The story of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) flying on a tigress to the present location of Taktsang monastery in Paro may sound inconceivable to western ears but that is the belief and grandeur of Taktshang, one of the most famous and revered monasteries in Bhutan.

The monastery was built around the Taktshang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated. Today, Taktshang is on the must-visit list of most Bhutanese and tourists alike. The early history of Bhutan is imbued with mythology and Buddhist traditions. From the origin of the country’s name “Druk” to the socio-cultural practices, Bhutanese history is closely knitted with myths, legends, and the advent of Buddhism.

Unlike other countries, Bhutan’s written history is fairly new. According to “The History of Bhutan” by Dr Karma Phuntsho, Bhutan’s social and political history until about the middle of the 17th century is very scarce and is largely based on scattered folklore and oral narratives. In contrast, religious history is well-documented, mostly in the form of hagiographies, spiritual narratives, study records, guidebooks, and catalogues. The early history of Bhutan, therefore, talks about personalities and happenings that sound more mythical than real.

Much of the written accounts of the early history of Bhutan is linked with the history of Buddhism in Bhutan. The story of King Sindharāja (Chakhar Gyalpo) who invited Guru Rinpoche under critical circumstances and the events that followed unfolds a fascinating story of faith, devotion, and spiritual accomplishments. The arrival of Guru Rinpoche heralds the advent of Buddhism in Bhutan. The accounts of Guru Rinpoche’s legendary life are documented in his biography known as Kathang.

Guru Rinpoche travelled all over Bhutan and established many sacred sites and pilgrimage centers. The most famous among the many are Taktshang in Paro and Singye Dzong in Kurtoe (Lhuentse). Guru Rinpoche’s visit to Bhutan in the 8th century forms a major milestone in Bhutanese history. Between 11th and 17th centuries Bhutan witnessed the visit of several eminent Tibetan Buddhist masters. The most noteworthy is Phajo Drugom Zhigpo’s visit in 1224. He laid the foundation of the Drukpa Kagyu tradition in Bhutan. This was followed by the prophetic arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1616. The Zhabdrung consolidated the country under one rule and established a theocratic form of government, ushering in a system of governance that evolved into the present government system. The life and work of all these highly esteemed personalities exhibited miraculous deeds and awe-inspiring accomplishments that transcend beyond ordinary comprehension.

The strong Buddhist traditions and beliefs that founded the social and cultural practices of the people explain the relevance of the Buddhist view of the environment in Bhutan. The Bhutanese people and their surrounding environment share a harmonious relationship guided by the wisdom of its ancient belief systems. During the pre-Buddhist era, nature was perceived as a powerful entity, not to be messed with. Mountains, lakes, and cliffs were seen as formidable sites while forests and rivers were believed to be abodes of non-human spirits. Out of fear and awe, people respected nature and stayed away from much of it. They appeased nature by worshipping or pleasing the non-human spirits in it.  With the advent of Buddhism, people’s perception of nature changed but the belief system of the pre-Buddhist period was not totally abandoned. It transitioned people’s outlook on nature from a formidable malevolent force to a wholesome habitat. Buddhism imbued nature with sanctity and gave it a venerable place.  Buddhism also propagated enlightened outlooks such as the interdependence, causality, and impermanence of all phenomena and moral values including non-harming, loving-kindness, compassion, tolerance, and harmony. The Buddhist worldview and moral values have since been the main driving force behind people’s interaction with the nature.

Conservation in the modern sense was perhaps conceived in 1838 during the British political mission to Bhutan.  The mission led by Captain Pemberton in December 1837 coincided with the turbulent phase of the 36th Desi Chhoki Gyaltshen’s temporal rule. Captain Pemberton’s team was accompanied by Dr. William Griffith, the team’s medical officer and botanist. It is interesting to note that the British political missions always included a medical officer and a botanist or a naturalist in their team. Dr. Griffith’s description of Bhutan’s forests, vegetation, and listing of plants along the way provided the first record of Bhutan’s biodiversity.  It also paved the way for future explorations through the next century culminating in the joint publication of the Flora of Bhutan by the Royal Government of Bhutan and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The publication marked the first scientific study and documentation of the country’s plant diversity.

The later part of the twentieth century marked the evolution of conservation in Bhutan. The forests of Bhutan exhibiting a wide range of altitudinal variation from subtropical forests at 100m to the alpine meadows reaching as high as 4000m harbouring a complex mosaic of ecosystems and lifeforms were recognized and needed to be conserved. The idea of setting up protected areas was thus born, and wildlife surveys and research commenced. Today, 51% of the country’s geographical area constitutes the protected areas in the form of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and nature reserves connected by biological corridors. The most recent development further augmenting this approach is the High Conservation Value (HCV)  initiative. With the objective of maintaining the integrity and vitality of critical ecosystems and sacred sites outside the protected areas, the initiative is yet another stride in Bhutan’s conservation journey.

If we examine the different facets of Bhutanese history, the central cord that holds them all together is the affinity with nature. The influence of Buddhism and Buddhist traditions throughout the ages has helped Bhutan maintain most of its natural environment in its entirety. Bhutan’s spiritual ecology is rooted in the age-old belief system and is embedded in the Bhutanese psyche. The belief that certain mountains, rocks, and lakes are the abode of local spirits, gods, and goddesses is still prevalent. Khenpo Phuntsho Tashi in his book “Arts and Culture of Bhutan” explains that there are many purification prayers and rituals performed to appease the gods and goddesses of specific locations or special landmarks. The purification prayer “Riwo Sangchoe” for instance, is a mountain purification prayer. The practice of Rija and Lungja system in some parts of eastern Bhutan that prohibit people from climbing certain hills or entering dense forests during summer time helps guard the nature against contamination through anthropogenic greed and destruction. From a scientific perspective, it helps protect wildlife, trees, rocks, soils, and water within the landscape and supports the rejuvenation of nature.  There is also the practice of planting trees near water sources in preference to building concrete structures to tap water for fear of contaminating the purity of water and water goddesses. There is a belief that if realized Buddhist masters perform rituals at the site of water sources and build a lubum, the water spirits residing in the site will generate abundant water.

The last two decades saw conservation in Bhutan evolve and diversify. When Bhutan undertook the first tiger survey in the 1990s, sign survey and local community interviews were the only available tools. The last nationwide tiger survey carried out between 2014 and 2015 used camera traps. The findings revealed Bhutan’s tiger population estimate to be 103, an increase of 23 individuals from the earlier record.

Recently, Bhutan has advanced in using environmental DNA techniques for surveying and monitoring biodiversity. There is no doubt that Bhutan must keep pace with the advancement of science and technology and adopt the best possible conservation tools. At the same time, it is also important to keep the ancient belief systems alive.

Like the proverbial saying “Old is gold” Bhutan’s cultural traditions and belief systems should continue to prevail and synergize with the modern conservation outlook. The harmonious blend between the two would trademark Bhutan’s approach to conservation with the virtue of ancient wisdom and the vigour of modern science.

Contributed by

Tandin Wangdi