “spiritual heritage”
of the country. Of the four major branches of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingma
(Rnying-ma-pa) and Kagyu (Bka’-brgyud-pa) are practiced in Bhutan.
Nyingma is the older of the two sects, and it has existed in both Bhutan
and Tibet since about the 8th century. The Kagyu tradition of Tibetan
Buddhism, founded in the 11th century, has many subsects, of which
Drukpa Kagyu is the strongest in Bhutan. Since its establishment in the
early 17th century, the Drukpa subsect has become increasingly prominent
in Bhutan’s political and religious life, and most Bhutanese are now
adherents of it. Although the Nyingma and Kagyu groups have maintained
their separate sectarian identities, historical relations between the
two traditions have been close, stemming largely from commonalities in
doctrine and lineage of leadership.
Bhutanese Buddhism, though belonging to the larger family of Tibetan
Buddhist traditions, has a unique character. Although monasteries are
ubiquitous, neither the monastic organization nor monastic scholasticism
dominate Bhutanese society. Rather, the spirit of Bhutanese Buddhism is
captured by the ideal of lamas (spiritual leaders), who by the practice
of meditative disciplines have attained siddha (perfection, miraculous
powers) but otherwise remain inconspicuous in everyday life.
Aside from Buddhism, Hinduism commands a significant following in
Bhutan, particularly within the Nepalese community. Hindus constitute
nearly one-fourth of the population. There also is a tiny Christian
population, although proselytization is illegal in Bhutan.
Bhutan is a relatively sparsely populated country, with a rate of
population increase close to the world average in the early 21st
century. Its most thinly populated sections are the cold and rugged
Great Himalayan region and the malarial tracts bordering the Duars
Plain. The adverse physical conditions in both these areas limit most of
the population to two regions: the fertile and intensively farmed Lesser
Himalayan valleys of central and western Bhutan and the southwestern
portions of the country near the Indian border.
Much of Bhutan’s population lives in very small, scattered villages.
Until the late 1960s the country had no urban settlements. However, with
road construction and economic development, some of the larger villages
have grown into towns, a few dozen of which have been deemed “urban
centres” by the government. By the early 21st century such urban centres
contained nearly one-third of the population.
Southern Bhutan’s domestic architecture resembles that of
neighbouring areas of India, while in the Great Himalayan region and the
Lesser Himalayan valleys the architecture is typically Tibetan.
Especially in the Himalayan regions, a notable feature of Bhutan’s
settlements is the dzong, or fortress-monastery. The dzong served as a
stronghold against enemies in the past, and it now plays an important
role as a combined administrative centre and monastery. Almost every
populated valley has a dzong, which usually is situated on a prominent
site overlooking a stream or river. The dzongs serve as focal points of
Bhutan’s political, economic, religious, and social life. Their thick
white walls, which slope inward in Tibetan style, shelter Buddhist
lamas, government officials, and artisans.
Of the larger urban centres or towns, Phuntsholing, in the Duars
Plain, is the most important. It is the southern terminus of a major
highway from Thimphu and functions as the gateway to the well-populated
Lesser Himalayan valleys. A vigorous commercial sector has developed in
the centre of the town. Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, was a mere cluster of
houses in the 1960s, but since that time it has developed into a sizable
town. Its venerable dzong has been rebuilt and enlarged to house the
Bhutan government secretariat. After Thimphu, Paro is Bhutan’s
fastest-growing town. Since the mid-1980s, scheduled air service has
been established between Paro and the cities of Kolkata (Calcutta) and
New Delhi, India; Dhaka, Bangl.; Bangkok, Thai.; and Kathmandu, Nepal.
The Bhutanese economy is largely agrarian, and the significant
variations in elevation and climate across the country allow Bhutan’s
farms to support a wide variety of crops and livestock. However, the
amount of land available for agriculture is only a small fraction of the
total area of the country; the adverse climate, poor soil, and steep
slopes in much of Bhutan have made it necessary to leave a large land
area covered with forest growth, meadows, and grasslands. The relatively
low, well-watered, and fertile valleys of central Bhutan have the
largest percentage of cultivated land.
