Bhutanese Traditions & Customs
National Dress & types of Ceremonial Scarves in Bhutan
While visiting the dzong or government offices bearing the national flag, Bhutanese wear the national costume with ‘ceremonial scarves.’ Men wear a silk scarf called ‘kabney’ from left shoulder to the hip and women wear a ‘rachu’, a narrow-embroidered cloth draped over the left shoulder. The rank of the bearer determines the colour of kabney or rachu that he or she wears.
His Majesty the King of Bhutan (Druk Gyalpo) and the Chief Abbot (Je Khenpo) wears a saffron scarf.
The dark green scarf is worn by judges.
Deputy Ministers and Ministers wear orange scarf without fringes.
Members of the National Assembly and National Council wear a dark blue scarf.
The red scarves (Bura Marp) or red-gold (Lungmar) scarves are awarded to outstanding individuals in recognition of their excellent service to the nation. It does not represent a wearer's post. And individuals who are awarded with either the Bura Marp or Lungmar scarf are given the honorary title of Dasho conferred by His Majesty the King. ‘Lung-mar’ is a compounded form of two words, lungserma (red-gold) and Marp (Red).
The district administrators and governors (Dzongdag, Drangpon, Dzongrab, Drungpa), wear a white scarf with fringes and red band with one, two or three stripes.
For village chiefs (Gups), the scarf is red with fringes and two broad, red vertical borders known as khamar.
The commoners wear a white kabney (males) while the females wear colourful rachu with intricate design.
Titles and Form of Address
The title ‘Dasho’ is also given to those outstanding individuals who have been honoured by His Majesty the King and awarded with red scarf. Senior monk or teacher is addressed with title ‘Lopon’ (pronounced ‘loeboen). A trulku (reincarnate lama) is addressed as ‘Rinpoche’ and a nun as ‘Anim’.
A man is addressed as ‘Aap’ and a boy as ‘Basu’, a woman is addressed as ‘Am’ and a girl as ‘Bum’. While calling an individual whose name is not known one may address as ‘Ama’ or women and ‘Aaap’ for men. In the same situation girls can be addressed as ‘Bumo’ and boys ‘Alou’.
White silk scarves called Kata exchanged as customary greetings among ranking officials and offered to high lamas as a sign of respect.
Status of Women in Bhutanese Society
There is no significant preference for the male child over the female among most section of the population and sex-based abortions are unknown in the Bhutanese society. In traditional society, most of which is matriarchal, women were expected to hold the house and landed property while sons would leave home and settle in their wives' house. This custom is based on the believe that women need economic security to enable them to take care of their parents and raise children. This has led to the customary rights of importance by daughters.
The National Women's Association of Bhutan (NWAB) was established in 1981 to enhance the role of women at all levels of the development process. The association with nationwide chapters has successfully addressed the various needs of rural women through a variety of program like education, family healthcare, skills training, employment and rural credit facilities.
Social life in Bhutan
Buddhism permeates everyday life in Bhutan. Prayer flags flutter throughout the country, prayer wheels powered by mountain stream clunk gently by the roadside, images of Buddhist Gurus cared into cliff, reminds that every aspect of daily life is shaped by Buddhist beliefs and aspirations. Though Buddhism is practised throughout the country however most Bhutanese people of Nepalese origin practise Hinduism and in fact major Hindu festivals marked as National holidays in the country.
Until 1960s, there were no major urban settlements in Bhutan but with growth and development of road infrastructure few major towns have sprung up. Also, as a result of opportunities created by education and infrastructural development, country has experienced significant social mobility in recent decades from villages to urban centres. But despite rapid urbanisation, the majority of people still live-in rural Bhutan and most are dependent on the cultivation of crops and livestock breeding. Traditionally, Bhutanese have been self-sufficient and there remains a degree of self-sufficiency among the rural Bhutanese though in urban centres, many everyday items are now imported from India, Thailand and Bangladesh also.
Marriage in Bhutan
Lhabsang ritual:This ritual starts early on the auspicious day chosen for the wedding. Monks chant mantras as they burn incense and make offerings to the local deities. All these rituals are performed outside the temple or monastery, prior to the arrival of the bride and groom.
