As well as being the most isolated, inaccessible and smallest Himalayan state, Bhutan is also the least known.
Its history before 1500 is obscure. Few roads cross its borders and it maintains diplomatic relations only with neighboring Bangladesh and India. Eight fertile valleys - all deeply cut into the Himalayas - make up Bhutan. Its northern peaks are over 7,000 meters.
Below their permanent snows, mountain grassland merges into mountain forest, which in turn gives way to rain forest in the lower valleys. These open to the plains of India, and have temperatures which never fall below 10°C and average 27°C in July. The whole country has more than 300 em of rain or snow a year, most of it brought by monsoons between May and August.
For the last 20 years, Bhutan has been struggling to pull itself into the 20th century, largely with Indian help. The UN also sends development experts.
More than 95% of Bhutanese work in agriculture or forestry. Most farmers produce only enough for their own needs. Maize, wheat and barley are grown, and some rice and fruit are exported. Yaks are raised in the north. Postage stamps are Bhutan's main source of foreign exchange. The country also exports gypsum and handicrafts.
Despite industrialization, including the setting up of cement and papermaking plants, Bhutan has to import all its manufactured goods, textiles, and petroleum products - and also sugar. Coal has, however, been discovered, and there may be other minerals.
About 60% of Bhutanese are Bhotias. Their Tibetan dialect Dzongkha is the official language, and they follow Tibetan Buddhism. About 25% of the people are Hindu Nepalese. Less than 5% of the population are literate, but education is expanding rapidly.
Bhutan's monasteries and forts were built in the 16th century, when warring chieftains ruled the land. Contact with the West came through the British East India Company in 1775. British civil or military involvement continued in the 19th century, and Bhutan's foreign relations were placed under British supervision in 1910. India took over the responsibility in 1949.
The present ruling dynasty, founded in 1907, abandoned absolute rule in 1969. The elected National Assembly can now remove the king. Bhutan joined the UN in 1971.