Culture of Bhutan: Explore the Mysterious Nature of the Himalayan Kingdom

A serene place which has holy monasteries, lush valleys, rocky mountains and pristine rivers holds a lot more than what meets the eye. The Culture of Bhutan fascinates every person who comes across it. And even the better part is the people and the government's determination to preserve and promote their cultural values. This is why we can still see its essence in every nook and corner of the country. Some of the most important things that entail Bhutan's Culture are its festivals, architecture, food and traditional dress. 

1. Religion of Bhutan - Traditional Beliefs and Practices in Bhutan's Culture

Buddha Dordenma, Buddhism in Bhutan
Buddha Dordenma, the Giant Buddha Statue in Thimphu, Bhutan (Source)

The predominant religion in Bhutan is Buddhism, followed by Hinduism. As a result, Bhutanese culture is very much influenced by sacred Buddhist values. Bhutanese live by their religious values and respect their gods and deities a lot. Hence, there is no dearth of monasteries, chortens, lhakhangs etc in the country. There are colourful prayer flags on hillsides, at the entrance of monasteries etc, which are considered sacred. The Dzong, a unique combination of a fortress and a monastery is present in every district or Dzongkhag of the country.

Punakha Dzong in Bhutan
Dzongs are the administrative centres of each district (Source)

Buddhist monks reside in monasteries located high in the mountains. They lead a very simple life, with no luxuries. A monk is generally admitted in the monastery at the age of six to nine and takes his lessons under a headmaster. In common families, a small morsel is kept on the floor as an offering to deities before eating. So, religion plays a very important role in deciding the lifestyle of people.

2. Birth, Marriage and Death in Bhutan 

Bhutanese Baby with his mother

Culture of Bhutan is quite festive when it comes to the birth of a child. It is one of the very few countries in the world which does not discriminate between a boy and girl. However, no outsider is allowed to enter the house for 3 days after a baby is born. It is only after a purification ritual that the guests can enter. Name of the baby is kept by a local lama, and there is no family name as such. Instead, the name is a combination of two traditional names, and the gender is usually indicated by the second name.

Royal Bhutanese Wedding
The Royal Bhutanese Wedding of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and Queen Jetsum Pema (Source)

In Bhutan, marriage is not usually a big deal and hence, the wedding ceremony is kept simple. Marriage between cousins is very common. This has been going on for years, but the educated masses discourage it now. In some parts of Bhutan, it is the groom who goes to his wife's home, instead of the other way around.

Death of a person means passing on one life to another, i.e re-birth. Prayer flags are erected in the memory of the departed person and the relatives and neighbours come to attend the funeral and other rituals with simple eatables and souvenirs.

3. Festivals of Bhutan - Integral Part of Bhutan's Culture

Jakar Tshechu Festival in Bhutan
Tshechu, a unique Bhutanese Festival celebrated across the Country (Source)

The festivals in Bhutan are an exciting affair in the life of the Bhutanese, and an integral part of the unique culture of Bhutan. The most important Bhutanese festival is tshechu. Every city has its own tshechu, which lasts for 3-5 days. It falls on a particular day of a Lunar month (for example, 10th day of 2nd Lunar month). It is generally held in a dzong, where people from the entire district and the surrounding places gather together in harmony to be a part of a mass celebration.

Masked dances or chham are the major attraction of a tshechu. Monks and laymen wear silk robes and animal masks and re-enact the moments of Guru Rinpoche's life in the form of dances. The last day of the tshechu usually witnesses the unfurling of a silk thongdrel. Seeing the thongdrel believes to wash away one's sins.

4. Traditional Dress of Bhutan - Cultural Aesthetics of the Country

Women in Bhutanese Cultural Dress
Kira, the Traditional Dress for Women in Bhutan (Source)

Bhutanese culture mandates that the traditional dress be worn on special occasions and in government offices. Bhutanese men wear 'Gho' and women wear 'Kira'. Gho is a heavy knee-length robe, tied by a belt. Kira is an ankle-length dress, over which a short jacket may be worn. These dresses have evolved over time. For example, the small pouches on the front of the dress were used to carry food bowls and small daggers, whereas now mobile phones, etc are kept into it.

