Leisure & Travel

Leisure & Travel

Inside the last Shangri-La

A tranquil, environmentally friendly sovereign nation sited deep in the heart of the mighty Himalayas, Bhutan is transforming into a tourist haven attracting those who seek a retreat into untamed, unbridled nature

Around the world there’s considerable confusion about the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan (pop.2.5 million). Most people confuse it with the Indian state of Sikkim, also sited in north-east India, which was an independent mountain kingdom until it acceded to India in 1975 and became a constituent state of the Indian Union.

However a tranquil, environmentally friendly sovereign nation sited deep in the heart of the mighty Himalayan mountain range, and sandwiched between two huge countries — India and China — Bhutan is an independent kingdom which shares a 605 km border with India, and a 470 km border with China.

Originally known as Druk Yal in the country’s native language Dzonka, it is perhaps the world’s last Shangri-La, where the mountains dwarf man, inspiring awe and humility. Gradually morphing into a tourist haven, Bhutan attracts those who seek a retreat into untamed, unbridled nature. In 2004 Bhutan drew over 9,000 discerning tourists (excluding visitors from India) and earned US$12 million (Rs.48 crore) by way of tourism revenue.

Until recently curtained from the modern world, Bhutan is cautiously coming to terms with the 21st century. Politically, it is moving towards democracy with its incumbent monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk having ‘bequeathed’ the kingdom to his subjects by announcing the first ever democratic elections to be held later this year (2008). Moreover a pre-condition of this unique voluntary transfer of power is that the Constitution will incorporate a 1995 resolution of the National Assembly mandating that at least 60 percent of the country must be under forest cover in perpetuity, and that free medical care and education is the fundamental right of every citizen.

King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk’s reverence for the kingdom’s forest wealth is hardly surprising. With over 93 percent of the population residing in 4,500 rural settlements of varying size and organisation, the lives of the people of Bhutan are closely tied to the land and nature. Strict laws have been enacted to protect Bhutan’s great Himalayan ecosystems and rich biodiversity. Most populated valleys of Bhutan boast a dzong or fortified monastery, typically built on a mountainous outcrop that serves as an administrative centre. Until 1958, the prime modes of transport in Bhutan were donkey, horse or mule as there were no metalled roads in the country. Since then the government of India has undertaken construction of roads, hydroelectric power plants and communication infrastructure in this neighbouring kingdom.

Nevertheless the great majority of the population still follows the traditional lifestyle, with most people attired in the kira (for men) and gho (women). The kira is an ankle-length dress made of a rectangular cloth held at the shoulders with a clip and closed with a woven belt at the waist and a long-sleeved blouse, and the gho is a wrap-around, knee-length garment with a narrow belt.

The recorded history of Bhutan dates back to the early 17th century when the country was unified in 1616 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. He was the first ruler to define the boundaries of the kingdom, enact comprehensive laws and establish a streamlined local-centric administrative system. After a succession of rulers, in 1907 a hereditary monarchy was created, which entered into a friendship treaty with India in 1949 by signing The Indo-Bhutan Treaty of friendship. In 1952 Dorji Wangchuck — famed as the architect of modern Bhutan — was crowned king (‘jigme’). Immediately after enthrone-ment, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk constituted the National Assembly in 1953, as the first step towards a democratic Bhutan. Later in 1965 the Royal Advisory Council was also formed, to advise the monarch and the assembly on ways and means to modernise this isolated mountain kingdom.

In 1972 Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the son of Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, was crowned king. It was under his rule that the country was cautiously opened up for high-end tourists. In the first decade of his rule, the number of tourists entering the country was limited to few thousands and entry of foreigners was strictly regulated. In 1998 Jigme Singye Wangchuk further nudged the democratic process by devolving some of his executive powers upon the cabinet, and in 2005 he became the first ruler worldwide to voluntarily relinquish his throne in favour of his son Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk. In 2006 the fifth namgyal (king) Jigme Khesar announced that he has bequeathed the country to its subjects, who will henceforth be governed by a popular Parliament constituted after free and fair elections to be held later this year.


Formerly the winter capital (summer capital: Punâkha) of Bhutan, Thimpu (pop. 98,000) was made the permanent seat of government in 1962. Established in 1955 on the banks of Thimpu Chuu (‘river’) and ringed by the majestic mountains of Thimpu valley, the capital hosts the royal family, the royal government and judiciary, and several foreign missions and development organisations.

