Everywhere in the country, you’ll find Bhutan’s mythology expressed in many different ways. Most striking is the name its inhabitants have for the kingdom, Druk Yul, literally meaning ‘land of the thunder dragon’ in Bhutanese mythology. You find the fierce white dragon in the national flag and weapon and during the Tsechus – Bhutan’s most important festivals – there are many expressions of and references to the dragon. Even Bhutan’s leaders are known as the Druk Gyalpo: the dragon kings.
Every part of Bhutan’s national flag is symbolic for the country’s general features. Divided diagonally, the flag has a white dragon across the middle. The white colour is not only an expression of purity and loyalty, it also represents the diverse ethnic and linguistic groups. The dragon’s growling mouth, which is an expression of the strength of many deities, protects the jewels which are hold in his paws. These jewels represent prosperity, wealth and perfection. The upper yellow part of the flag represents the king’s secular power and fruitful action in both religious and state affairs. The lower orange part represents the spiritual power and religious practice of Bhutan’s Mahayana (tantric) Buddhist religion.
Bhutan also holds a national emblem. A double diamond thunderbolt (dorji) placed above a lotus, is framed by two dragons and overcome by a jewel. The harmony between religious and secular power is symbolized by the double diamond thunderbolt. The lotus symbolizes purity, and sovereign power is expressed by the jewel. Finally, the male and female dragons represent Bhutan’s name, being proclaimed with their great voice of thunder (Druk Yul). The national emblem is contained in a circle.
On December 17th, National Day is celebrated. It is reminiscent of the ascension to the throne of Bhutan’s first king Ugyen Wangchuck in 1907.
The blue poppy, found in the high altitudes above 13.000 feet, is Bhutan’s national flower, while the cypres is the country’s national tree, often associated with religious places. The National bird is the raven, representing Gonpo Jarodonchen (Mahakala), one of Bhutan’s main guardian deities. The raven adorns the royal crown.
In the 12th century, dzongs were introduced to Bhutan. All dzongs are based on the same layout, but each has its’ own unique design. The outer walls and buildings are the circumference with at its’ heart a central temple, often in a big courtyard. The dzongs are not only beautifully designed; you’ll also find many art treasures here.
Each valley has a dzong as a striking landmark. They are often built atop steep ridges, strategical outlook points or between fast flowing rivers. Whereas these massive ancient monastery castles where built for defense, they nowadays have become a symbol of security and stability, serving as headquarters for the civil and monastic administration of each district. Bhutan’s most famous monastery is the Taktsang dzong (Tiger’s Nest).
It’s not surprising that a country so naturally influenced by Buddhism, counts over 2000 monasteries. Everywhere you look, even in the most remote areas, you’ll find a monastery of some kind. All monasteries have a maroon band near the top of the building. Sitting atop some monasteries, you even find a golden ‘sertog’ or pinnacle. The monasteries spiritually serve the communities living around them. They are often the center of cultural, religious, secular and administrative events, hosting important ceremonies and festivals.
Just like several other Asian countries, Bhutan is home of thousands of chorten’s. In Buddhism, these stupas symbolize a cistern. They indicate the people’s deep faith. Even today many new chorten’s are built. There are eight different forms or styles of chortens, like the mani dungkhor housing a large prayer wheel or the chortens with an archway over a trail. Bhutan’s most important chorten is the National Memorial Chorten. This stupa with wonderful statues and wall paintings is dedicated to late king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, Bhutans third king.
Bhutan’s culture is very much alive and expressed in everything, including the traditional clothing its people have been wearing for centuries. While machine milled traditional clothing is popular for daily wear, the traditionally woven dress is worn on all formal occasions including working in the office. At birth, marriage, death and promotion gifts of cloth are offered. On formal occasions, the Bhutanese wear their best hand-woven clothes.
The woman’s kera is an ankle length dress. Made from finely woven fabrics, the kira has traditional and beautifully coloured patterns. Under the kera, woman wear a wonju (blouse) which is held in place over the shoulder with a koma (silver buckle). Decorations, colours and texture determine the woman’s social status and class. Usually over the dress a toego (open jacket) is worn. The outfit is completed by necklaces made from turquoise, corals, pearls and the precious ‘dzi’ agate eye stone. These ‘dzi beads’ are called ‘tears of the gods’.
The men wear a gho, tied in place at the waist with a small hand-woven kera (belt). Above the kera a large pouch is formed in which the men can carry traditional items like betel nut and a bowl. The costume is completed with long socks and shoes or traditional handmade boots, sometimes with beautiful designs embroidered on them in the most splendid colours.
The Takin, an extremely rare mixture of sheep’s and goats, is the kingdom’s national animal. Since its favorite food is bamboo, growing high in the Himalayas, it will not surprise that the takin herds are found in the very high altitudes (13000 ft and over).
This religion is integrated in all aspects of the country, including architecture. Typical is the degree of uniformity: all structures correspond with traditional designs. You see this reflected in the chortens (stupa’s), temples, monasteries, fortresses, houses, mansions and farms. Although there is a clear commonality, each Bhutanese valley has its own architectural character. The differences are found in the building material that’s been used, ranging from mud to stone, and the special ambience that’s so typical for its dzongs and monasteries.
Bhutan’s unique spirit and identity is also reflected in the arts and crafts, which are all religiously rooted. Three characteristics are typical for Bhutanese art: it has no independent aesthetic function, it is religious and anonymous. Bhutan ‘art of Zorig Chosum’ contains 13 arts and crafts. These vary from paintings and thankas (wall hangings) to sculptures, weaving, paper making, wood carving, carpentry, blacksmithing, sword making, booth making, thazo (bamboo craft), jewelry and bow and Old Bhutanese Doorknob arrow making.
Because the Bhutanese make the arts merely for themselves and not for tourists, they are still very much alive. Also, the government puts a great emphasis on the preservation of culture and tradition and supports it in several ways.
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. Each village has its’ own archery range and every festival knows a high-spirited competition. Archery tournaments happen all through the year on local, inter-village and national level. Teams of archers use bamboo bows, shooting at wooden targets only 30 centimeters in diameter from a distance of 140 meters. The wooden targets are embellished with bright colourful patterns. Although the major role is reserved for the archers, their supporters are just as important, encouraging them strongly and trying to off the opposition with a lot of noise, supported by the ara (alcohol) which flows from dusk until dawn, keeping the spirits high. If you get the change to visit an archery tournament, let yourself be immersed in a great excitement, initiation ceremonies, wild dances, singing, jeering and near-primitive howls.
Although football is not as big as in many other countries across the world, Bhutan does have its own national football team. In 2002 their team became penultimate of the national teams, ranking 202nd. June 30th, the day of the world final in Japan, was a historical event. For the first time in history, Bhutan’s national team won an international match. They defeated Montserrat (ending last in the rankings) with 4-0.