GEOGRAPHY OF BHUTAN
Wedged between Tibet (China) to the north, the Indian states Bengal and Assam to the south, the Indian state of Arunchal Pradesh to the east east and Sikkim to the west, Bhutan is a is a small, landlocked, Himalayan kingdom, covering 38,394 square kilometers (14,824 square miles). It used to be listed as beong 47,182 square kilometers (18,217 square miles) in size. Bhutan is roughly the same size and shape as Switzerland, has an area one-third the size of Nepal and is slightly larger than Maryland; or half the size of Indiana. Its geographic coordinates are 27 28 N, 89 38 E and 27 30 N, 90 30 E.
Situated in the eastern Himalayas in the northeast part of South Asia and the northwest part of Southeast Asia, Bhutan has land boundaries of 1,136 kilometers with a 477 kilometers border with China and a 659 kilometer border with India. Sikkim, an eighty-eight-kilometer-wide territory, divides Bhutan from Nepal, while West Bengal separates Bhutan from Bangladesh by only sixty kilometers
The longest distance in Bhutan from east to west is 306 kilometers (190 miles); from north to south is 145 kilometers (90 miles). The northern part of the country — dominated by the Himalayas — is extremely mountainous. The central part of Bhutan has fertile valleys and arable land. Southern and eastern Bhutan contain densely forested foothills. Each region has a different climate. The mountainous northern regions is cold with frequent snowfall. Central Bhutan's climate is more temperate, with warm summers, cold winters, and moderate rainfall. The southern and eastern regions of the country are warm and humid and sometimes have heavy rainfall.
Like nearby Nepal, Bhutan consists of three major regions: 1) a strip of rain forested plains with tigers and elephants in the south, which are an extension of the fertile north Indian plain; 2) Inner Himalayan valleys and ranges in the middle; and 3) massive glacier-encrusted Himalayan peaks in the north. Bhutan has no territories or dependencies. It is strategically located between China and India and controls several key Himalayan mountain passes.
Land Use in Bhutan
Land use (2011 estimate): agricultural land: 13.6 percent; permanent crops: 0.3 percent; permanent pasture: 10.7 percent. Most of the farmable land is in the fertile valleys.
arable land: 2.6 percent (compared to 1 percent in Saudi Arabia, 20 percent in the United States, and 32 percent in France). Most of this arable land is in river valleys between the Himalayan spurs or in the forested hills and flatter areas of the south..
forest: 85.5 percent.
other: 0.9 percent.
Irrigated land: 320 square kilometers (2012)
total area of Bhutan: 38,394 square kilometers, compared with other countries in the world: 137
[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
In the mid-1980s, about 70 percent of Bhutan was covered with forests; 10 percent was covered with year-round snow and glaciers; nearly 6 percent was permanently cultivated or used for human habitation; another 3 percent was used for shifting cultivation (tsheri), a practice banned by the government; and 5 percent was used as meadows and pastures. The rest of the land was either barren rocky areas or scrubland. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: The perpetually snow-covered Great Himalayas are uninhabited, except for some Buddhist monks in scattered monasteries. Bhutan is drained by several rivers rising in the Himalayas and flowing into India. Thunderstorms and torrential rains are common; rainfall averages from 200 to 250 in. (508-635 centimeters) on the southern plains. The valleys, especially the Paro, are intensively cultivated. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed, Columbia University Press]
Topography of Bhutan
Early British visitors to Bhutan reported "dark and steep glens, and the high tops of mountains lost in the clouds, constitut [ing] altogether a scene of extraordinary magnificence and sublimity." One of the most rugged mountain terrains in the world, it has elevations ranging from 160 meters to more than 7,000 meters above sea level, in some cases within distances of less than 100 kilometers of each other. Bhutan's highest peaks are close to the border with China. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Bhutan is situated on the Indo-Australian Tectonic Plate. Land rises from 200 meters in the southern foothills to 7,000 meters in the high northern mountains. The terrain is mostly mountainous with some fertile valleys and savanna and a lot of forested hills and mountains.The highest point is the main peak of Gangkar Puensum 7,570 meters (24,836 feet). Kula Kangri (7,554 meters, 24,784 feet) is another high mountain, close to the border with China. Chomo Lhari, overlooking the Chumbi Valley in the west, is 7,314 meters (23,996 feet) high. Nineteen other peaks exceed 7,000 meters. The lowest point is the Drangme Chhu (River) (97 meters, 318 feet). The mean elevation of the entire country is 2,220 meters.
