Culture

An ancient way of life, steeped in nature and religion
80% of Bhutan’s population live in rural areas where agriculture and subsistence farming is practised. Those living at higher altitudes breed cattle and yaks. Everyday life is heavily dominated by the seasons and by religion.

Bhutan is the only country in the world to have a Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism (Drukpa Kagyu) as its state religion. The Je Khenpo (chief abbot) looks after the religious affairs of the country and enjoys equal power to the King, the ‘temporal’ ruler of the country. Buddhism plays a vital role in the cultural, ethical and social development of the country, pervading all elements of secular life and instilling a deep reverence for the land and its well-being. Religious festivals are an important part of Bhutanese life, and the landscape is dotted with religious sites and symbols. The roads are lined with chortens or stupas, shrines that commemorate places where Guru Rinpoche or other lamas (Buddhist priests) may have stopped to meditate, and colourful prayer flags (dharshing) are a common sight, fluttering in the breeze. It is believed that the prayers emblazoned on the flags are carried away by the winds and spread to every corner of the earth.

The old and young can be seen circumambulating chortens, lhakhangs (temples) and monasteries while twirling prayer wheels and fingering prayer beads. Every Bhutanese home has its own choeshum (altar room) for prayer, meditation and offerings.

Centuries-old forms of music and dance from the different regions of Bhutan survive to this day, loaded with sacred symbolism. The gentle grace of the folk dances and the dramatic gusto of the energetic, magnificent masked dances are bound to leave a lasting impression on any visitor to the country. Architecture, art and painting also depict the spiritual dimension of Bhutanese life, whether on walls, a roadside stone, a rooftop or one of the celebrated thangkhas or murals.

EATING HABITS

The Bhutanese diet is rich in meat, poultry, dairy, grain and vegetables. The national dish is ema datse (chilli with cheese) – be warned – Bhutanese chillies are very hot! The chilli is used as a vegetable in its own right, not just as a spice, and the sight of bright red chillies drying on rooftops in the sun is not to be missed. If you are looking for dishes which aren’t spicy try kewa datse (potatoes with cheese) or shamu datse (mushrooms with cheese). Other national favourites are phaksha paa – a dish made of pork, chillies and vegetables; and tukpa – a kind of noodle soup.

Suja, salted butter tea, is served on social occasions. Locally brewed beer, chang, and spirit, ara, are also common, especially in eastern Bhutan. Doma is a delicacy made of betel nut with lime wrapped in betel leaf; it produces a red juice when chewed and is offered as a customary gesture of greeting. Chugo is a lump of hard dried yak-cheese kept in the mouth and chewed for hours – something of an acquired taste perhaps!

MARRIAGE

In the olden days, the Bhutanese followed a system of arranged marriage (negotiated by the parents of the prospective bride and groom), and this still applies today in some parts of the country, especially in rural areas. The belief is that an arranged marriage will last longer and promote a network of peaceful relationships within the community. Today, however, influenced by western culture, love marriages are increasingly common, as the mindset and attitudes towards marriage have changed.

Bhutanese marriage can either be an informal affair or involve complicated ceremonies, depending upon the status of the family. For less well off families, the couple will start living together and declare themselves married, often not even announcing this publicly. There is no dowry in Bhutan. However, in some remote regions of the country, there is a system of giving wine, grains and slaughtered pigs as gifts to the bride’s parents. The people in the south follow the Hindu system of marriage.

 People and POLITICAL SYSTEM

The political system of Bhutan has evolved over time together with its tradition and culture. It has developed from a fragmented and a disoriented rule of the different regions by local chieftains, lords and clans into the parliamentary democracy we have in place today.

The first move towards a systematic scheme of governance came in 1616 with the arrival of Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal from Tibet. He introduced the dual system of governance with the Je Khenpo as the spiritual head of the nation and the Desis, as the head of the temporal aspects.

But a major breakthrough came about in 1907 when the people unanimously enthroned Ugyen Wangchuck as the fist hereditary King of Bhutan. He was the man who had proven his mettle by banding together the different Dzongpons and Penlops (governors of fortress), ending centuries of strife and bringing much needed stability and peace to the country. Since then, the country has been ruled by successive monarchs of the Wangchuck dynasty.

In a move to ensure a more democratic governance of the country, the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck instituted the National Assembly (Tshogdu) in 1953. Every gewog has an elected member representing it in the National assembly. It became a platform where the people’s representatives enacted laws and discussed issues of national importance.

The establishment of the Royal Advisory Council (Lodoe Tshogde) in 1963 as a link between the king, council of ministers and the people was another move towards democratization. It also advised the king and the council of ministers on important issues and ensured that projects were implemented successfully.

The institution of Dzongkhag Yargay Tshogdu (District Development Assembly) in 1981 and Gewog Yargay Tshogchung (County Development Assembly) in 1991 by the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was another move towards decentralization.

But the devolution of the power of the King in 1998 to the cabinet ministers was the highest form of decentralization. The King, thereafter, began to serve as the Head of the State while the government was managed by the Prime Minister.

In November 2001, on the advice of the Fourth king, a committee chaired by the Chief Justice of Bhutan, was formed to draft the constitution of Bhutan. The constitution was launched in 2008 and with it a parliamentary democracy introduced. The progression from Hereditary Monarchy to that of a Parliamentary Democracy has been a carefully managed process that culminated in 2008 when Bhutan held its first elections country wide. The Druk Phunsum Tshogpa was mandated by the people to head the new government with a major victory with 45 elected members, Lyonchen Jigme Y Thinley steered the government with just two opposition members from the People’s Democratic Party in 2008.The term of DPT (Druk Phuensum Tshogpa) has ended and people have chosen PDP (People’s Democratic Party) on 13th July 2013 as the new government.Today Tshering Tobgay is the Prime Minister of the new government.

