Culture of Bhutan is a distinctive feature that gives Bhutanese a unique identity in the world. Developed over centuries with influence of Buddhism, culture of Bhutan remained unswayed due to strict isolation policy until the 1960s.
For a small kingdom, situated between the two Asia Giants, preservation and promotion of unique cultural identity is seen as a means to survive as a sovereign kingdom.
As Bhutan began its development guided by the philosophy of Gross National Happiness in the 1970s, preservation and promotion of cultural heritage and traditional values is one of the four pillars of the philosophy.
Buddhism is a predominant religion and have so much influence on culture of Bhutan. Buddhism was introduced in Bhutan by Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th Century.
The constitution of Bhutan protects Buddhism as the spiritual heritage of country that promotes the principles and values of peace, non-violence, compassion and tolerance.
Buddhism plays a vital role in Bhutanese daily life from birth till death. It has influence over everything related to Bhutan.
Prayer flags over the mountains, stupas on your way, prayer wheels along the streams, majestic dzongs and temples on the hills and people chanting prayers are all part Buddhism.
As a matter of fact, Bhutan has more number of monks than soldiers.
National dress is one of the important components of culture of Bhutan. Gho, for men, and kira, for women, is national dress of Bhutan. All Bhutanese, except monks and nuns, are required to wear national dress in schools, government offices and on formal occasions.
It is also customary to wear national dress while joining festivals and visiting temples, monasteries and Dzongs. Monks and nuns wear red robes.
Nomadic communities in the mountains continue to wear their traditional dress as a means to preserve cultural heritage.
One of the most striking features of culture of Bhutan is its architecture. Bhutanese developed a peculiar style for dzongs, temples, house, bridges and stupas.
Traditional structures are constructed from locally available materials such as wood, bamboo, mud and stone. Neither nails nor iron bars are used. Blue prints are also not used.
Once complete, the structures got traditional paint on both external and internal walls.Today, the construction act mandates all modern buildings to have a look of traditional architecture with arched windows, sloping roofs and traditional painting.
Another component of culture of Bhutan is traditional sports. Traditional sports in Bhutan are a part of social events, and competitions are organized between villages and towns.
Events are usually accompanied by food, drinks and music. While men usually play the sports, women serve and entertain the gathering with songs and dance.
The traditional games do not require sophisticated materials. Sports equipment are made with locally available material.
Archery is the national game and the most popular game in Bhutan. Other traditional Bhutanese sports include khuru (dart), doegor and pungdo (shotput), and wrestling.
Songs and dances of Bhutan celebrate the beauty of nature, accomplishment of great saints and leaders, and share spiritual values. People come together and dance to observe important events and gatherings and to socialize.
Zhungdra, Boedra and several minor varieties such as zhey, zhem, tsangmo, alo, khorey, and awsa are classical genre while Rigsar is a modern.
Traditional music instruments include Dramnyem (lute), Lim (flute), Chiwang (fiddle) and Yangchi (dulcimer).
Rice is the main dish of Bhutan accompanied by side dishes such as beef, pork and vegetables. Chili, salt and oil (sometimes butter) are a must ingredient for all side dishes.
Bhutanese eat a lot of chili and curry made from Chili and Cheese, called Ema Datshi, the favorite of most. Here, chili is the main ingredient followed by cheese. It’s also the national dish.
In addition to main food, Bhutanese drink Suja, tea made from butter and salt, and milk tea. Drinking alcoholic beverages is a part of celebrations, gatherings and social events.
Bhutan’s native and unique arts and crafts represent the exclusive spirit and identity of the kingdom. It is known as Zorig Chosum, which means the thirteen arts and crafts.
The thirteen crafts are painting, sculpting, carpentry, wood carving, paper making, masonry, woodturning, weaving, embroidery, casting, cane weaving, blacksmithing and metal ornaments.
Except for goldsmiths, silversmiths, and painters, art objects were produced for self-use.
Tshechu, or the Mask Dance Festival, is the most popular festival in Bhutan lasting from 3-5 days which is held annually in various temples, monasteries and dzongs across Bhutan in different months.
Tshechu is a time to socialize, entertain, receive blessings and wash away sins.
The highlight of the festival is the sacred masked dances performed by both laity and monks dressed in ornate costumes accompanied by traditional dances by beautiful local women.
For a population of a little more than 600,000 people, Bhutan is linguistically rich with more than 20 languages. Difficult geographical features and harsh climatic conditions have led to isolation.
Dzongkha is the national language and every Bhutanese is expected to speak and write in it though it is the native to the west.
It’s mandatory for students to learn Dzongkha in schools and colleges. Two other major languages are the Tshanglakha, spoken by the people from the east and the Lhotshamkha, spoken in the south.
Mangdepkha, Khengkha and Bumthapkha are spoken in the central Bhutan while Chocha Ngacha is spoken by the Kurtoeps in eastern Bhutan.
Unfortunately, some minor spoken language such as Oleykha and Gongdukha are on verge of extinction.
Bhutan has its own behavioral code known as driglam namzha. The code mandates everyone to adopt civil and courteous conducts of the body, speech and mind and condemns crude and bad physical, verbal and mental behaviors in all formal and informal events.
From sitting to walking, talking to eating, the code expects all to do in a humble and courteous way.
The lift of ban on television and internet in 1999 has caused a threat to unique culture of Bhutan. The younger generation are easily influenced by western culture.
The Royal Government of Bhutan, therefore, has made it a priority to sustain both tangible and intangible aspects of its culture with dedicated office under the Department of Culture of the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs.
Likewise, many individuals and organizations have come up with initiatives to preserve and promote its rich cultural heritage and traditional values. Government also supports such initiatives.