The main priority of Bhutan’s development strategy has been to bring
the country out of its geographic isolation. To this end, Bhutan has
relied on external assistance from India, the World Bank, the United
Nations, and the Asian Development Bank. The success of a series of
five-year plans—the first of which was launched in 1961—has depended
largely on the regular flow of funds from India to Bhutan and on the
availability of Indian technical personnel. Much of the country’s
development budget has been devoted to improvement of the
infrastructure, but the five-year plans also have emphasized the
exploitation of agricultural and power resources, and the country’s
economy has been on a general upward trend since the late 20th century.
Propelling much of the growth has been the Chhukha Hydel hydroelectric
power project (completed in 1987–88), which enabled the country not only
to provide for its own energy needs but also to export electricity to
Agriculture and forestry
Progressive changes in farming and forestry practices have been
introduced in Bhutan since the late 20th century to increase the
productivity of the agricultural sector. A large number of orchards have
been established, and thousands of fruit plants have been distributed to
farmers to popularize fruit growing. Emphasis also has been given to the
development of small-scale irrigation schemes. In the early 21st century
the sector remains a leading contributor to gross domestic product (GDP)
and a top employer of Bhutan’s labour force.
Most Bhutanese farms are small in size, and terraces are used
extensively to raise crops on hillslopes. Corn (maize), potatoes, rice,
citrus fruits, apples, and various spices, including nutmeg, mace, and
cardamom, are among the chief crops. Cattle, pigs, and horses are the
principal livestock raised on Bhutan’s scattered pastures.
About two-thirds of Bhutan is covered with forests. Consequently,
timber production emerged as an important component of the economy, and
there are many sawmills situated throughout the country. Growth of the
forestry industry has been restrained, however, by legislation aimed at
preserving the country’s extensive forest cover.
Resources and power
Geological surveys have revealed an array of valuable mineral
deposits in Bhutan, but mining remains a slow-growing portion of the
economy. Calcium carbide—the country’s main mineral export—limestone,
dolomite, gypsum, coal, marble, quartzite, and talc are the primary
products of the country’s mining activities. Other minerals, extracted
in smaller quantities, include slate, beryl, pyrite, and various
gemstones, as well as a number of metals, such as lead, copper, tin,
iron, and silver.
The vast majority of Bhutan’s energy is provided by hydroelectric
power stations. The Chhukha Hydel project, which harnesses the waters of
the Raidak River, was historically one of the largest single investments
undertaken in Bhutan, and it represented a major step toward exploiting
the country’s huge hydroelectric potential. The sale of surplus energy
from the Chhukha project to India ultimately financed the venture. Since
the completion of the Chhukha project in the late 1980s, several other
hydroelectric dams and generators were put into operation, and by the
early 21st century electricity had become the country’s top export.
Manufacturing, which began in Bhutan about 1970, has grown
considerably, with four industries—producing cement, chemicals, wood
products, and processed foods—arising as pillars of the sector by the
early 21st century. The rapid expansion of these and other industries in
both the public and private sectors is attributable largely to the
availability of sufficient power (and proceeds) from the country’s
hydroelectric projects. Nearly all Bhutan’s manufacturing centres are
located in the south, close to the Indian border. Phuntsholing, with
nearly half of Bhutan’s manufacturing activity, is the largest
Until the 1960s Bhutan did not have a currency; its people bartered
for the goods they could not produce themselves. Now the country has a
cash economy, with the Royal Monetary Authority issuing the ngultrum,
the national currency. The country also has a few commercial banks, most
of which are jointly owned (in various combinations) by the government
of Bhutan, the government of India, and private interests. A development
bank that specializes in industrial and agricultural loans was
established in 1988. A stock exchange, open to citizens of Bhutan only,
was founded in Thimphu in 1993.
Because Bhutan is landlocked, trade and transit arrangements with
India play a critical role in its economic life. Free trade with India
prevails, and India is the source of the great majority of Bhutan’s
imports, which include machinery, transport equipment, base and
fabricated metals, petroleum products, vegetables and other food, and
textiles. India also is the recipient of the bulk of Bhutan’s exports.
Electricity is the country’s principal export, followed by copper wire
and cable, calcium carbide, metal alloys, cement, and polyester yarn.
