It is believed that the name Bhutan is derived from the Sanskrit 'Bhotant', meaning 'the end of Tibet', or from 'Bhu-uttan', meaning 'high land'. Historically the Bhutanese have referred to their country as Druk Yul, 'land of the thunder dragon'. Bhutanese refer to themselves as Drukpa people.
The Buddhist Kingdom of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon lies in the eastern Himalayas, between Tibet to the north, the Indian territories of Assam and West Bengal, to the south and east, and Sikkim to the west. The Kingdom has a total area of about 47,000 square kilometres, about the size of Switzerland. Located in the heart of the high Himalayan mountain range, Bhutan is a land-locked country surrounded by mountains. Bhutan remains mainly a rural country with 90 per cent of the people engaged in farming.
Bhutan is home to one of the world's richest natural environments and a virtually untouched and vibrant Buddhist culture. The Kingdom has over 72 per cent of the land under forest cover that shelters several species of flora and fauna, including many rare and endangered species.
Bhutan's national flag is a white dragon on a diagonally divided background of golden yellow and reddish orange. The yellow represents the secular power of the King, the orange the Buddhist religion.
Bhutan is the only country to maintain Mahayana Buddhism in its Tantric Vajrayana form as the official religion. Indeed, religion is the focal point for the arts, festivals and a considerably above average number of individuals.
The royal family traces its roots to the great Sixteenth Century saint Pema Lingpa, and the present monarch still enjoys a god-like status throughout much of his Kingdom.
The Forth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck as the head of state now rules the Kingdom, with the throne retaining its position as the fulcrum of the political system.
Bhutanese culture derives from ancient Tibetan culture. Dzongkha and Sharchop, the principal Bhutanese languages, are closely related to Tibetan, and Bhutanese monks read and write the ancient variant of the Tibetan language known as chhokey.
The monastery: Monks join the monastery at six to nine years of age and are immediately placed under the discipleship of a headmaster. They learn to read chhokey, the language of the ancient sacred texts, as well as Dzongkha and English.
Eventually they will choose between two possible paths: to study theology and Buddhist theory, or take the more common path of becoming proficient in the rituals and personal practice of the faith.
The daily life of the monk is austere. A monk's spiritual training continues throughout his life. Each monastery is headed by an abbot who is typically a lama. The highest monk in the land is the chief abbot of Bhutan, whose title is Je Khenpo. He is theoretically equivalent in stature to the king.
The Central Monk Body is an assembly of 600 or so monks who attend to the most critical religious duties of the country. In the summer they are housed in Thimphu, the nation's capital, and in the winter they descend to Punakha dzong, the most sacred dzong in Bhutan, where Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal's mortal body has been kept under vigil since the late 1600s.
Food: The people of Bhutan love to eat and every region has its own specialty. Bhutanese affinities for Yak meat is well known, but they also relish a completely vegetarian dish made of humble cheese and chilli. This special dish is known as 'Ema Datshi'. It is said that a trip to the Dragon Kingdom is incomplete without tasting this delicacy. It is undoubtedly tasty but very, very hot. Another important feature of this exotic cuisine is the use of rice. Five kilograms per head per week is the normal consumption. As this is the only crop cultivated, rice finds its way in various forms from breakfast to dinner. It's either rice with curry or curry with rice.
Religious festivals: Once a year a dzong or important village may hold a religious festival, or tsechhu. Villagers from the surrounding district come for several days of religious observances while making offerings to the lama or monastery. The central activity is a fixed set of religious mask dances, or cham, held in a large courtyard. Each individual dance takes up to several hours to complete and the entire set may last two to four days.
Physicalotlook: Bhutanese are physically similar to the Tibetans but history does not record when they crossed over the Himalayas and settled in the south-draining valleys of Bhutan. Both Tibetans and Bhutanese revere the tantric guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Himalayan Buddhism in the 8th century.
Clothing: All Bhutanese citizens are required to observe the national dress code, or driglamnamzha, while in public during daylight hours. The rule is enforced more rigorously in some districts (dzongkhag) than others.
Men wear a heavy knee-length robe tied with a belt, called a gho, folded in such a way to form a pocket in front of the stomach. Woman wear colourful blouses over which they fold and clasp a large rectangular cloth called a kira, thereby creating an ankle-length dress.
Additional rules apply when visiting a dzong or a temple, and when appearing before a high level official. The dress code has met with some resistance from the ethnic Nepalese citizens living along the Indian border who resent having to wear a cultural dress which is not their own.
Men and women in society: Bhutanese women have traditionally had more rights than women in surrounding cultures, the most prominent being the exclusive right of land ownership. Men and women work together in the fields, and both may own small shops or businesses. Men take a full part in household management, often cook, and are traditionally the makers and repairers of clothing. In the towns, a more 'western' pattern of family structure is beginning to emerge, with the husband as breadwinner and the wife as home-maker. Marriages are at the will of either party and divorce is not uncommon. The ceremony consists of an exchange of white scarves and the sharing of a cup.
Bhutanese names: Except for royal lineages, Bhutanese names do not include a family name. The first name generally cannot be used to determine if the person is male or female; in some cases the second name may be helpful in that regard.
Communication: Kuensel, the national newspaper of Bhutan, is published weekly in three languages; Dzongkha, English and Nepali. Well written and highly informative, Kuensel does a good job keeping its Bhutanese and international readers up to date on the politics and current events in the kingdom.