Iron chain bridge Tachogang Lhakhang over the Paro river - Bhutan History Heritage & Culture

Bhutan History, Heritage And Culture With Ruchira Kamboj

Anuradha Goyal: Today, I am going to take you to the small Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan and can’t get a better person to speak about it than our current Ambassador to Bhutan, Ruchira Kamboj Ji. I have been connected to Ruchira Ji for a few years now when she was posted at UNESCO in Paris as India’s permanent representative. I remember we joined in a celebration when Nalanda and Chandigarh were inscribed by UNESCO. She has worked on many sites to be inscribed by UNESCO. Here is our conversation on Bhutan History, Heritage, and Culture. So, Welcome Ruchira Ji!

Ruchira Kamboj: Thank you so much Anuradha. I am equally delighted to be in your program and you are absolutely right. Think we’ve known each other virtually since my UNESCO days which was from 2014-2017. I have always admired your passion and the depth of your knowledge as far as our rich cultural heritage goes. Also feel that every Indian should be very proud of who they are and to which great country and civilization they belong.  You represent that great heritage so beautifully. So, Congratulations, and I am delighted to be in your program.

Bhutan History, Heritage & Culture with Ruchira Kamboj

Watch this video on my conversation with the Indian Ambassador Ruchira Kamboj on Bhutan History, Heritage, and Culture.

Anuradha: Thank you so much! Ruchira Ji, I visited Bhutan about 13 years ago when it was still a Kingdom, yet to go to its first election and I carry a warm memory of it. It is a very mystical place. It is almost like a place, sitting in the folds of the Himalayas and holding many little stories. So, I request you to show us some gems of Bhutan.

Let’s start with my favorite question, how old is Bhutan? How long have people been living in this country and what are some of the oldest things that we can see?

Ancient Attractions

Ruchira: Thank you Anuradha for a very interesting question. I think history is often the best place to start if you want to know something very well. So as far as Bhutan goes, the date 1907 is a very important date. That was when the monarchy was first established with the enrollment of the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan. DrukGyalpo Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck, in 1907, was crowned as the first King of Bhutan.

The temporal and secular administration was consolidated and unified under his majesty. Needless to say, he united the nation, secured ability. Ensured domestic tranquility, and strengthened the friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and British India. So, I suppose, you could say that the seeds of Bhutan as a nation-state were sown in 1907.

These bores fruit a century later when in 2008 Bhutan adopted its constitution and today as we know the country is both monarchy and constitutional democracy. So, that is the history of the nation in a nutshell.

To the second part of your question i.e., what are the oldest things one can see in Bhutan? Just like India, Bhutan or the Dragon Kingdom is a country with an immensely rich cultural heritage and has modernized over time. They ended the isolationism in 1999 and today it is also a modern country. It is a new nation that we see. I certainly hope that you will visit next year.

Bhutanese Architectural Blends

This country despite having one foot forward and very much in sync with the fast-changing times that we live in has also maintained, not only maintained but strengthened its unique identity. So at every nook and corner, you will get to see mesmerizing antique, unique and beautiful Bhutanese architectural blends. This could be exhibited in the form of Dzongs or fortresses, monasteries-for which the country is well known, Chortens or Stupas, Lhakhangs or temples, and of course traditional Bhutanese homes. Let me take one example i.e., Simtokha Dzong, located in Thimphu.

It was Bhutan’s first Dzong built in the 17th century. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi Ji came to Bhutan on a state visit, he gifted to them a beautiful statue of Shabdrung Namgyal. This is a loan from the Government and people of India to the Government and people of Bhutan. This is a statue in a beautiful Dzong, the first Dzong. It is the pride of the Bhutanese. So, it is one tiny example of something very old and very beautiful.

Tiger’s Nest

Taktsang monastery, popularly called Tigers nest. Image courtesy Shutterstock

Then, of course, the famous Taktsang Monastery is popularly known as Tiger’s Nest. I think anyone who comes to Bhutan must visit this beautiful and splendid place. Then, there is the National Museum of Bhutan located in Paro and the Iron Bridge located at Tachogang Lhakhang in Paro. So, these are very old things that you see here that are beautifully managed and maintained by the Bhutanese. They are a must-visit for any Indian tourist visiting or any tourist who is visiting the nation.