Bhutan is situated between the Assam Plain of India and the crest of the Himalayas. Great mountain ranges run north and south, dividing the country into forested valleys with some pastureland. The land rises from near sea less to almost 7,620 meters (24,000 feet) in less than 110 kilometers (70 miles) as one moves from south to north. For a long time there was no accurate list of mountain peaks or place names. Remote locations were kept closed off from foreigners until a road was constructed from the Indian frontier in the 1960s,.
All of Bhutan is mountainous except for narrow strips of land at the southern border where the Duars Plain, the lowlands of the Brahmaputra River, extend northward over the border with India. The rest of Bhutan can be divided into two mountain regions: the Lesser, or Inner, Himalayas, which rise from the Duars Plains through the central part of the country, and the Great Himalayas, with its snow-capped peaks, barren landscapes and glaciers, in the far north. Bhutan has some extremely high places and irregular, often precipitous terrain. Elevation generally increases from south to north. The mountains are a series of parallel north-south ranges. Great spurs of the Himalayas extend south from the main chain along the eastern and western borders. Much of the Inner Himalayas area is comprised mainly of ranges of steep hills separated by narrow valleys. Bhutan is drained by many rivers flowing south between these ranges, most of which ultimately flow into the Brahmaputra River in India. [Sources: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Regions of Bhutan
Like nearby Nepal, Bhutan consists of three major regions: 1) the southern zone, which has low foothills that are covered with dense tropical forests and small strip of rain forested plains with tigers and elephants; 2) central zone, or the Inner Himalaya, comprised of spurs of Himalayas which include fertile valleys at altitudes that range from 1,060 to 3,050 meters 3,500 to 10,000 feet); and 3) and the northern zone, which is dominated by massive glacier-encrusted Himalayan peaks and contains high valleys. This region varies in heights from 3,350 to 7,600 meters (11,000 to 25,000 feet) and borders Tibet (China).
The Himalayas run east to west and act as a rain barrier. On the southern side of the Himalayas are tropical rainforest and lush vegetation and farmland that produces oranges and bananas. On the northern side is the desolate and barren landscape of Tibetan plateau, where only yaks and hearty people roam. On the upper slopes where rain is sufficient are pines forests. On the lower slopes are deciduous and rhododendron forests. The largest percentage of the population lives in the central zone. The federal capital of Thimphu is located along the river of the same name in this section of the country.
In the south is a narrow strip of lowland known as the Duars Plain. This area receives between 500 centimeters and 760 centimeters (200-300 inches) of rain a year. It is covered with dense subtropical forests and hot, humid tropical rain forests. The southern rain forest area was once thinly populated by a few tribal groups. But after the problem of malaria there was dealt with relatively large numbers of Nepalese began settling there. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]
North of the Duars Plain is the Inner Himalaya, a region of mountain spurs that reach southwards from the main Himalayan Range. Between these spurs lie fertile valleys at elevations between 1,500 meters and 2,700 meters (5,000-9,000 feet). With a relatively moderate climate, these valleys support agriculture and relatively dense populations. The valley around Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, lies here in the foot hills of the Himalayas. The majority of Bhutan’s population lives in central — Inner Himalaya — region. Arable land is of a premium and climbing up the sides of the hills and mountains are rows of cultivated terraces. *\
In the northern Bhutan, along the Tibetan border, are the main ranges of the Great Himalaya. There are more than 20 peaks over 7,000 meters (22,965 feet)..In the highlands, people have traditionally settled in the mountain valleys where there is a steady source of water from melting glaciers and the rich alluvial soil in the flood plains. Below the high peaks are alpine meadows used for grazing yaks in the summer months As the population has increased people have settled on the slopes of mountains, where the soil is less fertile and built terraces to keep soil from being washed away. *\
The Himalayas as most everyone knows are the highest mountains in the world, with 30 peaks over 24,000 feet. The highest mountains in Europe, North and South America barely top 20,000 feet. The word Himalaya is Sanskrit for "abode of the snow" and a Himal is a massif of mountains. Technically Himalaya is the plural of Himal and there should be no such word as Himalayas.
The Himalayas stretch for 1,500 miles from eastern Tibet and China to a point where India, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan all come together. The mountain kingdoms of Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal are all contained within the range. The southern side of the Himalayas are like a huge climatic wall. During the summer monsoon winds push massive rain clouds against the mountains squeezing out rain onto some of the wettest places on earth. On the leeward, rain-blocked side of the range, on the Tibetan plateau, are some of the driest and most barren places on the planet.
