Culture and Traditions
Tucked away in the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan has always amazed a lot of tourists and trekkers from all over the world for its spiritual and cultural legacy. Visitors are amazed on how the culture and traditional lifestyle of Bhutanese are still largely intact in this modernization world. From the traditional woven garments to prayer flags on high mountain slopes, from traditional architectures to preserved forestry, from religious mask dance to folk dances, this heritage proudly presents a very unique setting of how Bhutanese can live harmonious with the nature.
Architecture is a very significant representation of Bhutanese identity. The knowledge of constructing Bhutanese architecture is originated from Tibet. In today’s world, Bhutanese still employs rammed earth and wattle and daub construction methods, stone masonry, and intricate woodwork around windows and roofs. These traditional architectures use no nails or iron bars in construction.
Dzongs (the administrative places), temples and monasteries are living examples of this very distinctive Bhutanese architecture construction. Kyichu Lhakhang (the oldest temple) is built in the 7th century. Mongar Dzong, which is built in 1953, proofs to be a good example that Bhutanese is able to preserve the knowledge of traditional Bhutanese architecture through centuries. It is constructed using the same construction method used by all the earlier Dzongs, without any construction drawings or nails.
Chortens (stupas) are a common architecture in Bhutan. It had been a symbol of worship for Bhutanese before the emergence of Buddhism. One of the most important chorten in Bhutan is the memorial chorten in the Thimphu, which is dedicated to the memory of the 3rd King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk.
Arts and Crafts
Bhutanese traditional arts and crafts are deeply rooted with spiritual significance and Buddhist philosophy. Zorig Chusum refers to the 13 different Bhutanese art and crafts. They are :
- Shing zo (carpentry)
- Dho zo (construction of building with stone)
- Par zo (carving of stone, wood and slate)
- Lha zo (painting : including thangkas and wall-painting)
- Jim Zo (clay sculpting)
- Lug Zo (casting : both wax and sand casting)
- Shag zo (woodwork : especially for tableware)
- Gar zo (blacksmith)
- Troe zo (ornament making)
- Tsha zo (bamboo work)
- De zo (paper making)
- Tshem zo (tailoring, embroidery and appliqué)
- Thag zo (weaving)
This form of art heritage is well-preserved by the constant efforts from the Government. The School of Traditional Arts in Thimphu has produced a lot of skillful Bhutanese in the Thangka painting, wood carving, sculpture, appliqué and metal work. The National Institute of Zorig Chusum in Trashiyangtse also produced a lot of talented young artists and craftsmen.
Based on early records, stone tools and stone structures, it is believed that Bhutan was inhabited as early as 1400 BC. Bhutan’s indigenous population is called the Drukpa. Today, Bhutan’s population is made up of 3 main ethnic groups, namely the Sharchops, the Ngalops, and the Lhotsampas (of Nepalese origin).
The Sharchops reside mainly in the eastern part of Bhutan, where their origin can be traced to tribes of northern Burma and northeast India. The Ngalops migrated from Tibet plains who introduced Buddhism to the Kingdom. Most of the Lhotsampas are from the southern foothills who migrated to Bhutan in search of living hood in the early 20th century.
There is no class or caste system in Bhutan. Slavery was abolished by the 3rd King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk in the early 1950s through a royal edict. Each Bhutanese is giving equal opportunity in education and social opportunities. Bhutanese women enjoy equal rights as men.
Love marriages are common in urban areas, but the tradition of arranged marriages is still common in villages. Polygamy is accepted in Bhutan although not common.
Monks are held in great respect and play an active role in community life.
The staples of Bhutanese cuisine are rice, buckwheat and maize. The local diet also includes pork, beef, yak meat, chicken and mutton. All meat sold in Bhutan is imported from India. To remind Bhutanese of the Buddha’s teaching of non-killing, shops are not allowed to sell meat for about a total of one month in a year.
Ema datshi is a local Bhutanese dish made of cheese and chillies. It is very spicy and considered a national dish. The popular beverages for Bhutanese includes butter tea, local brewed Ara (rice wine), and local brewed beer.
Traditionally, Bhutanese eat their meals with their hands and sit on the wooden floors together with family members. With modernization, Bhutanese in urban areas are increasing eating at the dining tables with spoons and forks.
Another integrated part of the Bhutanese culture is chewing Doma Panni, which is an areca nut warps with betel leaf with a dash of lime. Chewing Doma Panni is a tradition, custom or ritual which dates back thousands of years from South Asia to the Pacific.
The effect of chewing Doma Panni is relatively mild and could be compared to drinking a cup of coffee. Regular chewing of Doma Panni will cause the lips and tongue to be stained with orange/red colour, an ancient equivalent of modern lipstick. In the olden day, chewing Doma Paani was regarded as an aristocratic practice. Special ornate boxes were made exclusively just to carry them around.
To keep the traditions alive, Bhutanese are required to wear their 17th century traditional clothing to work and schools by law.
The national dress for Bhutanese men is the Gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt known as the kera. Bhutanese women wear an ankle-length dress called a Kira, made from beautiful coloured and fine woven fabrics with traditional patterns.
When Bhutanese visit Dzongs and other administrative centers, it is mandatory for Bhutanese to wear scarves. The scarf worn by men is known as Kabney while women worn Rachu. For men, different colour scarf represents the different status or rank. The King and the Je Khenpo (Head Abbot) wear yellow scarves. Ministers wear orange scarves, judges wear green scarves and district administrators wear red scarves with a small white strip running across the scarves. Ordinary Bhutanese men wear white colour scarf. For Bhutanese women, Rachu has no colour significant attached to it.
The festivals of Bhutan are known for being joyous and spiritual affair for Bhutanese. It is believe that attendees of tshechus will gain merit for a better next life. The most important tshechus are those dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava, which usually last for 3 to 5 days.
The most popular tshechus for tourists are those held in Thimphu, Paro and Bumthang in the spring and fall. The Dzongs and temples will come to life, filled with colour, music and dancing. Bhutanese will dress in their finest clothes to join in to exorcise evil spirits and rejoice for good harvest. At the end of some tshechus, a huge Throngdrel or religious appliqués will be unfurled before the dawn for attendees of the tshechus to be blessed by the Throngdrel.
Masked dances and dance dramas are common traditional features at tshechus, usually accompanied by traditional music. Sometimes, rare masked sword dances and other rituals are performed in Dzong courtyards and temples. Most dances are dated back to before the Middle Ages and are only performed once or twice a year.
In some districts of Bhutan, animist traditions are still practiced. These shamanistic practices are locally known as Bon. Some elements of the animist traditions still exist in today’s festivals and rituals.
Bhutanese textiles are very distinctive and are usually inspired by nature. Every region is specialized in a particular pattern of textiles. For example, Bumthang is well-known for “Yatha” which is vegetable dyed wool weaves, whereas Khoma village in Lhuentse is famous for their “Kishuthara” which is an elaborate woven cloth made of silk. Weavers are mostly women who are proud to create textiles that are stunning in colour, texture, pattern and composition.