The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan lies along the lofty ridges of the astern 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 38,394 sq. km., Bhutan is comparable to Switzerland both in its size and topography. The mighty Himalayas protected Bhutan from the rest of the world and left it 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 approaching 700,000. 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 Padmasambhava's legendary flight from Tibet to Bhutan in 747 AD 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. One of the main attractions of the kingdom is its annual religious festivals, the tsechus celebrated to honor Guru Padmasambhava (more commonly referred to as "Guru Rinpoche"). For local people, tsechus are an occasion for reverence and blessing, feasting and socializing. Two of the most popular tsechus are held at Paro and Thimphu, in spring and autumn respectively, but others are held all the year round at temples, dzongs and monasteries throughout Bhutan. Attendance at one of these religious events provides an opportunity for the outsider to experience the extraordinary.
Nowhere in the Himalayas is the natural heritage more rich and varied than in Bhutan. In historical records, the kingdom is referred to as the "Valley of Medicinal Herbs", a name that still applies to this day. The country's richly diverse flora and fauna result from its unique geographic location in the eastern Himalayas where the Tibetan plateau meets South Asia, its annual rainfall which is significantly higher than in the central and western Himalayas, and its considerable altitudinal variation, from 200m above sea level in the south to over 7,000m above sea level in the north, and consequent dramatic climatic variations. Because of the deep traditional reverence which the Bhutanese have for nature, the kingdom is one of the leading countries in environmental conservation. Over 70% of Bhutan's land area is still under forest cover.
Many parts of the country have been declared wildlife reserves, and are the natural habitats of rare species of both flora and fauna. Opened for tourism in 1974, after the coronation of the present King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan is perhaps the world's most exclusive tourist destination. The country still retains all the charm of the old world, and travelers experience the full glory of this ancient land as embodied in the monastic fortresses, ancient temples, monasteries and stupas which dot the countryside, prayer flags fluttering above farmhouses and on the hillsides, lush forests, rushing glacial rivers, and - perhaps most important of all - the warm smiles and genuine friendliness of the people. Each moment is special as one discovers a country which its people have chosen to preserve in all its magical purity.