Bhutanese society is encapsulated in the tiny communities that
are interspersed throughout the dominant natural environment.
Clusters of evenly styled buildings framed by neat fields nestled
within the rolling forested landscape. Composed farmers, proceeding
undistracted about their business, continue a tough though serene
existence that seems to have changed little over the centuries.
The whole unflustered uncorrupted atmosphere possesses a certain
poise and grace. Bucolic village settings appear located in
an alternative epoch, a halcyon past where a simple holistic
way of life perpetuates within shielded internally consistent
microcosms. There is something intrinsically appealing about
a situation that is both extremely backward and yet essentially
calm, cheerful and devoid of the abject suffering that is often
associated with underdevelopment. It is these circumstances
that can for the modern outsider conjure projected fantasies
of an innocent paradise lost.
Bhutan is one of the least populated countries in South Asia,
with an approximate population of 700,000. Society at large
is located nearer to a stable pre-modern past than to an irresistible
modern future. It remains the accumulated product of a history
of ongoing migrations, as small isolated agrarian communities
established footholds within the inhospitable natural terrain.
The overall national condition therefore possesses numerous
legacies from this recent secluded traditional order. The
population density is the lowest of the Himalayan countries.
85% live in rural areas, the majority concentrated in the
fertile southern and central valleys, while large areas at
higher altitudes are virtually empty except for nomadic herders.
There are three main ethnic groups - the Sharchops of Indo-Mongoloid
origin, the Ngalops of Tibetan origin and the Lhotsams of
Nepali origin - and there remain a few distinct tribal communities.
Bhutanese rural society consists of a dispersed collection
of close-knit village settlements of average size 43 persons.
Distance and livelihood are major factors explaining the
profusion of separate units, and a strong community orientation.
Bhutan's geographical conditions have encouraged whole-scale
separations, both vertically - between the high northern,
broad central and tropical southern belts - and horizontally
- between respective valleys, separated by prohibitively high
passes. Some areas still remain days walk from each other
or the nearest road. Respective villages are essentially self-sufficient
units, living off the limited fertile tracts through integrated
farming systems. Most are sedentary, although there was a
tradition for certain groups to seasonally migrate. Simple
relations were maintained with the regional administrative
and religious headquarters within the dzongs. The further
one goes from these centers however the less the interactions,
and there was little systematic effort on the part of the
state to interfere at all in the activities of more distant
The country is a territorial and social mosaic of distinct
village communities, where physical detachment and self-reliance
has led to a kaleidoscopic localization of social organization
and cultural practices. While loose linkages were certainly
maintained between neighboring villages and districts, the
huge variety of separate dialects, some spoken by only a few
hundred people, indicates that communities were essentially
able to develop independently. There therefore remains both
overt and subtle intercommunity differentiation, demarcating
a few distinct tribal groups and separating neighboring locales
by dialect, specific livelihood, resident deity or indigenous
institution. The people occupying the northern areas of Laya,
Lunana and Lingshi are predominantly yak-herds, in summer
grazing high pastures, in winter descending to more temperate
climates to trade. Trading relations were also maintained
across the border with Tibet. They speak dialects of Dzongkha,
the principal language of the west, which may be barely intelligible
to standard Dzongkha speakers. The Layaps, especially the
women, retain their distinctive dress - predominantly black
yak-hair and sheep wool fabrics and conical bamboo hats.
There is an immense social complexity within the geographically
diverse central valleys. A very rough division can be drawn
along historical and linguistic lines between the western,
central and eastern zones. The peoples of the western regions
share a similar Ngalop tradition and speak Dzongkha. Within
the central regions there are a multitude of peoples and dialects,
mostly associated to the Bumthang language family, closely
related to Tibetan. Eastern Bhutan is lower, has a warmer
climate and is more heavily populated. The majority are Sharchops,
speaking Sharchopkha, a clear language set. There are however
other defined groups, such as the Brokpas, who occupy the
high valleys of Merak and Sakteng. These peoples also sport
a distinctive apparel - women wear a short poncho like dress
and red jackets, men wear leather leggings and woolen trousers,
woolen tunics and leather sleeveless vests, both sexes wear
a peculiar hat of yak felt with long twisted tufts.
The southern belt was previously thinly populated, due to
the mountain people's fear of tropical disease. Over time,
however, there have been significant migrations from north
and south. The progressive arrival of peoples of Nepali descent
gives the area a very varied ethnic and linguistic character.
They are an extremely assorted group, from the plains dwelling
Hindu Bahun-Chhetris and Newaris to the hill people of Mongoloid
stock, including Sherpas, Gurungs, Tamangs, Rais and Limbus.
In Samtse there are certain tribal communities considered
to be aboriginals, notably the Lhopus. Living in extremely
close-knit isolated communities, they maintain their distinct
way of life, which includes the worship of local deities associated
with animism and the marrying of cross cousins.
Individual communities were structured in a way that they
could essentially function independently. Each may be interpreted
as deriving their individual methods, although there are often
marked similarities due to the very comparable situations
encountered. Indigenous local institutions have evolved through
which a village headman is elected, roles and responsibilities
are allocated between sexes and age groups, and mutually beneficial
collective arrangements are promoted. In many cases women
are the heads of the household, the owners of the land and
the economic decision-makers. Male power derives more from
a religious role, which should not be underestimated. Although
there are inevitable gaps between rich and poor, the limited
economic opportunities maintain such discrepancies within
acceptable margins, and the small internal environment means
that inclusive symbiotic relationships remain.
