The Bhutanese people are blessed with one of the oldest and richest cultures in the world. Luckily this culture has been carefully preserved for centuries and it is still very much alive and vibrant in the country today.
Due to the diverse ethnic groups that make up the country, Bhutanese culture is like a mosaic comprised of each of their unique traditions and languages. There are the Lhotsampas of Nepali origin residing in the south of the country, the Sharchops of northern Burma and northeast India living in the east, and the Ngalops who migrated from Tibet living in the west. There are many more unique minor ethnic groups such as Doya, Brokpa, Khengpa, Mangdipa, Tora, Urao, Kurtip, Gungdip and Baglap, who are known as indigenous people and predominantly follow Bon religion. Every aspect of life – cuisine, attire, hospitality, etiquette, religions, rituals, weddings, etc – are all culturally guided by each unique ethnic group and have come together to become the way of life for the people of Bhutan.
The cultural and geographic diversity of the country provide ample space for a variety of cuisines. However, dal-bhansa-tarkari (lentil soup, vegetable curry and rice) is the most popular dish, especially among the Lhotsampa community who add a special spicy pickle known as achaar to top it off. Ema-datshi (red peppers with cheese stew) is considered a national food most popular among the diverse Bhutanese community. There are some other very special foods such as selroti (homemade circular-shaped donut) that is prepared during Tihar, the popular Hindu festival of lights. Chiura (flattened rice) is also a popular food among Bhutanese. It is widely used during Dashain festival. Many foreign foods are also adopted in Bhutanese cuisine such as momo, samosa, chaumin, chau-chau, etc.
Our traditional attire and costumes are considered an integral part of Bhutanese culture. Males of Nepali origin wear Bhoto, Daura-Suruwal and Dhaka Topi, and the females wear Sari, Faria, Gunue, Chau-bandhi Cholo and Patuki. These attires are entwined with our culture. The crest of Dhaka Topi is mountain-shaped which symbolizes the great Himalayas. Similarly, the Daura has eight strings to tie itself around the body (the number eight is the lucky number in Nepali mythology). Likewise, the Daura has five pleats (commonly called Kallis) which signify Pancha Buddha or Pancha Ratna. The closed neck of the Daura symbolizes the snake around Lord Shiva’s neck. Correspondingly, the traditional dresses of Gurungs are Bhangra, Kachhar, Kuley, Jogi, Daura and Lukuni. The Gurungsenis wear Doye, Galek, Tikis, Jogi, choli and Kamo or Sirbandi. The Gho for the men and Kira for the women are the national dress of Bhutan.
Bhutanese hospitality is legendary as we are recognized in the world for our inherent hospitality. We believe that we are highly honored if we share our meals with guests. Whether our guests are rich or poor, it does not matter; we will open our homes to anyone. Furthermore, it is a matter of pride for a Bhutanese woman not to let guests go away unfed or unhappy from her home. The Sanskrit dictum “Atithi Devo Bhava,” meaning “the guest is truly your god,” is aptly applied in Bhutanese hospitality. It is the pleasure of the host and hostess to serve food to the guests; in fact in most festivities and celebrations, serving food is often the most important part of the occasion. Whatever the occasion may be, Bhutanese people always eat with great enthusiasm and are skilled at finding reasons to feast and have a merry time with those around us. No matter whether it is at wedding or other life events, feasts are generally hosted by the families directly involved, and as many guests as possible are invited to attend. This is the way we have been living for generations and generations with great pleasure and pride. If you have not guessed yet, our hospitality is the elixir of our life!
People are greeted with “Namaste” or “Namaskar” while greeting the guests with folding palms as a humble submission. It also means the guest is treated like a god within you, or that the soul in one person is acknowledging and paying homage to the soul in another. In Dzongkha and Sharpchop languages, people are greeted with “Kuzuzangpo la,” which means a guest is greeted with the wishes of good health and peace of mind. Demonstrating physical contact such as hugging, kissing, etc. in public is not considered appropriate; even married couples do not do so in public.
When people become older, they rely more on their sons and daughters for assistance. Whatever they earn throughout their life, it is inherited by their children. In turn, it is considered inappropriate for sons and daughters to take their parents to nursing homes in their old age for care. Instead, their children are to care for them until they pass away.
Religion helps human beings cope with life’s difficulties and provides peace of mind for all circumstances. The majority of Bhutanese people are Hindu, followed by Buddhists, Kirants, Christians and others, respectively. All Hindus, Buddhists, Kirants and Christians perform prayers on a regular basis. It is the unique nature of our culture that the followers of these religions have lived together for all time in religious harmony. This fact has formed unity in the diversity among the Bhutanese community. There has rarely been a dispute or riot recorded on the basis of the religions. Religious tolerance is especially important because there are many sub-cultures coexisting within a culture. It is also pivotal for a society to function well and to have unity and consistency among the members of the diverse population. Above all, our tolerance to religions has helped to lessen hatred and pain, and served to promote love, compassion, charity and understanding among all people.
Following the death of a loved one, family members in Hindu culture mourn their death for 13-16 days while holding regular prayers wishing the departed soul to rest peacefully in heaven. Followers of Hinduism, as well as many Buddhists and Christians, cremate the dead bodies while some others bury the bodies. Many believe that through cremation the soul is escorted to heaven, while others believe that cremation provides a union of the soul with the universal spirit. It is also believed that cremation is a way to detach the spirit from worldly attachments. Bodies of holy men and children are not cremated however, but are buried because it is believed that a young child has not lived long enough to develop worldly attachments and a holy man’s spirit is already detached from the body. We also believe in living virtuously in order to move progressively through higher states of consciousness.
Weddings are another special event in life. Both arranged and unarranged marriages are common in the Bhutanese community. Commonly, the eldest family member from the groom’s side (excluding his father and mother) formally requests the bride’s hand in marriage while presenting the bride with gifts and clothing. If agreed, the bride puts red tika on her forehead and is given a ceremonial blessing. When the date of marriage is fixed, the groom goes with the jaanti (marriage procession) to the bride’s home for the swayamber (the main wedding ceremony). When the jaanti arrives at the bride’s house, the bride is circled three times and warmly welcomed with garlands. The bride and groom exchange garlands. They also exchange rings and wedding vows in witness of the eternal agni (the ceremonial fire of existence). They circle the agni seven times which symbolizes that they are making a spiritual vow to be together in seven incarnations of their lives. Then the groom places sindur (a typical red powder) on to the bride’s head which is symbolic of a sacred marriage. The groom also offers sari, potey (beads) and churi (bangles) to the bride as special gifts. In Buddhism, Buddha did not prescribed any set wedding services; the marriage is not considered as a sacred ceremony, rather it is considered a social ceremony.