Bhutanese architecture is unique, striking and hints at the rich history of the nation. The stone walls of a village house or towering edifices of a dzong are not just beautiful to look at, they are true reflections of the country and its people. Bhutanese architecture is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and is made without nails or iron bars. In fact, most dzongs were made without any written plans or designs.
Thanks to a royal decree passed in 1998, all Bhutanese buildings must follow some traditional rules during construction. Most traditional houses in the west feature rammed earth walls, wooden windows and slanted roofs. They are often decorated with religious symbols or even giant phalluses, a symbol of fertility. In hotter climates, houses are made from thatched bamboo. Travel across Bhutan to experience world-renowned architecture that is still very much alive today.
These mighty fortresses were first constructed by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel for both security and administrative purposes. The angled walls of the dzong are made of stones and dirt. They are white-washed for a uniform appearance. The entrance is one large and fortified door. The utse or center tower is a feature in every dzong. It is usually surrounded by a large and open courtyard where religious festivals are held. You will notice a red band on top of the dzong. This symbolizes that this is a sacred and important building. Although many dzongs have been ravaged by fires over the years, re-construction efforts have restored them to their former glory.
Traditional Bhutanese Houses
Even with modern construction materials available, traditional Bhutanese houses in the western part of the country are made of rammed earth, mud and timber. These houses were usually two or three stories. Livestock would be housed in the lower floors, family and altar room on upper floors and drying spaces for chillies and crops in the attic. In the east, houses made of thick stone slabs are common. Traveling to the warm south, you will find thatched bamboo houses. Bhutanese people like to decorate interiors with religious paintings, wooden crafts and pictures of the royal family.
The temples, monasteries and stupas that dot the landscape of Bhutan are built in the traditional architectural style. Temples follow the same layout and style of dzongs, with white-washed walls and sloping roofs. Monasteries also resemble dzongs in terms of technical design and decorations of intricate religious murals and paintings. Chortens or stupas have a square base, topped with a dome. Like dzongs and lhakhangs, they are made of mud and stone and colored white.
Due to the country’s mountainous topography, you will notice that many places in Bhutan are connected by wooden and metal bridges. Most of these are cantilevered which means that they have no vertical supports but are connected to the ground at the foundation. Constructed over swift moving rivers, these bridges are a lifeline used by pilgrims, tourists and animals. They are often adorned with many prayer flags that flutter in the wind and give the bridges an enchanting look.
Traditional art and music
Traditional Music and Art
Bhutan’s history and culture are intertwined with its art and music. Passed down and transformed from generation to generation, these creative works form a spell-binding mosaic of the nation's spirituality, tradition and nationalism.
Bhutanese music can be classified as folk, literary, lozey, religious, rigsar and B-pop. With an explosion of radio stations, Youtube videos and live performances, it’s safe to say that the Bhutanese music scene is only getting more popular both within the country and internationally.
Bhutanese art is influenced by Tibetan religious paintings and often depicts saints of Vajrayana Buddhism. This type of art adorns the walls of almost every dzong, chorten and monastery that you will visit. Modern art is also gaining popularity and can be appreciated with a visit to contemporary art galleries. There are also 13 famous arts and crafts of Bhutan known collectively as “Zorig Chosum.”
Experiencing Bhutanese art and music during your trip means opening your eyes and ears to the multitudes of perspectives, values and understandings that exist in this small country.
Before the introduction of musical instruments, music in Bhutan were oral tales of love and spirituality. This type of folk music differs from region to region and is still performed at tsechus. This type of music is often accompanied by dancers. Tshechus are also where you can hear the religious music and chants performed by the monastic body.
There are also many types of traditional instruments that are found in Bhutan. These include the dranyen or seven stringed lute, chiwang fiddle, dong lim bamboo flute and chikang mouth organ. Monks often use cymbals and flutes in their religious chants and during mask dance performances.
A greater understanding of Bhutanese music and dance can be found when visiting the Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA). This is a government organization that promotes the preservation of traditional Bhutanese culture. The Academy instructs musicians and dancers in both secular and religious folk music and dance. The Academy showcases live performances of songs and dances from Bhutan's various regions and genres.
Currently the music that you will hear on radio stations or played in restaurants and cafes is B-pop or Bhutanese pop music. This genre is influenced by western music, K-pop and is often accompanied by rap sequences and high quality music videos. The young and innovative B-pop artists have found immense success both in Bhutan and in neighboring regions of India.
Bhutanese art originated to depict scenes and saints represented in Tibetan Buddhism. Deities like Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche and Terton Pema Lingpa are often depicted in murals and paintings found at religious sites. Besides painting, Bhutan’s 13 arts and crafts include sculpture, carving and needle work among others. A visit to the Zorig Chosum Institute is recommended for art lovers.