Lighting of Butter Lamps:Once the bride and groom arrive, the butter lamps lighten after they have prostrated six times – three times at the Head Lama or Guru Rinpoche and three times at the main altar of the temple or monastery. Its an important ceremony and symbolises the illumination of couple’s life ahead together.
Thrisor service:Following the lighting of butter lamps, the Head lama and few monks perform a Thrisor service. This purification ritual is believed to cleanse the couple’s body, speech, mind, soul and most importantly make them free of all their sins.
Changphoed ritual: In this interesting ritual, locally brewed alcohol or Ara is offered to the deities. The remaining brew served to the bride and groom who drink from the same phoob – a traditional wooden bowl. The Changphoed ritual signifies the close bond that the couple will share for the rest of their lives and this is followed by the exchange of wedding rings – meant to bind the bride and groom together.
Tsepamey Choko: Performed by the Head Lama, ‘Tsepamey Choko’ refers to the God of Longevity in Bhutan and as the name suggests, this ritual signifies the blessings granted to the couple for a blissful, lifelong marriage.
Zhugdrey Phunsum Tshogpa: Also known as ‘Zhungdrey’, the Zhugdrey Phunsum Tshogpa is a food sharing ritual. To begin with, the fruits and food are served to the local deities, then to God and finally to the guests who have turned up for the ritual. Fruits used for the ceremony are usually oranges, meant to represent the sweet bond between the couple. It is also customary for guests to accept the fruits as a sign of goodwill.
Dhar Nyanga presentation: The ceremony ends with the presentation of the Dhar Nyanga (scarves) to the bride and groom, along with best wishes for a happily married life.
Naming process of people in Bhutan
Most names in Bhutan have meanings associated to Buddhist religious figures, beliefs and gods including Buddha himself. Buddha in Bhutan is known as Sangay and many people have this name, which means ‘have attained enlightenment’. Similarly, there are names like Karma, associated with Buddhist belief of rebirth based on good or bad deeds. Deki, which means peace and happiness, is also a common name like Sonam that means luck. Pema too is a common name which means lotus and refers to purity. Dechen means ‘great compassion’ Tashi means good auspicious or good luck, Sonam means ‘religious merit’, Chimi means immortality, Tshering means long life, Ugyen is the saint Padmasambhava, Dorji is the state of indestructability, are other popular names.
Bhutanese personal names are quite limited and only about 50-60 names are in existence so there could be number of persons with similar name. Except Royal lineage, generally Bhutanese names do not include a family name. Unlike in many other countries, a woman does not take her husband’s name after marriage and even children’s names could be totally different from their parents.
According to traditional belief, a new born is named within few weeks after birth and names are given by a lama or religious master. The horoscope of the baby is also prepared by local astrologer which contains detail of child’s previous life, present life predications and various important stages and events of life.
Family System in Bhutan
The structure of the family and members dependence of it remains intact in Bhutan, and not yet gone the way of nuclear family and isolation but the family is still thriving in Bhutan and is one of the most important social structure tied to culture, governance and the environment. Notably, Bhutanese have a natural inclination to treat others with an intimacy and familiarity as if they all are one family.
A typical Bhutanese family in villages would consist of following members, all living together and enjoying life: Agay (Grandfather), Angay (Grandma), Apa (Father), Ama (mother) and Alu (Children). A life in typical Bhutanese village begins with dola as the rooster crows and dola means attending to miscellaneous tasks like attending to kitchen garden, milking the cow, churning the milk for butter, grinding the grains, changing water offerings in the altar etc. The parent return for the breakfast only after the dola is completed. After the breakfast, elders leave for the main work while children attend school or other chores. If the family works in field, then they usually eat outdoor lunch. Families eat dinner mostly in the kitchen, sitting on the floor around the oven with crossed legs on wooden floor. They put all the pots and pans in the middle and then mother or grandmother serves everyone. Before eating, a short prayer is offered, and a small morsel placed on the floor as an offering to the local spirits and deities.
However, in changing times of greater education and development Bhutan is also experiencing social mobility in recent decades and rural-urban migration continues to increase impacting the culture of joint family system.