This marked community orientation promotes a common bond,
a distinct localization of outlook and a strong source of
individual identity. Within the larger urban environments
most still associate with their original village and maintain
close links through family, friends and extended livelihood
approaches. The traditional way of life, with its implied
hardships, promotes intimate interrelations and a strong sense
of solidarity, where collective detachment has mitigated internal
dislocations. Attitudes are essentially relaxed, encouraging
friendly exchanges and a very matter-of-fact outlook. This
carries over to sexual practices, most notably "night
hunting", when young men climb through windows to reach
sometimes unsuspecting suitors. Should they be together in
the morning it is assumed that they are married.
Each group has its particular body of stories - amusing anecdotes,
fascinating occurrences and auspicious events. Personal relations
assume heightened importance and command overwhelming interest.
Individual histories are common knowledge, as are private
joys and problems and future plans. Where such information
is currency, there is a marked proliferation of gossip and
rumor. Wonderful storytellers spin fantastic tales; lives
are portrayed in brilliant Technicolor, a fascinating fusion
of fantasy and reality. Although composed on a small canvas,
one is afforded an intricacy of human detail that would otherwise
Distance is a principal feature of Bhutan's contemporary
social circumstance. For much of its history the whole territory
was sheltered from the outside world. Essentially insulated
from modern influences, traditional structures were retained
and allowed to mature within a settled background. Spread
out over inaccessible mountainous terrain, society remained
only very loosely connected, where people existed in miniature
community centered life-worlds. Although the total land area
is relatively small, villages and regions are separated by
hours and days. Travel - on horseback or by foot traversing
high hills and steep valleys on narrow winding tracks - was
a protracted experience, encouraging a very localized perspective
of time and space. However, as the nation becomes integrated,
both externally and internally, underlying contexts are transforming.
Gaps are closing and horizons expanding, as the nation enters
a new era of compression, convergence and modernization.
Essential circumstances have altered and new national imperatives
have become introduced. Bhutan is now committed to development
and change. Although it appears needless, almost destructive,
to disturb well-functioning systems, encounters with modernity
are inexorable. Indeed, reactionary romanticism denies the
many traditional hardships, the host of potential benefits
and the basic inevitability of modernization. Bhutanese society
is now experiencing some fundamental structural changes. Since
the inception of planned development in the early 1960s a
concerted effort has been made to create an enabling environment,
whereby society might undertake the transition to a modern
condition. Although still at a formative stage, the situations
encountered by the majority of the population are becoming
somewhat removed from the stable restricted past.
Associated with the requirement for state regulatory and
development policy interventions, there now exists a more
intimate relationship between a centralized paternalistic
state and society. From informal and detached to formal and
integrated, the institutional environment is gradually becoming
transformed. Social activities are now governed by a blend
of traditional and modern arrangements. The Royal Government
has placed emphasis on human development, most notably in
the fields of physical infrastructure, health and education.
A basic health coverage system has been established, and there
is now universal primary health care. The health status of
the population has improved dramatically, with life expectancy
at 66 years (1999). Modern educational institutions provide
educational opportunities from primary to tertiary level,
with the gross primary enrolment rate estimated at 72% (1999).
Bhutan's total road network measures about 3,200 km, the
main routes consisting of an east-west highway and four north-south
highways, connecting all the districts and the major towns.
However, inhibited by the mountainous terrain, certain regions
and the majority of villages remain unconnected. The country
now has an airport, at Paro in western Bhutan, from where
the national airline, Druk Air, provides regular services
to Delhi, Calcutta, Kathmandu, Dhaka and Bangkok. A basic
telecommunications network has been established, consisting
of telephone, telegraph, telex, fax, e-mail and internet access.
Such advantages are accessible in the main urban centers and
all but a few regional headquarters, and civil wireless facilities
are available in all the dzongkhags. Electricity is now available
in certain areas, with the development of more that 20 hydroelectric
schemes as well as the installation of diesel generators.
39 towns are now electrified and 5% of the population has
access to electricity.
With the introduction of modern technologies and methods,
the economic opportunities are slowly increasing. A new livelihood
division has emerged between traditional and modern sectors.
Whereas traditional agrarian pursuits provide ample employment
possibilities, there are only limited productivity improvements
available. Despite the progress made in the development of
a more efficient modern sector, employment opportunities are
currently limited, predominantly to public service and small-scale
trade, with only 7,000 jobs so far created and around half
of these occupied by expatriates. The overall extent of modernization
is reflected in the rural-urban distribution. Bhutan is one
of the least urbanized countries in the world, with only 15%
of the population living in urban areas. Thimphu is the capital
city, with a population between 30,000 and 40,000. The other
major urban settlements are Gelephu, Phuntsholing and Samdrup
Jongkhar, all in the south, where industrial activity is concentrated.
Towns are developing in all 20 dzongkhag (district) headquarters
and altogether 44 settlements, with a minimum of 500 inhabitants,
have been recognized as urban.