There is only so much that you can read about Bhutan’s rich culture of art and music. It must be experienced by visiting galleries, museums, monuments and attending live performances. The traditional art and music of the country is carefully preserved but it is also continually evolving to suit the needs and tastes of the modern Bhutanese.
Buddhism in Bhutan
Monks and nuns in maroon robes, colorful prayer flags strung along trees at mountain ridges, and countless white-washed monasteries. It is hard not to notice that religion permeates every aspect of life in Bhutan. A majority of the population practices the Vajrayana or Mahayana branch of Buddhism, which has origins in Tibet.
In Bhutan, monks and nuns follow the teachings of the Kagyu school of Mahayana Buddhism. This involves praying for all living beings to be liberated from suffering. Whatever religion you may personally identify as, you will be enamored by the devotion of Bhutanese people to Buddhism and its teachings.
Before the advent of Buddhism, Bonism was prevalent in Bhutan. This is the worship of animate and inanimate forms of nature. Even today there are remnants of this religion in remote parts of the country. Buddhism was first introduced by the 8th century Tantric master Guru Rinpoche, who propagated the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism.
Another significant figure in the spread of Buddhism in the country is Phojo Drugom Zhigpo who introduced the Drukpa Kagyu sect. His descendants were instrumental in spreading Buddhism to regions of western Bhutan.
However, the greatest contributor to the spread of Buddhism in Bhutan was Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Arriving from Tibet in 1616, he brought various Buddhist schools to the country where they flourished under his domain. Zhabdrung also unified the country as one nation-state and gave it a unique national identity.
Buddhism in Bhutan is not just in rituals conducted once a year or in festivals at dzongs that people go to watch. It is in the morning offerings to the altar room, checking the newspaper for auspicious days to start projects in the afternoon and circumambulating a nearby chorten in the evening. An understanding of this religions' deep roots in the country will give you a better appreciation for Bhutanese architecture, culture and people.
Gross National Happiness
Any visitor to Bhutan will soon become acquainted with the term GNH or ‘Gross National Happiness.” This concept was invented by His Majesty the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s and quickly became known the world over. Bigger and more developed nations were intrigued with the idea of this small Himalayan nation that valued its citizens happiness and well-being over economic growth.
A complex and multi-faceted concept, GNH emphasizes sustainable development. Its four pillars are good governance, sustainable socio economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation. In Bhutan, GNH is not an abstract idea but a policy that influences development and decision-making. An understanding of GNH and how it affects Bhutan will help you understand why this small nation is often associated with happiness.
The concept of Gross National Happiness is based on the idea that true development can only occur when material and spiritual growth happens side by side, as opposed to conventional development models that emphasize just economic growth. The concept of GNH is now being developed and adopted by an array of experts, academics, and organizations around the world.
Effects of the GNH policy can be felt on your trip to Bhutan. For example, the promotion and protection of cultural traditions have been made easier by the high value, low impact tourist policy. This is also seen in the multitude of religious and cultural sites, as well as efforts to encourage local arts and crafts, music and literature. The goal of environmental conservation is seen not just in 71% forest coverage but in the five national parks, four wildlife sanctuaries, nine biological corridors and one nature reserve.
At first, Gross National Happiness may be a difficult concept to wrap your mind around. At its most basic, it is borne from the Buddhist belief that although human desire and greed are limitless, we need very little to be happy. Visit Bhutan to see the principles of GNH in action and judge for yourself whether a country’s sustainable approach to development can result in truly happy citizens.
With exquisite monuments, vivid festivals and unparalleled landscapes, it is no surprise Bhutan is on the bucket list of many photographers. Many cannot wait to capture everything from the charming streets of Thimphu city to enormous century old fortress monasteries known as dzongs.
Those who prefer nature photography have a wealth of options from towering mountains and lush greenery to colourful sunrises and sunsets. The pictures that you have in Bhutan will serve as the perfect testament to the trip of a lifetime.
Under the leadership of His Majesty the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan pioneered the idea of Gross National Happiness. This is reflected in every aspect of the country, especially in the preservation of culture and protection of the environment. This is a boon for photographers as many monuments and traditions from ancient Bhutan have been preserved till today. The dzongs are stunning works of architecture, the scenery is gorgeous, and the Bhutanese culture is vibrant and resilient.
You will rank a trip to Bhutan high on your list of the most unforgettable travel experiences and can leave with photos that make wonderful souvenirs, gifts or additions to your portfolio. Although you can venture out to take pictures alone, guided photography tours will make sure you don’t miss a single click.
These photography tours can be customised to your interests and the regions you want to visit. Guides can single out some of the most picturesque monuments, statues and views for your consideration. Whether it be the local market, giddy schoolchildren or Tigers Nest Monastery- get your cameras ready for the many splendid sights of Bhutan.