827,365 inhabitants (2019)
Dzongkha is the national language of Bhutan, and the Tibetan alphabet is used for writing.
Due to the mountainous terrain that separates settlements, around 20 different languages and dialects are spoken in Bhutan. Nepali and Hindi is also widely spoken and English is used to communicate in schools so is generally understood.
Bhutan's population is made up of four ethic groups: Ngalop, Sharchop, Lhotshampa and Indigenous groups.
The Ngalop, or Bhotia, originated in Tibet and are the most politically and culturally influential in Bhutan. They speak Dzongkha, the national language, and they predominantly follow the Drukpa Buddhist sect of Kagyu.
The Sharchops are a mixed population of South Asian, Tibetan and Southeast Asian descent and they live primarily in the east of the country and follow Tibetan Buddhism. Their religious practices incorporate, as in many places in the high Himalayas, Animist beliefs and shamanistic rituals borrowed from the pre-Buddhist Bön religion.
The Lhotshampa are of Nepalese origin native to southern Bhutan and they settled from the late 18th century. The majority are Hindus and since the 1980s many Lhotshampa have been forced out of Bhutan by the government who declared them illegal aliens.
A number of small indigenous groups are found across Bhutan and they are mostly part of the population of Assam or West Bengal and practice Hinduism.
Mahayana Buddhism is Bhutan’s official religion and around 75% of the population are Buddhists. The remaining 25% are Hindus.
December 17: This national day in Bhutan is celebrated to commemorate the ascension to the throne of the first king of Bhutan, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuk in 1907.
All traditional Buddhist festivals are celebrated in Bhutan. They’re timed according to local astronomical observations and dates vary. Other public holidays are also observed. The schedule includes: the Winter Solstice, the Day of Offerings, Losar (the Buddhist New Year), the Shabdung Kuchoey, the anniversary of Drukgyal Sumpa, Parinirvana of Buddha, Coronation Day, the Birthday of Guru Rinpoche, the First Sermon of Buddha, Thimphu Tshechu and Domchoe, the Sacred Day of Rain, Daschain and the Day of Buddha's Descent. Another event to note is the celebration of the anniversary of the coronation and death of the third king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck HM.
Bhutan’s history and origins are largely unknown, which only adds to its mystery and allure. The earliest documented history of Bhutan begins with the arrival of Indian-born Guru Padmasambhav, also known as Guru Rinpoche (meaning ‘precious master’), who embarked on a legendary journey from Tibet to Bhutan in the eighth century. He’s widely regarded as the catalyst for Buddhism in the country and he’s considered as the second buddha. Guru Rinpoche remains one of the most revered religious and historical figures in Bhutan. From the 11th to the 16th centuries, the country underwent many invasions, especially on the part of Tibetans and Mongolians.
A Buddhist theocracy was established in Bhutan in the early seventeenth century. In 1907 Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as the ruler of Bhutan, which marked the beginning of a hereditary monarchy. Although the country neighboured many nations under British rule, Bhutan was never colonised and in 1910, both sides signed the treaty of Punakha, which stated that the British would exercise no interference in the internal affairs of Bhutan. A monarchical system of rule continued in Bhutan until 2008, when the Fourth King stepped down and introduced democracy.
Bhutan is a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy. There is a Royal Council and a Council of Ministers. The National Assembly consists of 47 members and each one represents a single geographic constituency.
When visiting anywhere of cultural or religious significance in Bhutan, such as Dzongs, monasteries and temples, you should dress modestly and remove shoes before entering. Photography is usually prohibited inside. You should always step over thresholds, never onto them. The monarchy and the Buddhist clergy are revered by the Bhutanese – do not pass negative comment or show disrespect to Buddha images or religious objects. Whether giving or receiving gifts, never open them in front of the person who gave it to you and it’s customary for Bhutanese to refuse something you offer more than once before accepting. It’s considered very rude to touch someone on the head or point with the feet.
There’s no shortage of beautiful crafts in Bhutan to fill your return suitcase with: jewellery, basketry, wood carvings, carved slates, intricate religious paintings (thangkas) and especially the striking Bhutanese weaves are all stunning mementos of your time in the country and can be bought in many towns and villages across the country, including Thimphi, the capital and largest city. Bhutan is also famous for its wonderful, artistic stamps and the incredibly intricate woven textiles of Bhumtang.
Most shops are closed on a Tuesday and sometimes also Saturday afternoon and Sunday. The export of antiques and religious objects is prohibited. When buying anything of value in a shop, request an invoice for customs.
If there was one food item to sum up Bhutan it would be the chilli – the Bhutanese are mad for spice and many dishes are packed with serious fire. Meals will already be included in your all-inclusive package so will mostly comprise of hotel buffets, pre-arranged tour dishes and packed lunches. Locals enjoy rice, potatoes, pasta and vegetables like spinach, turnips, mushrooms and tomatoes. Pork or sun-dried yak is also enjoyed. Bhutanese favourite dishes include Tibetan or Nepalese-style dumplings called momos; minced chicken and pork cooked with chilli; and "Emadatse" (chilli and cheese stew) which is the national dish and recipies vary depending on the region. For lovers of orange jams, the orange marmalade in Thimphu is one of the best and will give your taste buds a treat.
It is recommended to drink bottled water and avoid ice. Salted butter tea, or suja, if often served during social occasions. Ara is a traditional Bhutanese alcoholic drink distilled from maize, rice, wheat or barley, or beer and spirits are also available.