The Himalaya-Karakoram range contains nine of the world's top ten highest peaks and 96 of the world's 109 peaks over 24,000 feet. If the Karakorum, Pamir, Tian Shan and Hindu Kush ranges and Tibet — which are extensions of the Himalayas into Pakistan, China, Afghanistan and Central Asia — are including in the Himalayas then the 66 highest mountains in the world are in the Himalayas. The 67th highest is Aconcagua in Argentina and Chile
Several of the greatest rivers in the world — the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers — originate in either the Himalayas or the Tibetan plateau. Some people live in valleys nestled between Himalayan ridges but few people actually live on the slopes of the mountains.
See Separate Article HIMALAYAS factsanddetails.com
Himalayas in Bhutan
In the north, the snowcapped Great Himalayan Range reaches heights of over 7,500 meters (24,606 feet) above sea level and extends along the Bhutan-China border. The northern region consists of an arc of glaciated mountain peaks with an arctic climate at the highest elevations. Watered by snow-fed rivers, alpine valleys in this region provide pasturage for livestock tended by a sparse population of migratory yak herders and shepherds. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]
In Bhutan one rarely sees the Himalayas. Intervening ridges block the view and when one makes it to the top a ridge clouds often mask the majestic peaks. The mountains of Bhutan feature dramatic differences in elevation. The Great Himalayas run along the Tibetan border and stretching across Bhutan in a belt about 16 kilometers (10 miles) wide. The Great Himalayas have an arctic climate in their highest areas and are many places permanently covered with snow, ice or glaciers. Valleys at elevations of 3,700 to 5,500 meters (12,000 to 18,000 feet) lie at the bottom of the slopes and glaciers. At lower elevations, yaks graze in pastureland during the summer months. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, The Gale Group, Inc., 2003; “Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia”; The Gale Group Inc., 2003]
Several strategically important passes in the Himalayas lie at the top of trade routes that extend upwards from major river valleys of Bhutan. The passes used to be part of important Tibetan trade routes and served as escape routes for Tibetans fleeing the Chinese. Bhutan stopped trading with Tibet in 1953 after China took control of the region. Since then the passes have lost their importance and Bhutanese authorities now eye them with concern as potential invasion routes for Chinese forces. The main passes range in elevation from approximately 4,572 meters (15,000 feet) to more than 6,096 meters (20,000 feet) and are traversed with the help of pack animals or porters. There are three primary passes. The main one serves routes leading from Paro in Bhutan across the northwestern frontier into the Chumbi Valley, which projects southwards from the Tibetan plateau between Sikkim and Bhutan. Other important passes include ones that lead across the mountain spurs of the Inner Himalayan Range. Tashigang in eastern Bhutan and Paro in the west are connected by the country's main road, which crosses a series of valleys and ridges.
Among the highest peaks in Bhutanese Himalayas are 1) Gangkhar Puensum (7,570 meters, 24,840 feet); 2) Liankang Kangri (7,535 meters, 24,721 feet), two kilometers from Gangkhar Puensum; 3) Kula Kangri (7,554 meters, 24,784 feet), north of Gasa Dzong; and 4) picturesque Chomo Lhari (7,314 meters (23,997 feet), the country's most famous peak, towers over the Chumbi Valley northwest of Punakha. Glaciers in northern Bhutan cover about 10 percent of the total surface area there. They are an important renewable source of water for Bhutan's rivers. Fed by fresh snow each winter and slow melting in the summer, the glaciers bring millions of liters of fresh water to Bhutan and downriver areas each year. Glacial melt added to monsoon-swollen rivers, however, also contributes to flooding and potential disaster.