These dresses are made up of cotton or wool, and dresses made out of silk are worn on special occasions. As per traditions, it is necessary to carry a scarf in a dzong or an administrative centre. Men's scarf is called kabney and women's scarf is called rachu.

5. Food of Bhutan - Cuisine & Culinary Delights of Bhutan

Ema Datshi, Food of Bhutan
Ema Datshi, the National Dish of Bhutan (Source)

One of the most quintessential things about the culture of Bhutan is its simplicity. Hence it does not come out as a surprise that its cuisine also reflects the same. Traditionally, food, cooked in earthenware, is eaten with hands, by sitting cross-legged on the floor. In cities, however, cutlery and dining table are used now and food is cooked in modern utensils. Usually, the woman of the family serves the food to other members, and the eldest member is the first one to be served.

Ema Datshi is the national dish of Bhutan. It is eaten throughout the country and in almost every meal. It usually consists of spicy chillies and cheese. Momos are yet another Bhutanese delicacy, and they are stuffed with pork, beef or cabbages.

6. Bhutanese Literature 

In Bhutan, the primary focus has been on oral literature, as compared to written literature. For years, Bhutanese pass on their knowledge of religion, academics and culture to the younger generation through an oral medium.

In the written literature, however, a lot of it has been written in the Nepalese language. The reason for this is that before the 1960s, Nepalese was profusely spoken in the country.

7. Music and Dances of Bhutan - Celebrations of the Country's Legacy

Cultural Dance of Bhutan

The music and dance forms of Bhutan, which are primarily inspired by religion, are part of every festivals and celebration in the country. In annual events such as, tshechus, king's birthday etc, the whole country celebrates their legacy by dancing and singing. Chham dances, or masked dances, are the national forms of dancing and they are majorly the re-enactment of the scenes from Guru Rinpoche's life.

During dancing, one person of the group plays a musical instrument called symbal, which keeps a track of time and adds melody to the performance. Joenpa Legso, Drametse Nga Cham, Pa Cham, etc are some of the most popular cham dances performed. Among royalty, Zhungdra is the most popular of all.

Dungchen Music in Bhutan
Monks playing the Dungchen, a Traditional Buddhist Horn (Source)

The music ranges from folk to religion to modern, such as rigsar. Rigsar has been prevalent in Bhutan since sometime around 1960s. Use of instruments, like lingm (six-holed flute), chiwang (two-stringed fiddle), dramnyen (a large rebec) etc. The lyrics are mostly in dzongkha or choke. 

8. Art of Bhutan - Wall Paintings and Sculptures that depicts Bhutan's History

Art of Bhutan
Traditional Art of Bhutan (Source)

Various art forms in Bhutan are inspired by the Buddhist religion. Poetry, dance, music, paintings and theatre in the country is deep-rooted in the religion. Paintings include thangkas, wall paintings and sculptures. Masked dances are the main speciality, which are the reenactment of Guru Rinpoche's life.

9. Bhutanese Architecture - An Intricate Part of its Culture 

Architecture of Bhutan

Architecture is another feature which makes Bhutanese culture stand apart. In accordance with the country's geography and climate, the traditional architecture, which includes sloped roofs, earthen walls and intricate wooden work still thrive. Phalluses on the wall are considered sacred. No iron nail is used in the construction.

Bhutanese culture is one of the very few cultures in the world that is celebrated and a source of pride for each and every citizen. Each day sees its people respecting and embracing the unique culture in its true form, as well as working hard to preserve and promote the values set forth. Maybe this is why it leaves an impact on every individual who wanders through the country. 

This post was published by Tina Garg

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