Cardamom and other spices, gypsum, timber, and handicrafts also are
exported, albeit on a smaller scale. Secondary trading partners, for the
most part in Asia, have included Japan, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, and
Singapore. In 2004 Bhutan became a member of the South Asian Association
for Regional Co-operation and also joined the South Asian Free Trade
Limited tourism, closely controlled by the government, began to
develop in Bhutan in the mid-1970s. In the early 1990s, however, the
tourism industry was privatized, and since that time the volume of
tourists, tourist facilities, and tourist income increased monumentally.
In the early 21st century there remained a government-imposed daily
tourist tariff to ensure significant tourist input into the economy.
With greater government expenditure on education and social services,
as well as increased allowance to civil servants, government and
financial services also expanded since the late 20th century. The
services sector—including primarily public administration and defense,
finance, trade and restaurants, and public utilities—generates more than
one-third of Bhutan’s GDP, but it engages a smaller proportion of the
The rise in school enrollments and the increase in literacy since
the late 20th century have benefited the country’s economic development.
However, they also contributed to serious imbalances in the labour
force. Formal schooling generally has directed students away from
agricultural vocations; consequently, by the early 21st century rural
areas had begun to experience significant labour shortages, while
Bhutan’s educated youth struggled to find employment in urban areas.
Meanwhile, the number of Bhutanese sufficiently trained in medicine,
engineering, education, and other professional fields continued to fall
short of the country’s needs.
Transportation and telecommunications
Bhutan’s development plans have stressed the improvement of
transportation and communications, and by the early 21st century the
combined sectors had become a significant contributor to the country’s
GDP. The roughly 120-mile (200-km) highway linking Phuntsholing to
Thimphu is part of an expanding network of roads the government built to
open up the country. Highways constructed through difficult mountain
terrain connect roads from India to Thimphu and to Paro in western
Bhutan, to Tongsa in central Bhutan, and to Tashigang in eastern Bhutan.
The construction of a major east-west road also has been completed.
Bhutan has one international airport, in Paro, from which Druk Air, the
national airline, offers flights to India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and
Thailand. Indian engineers have assisted the Bhutanese government in
laying telephone lines and exchanges, and the principal administrative
centres of Bhutan have telecommunication links with India. In 1999
television and the Internet were legalized, and a satellite
communication system was established near Thimphu.
Government and society
Until the 1950s, Bhutan was an absolute monarchy whose sovereign was
styled the druk gyalpo (“dragon king”). During the second half of the
20th century, the monarchs increasingly divested themselves of their
power, and in 2008 King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, the fifth in a
royal line that had been established in 1907, completed the transfer of
governmental authority to a popularly elected, multiparty, bicameral
legislature. While the monarch remained the titular head of state, the
prime minister (generally expected to be the leader of the majority
party in the legislature) became the actual head of government.
Historically, the government of Bhutan was autocratic, with no law
codes or courts or any of the common features of public administration.
Major change came, however, when the third monarch, King Jigme Dorji
Wangchuk (reigned 1952–72), began to restructure the country’s
government to share administrative responsibility, which formerly was
his alone. In 1953 a national assembly known as the Tshogdu was
established in Bhutan through the king’s initiative. It had 151 members,
who were elected by village headmen or chosen by the king and the
country’s official Buddhist monastic order. The Tshogdu met twice a year
and passed legislation enacted by the king. The Royal Advisory Council
was established in 1965 to advise the king and his ministers on
important questions and to supervise the implementation of government
programs and policies. The Council of Ministers, composed of the heads
of the various government departments, was set up in 1968; the ministers
were appointed by the king, and their appointments were ratified by the
Tshogdu. The Royal Advisory Council and the Council of Ministers, along
with representatives from the clergy, constituted Bhutan’s cabinet. The
state Buddhist monastic order was involved in government at many levels,
and its priests exerted considerable influence.
Upon his death in 1972, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk was succeeded by his
son, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk (reigned 1972–2006), who continued the
process of reforming the government. Major changes were introduced in
1998, when the king dissolved the cabinet to have it reconstituted, in
part, through election by the Tshogdu. Moreover, the monarch transferred
most of his administrative duties to the cabinet and granted to the
Tshodgu the authority to remove him through a vote of no confidence. In
other words, while the king retained his role as head of state, he
relinquished his power as head of government to the Tshogdu.
On Dec. 14, 2006, Jigme Singye Wangchuk abdicated, passing the throne
to his Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. This event
catalyzed the country’s transition to a fully democratic government.