Birth, Death & Rebirth
Death is believed to be transition from one body to another but is still it is a sad affair except if the person is highly spiritual and believes in getting liberated from the limitation of the body and getting enlightened upon death. As soon as the death occurs, the monks, nuns and other religious practioners are immediately called to read Bardo Thodrel (book of the dead). The tsips (astrologer) are usually consulted to find the proper time and day for cremation. Since it is believed that death is a transition period before going into next birth, so utmost care taken to follow the tsip’s readings. The 7th, 14th, 21st and 49th days after a person’s death are considered especially important and are recognized by erecting prayer flags in the name of the deceased and performing specific rituals. It is believed that the dead spirit on each seventh day gets more active and likely to proceed to the next birth while on other days, it wanders in dilemma and not able to decide and finds its way. Therefore, the lama, who is conducting funeral service and ritual for the deceased guides to deceased’s spirit. The lama reads the Bardo Thodrel (book of the dead) which is believed to liberate the dead from the predicament by just hearing it. As per local belief, many souls wander about because of their attachments to people and belongings and in order to help the dead to find their way to next life, various rituals are performed which helps in breaking the past life attachments. In affluent families, prayers are conducted upto 49th day and then on this day funeral services are done in temples and monasteries. The ashes of deceased are usually collected and pour into the river following some reading of scriptures or in some cases put into a statue and donated to the monastery or temple dedicating to deceased. Elaborate and ancient rituals are also conducted on the anniversary of the death with the erection of prayer flags.
Bhutanese people follow two major religions; Buddhism & Hinduism those have much similarity in many beliefs and faith and both believing in compassion, karma, and rebirth. In Bhutan, the Northerners are mostly Buddhist while the Lhotshampas in the south practise Hinduism. Buddhists embrace the concepts of karma (the law of cause and effect) and reincarnation (the continuous cycle of rebirth). The law of karma dictates that an individual's decisions and behaviours in one life can influence his or her transmigration into the next life; for example, if someone lived life in harmony with others, that person would transmigrate to a better existence after death. In contrast, someone who had lived selfishly would inherit a life worse than the previous one after death. One central belief of Buddhism is often referred to as reincarnation - the concept that people are reborn after dying. In fact, most individuals go through many cycles of birth, living, death and rebirth. A practicing Buddhist differentiates between the concepts of rebirth and reincarnation. In reincarnation, the individual may recur repeatedly. In rebirth, a person does not necessarily return to Earth as the same entity ever again.
Popular Bhutanese Beliefs and Superstitions
• While travelling, it is good sign to see a langur but a bad sign to see monkeys.
• If you see a full rainbow in the sky, some lama is believed to be born.
• A Black cat crossing the road when you’re beginning a long-distance travel, or an important mission, it indicates ill omen and advisable to postpone your trip for next day.
• The days 2, 8, 14, 20, 26 of every lunar calendar are considered inauspicious for travel.
• If one sees an owl, it is a bad omen.
• Bees are a sign of wealth and building their nest in one’s house is a sign of prosperity. Conversely, people believe that wasps bring misfortune.
• One should not sharpen a knife, or cut fingernail and hair in the night, because it will shorten one’s life.
• A Bat’s presence in the house indicates that inmates are nice people and home a heaven.
• Keeping dogs as pet is advisable as they act as a recipient of all the bad luck and curse of the family while family is spared of the suffering and bad luck in the house.
• One should not keep books opened while not reading or studying or else the ghost would read it.
• It is considered inauspicious to cut one’s hair on the 1st or 2nd of every lunar month, and people are advised to avoid washing their head on the 29th and 30th of every lunar month, as well.
• A Bee hovering around your heads brings good news for you and your loved ones. On contrary, if it’s a dung-fly (bigger housefly), It indicates bad Luck.
• At night one should not shout a person’s name as it is believed this will attract a ghost.
• Dreaming of an arrow hitting a target or walking up the road are considered good omens and signify success, while dreams of a black dog, walking down the road, or a tooth falling out of one’s mouth are considered bad dreams.
• Dreams that are seen during the autumn season are considered null because people say that during autumn when leaves are falling off trees, people are capable of dreaming anything, and therefore, will not give its true interpretation.
• If a crow caws near your house, you might expect a guest.
• If you see a deer’s back, your work is believed to be accomplished but it is considered an ill omen to see the deer’s face.
