Culture and Religion

While Bhutan is one of the smallest countries in the world, its cultural diversity and richness are profound. As such, strong emphasis is laid on the promotion and preservation of its unique culture. By protecting and nurturing Bhutan’s living culture it is believed that it will help guard the sovereignty of the nation. 

Buddhism permeates everyday life in Bhutan and a basic knowledge of Buddhism is essential to understanding the Bhutanese. Prayer flags dot the landscape, prayers wheels powered by mountain streams turn gently at the roadside, images of the divine beings are carved and painted on to cliffs, reminding the visitor that every aspect of daily life is shaped by Buddhist beliefs and aspirations. The idea of accumulating merit, a deep respect of the natural and often sacred environment, respect for religious practitioners; all central elements of the unique fusion of Buddhism.

Yet the smiles of the children walking to school in the morning light, the laughter overheard in a family house, the shy greetings from women weaving outside their homes, will quickly entrance the traveler. The Bhutanese are warm and open peoples of the Himalayas; the Bhutanese have an infectious sense of humour and quickly overcome barriers to communication. You should not be surprised to be offered a seat and a cup of Suja (a typical Bhutanese tea) even if you do not speak Dzongkha or one of the other 18 languages of Bhutan. These simple acts are spontaneous and provide the traveler with both fond memories and a brief insight into the generous nature of the Bhutanese.

BIRTH

The birth of a child is always welcomed. In Bhutan extended family and guests are discouraged from visiting during the first three days after the birth.

On the third day, a short purification ritual is performed after which visitors are welcomed to visit the new born and mother.   Bhutanese value children as progenitors of the future and therefore do not discriminate on the sex of the child.  Traditionally various gifts are offered ranging from dairy products to cloth and money.

The child is not immediately named; this responsibility is usually entrusted to the head lama (Buddhist priest) of the local temple. The mother and child will also receive blessings from the local deity (natal deity) and it was traditional that the name associated with the deity is given. In some cases, the child is given the name of the day on which the child is born. Based on the Bhutanese calendar, a horoscope is written based on the time and date of the birth, this will detail the various rituals to be performed at different times in the life of the child and to an extent predict his or her future.

PERSONAL NAMES

The system of names in Bhutan differs between the north and south of the country. Traditionally, in the north, with the exception of the royal family, there are no family names but now most family prefers to have their family name. Two names are given to children by monks a few weeks after birth. These are traditional names of Tibetan origin and are chosen because of their auspicious influence or religious meaning. Two names are always given, although a few people have three names and some a single name.

It is often impossible to tell the sex of a Bhutanese person based on their name. A few names are given only to boys, and others apply only to girls, for example Dolma, Peday, Zangmo,Wangmo, but most names may apply to either.

In the south, with an evident Hindu influence, a system resembling family names exists. Brahmans and Newars retain their caste name, such as Sharma or Pradhan, and others retain the name of their ethnic group, such as Rai or Gurung.

EATING HABITS

Traditional Bhutanese eating habits are simple and, in general, food is eaten with hands. Family members eat while sitting cross legged on the wooden floor with food first being served to the head of the household first. It is usually women who serve the food and in most cases, the mother. Before eating, a short prayer is offered and a small morsel placed on the floor as an offering to the local spirits and deities. With modernization, eating habits have changed and in urban areas, people usually eat with cutlery whilst seated at a regular dining table. Traditionally dishes were cooked in earthenware, but with the easy availability of modern goods, pots and pans have largely replaced their use. A typical Bhutanese meal consists of rice, a dish of Ema Datshi, the country’s favorite dish of chili and cheese, pork, beef curry or lentils.

MARRIAGE

In the past marriages were arranged mostly among their relatives. However, since the 1970s the majority of marriages are love matches. The minimum age is sixteen for women and twenty-one foe men. In Western Bhutan, it is quite common for the husband to move into his wife's household and if they divorce he will return to live with his own family while the practice in Eastern Bhutan is reverse. 

Marriages are simple affairs and are usually kept low-key. However, elaborate rituals are performed for lasting unions between the bride and the bridegroom. Divorce is also an accepted norm and carries no ignominy or disgrace within the country.

DEATH

The frescoes of the Wheel of Life show that, to Bhutanese, death is part of the cycle of samsara separating loved ones and leading to rebirth.  In keeping with the traditions, elaborate rituals are performed to ensure a safe passage and a good rebirth.

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 religious rituals. While the deceased are normally cremated, funerary practices vary among the southern Bhutanese and the nomadic Brokpas of northern Bhutan. Southern Bhutanese typically bury their dead while the Brokpas carry out ‘Sky Burials’, a process in which the deceased are prepared and left atop mountains to be devoured by vultures in a final act of compassion and generosity. At the end of the 49 days the ashes of the deceased may be scattered; some are placed in a sacred image and placed on the rocky cliffs, mountains and donated to a monastery or temple. The anniversary of the death will be marked for the following three years.

RELIGION

Buddhism is practised throughout the country though, in the south, most Bhutanese people of Nepali and Indian descent are Hindu. Relations between Buddhists and Hindus are very good and often believed that these two religions are interrelations, with major Hindu festivals are marked by national holidays. Minority groups practise various forms of ancient animistic religions, including Bon, which predates Himalayan Buddhism.