Over the next year the public was trained in the democratic process
through a mock vote, and the country’s first official elections—for
seats in the National Council, the upper house of a new bicameral
parliament—were held on Dec. 31, 2007. Elections for the National
Assembly, the lower house, took place in March 2008, completing the
conversion of Bhutan’s government to a parliamentary democracy. A new
constitution was promulgated on July 18, 2008.
For administrative purposes, Bhutan is divided into some 20
dzongkhags (districts), each with a district officer who is responsible
to the minister of home affairs. The districts are divided further into
dungkhags (subdistricts), each encompassing a number of gewogs (groups
of villages). Village headmen are elected by the people of their
villages to three-year terms. Some areas are designated as
municipalities and operate on the same administrative level as the
Bhutan’s legal code is based upon traditional Buddhist precepts. In
1968 the judicial system was separated from the executive and
legislative branches of government, and a high court was established,
primarily to hear appeals from district-level courts. Citizens have the
right to appeal decisions of the high court.
Political parties were illegal in Bhutan until mid-2007. In April of
that year the ban was lifted by royal decree in anticipation of the
general elections that would establish Bhutan as a parliamentary
democracy. The first legal party to be registered was the People’s
Democratic Party, followed shortly thereafter by the Bhutan Peace and
Prosperity Party. These two parties were the sole contestants in the
subsequent elections of 2007 and 2008. There remain, however, a number
of illegitimate (unregistered) political parties, made up mostly of
ethnic Nepalese, that operate from abroad.
Suffrage in Bhutan is universal for citizens who are at least 18
years old. Women are permitted to run for office, but in the early 21st
century they continued to be underrepresented in the higher echelons of
government and government services; they constituted only a small
segment of the National Assembly. However, women have remained active
participants in community decision-making processes.
Health and welfare
In the 1960s and ’70s Bhutan ranked low in terms of health
indicators. Its infant mortality was high, even for South Asia, and the
country’s ratio of physicians to the general population lagged behind
those of its neighbours. Most of the population lacked access to safe
drinking water, and, consequently, infectious gastrointestinal diseases
were widespread. Respiratory ailments, especially influenza and
pneumonia, also were widely prevalent, and the incidence of parasite
infestations, skin diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, and goitre was high
in most parts of the country. As a result, the average life expectancy
in Bhutan was notably low.
In the 1980s, however, Bhutan’s health conditions began to improve,
and by the early 21st century the infant mortality rate had dropped
dramatically and life expectancy had climbed to the mid-60s,
representing an increase of nearly 20 years. Moreover, investments made
by the government in the construction of a sewerage system in the early
1990s had proven effective in helping to curb the spread of infectious
More than two dozen public hospitals and some 200 clinics (called
basic health units) and dispensaries operate throughout the country. The
government also supports the Institute of Traditional Medicine Services
(ITMS), a separate network of facilities specializing in indigenous
medicine; the ITMS includes a hospital, a training centre, a
pharmaceutical and research unit, and numerous clinics and dispensaries.
Women and men in Bhutanese society enjoy an essentially equal legal
status. Bhutan’s inheritance laws are favourable to women, and most
Bhutanese households are managed by women. The greatest obstacles to the
social and economic advancement of Bhutanese women have been the needs
for health care, education, and employment opportunities. The National
Women’s Association of Bhutan (established in 1981) oversees various
programs aimed at enabling disadvantaged women to hurdle such
Until the early 1960s, no formal schools existed in Bhutan except
those for religious instruction. Since then considerable progress has
been made in education, and primary and secondary schools have been
established throughout the country. By the end of the 20th century, a
policy had been adopted whereby a major portion of the annual government
budget was directed toward educational programs.
