The most unique aspect of the country of Bhutan lies in its distinct culture, unblemished by the forces of modernization or colonization. Having maintained independence in its centuries of existence, the Kingdom of Bhutan has taken several steps to ensure that the traditions, customs and practices of the small Himalayan country continue to flourish. A strong pride in maintaining cultural heritage exists in both the government and the people.
The most visible this can be seen is in the national dress of the country. This national dress is customary for both genders, and wearing it is compulsory when meeting senior officials, or in professional settings, or whenever the citizens are out and about during daylight hours. The men wear a dress called gho, consisting of a long robe that falls to the knee, kept in place by a tight belt called kera. The volume of the robe also allows for a pouch, where men often keep items such as wallets. Women’s national dress is kira, a bright, apron-like wrap that is made of fine wool and worn in bright colors. The kira is rectangular and held up on the shoulders through a brooch called the koma. The kira is accompanied by the toego, a jacket that is often contrasted to kira.
The dressing of the Bhutanese people is regulated by the code called the Driglam Namzha. The idea of a national dress was first introduced by Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan Buddhist leader and the unifider of Bhutan, who wished to consolidate the unification through a common culture. Since the 1990s, this custom has been codified into law, and Bhutanese individuals may be fined for not adhering to the dresscode.
The dress code and etiquettes of Bhutan together form the driglam namzha, a set of rules and social norms that tells Bhutanese people everything from how to give and accept gifts to the procedure for approaching authorities. Alongside, it preaches devotion to social institutions such as marriage and family, and respect for authority such as that of the monarchy.
Alongside the national dress, there are several other ways in which the country of Bhutan expresses its unique culture. Religion plays a dominant role in the country, with the state religion of Buddhism manifesting in many ways in everyday life. Prayer wheels, monks, prayer flags and monasteries are common sights.
And of course, there are the religious festivals of Bhutan, bright and colorful social celebrations that bring villages together in music and dance. Indeed, almost every occasion or festival in Bhutan is marked with singing and dancing by both monks and ordinary citizens. The themes range from Bhutan’s historical victories to moral vignettes and tales of religious saints, and these celebrations are one of the most distinct part of Bhutanese culture. Though singing and dancing are common, they are not undertaken lightly – every activity in a festival has important social and religious significance, and they are seen as an important expression of the country’s religion and cultural heritage. Hence, practice, training, and keeping tourists away from participating or even witnessing some dances are common.
The social life of Bhutan too, revolves around religion and one’s social setting. Men and women both tend to work in rural and urban areas, but the society still follows a gendered separation of indoor and outdoor work. However, the birth of a daughter is just as desirable as that of a son, and some matrilineal practices are common too. For example, women in Bhutan tend to inherit the wealth of her parents, and it is expected that the men would make their own way and fortune in life.
Birth and death are important markers of life in Bhutan, especially because they are considered as stops in the cycle of reincarnation as elucidated by Buddhism. In the first three days after birth, the notion of pollution and the desire to give space to the new family means that friends and neighbours do not visit, and only after the purification rituals is the child introduced to the outside world. Surnames are not common in Bhutan, and the child is named by a revered priest or lama of the area. The creation of the kye tsi, the horoscope of the child for the prediction of their future, is also an important practice.
To ensure a safe and good passage for the departed soul, elaborate funerary rituals are conducted on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 46th day after death. The dead are usually cremated, and rituals for their afterlife continue for three years after their death.
In contrast, marriages are simple affairs, conducted by a holy person with perhaps a small dinner for close loved ones after. Both the practice of arranged marriages and marriage to cousins is fast becoming obsolete in the country. The bride and groom are felicitated with money and gifts.
Connections of people with their families and neighbours is considered very important – many people participate in festivals not just for the religious aspect, but to also engage with their fellow citizens. Respect towards elders and monks is very important, and a general decorum is expected from both locals and outsiders. Many suggest that sensitive topics be kept out of conversations until initiated by the Bhutanese individual one is conversing with. Yet, despite the relative conservatism, the spirit of hospitality in inherent part of the country. Even strangers may be asked into one’s home, and it is considered rude to decline repeated invitations to eat, or to leave without the permission of the host. Instead of cafes, restaurants and clubs, social life in Bhutan continues to be organized around homes, community areas and social activities such as archery competitions.
Another important aspect of the tradition of the Bhutanese people is their love for the environment. Having depended on, and being provided by, the nature around them, both the nomads and settled communities have deep connections with their land. Even as most believe in Buddhism, they still pay homage to their local deities and nature spirits. This has translated into an active conversation culture in the country. By law, 60% of the land is covered by forest, and plastic has been long banned in the country. Tree planting is common, and packaged food is avoided in favour of fresh farm produce and subsistence agricultural practices. Food practices of the country are also unique in other aspects. In many rural households, the first bite of the food is placed on the floor as an offering to the deity that the individuals believe in, and laws of hospitality demand that an invitation to eat only be accepted after the second or third time the offer is made.
Though meat is very commonly consumed, Bhutan does not have established butchery practices, and animal products are usually imported from other countries. Dogs are given special reverence in the country, as they are often mentioned in Buddhist stories. Not kept as pets, these animals are allowed to roam free, and are usually taken care of by a community or locality as a whole.
Of all the many things that make the culture of Bhutan incredible, by far the most amazing fact is that the heritage of the country continues to remain pure and out of influence of various modernizing and globalizing forces. An active effort by the country and its people has led Bhutan to be amongst the ‘last cultures standing’, which has successfully retained its own customs and traditions and rejected the common global culture. Still, Bhutan continues to adopt the best of the outer world, such as through its ban on plastic and tobacco. In other words, Bhutan continues to exist on its own terms, defined only by its own culture, heritage and identity.