Bhutan's Culture & Religion
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An Overview of Bhutan's Culture & Religion

Bhutan's national flag is a white dragon on a diagonally divided background of golden yellow and reddish orange. The yellow represents the secular power of the King, the orange the Buddhist religion. The white of the dragon is associated with purity, and the jewels held in the claws stand for the wealth and perfection of the country. The national emblem is composed of a double diamond thunderbolt placed above a lotus, surmounted by a jewel and framed by two dragons, all contained within a circle. The thunderbolt represents the harmony between secular and religious power resulting from the Vajrayana form of Tibetan Buddhism, the lotus symbolizes purity, the jewel expresses sovereign power and the two dragons, male and female, stand for the name of the country, Drukyul, the land of the thunder dragon.

Bhutan is the only country to maintain Mahayana Buddhism in its Tantric Vajrayana form as the official religion. The main practicing schools are the state sponsored Drukpa Kagyupa and the Nyingmapa. Buddhism transects all strata of society, underpinning multiple aspects of the culture. Indeed, religion is the focal point for the arts, festivals and a considerably above average number of individuals. The presence of so many monasteries, temples and stupas, monks and tulkus (reincarnations of high lamas) is indicative of the overarching role religion plays throughout the nation.

Although the Shabdrung is regarded as the founder of the nation, the secular realm has achieved an unprecedented degree of unity under the influential guidance of a Twentieth Century monarchy. Within a cultural context where the spiritual and temporal spheres are intimately connected, political leadership remains interpreted as divinely determined. The royal family traces its roots to the great Sixteenth Century saint Pema Lingpa, and the present monarch still enjoys a god-like status throughout much of his Kingdom. The Forth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck as the head of state now rules the Kingdom, with the throne retaining its position as the fulcrum of the political system.

Bhutanese art possesses a major Tibetan influence, although it has developed some of its own derivations. It has three main characteristics: it is anonymous, religious and performs no independent aesthetic function. Intricate wall paintings and thangkas (wall hangings), most historical writing and fine sculpted images all have a religious theme. Given their role, these may be interpreted as created by artisans rather than artists, although there exist many extremely fine examples. All are viewed as sacred, and newly commissioned paintings and sculptures are consecrated through a special ceremony whereby they come to personify the respective deities.

Although both Buddhism and the monarchy are critical elements, it is the general extensive perpetuation of tradition that is possibly the most striking aspect of Bhutan's culture. This is most overtly reflected in the nature of dress and architecture. All Bhutanese continue to wear the traditional dress: for men and boys the gho, a long gown hitched up to the knee so that its lower half resembles a skirt, for women and girls the kira, an ankle-length robe somewhat resembling a kimono. Generally colorful apparel, the fabrics used range from simple cotton checks and stripes to the most intricate designs in woven silk.

The Bhutanese architectural landscape is made up of chortens, stonewalls, temples, monasteries, fortresses, mansions and houses. Associated with a number of clear-cut architectural concepts and building types rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, there is a strong association between state, religious and secular forms. What makes it quite unique is the degree of uniformity, with all structures corresponding to traditional designs. Thus ancient monasteries and fortresses appear to merge with more modern popular dwellings to create a setting that is fully internally consistent.

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