Education is not compulsory in Bhutan, and many of the country’s
children between the ages of 6 and 11 years are not enrolled in primary
school. Similarly, only a fraction of Bhutan’s older children are
enrolled in secondary school. Nevertheless, enrollment rates rose
substantially since the late 20th century, and the rate of adult
literacy, although only about 60 percent in the early 21st century, also
increased dramatically. Growing numbers of students attend the country’s
various colleges, including Sherubtse Degree College—established at
Kanglung in eastern Bhutan in 1983 and affiliated with the University of
Delhi—as well as several teacher-training colleges and
The three main ethnic groups of Bhutan—the Bhutia, the Nepalese, and
the Sharchop—display considerable variety in their cultures and
lifestyles. A typical Bhutia house is a two-storied structure of timber
and stone with thick, pounded mud walls to keep out the cold. Livestock
are kept on the ground floor, while the family lives above. Inside the
house, a family will usually maintain a small Buddhist shrine in a
corner. Among the livestock kept by Bhutia families is the yak, which
supplies not only meat but also milk, from which butter is made for use
in food preparations, in lamps, and on the shrine altar. Ordinary
households may not be able to afford meat in their daily meals, however,
and often rely on ema datshi, a chili and cheese stew, or kewa datshi,
which adds potatoes to the mix. Both can be considered national dishes,
and both are served with basmati or Bhutanese red rice.
Although the Bhutia have a tradition of polyandry (marriage of a
woman to more than one man), their family system is basically
patriarchal, with estates divided equally between sons and daughters.
Both men and women may choose whom they marry and may initiate a
The Sharchop are closely linked to the Bhutia because they share a
common religion in Tibetan Buddhism, though among the Sharchop there is
often a strong element of the older pre-Buddhist Bon religion. The
Sharchop build their houses of stone and wood, often on stilts on the
hillslopes. They generally practice shifting agriculture, whereby land
is cleared by burning the vegetation, is cultivated for several years,
and then is abandoned in favour of another site when the productivity of
the soil declines.
The Nepalese of Bhutan are predominantly Hindus and have caste and
family ties to Nepal and India. Because they live in the warmer climate
of southern Bhutan, their houses are made of bamboo and thatch. The
Nepalese do not eat beef, and some of them abstain from meat altogether.
Instead, they eat the rice and curry dishes that are common among the
Hindus of Nepal and India. Their caste system separates different social
levels and influences the choice of marriage partners and other social
The major impulse in Bhutanese art comes from Buddhism. The mystic
circular pattern known as the mandala is a favourite subject. The
mandala adorns the walls and ceilings of Buddhist temples and is
painted, embroidered, or appliquéd on the scrolls known as thangkas. One
of the most popularly depicted figures is Padmasambhava, who introduced
Buddhism to Bhutan, and another common theme in the visual arts is the
group of eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism—the right-coiled
conch shell, the lotus flower, the eight-spoked wheel of dharma, the
parasol, the endless knot, a pair of golden fishes, the victory banner,
and the treasure vase. Dancing is central to most religious festivals in
Bhutan, and it is used to depict the tales and legends of Buddhist
history and mythology.
The castlelike dzongs, with their gently tapering walls, large
courtyards, and long galleries, are among the finest examples of
Bhutanese architecture. Chortens, or stupas, small shrines built
originally to house sacred relics, are also a common architectural sight
in Bhutan; their designs range from simple square structures to large,
multilayered pyramidal shapes.
Bhutan’s metalsmiths are skilled in working with bronze, silver, and
other fine metals. Their artistry is evident in statues of deities,
doors and pillars of temples, bells, trumpets, swords, tables,
candlesticks, rice boxes, and jewelry. Every Buddhist temple contains
large, brightly painted and gilded statues of the Buddha and his saints.
Songs of itinerant musicians, the overtone chanting (sometimes called
throat singing) of Buddhist monks, and the sounds of long horns echoing
across the valleys are all an integral part of Bhutanese music. Many of
the ancient Tibetan ritual musics—typically featuring drums, cymbals,
and trumpets of various sizes—have been preserved, though the
instruments have been modified. For example, trumpets once made of human
thighbone are today constructed of metal. Some forms of Bhutanese music,
especially within the Nepalese community in the southern part of the
country, are more closely related to Indian (as opposed to Tibetan)
traditions; such musics may use a flute or a harmonium, in ensemble with
a drum, to accompany singing. Other common instruments of Bhutan include
plucked lutes, struck zithers, and bamboo flutes. As the country became
less isolated since the late 20th century, new types of music emerged.
One new genre, called rigsar, blends Bhutanese, Indian, and Western
elements within an international popular music idiom.
