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<< Indian Himalayas << About Himalayas >> << Culture Travel >> << Culture of Bhutan >>

Culture of Bhutan

Bhutanese culture derives from ancient Tibetan culture. Dzongkha and Sharchop, the principal Bhutanese languages, are closely related to Tibetan, and Bhutanese monks read and write the ancient variant of the Tibetan language 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 Tibetans and Bhutanese revere the tantric guru Padmasambhava the founder of Himalayan Buddhism in the 8th century.

Religion of Bhutan

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 high-walled fortresses, which serves the religious and administrative center of the district.

Dress Up Style

All Bhutanese citizens are required to observe the national dress code, or driglam namzha, while in public during daylight hours. The rule is enforced more rigorously in some districts (dzongkhag) than others. 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. A short silk jacket, or toego may be worn over the kira. Everyday gho and kira are cotton or wool, according to the season, patterned in simple checks and stripes in earth tones. For special occasions and festivals, colourfully patterned silk kira and, more rarely, gho may be worn.

Bhutanese People

Bhutanese women have traditionally had more rights than women in surrounding cultures, the most prominent 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.

Marriages are at the will of either party and divorce is not uncommon. The ceremony consists of an exchange of white scarves and the sharing of a cup. Marriages can be officially registered when the couple has lived together for more than six months. Traditionally the groom moves to the bride's family home, but newly-weds may decide to live with either family depending on which is most in need of labor.

Religious People

Once a year a dzong or important village may hold a religious festival, or tsechhu. 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.

Arts & Crafts

All Bhutanese art-dance, drama and music-is steeped in Buddhism. The paintings are not produced for tourists, but for religious purposes; festivals are not quaint revivals, but living manifestations of a national faith; and almost all art, music and dance represents the struggle between good and evil. These traditions can be seen in all their glory at Bhutan's spectacular religious festivals called Tsechus.

Monasteries in Bhutan

Monks join the monastery at six to nine 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 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.

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.

Music of Bhutan

Bhutanese popular music history began with the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, which was followed by the band Tashi Nyencha, who established the first recording studio in Thimphu in 1991. Prior to this period, Bhutanese people primarily listen to filmi and other kinds of Indian pop music. Rigsar is the dominant style of Bhutanese popular music, dand dates back to the late 1960s [4]   The first major music star was Shera Lhendup, whose career began after the 1981 hit "Nga khatsa jo si lam kha lu".

By the end of the 1980s, rigsar was no longer so popular, until the arrival of Norling Drayang. Since Drayang, popular Bhutanese music has primarily been the genre rigsar, a fusion of elements from Western pop, Indian and Tibetan music. The best-selling album in Bhutanese history was New Waves (1996) by Suresh Moktan, who later denounced rigsar, and the album, after learning Indian classical music. Unlike many countries, Bhutanese folk music is almost never used in popular music. Other rigsar musicians include Neten Dorji.

Travel in Bhutan

Bhutan often reversed as the 'Land of the peaceful Dragon' is still regarded as one of the last "Shangri-La" in the Himalayan region because of its remoteness, it's spectacular mountain terrain, varied flora and fauna and it's unique ancient Buddhist monasteries. It is relatively unexplored pockets of Asia, which allows only limited number of discerning travelers to enter the country with special travel visa permits.

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