Gangkhar Puensum (7,570 meters, 24,840 feet) is the highest mountains in Bhutan and the highest unclimbed peak in the world. It is in Bhutan, on or near the border with Tibet (China). In Bhutan, the climbing of mountains higher than 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) has been prohibited since 1994 based on local beliefs that they are sacred homes of protective deities and spirits. A lack of high-altitude rescue services is also a consideration. The prohibition was further expanded in 2003 when mountaineering of any kind was disallowed entirely within Bhutan. Gangkar Punsu is likely to remain unclimbed unless the government of Bhutan changes its policy [Source: Wikipedia]
Inner Himalayas of Bhutan
The Inner Himalayas are southward spurs of the Great Himayalan Range. The Black Mountains, in central Bhutan, form a watershed between two major river systems, the Mo Chhu and the Drangme Chhu (chhu means river). Peaks in the Black Mountains range between 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) and 2,700 meters (8,858 feet) above sea level, and the fast-flowing rivers have carved out spectacular gorges in the lower mountain areas. The woodlands of the central region provide most of Bhutan's valuable forest production. Eastern Bhutan is divided by another southward spur, the Donga Range. Western Bhutan has fertile, cultivated valleys and terraced river basins. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The Inner Himalayas is comprised of foot hills, ranges and spurs of the Himalayas interspersed with valleys, like the ones around Thimphu and Paro. The majority of Bhutan’s population lives in this region. Arable land is of a premium and climbing up the sides of the hills and mountains are rows of terraces which climb thousands of feet into the air. People have traditionally settled in the mountain valleys where there is a steady source of water from melting glaciers and the rich alluvial soil in the flood plains. As the population has increased people have settled on the slopes of mountains, where the soil is less fertile and built terraces to keep soil from being washed away.
Spurs extending southward from the Great Himalayas form north-south-running ranges of Inner Himalayas. The fertile valleys between their peaks make up the watersheds of Bhutan's major rivers. Running north to south between the Sankosh and Drangme Chhu rivers, the Black Mountain Range divides Bhutan almost equally into east and west sides. Its highest peak is Black Mountain (5,033 meters, 16,514 feet). At the southern edge of the Inner Himalayas, sloping down to the Duars Plain, are low, densely forested foothills called the Siwalik, or Southern, Hills. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003; Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, The Gale Group, Inc., 2003]
In southern Bhutan, the Southern Hills, or Siwalik Hills, the foothills of the Himalayas, are covered with dense deciduous forest, alluvial lowland river valleys, and mountains that reach to around 1,500 meters above sea level. The foothills descend into the subtropical Duars Plain. Most of the Duars Plain proper is located in India, and ten to fifteen kilometers penetrate inside Bhutan. The Bhutan Duars has two parts. The northern Duars, which abuts the Himalayan foothills, has rugged, slopping terrain and dry porous soil with dense vegetation and abundant wildlife. The southern Duars has moderately fertile soil, heavy savanna grass, dense mixed jungle, and freshwater springs. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Taken as a whole, the Duars provides the greatest amount of fertile flatlands in Bhutan. Rice and other crops are grown on the plains and mountainsides up to 1,200 meters.Bhutan's most important commercial centers — Phuntsholing, Geylegphug, and Samdrup Jongkhar — are located in the Duars, reflecting the meaning of the name, which is derived from the Hindi dwar and means gateway. Rhinoceros, tigers, leopards, elephants, and other wildlife inhabit the region. *
The northern edges of the Duars Plain, plains, which border the Himalayan foothills, have rugged terrain and porous soil. Fertile flatlands are found farther south. At the southern edge of the Inner Himalayas, sloping down to the Duars Plain, are low, densely forested foothills called the Siwalik (or Southern) Hills. The Duar Plains are is part of the fertile Brahmaputra Watershed and reach into Assam in India.
Bhutan’s mostly Hindu Nepalese live mostly in the south near the Indian border. They make up about 25 to 35 percent of the population of Bhutan and are primarily settled around Phuntsholing,. Many of the Nepalese are descendants of laborers brought to India after 1910 to work on a railroad in India near the Bhutanese border. Others are descendants of Nepalese farmers who came to Bhutan in search of land. In recent decades thousands of Nepalese have entered the country illegally and squatted on land in southern Bhutan. Over 100,000 were expelled from Bhutan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those that remain are mainly employed in agriculture and cultivate cash crops like ginger, cardamom and oranges.