Iron chain bridge Tachogang Lhakhang over the Paro river - Bhutan History Heritage & Culture
Iron chain bridge Tachogang Lhakhang over the Paro river. Image courtesy Shutterstock

Then, there is this National Institute for Zorig Chusum which maintains the cultural heritage and legacy of the Thirteen Arts and Crafts of Bhutan. This is located in Thimphu. I must say, this is a beautiful place because it showcases the thirteen traditional arts and crafts of the nation. So, this is to give a small flavor of some of the oldest things that you can see, whether these are Dzongs, Monasteries, Stupas, Temples, or traditional Bhutanese architecture.

Preservation and promotion of Bhutan’s cultural heritage

The constitution of Bhutan also prescribes and accords importance to the preservation and promotion of the nation’s cultural heritage. I find it very fascinating because that gives it an institutional framework. To be very specific, Section 1 of Article 4 in the constitution accords importance to the preservation and promotion of Bhutan’s cultural heritage, cultural life, and objects of artistic value and interest. Not only that, it seeks to promote the tangible and intangible arts with additional components that also include the famous mask dance of the nation. Very quickly to tell you, since this is also one of the oldest things.

Drametse Festival

The mask dance of the Drametse community is a sacred dance performed during the Drametse festival in honor of Guru Padmasambhava, who is regarded as the second Buddha in Bhutan and who is also inscribed by UNESCO in 2008 on the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. I think in a nutshell, these are some of the oldest things that you could see in this beautiful and very unique country. A country with which India has very special relations and any tourist coming here must read a little bit about it’s history and culture.

Masked Buddhist monk at the Drametse festival
Masked Buddhist monk at the Drametse festival, Image Shutterstock

National Museum – Bhutan History, Heritage, and Culture

Anuradha: I remember, visiting the National Museum in Paro. If I am not wrong, it’s built-in a very unique conch shell or Shankha shape and that was what stands out in my memory. To me, Bhutan is something that is very well rooted in its own culture even when it looking at the future and assimilating all that is happening in the World which is something not many countries have. Especially, Asia has managed to do, to stay extremely rooted in their own culture and that is something probably Bhutan can pitch the World.

Clockwise from bottom left - Landscape, National Museum, Dusk Paro, Taktsang Monastery from hill across
Clockwise from bottom left – Landscape, National Museum, dusk Paro, Taktsang Monastery from a hill across

Ruchira:  I think that is an excellent point that you have made and I freely agree with you. Ideally, that’s how one should be because one has to contemporize, one has to live in present but at the same time, it is your root that makes you what you are. This nation does that beautifully and because you talked about the National Museum of Bhutan located in Paro, I think it is a very unique structure and just recently, it has been modernized and has reopened to the public.

India was associated with this project. We supported them in this project and the current version of the national museum is so beautiful and not just the unique structure but the way exhibits have been showcased, are quite beautiful. To every Indian, I would say please visit this museum. It is located in Paro and just as you get off your flight, it is not really far.

Development in the city

Anuradha:  Yes! Paro is such a lovely city. It is just an airport and lanes probably if it has not grown too big.

Ruchira: No. It has! It has. I think you have to come to Bhutan; Paro is a very beautiful city and not just an airport but you get to see a lot of things. There are luxury hotels also. Indian tourists will never be disappointed if he or she decides to make Paro the base.

India and Bhutan relationship

Anuradha: Let’s talk about India and Bhutan relationship. I mean, we know that we share a very strong neighborhood and as well as a cultural relationship with Bhutan. But how old is it? When did it actually start? Was it ever a part of larger Indian territory or it has always been independent?

Ruchira:  Bhutan has always been independent and that is what it remains to date. It is a very dear and close friend of India. The two countries have cooperated over the years, over the decades in diverse sectors. I think, today our relationship stands at a point where it is an example to the rest of the world in terms of how two neighbors are living together in harmony and close friendship and cooperating for the benefits of each other. It was in the late 1950s when the first Prime Minister of India had traveled to Bhutan. That was a historic visit, half on foot and half by traveling on a yak when was received by his majesty, the third king of Bhutan. That visit led to the framework of the relationship as we see today.

Growing relationship

Over the years, this relationship has grown, it has been nurtured by the Vise Druk Gyalpo of Bhutan, the monarchy of Bhutan, and also by successive leaders from India. Since 2014, the relationship has been on a sharp upward trajectory. Prime Minister Narendra Modi Ji had visited Bhutan in 2014. This was the first foreign visit after he assumed his office. Again, in 2019 he almost repeated that when Bhutan was among his very first foreign visits abroad. So, I think a signal from Prime Minister at the topmost level sends such a powerful message and that is a statement in itself. The importance that India attaches to the relationship with Bhutan.