Since its establishment in the last decade of the 20th century,
Bhutan’s film industry has grown tremendously, and by 2005 the country
had already produced several dozen films. Although most of the early
works were heavily influenced by Bollywood and Hollywood productions,
the industry soon began a process of indigenization as producers strove
to emphasize local issues, imagery, and artistic idioms. Khyentse Norbu,
a prominent Buddhist monk and pioneer in the development of distinctly
Bhutanese film, wrote and directed The Cup, a comedy about several young
Buddhist monks who are determined to watch the World Cup football
(soccer) championship on television at their boarding school, and
Travellers and Magicians (2003), filmed entirely in northern Bhutan,
which depicts the struggles of a young Bhutanese man who longs to leave
his country for a glamorous life abroad; both films won multiple awards
at international festivals.
Pradyumna P. Karan
Bhutan’s rugged mountains and dense forests long rendered it
almost inaccessible to the outside world, and the country’s rulers
reinforced this isolation by banning foreigners until well into the 20th
century. Then, under pressure from neighbouring countries with strategic
interests in Bhutan, a slow change began. In committing to policies of
social and administrative reform coupled with economic development,
Bhutan began to cultivate its international contacts.
The emergence of Bhutan
The historical origins of Bhutan are obscure. It is reported that
some four to five centuries ago an influential lama from Tibet, Sheptoon
La-Pha, became the king of Bhutan and acquired the title of dharma raja.
Bhutan probably became a distinct political entity about this period.
La-Pha was succeeded by Doopgein Sheptoon, who consolidated Bhutan’s
administrative organization through the appointment of regional penlops
(governors of territories) and jungpens (governors of forts). Doopgein
Sheptoon exercised both temporal and spiritual authority, but his
successor confined himself to only the spiritual role and appointed a
minister to exercise the temporal power. The minister became the
temporal ruler and acquired the title of deb raja. This institution of
two supreme authorities—a dharma raja for spiritual affairs and a deb
raja for temporal matters—existed until the death of the last dharma
raja in the early 20th century. Succession to the spiritual office of
dharma raja was dependent on what was considered a verifiable
reincarnation of the deceased dharma raja, and this person was often
discovered among the children of the ruling families. When the last
dharma raja died in the 1930s, no reincarnation was found, and the
practice and the office ceased to exist.
For much of the 19th century Bhutan was plagued by a series of civil
wars as the governors of the various territories contended for power and
influence. The office of the deb raja, in theory filled by election by a
council composed of penlops and jungpens, was in practice held by the
strongest of the governors, usually either the penlop of Paro or the
penlop of Tongsa. Similarly, the penlops, who were to be appointed by
the deb raja, in practice fought their way into office. Throughout most
of Bhutanese history a continuous series of skirmishes and intrigues
took place throughout the land as superseded jungpens and penlops
awaited an opportunity to return to power.
In 1907, after the dharma raja had died and the deb raja had
withdrawn into a life of contemplation, the then-strongest penlop, Ugyen
Wangchuk of Tongsa, was “elected” by a council of lamas, abbots,
councillors, and laymen to be the hereditary king (druk gyalpo) of
Bhutan. The lamas continued to have strong spiritual influence.
Foreign contacts and relations
Despite its long-standing tendency to isolate itself from the rest
of the world, Bhutan was the object of several foreign invasions in the
centuries after its establishment. In 1720 a Chinese imperial army
invaded Tibet and established suzerainty over both Tibet and Bhutan.
Control over Bhutan changed several times thereafter, and the country’s
exact territorial extent was not clear. The British intervened in Bhutan
in 1772–73 and again in 1864–65, at which time the defeated Bhutanese
signed a treaty ceding control of their southern border passes to the
British. The Bhutanese also agreed to accept British mediation in any
future disputes between Bhutan and its neighbours in return for an
annual British subsidy.
Ugyen Wangchuk became Bhutan’s druk gyalpo in 1907 with British
approval, and in 1910 the Bhutanese government agreed in a treaty to
continue to be guided by Great Britain in external affairs in return for
an increased annual subsidy and the promise of noninterference in
Bhutan’s internal affairs. In subsequent decades, Bhutan gradually
became oriented toward British-ruled India, though much of its trade was
still with Tibet.
In August 1949 Bhutan concluded a treaty with newly independent
India, whereby that country assumed Britain’s former role toward Bhutan.