River Systems of Bhutan
Most of the rivers in Bhutan are south-running tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra, the world’s ninth largest river, which originates in Tibet and flows through India and Bangladesh but itself doesn’t flow in Bhutan. It flows 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the border with India. River names in Bhutan are often followed by Chu or Chhu, which means river.,
All of Bhutan's rivers flow through gorges and narrow valleys and, except in the east and in the west, have their headwaters in streams fed by permanent snow and glaciers in the Himalayan region along the Tibetan border. None of the rivers in Bhutan are navigable, but many of them have the potential to harnessed for hydroelectric power. Already, income from selling hydroelectric-generated power to India is Bhutan largest source of income. A 90-meter (295-foot) suspension bridge at Chazam, spanning the Dangmechu River, was opened on March 16, 2001. It is one of the largest single-span bridges in the Himalayas. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, The Gale Group, Inc., 2003]
Bhutan has four major river systems: the Drangme Chhu; the Puna Tsang Chhu, also called the Sankosh; the Wang Chhu; and the Amo Chhu. Each flows swiftly out of the Himalayas, southerly through the Duars to join the Brahmaputra River in India, and thence through Bangladesh where the Brahmaputra (or Jamuna in Bangladesh) joins the mighty Ganges (or Padma in Bangladesh) to flow into the Bay of Bengal. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991] The largest river system, the Drangme Chhu, flows southwesterly from India's state of Arunachal Pradesh and has three major branches: the Drangme Chhu, Mangde Chhu, and Bumthang Chhu. These branches form the Drangme Chhu basin, which spreads over most of eastern Bhutan and drains the Tongsa and Bumthang valleys. The Tongsa River (Tongsa Chhu) is known as the Manas River further south, where it enters the Duars Plain and continues on into India. The eastern area of Bhutan drained by this system is known as the Drangme River Basin (Drangme Chhu Basin). The Tongsa River and its tributaries, the Bumtang and Drangme Rivers drains the area east of the Black Mountain watershed.
According to Geo-Data: “West of the Black Mountains, the drainage pattern changes to a series of parallel streams, beginning with the Sankosh (or Puna Tsang) River and its tributaries, the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu. These two waterways flow southward to Punakha; there they join the main river, continuing their southward course into the Indian state of West Bengal. Farther west is the third major system, the Wong Chhu and its tributaries. These flow through west-central Bhutan, joining to form the Raigye Chhu before flowing into West Bengal. Still farther west is the smallest system, the Torsa Chhu (called the Amo Chhu farther north), which flows through the Chumbi Valley before entering India. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]
In the Duars, where eight tributaries join it, the Drangme Chhu is called the Manas Chhu. The 320-kilometer-long Puna Tsang Chhu rises in northwestern Bhutan as the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu, which are fed by the snows from the Great Himalayan Range. They flow southerly to Punakha, where they join to form the Puna Tsang Chhu, which flows southerly into India's state of West Bengal. The tributaries of the 370-kilometer-long Wang Chhu rise in Tibet. The Wang Chhu itself flows southeasterly through west-central Bhutan, drains the Ha, Paro, and Thimphu valleys, and continues into the Duars, where it enters West Bengal as the Raigye Chhu. The smallest river system, the Torsa Chhu, known as the Amo Chhu in its northern reaches, also flows out of Tibet into the Chumbi Valley and swiftly through western Bhutan before broadening near Phuntsholing and then flowing into India.*
Urban Areas in Bhutan
Urban population: 42.3 percent of total population (2020) (Compared to 83 percent in Great Britain and 21 percent Ethiopia). Rate of urbanization in Bhutan: 2.98 percent annual rate of change (2015-20 estimated). Major urban areas: Thimphu (capital, also spellled Thimpu), population: 203,000 (2018) (spread over a large area). Other cities (large, dispersed towns really): Paro, Punakha, Tongsa. Phuentsholing is the primary commercial center on the Indian-Bhutan border). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
Punakha is the traditional capital; Thimphu is the official capital and largest city. The UN estimated that 21 percent of the population lived in urban areas in 2005, and that urban areas were growing at an annual rate of 5.83 percent. Thimphu had a population of 35,000 in 2005 and 31,000 in 2000 and 22,000 in 1987. Phuntsholing had an estimated population of more than 18,000 in 2005. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007 =|=]
Bhutan’s mostly Hindu Nepalese live mostly in the south near the Indian border and are primarily settled around Phuntsholing,. Bhutan's most important commercial centers — Phuntsholing, Geylegphug, and Samdrup Jongkhar — are located in the south in the Duars, reflecting the meaning of the name, which is derived from the Hindi dwar and means gateway.
Thimphu is centrally located towards the country's western border with India. As late as the 1980s, Bhutan had no real towns, banks or anything that qualified as a proper shop.Thimbu was built up with Indian aid, and was just a cluster of houses around the dzong, a fortress monastery sort of like the Potala in Lhasa. [Source: Brenda Amenson-Hill, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992]
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (tourism.gov.bt), National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (gov.bt), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022