Likewise, from Bhutan’s end, the spirit has been reciprocated because, in 2018, the Prime Minister of Bhutan Dr. Lotay Tshering also visited India, his first foreign visit immediately after he assumed office. Then, if you look at various levels of any relationship i.e., political, economic, cultural, people to people, science and technology, financial technology integration, etc. this relationship has grown. Today, it is such a place where we can absolutely say that Bhutan is a very dear friend and partner of India.

There are absolute faith and trust in the relationship. Importantly, people-to-people contacts are very rich and special. You have a large number of Bhutanese students studying in India and that is the maximum no. of Bhutanese students are in India. Even, as the nation has grown over the years and many of its youth also study in other countries but India still remains the preferred destination.

Spirituality and Wellness in Bhutan

Anuradha: What about spirituality? It is a primarily Buddhist country and the eastern part of India is where Buddhism was born and Gautam Buddha spiritualties that India and Bhutan share.

Ruchira: I think, what really links these two countries is this important bond – Spirituality. Everyone knows the story of Siddhartha Gautam. Buddhism traveled from India, also to Bhutan. Importantly, everyone would also know the story about the second Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava as he is known. So, very quickly let me say that Guru Padmasambhava was an Indian saint, popularly referred to as Guru Rinpoche in this nation. It is widely believed that he was born in a lotus blossom, floating in lake Dhanakosha, in the kingdom of Oddiyana.

Guru Rinpoche

In the 8th century, out of the many places that the Guru Rinpoche visited, Bhutan is the most important place visited by him. In modern times, let me tell you that Guru Rinpoche is regarded as one of the patron saints of Bhutan. He has a huge impact on the lives of Bhutanese people from the time they are born till the time of their death. Therefore, this linkage between the people of India and Bhutan is so very special. Because not only you have Siddharth Gautam Buddha but you also have the second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche who was born in India traveled to Bhutan and today he is one of the greatest names that you will hear in this nation.

His statue can be found in many homes and monasteries and from the first year’s toddlers’ model to grand state festivals, from fleeting dreams of hornets to formidable public monuments. Guru Rinpoche forms a focus of Bhutanese spirituality and religious culture.

Padmasambhava of Oddiyana

In 2018, we have done an excellent project here in the embassy. We wrote out a book titled, “Padmasambhava of Oddiyana” and we had translated this from English to Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan and it was launched on 9th January at the Royal University of Bhutan. I have distributed this book in Dzongkha to my Bhutanese friends and colleagues and to the best of my knowledge, they really appreciated this book that serves to highlight the great spiritual linkage we have between our countries.

Spiritual

Anuradha: Yes. What I remember of Bhutan, I remember it as a very spiritual space. You can see people moving around with a prayer wheel in their hands which is continuously being rotating. Almost everywhere you go, whether it is a hotel or a temple, or a monastery you always have a prayer wheel. I remember one place where I saw the prayer wheel is moved by water.

Ruchira: Yes! We have one in our embassy. It is so beautiful; the wheel being moved by water. Absolutely right! I think it is ubiquitous. Actually, spirituality is in the air. Tell your listeners that tourism in Bhutan is not the usual tourism you do. When you see monuments and take pictures in front, that’s also beautiful and you must do that wherever you go but this is a country to be experienced. It is in the air that you get to feel it when you go to the monasteries as Anuradha is saying; spend a minute there, don’t be in a rush. It is a special kind of tourism.

Monastery visit

Anuradha: In fact, Bhutan is the first place where I actually entered inside a monastery. I think it is on the outskirts of Thimphu. I just walked in and they invited me in and offered me butter tea there. We had a conversation and I spoke with a lot of lamas in whatever language we could. It is an experience that stays with me because that was the first time I entered inside a monastery and saw how it looks like from inside. More than the physical beauty, it is the spiritual energy that you absorb in that place.

Another important thing that I noticed; is the Bhutanese textile. I remember, I saw a loom in almost every home or shop. And you know, it is a small country. There are not many cloth shops but there is a textile museum, which means they very much value their textile tradition, and when you go into that museum, even though it’s a small museum; it showcases the textile tradition so beautifully.

