Cradled in the folds of the Himalayas, Bhutan has relied on its geographic isolation to protect itself from outside cultural influences. A sparsely populated country bordered by India to the south and China to the north, Bhutan has long maintained a policy of strict isolationism, both culturally and economically, with the goal of preserving its cultural heritage and independence. Only in the last decades of the 20th century were foreigners allowed to visit the country, and only then in strictly limited numbers. In this way, Bhutan has successfully preserved many aspects of a culture which dates directly back to the mid-17th century.
Bhutanese culture derives from ancient Tibetan culture. Dzongkha and Sharchop, the principal Bhutanese languages, are closely related to Tibetan, and Bhutanese monks read and write the ancient variant of the Tibetan language known as chhokey. Bhutanese are physically similar to the Tibetans but history does not record when they crossed over the Himalayas and settled in the south-draining valleys of Bhutan. Both Tibetans and Bhutanese revere the tantric guru Padmasambhava the founder of Himalayan Buddhism in the 8th century.
Bhutanese society is centered around the practice of Tantric Buddhism. Religious beliefs are evidenced in all aspects of life. Prayer flags flutter on hillsides offering up prayers to benefit all nearby sentient beings. Houses each fly a small white flag on the roof indicating the owner has made his offering payments to appease the local god. Each valley or district is dominated by a huge dzong, or high-walled fortresses, which serves the religious and administrative center of the district.
All Bhutanese citizens are required to observe the national dress code, or driglam namzha, while in public during daylight hours. The rule is enforced more rigorously in some districts (dzongkhag) than others. Men wear a heavy knee-length robe tied with a belt, called a gho, folded in such a way to form a pocket in front of the stomach. Woman wear colorful blouses over which they fold and clasp a large rectangular cloth called a kira, thereby creating an ankle-length dress. A short silk jacket, or toego may be worn over the kira. Everyday gho and kira are cotton or wool, according to the season, patterned in simple checks and stripes in earth tones. For special occasions and festivals, colourfully patterned silk kira and, more rarely, gho may be worn.
Additional rules apply when visiting a dzong or a temple, and when appearing before a high level official -- a white sash (kabney) is worn by male commoners from left shoulder to opposite hip, with other colors reserved for officials and monks. Women wear a narrow embroidered cloth draped over the left shoulder, a rachu.
The dress code has met with some resistance from the ethnic Nepalese citizens living along the Indian border who resent having to wear a cultural dress which is not their own.
Men and women in society
Bhutanese women have traditionally had more rights than women in surrounding cultures, the most prominent being the exclusive right of land ownership. The property of each extended Bhutanese family is controlled by an anchor mother who is assisted by the other women of the family in running affairs. As she becomes unable to manage the property, the position of anchor mother passes on to a sister, daughter or niece.
Men and women work together in the fields, and both may own small shops or businesses. Men take a full part in household management, often cook, and are traditionally the makers and repairers of clothing. In the towns, a more 'western' pattern of family structure is beginning to emerge, with the husband as breadwinner and the wife as home-maker. Both genders may be monks, although in practice the number of female monks is relatively small.
Marriages are at the will of either party and divorce is not uncommon. The ceremony consists of an exchange of white scarves and the sharing of a cup. Marriages can be officially registered when the couple has lived together for more than six months. Traditionally the groom moves to the bride's family home, but newly-weds may decide to live with either family depending on which is most in need of labor.
Except for royal lineages, Bhutanese names do not include a family name. Instead two traditional auspicious names are chosen at birth by the local lama or by the parents or grandparents of the child. The first name generally cannot be used to determine if the person is male or female; in some cases the second name may be helpful in that regard. As there is a limited constellation of acceptable names to chose from, many people share the same first and second names. An informal system then comes into play. If Chong Kinley from Paro valley is visiting Thimphu valley she is known there as Paro Kinley. If she is in her home valley of Paro, she is identified there by her village, Chong Kinley Chozom. In her small village she may not be the only Chong Kinley, in which case she is identified by the name of the house she was born in, thus Chemsarpo Kinley.
Once a year a dzong or important village may hold a religious festival, or tsechhu . Villagers from the surrounding district come for several days of religious observances and visiting while making offerings to the lama or monastery. The central activity is a fixed set of religious mask dances, or cham, held in a large courtyard. Each individual dance takes up to several hours to complete and the entire set may last two to four days. Observation of the dances directly blesses the audience and also serves to transmit principles of Tantric Buddhism to the villagers. A number of the dances can be traced directly back to Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal himself, the founder of Bhutan, and have been passed down without variation since the mid-1600s.
At dawn on the final day of the Paro tsechu a huge tapestry, or thongdrel, is briefly unfurled in the courtyard of the dzong. The mere sight of it is believed to bring spiritual liberation. Thongdrels are also displayed at a number of other tsechus across Bhutan.
Monks join the monastery at six to nine years of age and are immediately placed under the discipleship of a headmaster. They learn to read chhokey, the language of the ancient sacred texts, as well as Dzongkha and English. Eventually they will chose between two possible paths: to study theology and Buddhist theory, or take the more common path of becoming proficient in the rituals and personal practice of the faith.
The daily life of the monk is austere, particularly if they are stationed at one of the monasteries located high up in the mountains. At these monasteries food is often scarce and must be carried up by the monks or their visitors. The monks are poorly clothed for winter conditions and the monasteries are unheated. The hardship of such a posting is well-recognized; to have a son or brother serving in such a monastery is very good merit for the family.
A monk's spiritual training continues throughout his life. In addition to serving the community in sacramental roles, he may undertake several extended silent retreats. A common length for such a retreat is three years, three months, three weeks and three days. During the retreat time he will periodically meet with his spiritual master who will test him on his development to ensure that the retreat time is not being wasted.
Each monastery is headed by an abbot who is typically a lama, although the titles are distinct. The highest monk in the land is the chief abbot of Bhutan, whose title is Je Khenpo . He is theoretically equivalent in stature to the king.
The Central Monk Body is an assembly of 600 or so monks who attend to the most critical religious duties of the country. In the summer they are housed in Thimphu, the nation's capital, and in the winter they descend to Punakha dzong, the most sacred dzong in Bhutan, where Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal 's mortal body has been kept under vigil since the late 1600s.
Radio and television
For many years, the Kings of Bhutan prided themselves on keeping their culture clean from outside influences, and as such, modern technology arrived into the Kingdom many years after it was universally accepted in nearly all other countries. The first radio service was broadcast for thirty minutes on Sundays (by what is now the Bhutan Broadcasting Service) in 1973, and although the current King of Bhutan had long spoken against the need for a television service in the Kingdom, he finally capitulated; Bhutan became one of the final nations to receive television service, in June 1999.
Kuensel - online version of Bhutan's national newspaper
calendar - national holidays in Bhutan
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13