Although it’s the administrative capital of the country, in reality Thimpu is a small town; one can walk right through it, end-to-end in just an hour. Served by two squeaky clean parallel boulevards lined with traditional Bhutanese buildings, Thimpu is incongruously served by the most modern automobiles with most of them driven by women, and more contrastingly, traditionally attired Buddhist monks!

Connected with the rest of Bhutan (total area: 47,000 sq km) and India by excellent roads built by the Indian Army’s Border Roads Organisation, Thimpu is perhaps one of the smallest capitals worldwide, spread over a mere 8.2 sq km. It has no airstrip or railroad connections, with the nearest airport situated at Paro (35 km).

Among the major attractions of this neat and tidy capital which offers pleasant walks in crispy mountain air, is the Tashi Chuu Dzong, the main secretariat building which houses the throne room of the king. The National Assembly Hall is located in a new building on the other bank of river Dzong. During the warmer summer months, the city’s monks led by His Holiness the Je Khenpo, camp in the Tashi Chuu Dzong as do members of the National Assembly and the Royal Advisory Council. Nearby is the country’s sole nine-hole golf course.

Certainly among the most impressive buildings in Thimpu is the National Library sited close to the Tashi Chuu Dzong. It houses a vast collection of religious and historical books and manuscripts. Another city landmark is the Memorial Chorten, erected in 1974 by the mother of the third king in memory of her son.

Visit Dechencholing (9 km), the traditional seat of royalty where the Royal Palace and residences of the royal family are sited. Set among sweeping lawns, ponds and willow trees, this splendid three-storey building conforms to traditional Bhutanese architectural principles, and is a tasteful expression of local art and culture. Beyond the palace is Tangu Cherry, one of the oldest thakhangs in Bhutan, where dedicated monks converge to practice the ancient disciplines of meditation and spiritual levitation.

The Mini-Zoo perched on a hill top, overlooking Thimpu town, has an eclectic population of wildlife including the takin, Bhutan’s national animal. Moreover in sharp contrast to India where puritan state governments discourage partying, the nightlife in Thimpu rocks with discotheques and pubs jam-packed with youth.

Accommodation. Top-end: Hotel Jumolhari (Rs.2,500-3,600 per night), Motithang Hotel (Rs.2,200-3,200), Druk Hotel (Rs.1,500-2,800). Mid-range: Pinewood Hotel (Rs.800,1,200), Yeedzin Guest House (Rs.600-900), Hotel Taktshang (Rs.500-750). Budget: Kelwang Hotel (Rs.200-350), TT Hotel (Rs.150-300), Hotel Kumar (Rs.200-500).


The second largest city in Bhutan, Paro (pop. 33,169) hosts the kingdom’s only airport. Sited in a vast valley 35 km from Thimpu on the banks of the Paro Chhu (river), the quaint town makes one marvel at the hand of nature in its stunning Himalayan vistas and clear weather. Undoubtedly the most scenic and tranquil town in Bhutan, Paro is a historic centre on the most important trade route to Tibet.

Above the Paro Chuu which flows south from its watershed in the Chomolahri range parallel to the city, atop a rocky outcrop of a sleepy hillside at an altitude of over 7,000 feet and overlooking both sides of the valley, the Paro Dzong was built as Bhutan’s most impregnable and strategically located fortress. Before the reconstruction of the Tashi Chuu Dzong at Thimpu, Paro Dzong was the seat of Bhutan’s National Assembly.

Today the Paro Dzong Monastery rather than the Paro Dzong fortress is the major tourist highlight of Paro. Originally built by Guru Padma Sambhava at the beginning of the 10th century, it was fully re-constructed using stone instead of clay by Ngawang Namgyal in 1646 and renamed Rinpung, which translates into ‘heaps of jewels’. Tragically, Rinpung and all its treasures were destroyed in an accidental fire in 1907 but rebuilt by Penlop Dawa Penjor subsequently.

