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Culture of Bhutan

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 it's 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 (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=DZO), the Bhutanese language, is closely related to Tibetan, and Bhutanese monks read and write in the ancient Tibetan script 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 Tibet and Bhutan revere the tantric guru Padmasambhava the founder of Himalayan Buddhism in the 8th century.

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Religion 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 huge high-walled fortresses, which serves the religious and administrative center of the district. Even the stray dogs in Bhutan are observed to act differently, not recognizing the implied threat of a foreigner who bends down to pick up a stone and makes a throwing motion. Such an action is inconsistent with the Buddhist desire to not needlessly harm a sentient being.

Clothing All Bhutanese citizens are required to observe the national dress code, or driglam namzha, while in public. 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. Additional rules apply when visiting a dzong or when appearing before a high level official -- in particular a white sash is worn from shoulder to opposite hip to indicate status as a commoner, with other colors reserved for officials and monks. This dress code has met with resistance from the ethnic Nepalese citizens living along the Indian border who practice Hinduism and resent having to wear an ethnic outfit 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 right 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.

Both men and women work in the fields, and both may own small shops or businesses. Both 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. When a young couple marries they decide whether to live with the husband's or the wife's family depending on which is most in needed of labor.

Bhutanese names 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.

Religious festivals Once a year a dzong or important village may hold a religious festival, or tsechu. 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.

The monastery Monks join the monastery at 6 to 9 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 to 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.

External Links

  • Kuensel (http://www.kuenselonline.com/) - online version of Bhutan's national newspaper
  • calendar (http://www.bbs.com.bt/holidays.htm/) - national holidays in Bhutan

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