“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Bhutan was opened to the tourists only in 1974, and until then only a select few could enter Bhutan either through special occupations or through invitations from the government. Without the advent of modern technology and influences from the outside world, Bhutan managed to maintain its rich diverse culture and all of the traditions that stemmed out from them. Today, the rich cultural diversity of Bhutan is one of the reasons that has made Bhutan a global hotspot for tourism.
Our kings and the government have always emphasised on the importance of preserving the unique culture and traditions of the country and on how it plays an important role in the protecting the country’s identity and sovereignty. Let us look into some of the cultures of Bhutan.
i. National Dress
Bhutan has its very own unique national dress, ‘Gho’ for men and ‘Kira’ for women. Gho is a knee-length robe that is tied at the waist with a traditional belt called ‘Kera’. The most distinct feature of the Gho is the ‘Hemchu’ (pouch) that is used for carrying various miscellaneous items such as wallets, phones and edibles. Similarly, the Kira is a long, ankle-length dress/robe also tied around the waist by the Kera accompanied by outer jackets known as ‘Tego’ and ‘Wonju’. Both the Gho and Kira comes in different designs and patterns, made out of various fabrics of choice.
There is also a scarf for men called ‘Kabney’ and for women called ‘Rachus’. The national dress accompanied by these scarves are worn when visiting ‘Dzongs’ (Bhutanese Fortresses – which serves as central government bodies) and other official administrative centres. The scarves are also coloured differently to represent the ranks of the citizen, with white being the colour for common people, red for district magistrates, orange for ministers and yellow for the king and Je Khenpo (Head of the Monastic Body).
ii. Food and Eating Habits
Bhutanese food mainly comprises of Rice, Chillies, Cheese and Dried Meat. The most famous dishes being ‘Emadatsi’ (Chillies and Cheese), ‘Shakam Paa’ (Dried beef with chillies and radish) and ‘Sikam Paa’ (Dried Pork with chillies and radish). Traditionally food is eaten with hands (without the use of spoon or forks) sitting on the floor, and when eating with family, food is always served to the head of the household first. There is also a custom of offering prayers and food to the gods, local deities and guardian spirits as a gesture of gratitude and for further well being of all sentient beings in the world.
However, in urban areas, where western influence is prevalent, the eating habits are changing as the use of cutleries and proper furniture are becoming more popular.
Being a country with rich cultural diversity, Bhutan celebrates and acknowledges a wide variety of festivals from across the country. The most prominent ones would be the ‘Tsechu’, an annual religious festival, that is different and unique to every village in the country. This festival is one of the highlights for the tourists. The festival is a jubilant ceremony which can last from one to three days, and it portrays harmony, peace, spiritualism and celebration of life. On the other hand, Hindu festivals such as ‘Dassera’, ‘Diwali’, ‘Vishwakama Puja’ and so on are also celebrated and recognised by the people.
In Bhutan, marriages can occur either from choice or from an arrangement. With the advent of modernisation, the once prevalent inter family marriages and arranged marriages are diminishing and marriages based on the choice of individuals are becoming popular. The marriage ceremony in Bhutan is an elaborate affair that include selecting an auspicious date for the marriage, performing sacred religious rituals, sending invitations, gathering of family and friends, traditional offerings of gifts and ‘Kadhars’ (Traditional white scarves symbolising harmony and prosperity), and the shifting of household for either the husband or the wife. However, modern couples are also open to living on their own nowadays.
Divorce is also an accepted norm in Bhutan and couples undergoing separation can either separate through law or through mutual internal agreement.
In Bhutan, there is no discrimination against the gender of a child and the birth of a child is always welcomed. It is a joyous moment for a family whereby preparations are made to welcome the baby to the family. There are certain customs after a birth of a child, such as, visitors are discouraged to visit the new born baby before the purification ritual of the baby. The ritual is normally performed when the baby is three days old, after which visitors are welcomed with traditional wine called ‘Changkeys’ (Fermented rice wine made with sugar and eggs) to bless the baby. While naming the new born, the responsibility is normally entrusted to a high monk. The mother and the child is then taken around all the local temples to receive the blessings of the local deities and gods.
Funerals are often solemn events and it signifies the cycle of life. Bhutanese believe in the karmic cycle of life where re-birth plays an important part. When a person dies, specific religious rituals are performed and prayers are offered to ensure a safe passage for the soul of the deceased to the next life. The bodies of the deceased are cremated at an auspicious time, and then prayers are carried out for the next 49 days. However, in certain special cases, like the death of a new born baby, ‘sky burials’ are also carried out. The deceased are prepared atop high mountain peaks to be devoured by birds. This process represents the act of ‘Jinpa’ (act of giving with compassion), which signifies an act of benevolence and sacrifice from the deceased.
vii. Inheritance of Property
In Bhutan, the traditional norms give more privilege to women when inheriting a family property. This is a result of an understanding from the early times, when women had to work on the family farms and shoulder the responsibilities of the household and overlook the well being of the family. Men on the other hand were raised to be self sufficient and self reliable, to be able to earn and gain on their own. However, with changing times, the government has set laws to reduce the partiality and create a fair system, since modern bhutanese women are no longer bound to the family farms and are entering into the unconventional new world job market.