Textile and Tradition – Bhutan History, Heritage, and Culture

Ruchira: I would agree with you. Let me congratulate you. Your knowledge of Bhutan is already quite deep. You are absolutely right. Firstly, the fact that you mentioned; it is a common side of this country to see every home with a handloom. Every region has its own weaving traditions and designs. But the Lhuntse region; the eastern region of the nation, which also happens to be the ancestral home of the royal family; is perhaps the most renowned when it comes to textiles and weaving. Bhutanese textiles represent a very rich and complex repository of a complete art form.

Do you know what is unique about it? The abundance of color, the variation of the pattern, and also the intricate dyeing and weaving techniques. I think they are absolutely smashing, their weaves and colors. Just like India, we are a country with such vibrant colors. Weavers are mostly women. They are so innovative and their artistic skills are so highly developed as they have been nurtured over the centuries of time. It is such a pleasure to witness or even purchase something from them.

Weaving

Anuradha: If I remember correctly, I was told that most people weave their own clothes. So, they would weave and wear it. Therefore, there would be no real trade and commerce. It is not really woven for business; it’s woven more to wear yourself.

Ruchira: You’re absolutely right. But with a little change, of course, you are right that the earlier textiles were woven out of fabrics and incidentally, those were obtained from the nettle grass and animal hair; especially of yak and sheep. As you can imagine with time and modernization and with the introduction of synthetic fabric; in the market, people largely chose these synthetic products. As it happens in India too because the other one in older times; was a long and laborious process.

However, interesting to say how the wheel to time moves. As people become more health-conscious, they prefer organic dyes and fabrics over synthetic ones. So, the age-old practice of Bhutanese textile is still in vogue. So, I think that is so beautiful and it is a part of their rich culture and tradition.

Khadi & Thaqzo

Last year I did something very interesting here with the Royal Textile Academy. The chairman of the Khadi and village industries commission and the fashion design council of India together with the Royal Textile Academy, did a fashion show actually, choosing Khadi and Thagzo. Bringing in models from India and Bhutan to showcase both Khadi and Thagzo because it coincided with the birth of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. It was such a wonderful event and it is woven both Khadi and Thagzo.

So, you had both Indian models and Bhutanese models wearing Khadi creations and half of it was Thagzo. It was a beautiful show; something we won’t forget for a long time. Her Majesty, Royal Queen mother Jigme Singye Wangchuck had graced that event.

Anuradha: And she speaks very beautifully. I heard her speaking at the Jaipur literature festival.

Ruchira: Yes. She extended her royal patronage to this event also. So, we were blessed and very fortunate. I think this is something that when your listeners come to Bhutan as in when and if they do, they should visit the Royal Textile Academies.

Festivals – Bhutan History, Heritage, and Culture

Anuradha: Yes. They should. Tell us about a couple of important festivals of Bhutan and also your personal experience of living in this Himalayan nation, coming from one of the most populated countries to living in one of the tiniest countries in the world.

Ruchira: Okay. Good question. As far as my experience goes, I feel very privileged and honored to be the current ambassador of Bhutan. For rest, I’ve already told you; it’s a very unique special relationship that has grown over the years. It is such an immense honor to be the Indian ambassador in Bhutan. I think, one thing I can say straight away is that when you come here from India, what strikes you immediately is; how beautifully small. So, that is the first thing that struck me.

And then what struck me was, the Bhutanese people are very disciplined people and also very unified people. They are very soft people and they are very friendly people. I think Anuradha, you would’ve experienced all these by yourself!

Anuradha: Yes. I came pretty much into the pre-mobile phone and pre-internet era, so it was even warmer. I mean there were a lot of surprises. Today, you can see a lot of pictures before you go but I had no idea what it looks like when I landed there. And I drove via road.

Landscape view of the Himalayas, Bhutan
Landscape view of the Himalayas

Spirituality is in the air

Ruchira: This time you must fly in; because you have the beautiful landing at Paro airport. One more thing about Bhutanese people that struck me, coming from a country such as ours is how spiritual they are. Religion plays a very important part in their lives. I think, what really stays with me forever is; how disciplined and unified they are and how beautifully culture unites the whole nation. They have a very enlightened monarchy and at the same time, it is a very pro-service and pro-people monarchy. So, it is a beautiful model, it is a beautiful country to witness and to be in. I know I don’t need to tell you to visit as India sends lots of tourists to Bhutan.