The organs of the Bhutanese government comprise of the Legislature, Judiciary and the Executive. The ruling political party, the opposition and the National Council now forms the legislative body.

Language

Bhutan is linguistically rich with over nineteen dialects spoken in the country. The richness of the linguistic diversity can be attributed to the geographical location of the country with its high mountain passes and deep valleys. These geographical features forced the inhabitants of the country to live in isolation but also contributed to their survival.

The national language is Dzongkha, the native language of the Ngalops of western Bhutan. Dzongkha literally means the language spoken in the Dzongs, massive fortresses that serve as the administrative centers and monasteries. Two other major languages are the Tshanglakha and the Lhotshamkha. Tshanglakha is the native language of the Tshanglas of eastern Bhutan while Lhotshamkha is spoken by the southern Bhutanese of Nepali origin.

Other dialects spoken are Khengkha and Bumthapkha by the Khengpas and Bumthap people of Central Bhutan. Mangdepkah, which is spoken by the inhabitants of Trongsa and the Cho Cha Nga Chang Kha which is spoken by the Kurtoeps. The Sherpas, Lepchas and the Tamangs in southern Bhutan also have their own dialects. Unfortunately two dialects that are on the verge of becoming extinct are the Monkha and the Gongduepkha.

Popullation

Bhutan is a landlocked country in South Asia at the end of the Himalayas. Bhutan is bordered by India to the west, south and east and China to the north. The 2015 estimated population of Bhutan is 776,400, up from 744,000 last year, which makes it the 164th most populous country in the world.

Bhutan Population 2015

The last census in the country was carried out in 2005 showing a population of 634,900, which is about half the population of 1.37 million in 1991. The population is estimated to have grown to 776,400 in 2015. Bhutan's population density is 18 people per square kilometer, which is one of the lowest population densities in the world.The capital and largest city is Thimphu, with a population of 80,000 and a metro population of 115,000.

 

BHUTANESE DRESS

One of the most distinctive features of the Bhutanese is their traditional dress.

One of the most distinctive features of the Bhutanese is their traditional dress, unique garments that have evolved over thousands of years. Men wear the Gho, a knee-length robe somewhat resembling a kimono that is tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as Kera. The pouch t which forms at the front traditionally was used for carrying food bowls and a small dagger. Today however it is more accustomed to carrying small articles such as wallets, mobile phones and Doma (beetle nut).

Women wear the Kira, a long, ankle-length dress accompanied by a light outer jacket known as a Tego with an inner layer known as a Wonju.

However, tribal and semi-nomadic people like the Bramis and Brokpas of eastern Bhutan generally wear clothing that differs from the rest of the Bhutanese population. The Brokpas and the Bramis both wear dresses woven either out of Yak or Sheep hair.

Bhutanese still wear long scarves when visiting Dzongs and other administrative centers. The scarves worn vary in color, signifying the wearer’s status or rank.  The scarf worn by men is known as Kabney while those worn by women are known as Rachus. Below is a brief breakdown of the different kabneys and their associated rank.

The Rachu is hung over a woman’s shoulder and unlike the scarves worn by men, does not have any specific rank associated with its color. Rachus are usually woven out of raw silk and embroidered with beautiful rich patterns.

Rank
Kabney/Scarf
The King
Yellow
Je Khenpo (Head Abbot)
Yellow
Minister
Orange
Judge
Green
District Administrator
Red with a small white stripe
Commoner
White

 

Funeral

Death signifies re-birth or a mere passing on to a new life. In keeping with the traditions, elaborate rituals are performed to ensure a safe passage and a good rebirth. Important days such as the 7th day, 14th day, 21st day and 49th days are earmarked where prayer flags in the name of the deceased are erected and rituals performed. The deceased are normally cremated while the southern Bhutanese bury and the Brokpas chop off and feed them to the vultures. Elaborate rituals are also conducted on the death anniversary with erection of prayer flags. The relatives and people of the locality come with alcohol, rice, or other sundry items to attend these rituals.

RELIGION

Buddhism developed in India as a non conforming system outside of Hinduism. Buddhists explicitly rejected the usefulness of the elaborate Vedic rites and refused to accept the caste system as authoritative. Despite these differences, however, Buddhism shares many fundamental beliefs with Hinduism, including the concepts of reincarnation, karma, and entering Nirvana, or absolute liberation.

Nirvana

Nirvana, the state of final liberation from the cycle of birth and death, is held to be beyond definition. Rather, there are steps one must take to gain direct experience of ultimate reality—Nirvana.

Buddhism in Bhutan is practiced throughout the country. All most all the people are Buddhist by birth. In the south, most Bhutanese people of Nepali and Indian origin practiced Hinduism. Before the arrival of Buddhism to Bhutan, various forms of animistic religion such as bonism were followed by people in Bhutan. In some parts of the country, we can still see, these traditions and rituals are still practiced by minority groups.

Guru Rinpoche brought Buddhism to Bhutan in 8th century. After this, Bhutan has become home to many sages and saints. The official state religion of Bhutan belongs to the Drukpa sect of Kagyudpa, school of tantric Mahayana Buddhism, the Great Vehicle. It is similar to the Tibetan Buddhism, yet it has its own set of unique beliefs and practices.

The religion in Bhutan is strongly supported by the all walks of life. Monks, nuns and gomchens (lay priest) play a very important role in the people’s daily lives. The monk body also includes monks, nuns and gomchens who are not part of state sponsored institutions. Bhutanese people are very pious and the importance of the Buddhism is evident in its every aspect of life in the Bhutanese people.