Referred to as Druk-yul by the natives, meaning the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” Bhutan is a land steeped in culture and mystery. Here is a land that is fiercely protective about preserving its ancient culture and tradition and yet manages to walk in tandem with the rest of the modern world. The only country in the world to have adopted the Tantric Vajrayana from of Buddhism as the national religion, Bhutan is one country where national identity is intrinsically linked to its identity as a Buddhist nation. The influence of Buddhism can be felt everywhere, from the daily lives of people to the way politics and government is conducted in the country. No wonder Bhutan is the only country in the world to have a National Happiness Index.
Bhutan’s culture is a fascinating study in how a small country can manage to create and preserve a unique identity while also keeping itself abreast of modern inventions and practices. Here are some aspects of what makes the culture of Bhutan truly unique.
Etiquettes to follow
People in Bhutan are very particular about practicing proper etiquette also referred to as “driglam namzha” by the locals. Etiquette in Bhutan translates to wearing the national dress, respecting elders in society, respect for authority and showing devotion to family and marriage. Gho, a heavy robe of knee length and tied with a belt is the national dress worn by men while women wear an ankle length dress tied with a brooch called kira.
Another thing that makes Bhutanese culture unique is that unlike other South Asian communities there are no restrictions on men and women mixing with each other. The girl child is treated equal to the boy child, there is no practice of dowry and land is also divided equally between boys and girls. Although arranged marriage was the traditional practice, many modern marriages are now based on mutual liking. Again unlike other cultures, it is not customary for the bride to accompany the husband to his home, instead many men choose to reside with the wife’s family or set up a separate home.
Birth and death
The Bhutanese culture is universal in celebrating birth like all other cultures, but unlike other cultures, the Bhutanese do not allow visitors to meet the mother and child for the first three days. Visitors are only allowed to enter the home after a purification ceremony has been performed. Naming a new born child also follows a particular convention with the naming ceremony being performed by a Lama. The child is mostly named after the local deity or the day on which it was born.
The Bhutanese believe in life after death or the doctrine of karma and the dead are cremated with proper respect and after following due rituals in order to ensure a safe and happy rebirth. 7 and its multiples like the 14th, the 21st and the 49th are considered important days for remembering the dead. Prayer flags are erected in memory of the dead and rituals performed on these days. Rituals are also performed on the death anniversary of the deceased and are attended by relatives and friends who come with rice, alcohol and other miscellaneous gifts for the occasion.
An important aspect about the uniqueness of Bhutanese culture is the vigor and enthusiasm with which festivals are celebrated. While each region has its own local festivals, the Tsechu is the most widely celebrated festival as well as the most anticipated. Celebrated on the 10th day of the lunar Bhutanese calendar, Tsechu is held in honor of Guru Ripoche credited with first bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. Held over a period of 5 days, the festival features a series of mask dances many of which are performed by Buddhist lamas. Each region in Bhutan celebrates the festival at different times of the year with full gusto with the local Bhutanese dressing in their best clothes and sharing food and wine.
A reference to Bhutanese culture is incomplete without referred to the food and eating habits of the Bhutanese. As in all other things, custom is followed while serving food with the head of the house being served first before the others. The women of the house, especially the mother are expected to serve the food while all the others sit cross legged on the floor. A typical meal includes rice, pork or beef preparation along vegetables and fruits, but the most unusual aspect of the food of Bhutan is its national dish, “chilies with cheese”. Tea, served in a variety of different ways is a popularly consumed beverage.
A culture that is strongly intertwined with its national identity, the Bhutanese way of life is a shining example in peaceful co-existence and how to preserve the beautiful bounties of nature so abundantly bestowed on this Himalayan land.