Anuradha: I do remember people saying they were very happy with the king. They were very happy; they did not yet understand what democracy is. And how is it going to change their world? They had no idea but they were all very happy for the king. And I think, somewhere they were always blessing the king.

Special Cuisines

Ruchira: You’re absolutely spot on. I don’t think, I need to add anything beyond this and that remains the case today also. As far as the festivals, there is one thing that I can add is; they have very tasty cuisine also. Something we Indians can also identify. So, the national dish is Ema Datshi, the chilly cheese. It is very delicious when eaten with rice. I think many Indians would love that.

Agricultural products

They grow a lot of rice, they grow a lot of maize and some of the traditional grains, which is called the nine basic crops of Drunagu; rice, wheat, barley, peas, millet, mustard, and soybeans. You find many restaurants here serving Bhutanese cuisine and also international cuisine. As Anuradha mentioned herself that there is a very special butter tea or Suja; as they call it. It is really worth trying at least once, if not several times. As far as their music and festivals, they have mask dances, they have a lot of traditional songs and dances. It is really beautiful. I myself have participated as an ambassador in some community dances and I greatly enjoyed it. So, do that if you come.

Anuradha: I didn’t visit at the time of festivals but I was reading my own blog that I had written way back into 2007 before I started this conversation and I remember I’ve written that the best Pizza that I’ve ever had in my life was in Thimphu.

Ruchira: I will second you on this. The best pizza I’ve had here is in a restaurant called Cloud9, delicious and fresh because everything is so organic there. One more thing I just want to add is; Sports. Sports are part of the cultural landscape of a country. So, Bhutan’s national sport is Archery. Did you know that?

Anuradha: Yes. I’ve seen them practicing there.

Archery: National Sport

Ruchira: Yes! That’s very entertaining to watch. It is very passionate. They also have Dart or Kuru which is part of their traditional culture but at the same time as I said; one foot forward also, modern sports such as football, golf, tennis, badminton, volleyball, and cricket are also encouraged. I am happy to say they have a Women’s cricket team. So, you know; it is a very unique and beautiful country that has one foot forward but one foot very firmly rooted, as you yourself said.

Anuradha: As our Indian tradition says that the more rooted you are, the more you flourish. And Bhutan is a living example of it.

Ruchira: Outstanding example!

Anuradha: Also, the way they wear their culture on their sleeve; they are not shy of their own culture, their own religion. They are proud of it and they wear it.

National Wear – Bhutan History, Heritage, and Culture

Ruchira: Probably, we are running out of time but we didn’t even touch on their national dress; which is so beautiful. As there are pictures and you’ve seen them Anuradha; when you came here. So, women wear this beautiful long skirt called ‘Kera’ and on top, they wear a short smart jacket called ‘Toego’. They all look so lovely and nice. Men wear ‘Gho’ and they also look dashing and debonair. They wear it on all public events and formal occasions.

I think that is so nice and it’s pretty much like we Indian women wear Saree on occasions, which is very much a part of our beautiful heritage. Also, on a day-to-day basis, Indian women wear Salwar Kurta in the workplace. So, we also wear our heritage to workplaces because as Anuradha put it so beautifully; “You go nowhere if you don’t respect your culture and tradition.”

Respect culture

Anuradha: If you want the world to respect your culture, you have to first respect it yourself.

Ruchira: Absolutely. I think this nation is a shining example of that; as India. Do you wear a Saree normally or Salwar Kurta more often?

Anuradha: I, now wear Saree for all formal events. But when I am traveling, it is more of comfort; depending on where you are.

Ruchira: Yes. I think, Salwar kurta is a very good halfway point between formal dress and yet not wearing western attire.

Anuradha: Yes. Ruchira Ji, thank you so much for taking us on a tour of Bhutan, both in a temporal way; from its history to current date, and also taking us across various sites and sounds of the nation. I hope you will come back for other episodes on some other aspects of Bhutan or wherever you go in your next assignments.

Ruchira: Well, if your viewers will have me and if they haven’t got too bored, certainly.

Anuradha: Definitely. Thank you so much.

This post on Bhutan History, Heritage, And Culture has been edited from the original podcast for the purpose of online publication.

Transcription by Anshika Garg as part of IndiTales Internship Program.



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