Loser - the New Year in Bhutan
Though different regions of Bhutan celebrate new year at different time of the year. For instance, Nyinlo (Winter Solstice) is the new year observed by people of Thimphu, Punakha, Wangduephording and Trongsa, Lomba is celebrated as new year by communities of Paro and Haa district while Eastern Bhutan celebrates Chunyinpi losar (Traditional day of offering) as New Year.
The Losar New Year celebration begins with Nyi Shu Gu (Losar New Year’s Eve) and continues, in some parts of Bhutan, for two full weeks. The first three days of the New Year have the biggest celebrations in Bhutan though official holidays observed only for two days. Tibetans celebrate New year for 1 week and all Tibetan institutions are closed during this period.
The origins of Losar can be traced back to pre-Buddhist period and the Bon religion and was most likely celebrated to mark the winter solstice. When the region converted to Buddhism, the date was shifted by Buddhist monks to match up with their lunar calendar.
On New Year’s morning, breakfast is taken just at sun rise, and various rituals are observed. A meal at noon and a mid-afternoon snack are also traditional. Families often go on picnics together, and it is a day that mixes celebration with relaxation. Losar is also a perfect time to try various delectable Bhutanese staple dishes such as stews, ema datshi (chilli-cheese), red rice and sweets. Locals make variety of homemade cookies for offerings and to share as New Year gift with relatives and neighbours. People of Tibetan origin also prepare elegant and elaborate artistic cookies for offerings and exchange amongst friends and relatives. According to tradition, green bananas and sugarcane should be present on a New Year's table, as they bring goodness for an upcoming year. First lunar month is also observed as holy month and consumption of animal flesh is totally avoided. Majority of the Bhutanese turn vegetarian for this entire month and meat stalls are closed by law.
Later in the day, local Losar festivals are held all over the nation, where there is abundant feasting, singing, and dancing. Games such as darts and archery are played, archery especially being prominent because it is the national sport of the country. Everyone greets each other with ‘Tashi Delek!’ which is a wish for abundance and good luck.
Doma, in fact equivalent to Indian Paan serves as an ice-breaker at social gatherings and meetings and has become an essential part of Bhutanese life & culture; it is served after meals, during rituals and ceremonies, chewed at work places by all section of society and acts as a good casual gift amongst friends or strangers.
Doma believed to keep people warm in colder climate and have some benefits if consumed after meal once or twice a day to provide calcium supplement and helping in digestion as well but excessive chewing of Doma could be harmful for health. Repeated use of Doma could lead to high blood pressure, stress and disturbs the smooth function of other vital body organs. Doctors strictly warn people suffering from diseases of intestinal tracts like ulcers and gastritis not to indulge in excessive doma chewing.
In Bhutan, doma chewing defies time and space, age and gender. And nobody exactly knows how, why and when doma became such a fundamental part of the Bhutanese culture and ethos. Though historical records suggest that offering doma-pani became a tradition since 1639, when the construction of Punakha Dzong was completed, and consecration ceremony was held. Zhabdrung friends from Bihar (India) believed to have gifted him doma-pani and since then it has been used in most formal ceremonies like marriages, promotions and other occasions and became integral part of Bhutanese culture.
Seven Bowls of Water Offering
Yonchab or ‘water offering’ is believed to be prevalent since the time of Buddha. One of the reasons why the water offering is more in practise is that water is the cheapest thing which even poor people can afford and also because the rich can avoid boasting of their wealth.
The water offering in seven bowls represent:
* Drinking water: It is believed to create auspiciousness and bring positive effects and attitudes in one’s mind.
Food in the form of torma: Offering of food which has a lot of different tastes signifies nectar or ambrosia to feed the mind.
Prayer & Meditation
While praying, most Bhutanese fold their hands into lotus form which is a sign of showing respect, concentrate one’s mind and heart and open them for teaching of Buddha. The chanting of prayers also gives an opportunity to learn, reinforce, and reflect upon various Buddhist teachings. Texts like Kanjur (the teaching of Buddha), Tenjur (commentaries on various teachings), and Dema (Praise for Tara, the Goddess of compassion) are often recited.
The rosary in Bhutan is called as Chengm and is part of many people’s daily practice. The rosary contains 108 beads which are divided into four sections of 27 beads. The 108 beads on the main string are explained by the repetition of sacred spell 100 times and the extra 8 are to ensure that there is no omission or breakage in working the spell.