As part of this arrangement, India paid an annual subsidy to Bhutan, and
a strip of land in the Duars of Assam, known as the Dewangiri, was
transferred to Bhutan. India also refrained from interfering in the
country’s internal administration.
When the People’s Republic of China took control of Tibet in 1950,
Bhutan was prompted to strengthen its ties with India. China’s
suppression of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet and its vague assertions of
sovereignty over some Bhutanese territory lent urgency to the Chinese
threat, and in the 1950s India took measures to strengthen its defensive
garrisons along Bhutan’s northern border with Tibet. The building of a
road network inside Bhutan and toward India was initiated, and the
arrival of the first automobiles was a significant step toward ending
Bhutan’s geographical isolation.
Pradyumna P. Karan
From absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy
Beginning in the early 1960s, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk embarked
on a program to reform the country’s economy and its quasi-feudal social
system. New roads and hospitals were built, and a system of secular
schools was established as an alternative to education in Buddhist
monasteries. Transformation of the social system began with the
abolition of slavery, the restriction of Bhutia polyandry and Nepalese
polygamy, and a slight liberalization of royal rule. Bhutan’s government
institutions were also restructured, though the king retained firm
control over the country’s political life. Political instability
occasionally surfaced, notably in 1964, when the prime minister was
murdered in a dispute between rival political factions, and in 1965,
when an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made on the king himself.
In 1971 Bhutan officially ended its political isolation by joining the
In 1972, 16-year-old Jigme Singye Wangchuk succeeded his father as
king. The new king agreed to abide by the treaty with India and also
sought to improve ties with China. Jigme Singye Wangchuk continued his
father’s reform and development policies, channeling money into
infrastructure, education, and health, but he also tried to preserve
Bhutan’s rich cultural heritage and natural environment. In 1988 Bhutan
launched a national policy demanding that everyone adhere completely to
Buddhist traditions. Bhutanese of Nepalese origin, who constituted
between one-third and one-half of Bhutan’s residents (Bhutan’s
government claimed the former, Bhutan’s Nepalese the latter) and who
were primarily Hindu, viewed the policy as an attempt to suppress
Nepalese culture. Violent protests and ethnic antagonism broke out, and
thousands of Bhutan’s Nepalese residents fled to Nepal (Bhutan’s
government claimed that many of the Nepalese had resided in the country
illegally). By the early 1990s it was estimated that some 100,000
Nepalese from Bhutan were housed in refugee camps in Nepal; the
governments of Bhutan and Nepal held regular meetings to resolve the
refugee issue but still had not reached a final agreement by the early
At the same time, Jigme Singye Wangchuk moved to democratize Bhutan.
In the late 1990s he relinquished absolute authority. Although the king
continued to wield significant power, particularly over security issues,
he shared power with the Council of Ministers, whose chair developed de
facto into a prime minister. The king also persuaded members of the
Tshogdu (Bhutan’s national assembly, partly elected by village headmen
and partly appointed by the king and the monastic order) to accept a
provision that would allow the assembly to call for a vote of confidence
on the monarch and even potentially require him to abdicate. In
addition, at the behest of the king, extensive efforts were directed
toward establishing a written constitution for Bhutan.
By the turn of the 21st century, Bhutan had moved to embrace
democracy as well as to eliminate vestiges of its historical isolation
from all angles—geographic, political, economic, social, and
technological. Accelerating this initiative was the abdication of the
king in 2006 and the transfer of the throne to his politically
progressive son, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. By the end of 2007 the
country had held direct elections—the first in its history—for the
National Council, the upper house of a new bicameral parliament.
Elections in March 2008 for the National Assembly, the lower house of
the new parliament, marked the completion of the change to a democratic
system. Meanwhile, the country continued its efforts to dissolve
long-standing impediments to international awareness and foreign
relations. Limited numbers of tourists were permitted to enter the
country beginning in the 1970s, and in 1999 the government lifted its
prohibitions on television broadcasting and allowed its citizens access
to the Internet. Development policies showed success, as Bhutan’s
economy experienced significant growth, but these positive measures were
offset to some degree by Bhutan’s inability to negotiate a settlement
with Nepal over refugees and by the resulting periodic ethnic violence
in the country.
Pradyumna P. Karan