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Versatile and very interesting

History, peoples and environment of Bhutan

History of Bhutan

Early unification

The first inhabitants in the region that is now Bhutan were probably the Thepu people, whose history unfortunately has no written record, but who practiced a Hindu faith. In the 9th century AD, Tibetan immigrants brought the region under Buddhist rule and Tibetan Lamaism became the state religion, with peoples and cultures mixing and uniting. At that time, many large monasteries were established which took over a large part of the country’s administrative tasks. The many small principalities were united for the first time in 1616 and the state was given the name “Druk Yul” – Bhutan, which is still used today.

In the following centuries, the state was repeatedly exposed to attacks: Tibetan-Mongolian troops attempted to take power at the beginning of the 18th century. Towards the end of the 18th century, the British East India Company began its attempts to incorporate the country into its empire.

The succession of the current monarchs has been in place since 1907 and they have enforced a strict and controversial policy in their kingdom ever since. It was only at the beginning of the 21st century that the country slowly began to open up to Western states and a process of democratization began, which continues to this day.

Three large population groups

Peoples and religions

As is typical in this region, the Bhutanese population is made up of various tribes that migrated from surrounding regions in the early centuries. In Bhutan, the ratio is quite balanced, with around a third of the population belonging to the Ngalong people, whose main settlement area is in the western highlands. The ruling Bhutanese monarchs come from their ranks and their mother tongue is the official language Dzongkha.

Like the Sarchops, the second largest tribe, they practise Mahayana Buddhism due to their Tibetan origins. The third large population group are the Lhotsampas, who originate from Nepal, are traditionally Hindus and have mainly settled in the southern lowlands.

The coexistence of these three peoples in Bhutan has not always been easy, as the Hindu, Nepalese part of the population is sometimes subjected to significant reprisals by the royal house – partly out of fear of democratic aspirations, partly out of the not unjustified fear of the indigenous people being displaced by the Nepalese, as has been the case in other parts of what is now India.

Very, very hot


The food of the Bhutanese people is extremely spicy for the European palate, as chilies are not only used for seasoning, but are also eaten raw and cooked as vegetables and salads. Otherwise, the staple food is rice, a white and a nutty-tasting, as well as reddish variety are widespread.

In addition to various types of chilli, a little tomato and garlic, the national dish “Ema datshi” also requires yak cheese, which is used to cook a stew that is served with rice. Wheat and other cereals are grown and processed in the middle altitudes, and the yaks reared at higher altitudes provide meat and dairy products.

A special treat is deep-fried yak skin, which you should definitely try when visiting Bhutan. As everywhere in Asia, it is important not to eat uncooked or unpeeled fruit or vegetables, as even the spiciness of chilies is powerless against the bacteria that cause diarrhea in Europeans.

There is also a wide range of alcoholic drinks available in Bhutan: Beer, whisky, gin and rum and, above all, arak, a rice schnapps, which are produced here and are very inexpensive.

Extraordinary biodiversity

Flora and fauna

The flora and fauna in Bhutan achieve an extraordinary biodiversity in accordance with the climatic latitude. Not only elephants and tigers live in the subtropical forests in the south, but also golden langurs (Trachypithecusgeei) and other, sometimes rare species of monkeys populate the treetops. 

Equally noteworthy is the diversity of amphibians and reptiles (e.g. Himalayan salamanders, Tylotriton), pit vipers (Trimeresurus), king cobras and monitor lizards, which are similar to the approximately 580 different bird species (e.g. hornbills, Bucerotidae) and Pallas’s fish eagle (Haliaetusleuryphus).

The higher altitudes of Bhutan are also populated by animal species that are typical of this climate zone, but some of which are rare. Yaks and gaurs, various deer species and different types of sheep and goats share the grazing grounds and nibble on the leaves of the low bush vegetation that predominates here.

Other ethnic groups

National parks & nature reserves

The Jigme Dorji National Park, located in the northwest of Bhutan, extends over 4,300 km² from an altitude of 1,400 m above sea level to 7,000 m above sea level and is home to snow leopards, cat bears, takins (budorcas) and blue sheep – an incredible spectrum. The second largest national park, Jigme-Singye-Wangchuck, protects the rare musk deer, ruffed bears and the lesser panda in its 1,300 km² of coniferous and deciduous forests in the temperate climate zone.

Ornithology enthusiasts look forward to sightings of the iridescent satyr tragopan (tragopansatyra), a rare pheasant species that can be found here along with many others. Vultures and cranes of various subspecies also like to spend the winter here. Other national parks include the Royal Manas National Park in the tropical-subtropical climate zone of the south and the Thrumshingla National Park, also located in the temperate climate zone and home to the red panda.

In combination with our Assam travel module, we also recommend a visit to Kaziranga National Park, one of the most important conservation areas for the Bengal tiger, Asian elephants, wild water buffalo and Barasinga deer, for those who are particularly interested in the local wildlife.

Gross­ national­ happiness instead of gross­ domestic­ product


Bhutan is one of the poorer countries in the world in terms of gross domestic product, but is the only country in the world with a Gross National Happiness Index. Economic growth is not a declared political goal, but instead, the nutrition, security and satisfaction of the population, the preservation of cultural values and the protection of the environment are goals. 90% of Bhutan’s population lives from agriculture and animal husbandry: corn, rice, wheat, barley, buckwheat, millet and fruit are grown.

Bhutan’s main export goods include electricity, which is generated in hydroelectric power plants in the west of the country; cement, wood products, alcoholic beverages and fruit also contribute to foreign trade income. Another economic sector is tourism, which has experienced slight growth rates in recent years and whose expansion is also based on the principle of sustainability.