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Religion in Bhutan

prayerflagsonmountainpass.jpgJust as the mighty Himalayas dominate Bhutan, so lies religion at the heart of this kingdom. Bhutan is the only country in the world where Mahayana Buddhism in its tantric form is the official religion, and Druk Yul is therefore often hailed as the last stronghold of Mahayana Buddhism.

prayerwheels.jpgMost of Bhutan was converted to Buddhism in the 8th century by the great saint Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). It was not until the 17th century that the 'Southern Valleys' were united by the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a leader of the Drukpa Kagyupa school in Tibet, into what is known as Bhutan (Druk Yul) today. Drukpas (who are followers of Tantric Buddhism) make up about 65% of Bhutan's population. The other 35% are people of Nepali descent (Lhotsampas), who are predominantly Hindu. They came to Bhutan in the 19th and 20th centuries, mostly settling in the southern foothills to work as farmers.

prayerflagsondochula.jpgThe Bhutanese piety is visible everywhere: in the prayerflags fluttering on hilltops, chortens dotting the hillsides, prayerwheels being turned by the devout, and many religious symbols and drawings in vibrant colors.

Tourists frequently plan their trips around the yearly religious festivals, called tshechus, that are held in honor of Guru Rinpoche throughout the country. The colorful tshechus are celebrated for several days, staging dances that help to educate the people in religious doctrines.

Tibetan Buddhism

The largest school of Buddhism within Bhutan is the Drukpa discipline, a major sect within the Kagyupa school of Tibetan Buddhism. The central monk body that follows the Drukpa Kagyupa is headed by the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) who is chosen from among the most learned lamas and enjoys an equal rank with the King.

The second largest school, and very common in eastern Bhutan, is the Nyingma tradition. “Nyingma” literally means “ancient,” and is often referred to as the “school of the ancient translations” or the “old school” because it founded on the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan, in the eighth century.