Only one thangka (Buddhist painting), known as the thongdel, was saved. Painted in memory of Guru Padma Sambhava, the harbinger of Buddhism in Bhutan, the thongdel is an exquisite example of the Bhutanese art of fashioning religious scroll paintings from silk and cotton. Highly revered as a religious relic (displayed only once a year for a few hours during the five-day spring tsechu of the Dzong), according to the faithful, paying homage to the thongdel is a pre-condition of attaining nirvana. Paro Dzong also exhibits a vast collection of sacred masks, costumes and Buddhist relics.

Sited on a hill above the Paro Dzong is an ancient watchtower which was converted into the National Museum of Bhutan in 1967. A treasure house of paintings, decorative art, arms, and jewellery, it is well worth an exploratory visit.

Across a medieval bridge below the Paro Dzong is the Ugyenpelri palace, a royal residence constructed by Penlop Tshering Penjor and fashioned after the heavenly abode of the revered Shabdung Rimpoche. A few miles to the north, overlooking the river Paro Chuu, is the Kyichu Lhakhang, one of Bhutan’s two most sacred monasteries (the other being the Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang), which dates back to the 18th century, when Buddhism was introduced into Bhutan.

Further up the valley are the ruins of the Drukgyel Dzong (‘victorious druk’), built by Ngawang Namgyal in 1647 to commemorate a military victory over invading Tibetan armies. Perched atop a hill, the Dzong can be entered only from one side, the entrance of which is protected by three tall towers. A unique turreted passageway, designed to ensure water supply in times of war, connects the fortress to the far river bank. Unfortunately in 1954, the Drukgyel Dzong was engulfed by a devastating fire, but has since been restored and converted into a museum.

Across the way from Drukgyel Dzong like an outgrowth of the terrain itself, the gem-like Taktshang Lakhang monastery (aka Tigers Nest) has been brilliantly engineered atop a sheer, 3,000 ft rock face. Popular legend recounts that Guru Padma Sambhava flew here from Tibet on the back of a tiger to commission the monastery. Accessible only by foot or mule via a steep knees-testing climb, from the heights of the monastery there are splendid views of the valley below which prompts thousands of visitors to make the journey to the top. And preserved in the monastery are beautiful paintings and artefacts — another incentive to make the steep climb.

Set in a similarly rugged environment is the Sang-tog Peri monastery affording charming vistas of the Paro valley. Blending with the natural ecology of the region, this 300-year-old retreat’s name appropriately translates into ‘temple of heaven’.

Paro is perhaps the fastest growing town in Bhutan. Despite this, strict laws ensure that all buildings conform to vernacular architectural norms. Even the airport has been built to harmonise with traditional architecture.

Accommodation. Top-end: Uma Paro (Rs.10,000-45,000 per night), Amankora (Rs.10,000-25,000). Mid-range: Olathang Hotel (Rs.3,000-5,000), Hotel Druk (Rs.2,500-4,000), Kyichu Resorts (Rs.2,500-3,500). Budget: Hotel Red Chilli (Rs.200-450), Dechen Cottages (Rs.200-550), Hotel Samdenchholing (Rs.150-450).


The exotic, individualistic character of Bhutan is well preserved in its numerous festivals. The Tshechu festival is held in honour of Guru Padma Sambhava — "one who was born from a lotus flower" — aka Guru Rinpoche (the Precious Teacher) — in March-April every year. This saint of Indian origin contributed enormously to the diffusion of tantric Buddhism in the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan around 800 A.D. He is the founder of the Nyingmapa, the old school of Buddhist lamaism which still has numerous followers.

The biography of Guru Rinpoche is highlighted by 12 episodes on the model of Buddha Shakyamuni’s life. Each episode is commemorated round the year on the 10th day of the month or the tshechu, which has become the name of this popular festival. The Thimphu Tshechu was established by the 4th Temporal Ruler, Tenzing Rabgye (1638-1696) in 1670 in the eighth month of the Bhutanese calendar, to commemorate the birth of Guru Rinpoche.

Visa/ entry formalities. Indian citizens don’t need visas to visit Bhutan. The requirement is of an official identity card, which needs to be submitted with a passport photograph at the immigration office at Phuentsholing, where Bhutan shares a border with the Indian state of West Bengal. Budget a day for the immigration pass issued for a maximum period of three weeks. Acquiring the pass requires identity, nationality and residence proof, and loads of patience.

Srinidhi Raghavendra