Bhutan, a country located in the Himalayan Mountains of South Asia, is best known for its political policies aimed at cultural isolation from the rest of the world in an attempt to avoid being influenced by other cultures. One of these political policies actually prevented foreign visitors from coming to this country for a number of decades until the latter part of the 20th century. Today, only a very limited number of foreign tourists are allowed to visit. Cultural preservation has been of utmost importance to the government and society of Bhutan, who take pride in the heritage and freedom of their history and culture. Additionally, the rugged, mountainous geography surrounding this country has also worked to maintain its isolation from surrounding nations, ideas, and people.
The culture of Bhutan dates back over hundreds of years and can be understood by observing several unique factors, including: social beliefs and customs, religions and festivals, music and dance, literature and arts, and cuisine. This article takes a closer look at each of these components of the culture of Bhutan.
Social Beliefs And Customs
Many of the social customs and beliefs of the culture of Bhutan are dictated by the Driglam Namzha, a governmental policy that identifies the proper dress and behavior of the citizens of this country. According to this system, men must wear a short robe over their pants and women must wear a long fabric that is tied around their waist to resemble a skirt. Special occasions or celebrations may allow more brightly colored clothing.
The roles of men and women in traditional communities are more egalitarian than what is observed in many places around the world. Here, men contribute to household chores and women work in the field to cultivate crops. In fact, the society of Bhutan follows more matrilineal practices than patriarchal. Women own the land, new husbands move into the homes of their wives after marriage, and daughters do not change their names upon marriage. Additionally, the issue of inheritance of property is determined through relationship to the woman who has passed away.
Religion And Festivals
The most widely practiced religion in Bhutan is Buddhism, which is observed by around three-quarters of the population here. The government of this country has identified Vajrayana Buddhism (also known as Tantric and Esoteric Buddhism) as the official national religion, although the freedom to practice any religion is guaranteed by the monarch. Only a very small percentage of the population claims to practice either Christianity or Islam. Nearly one-quarter of Bhutanese residents report that they are followers of Hinduism.
The people of Bhutan also celebrate a number of festivals throughout the year. One of the most unique of these festivals is the tshechu, which is celebrated on the 10th day of the lunar month, according to the Tibetan calendar. The month in which this 4-day festival is held may change depending on the specific location, which means that several tshechu events are held throughout the year. The tshechu festival allows the people of a particular district to come together to socialize and share in their cultural heritage. The most common activity that takes place during these festivals is the Cham dance, which is performed while wearing colorful costumes and masks. During these dances, Buddhist monks play traditional Tibetan instruments, dancers interpret important moral lessons, and communities display a thongdrel. A thongdrel is a large, decorated piece of fabric that depicts an important Buddhist spiritual leader and it is believed that looking at it may remove sins.
Music And Dance
The music and dance of Bhutan are important components in everyday life and are often utilized to teach moral life lessons to residents. This teaching through music and dance is particularly true during important religious festivals, as previously mentioned. The traditional folk music of Bhutan incorporates a number of unique instruments, including the: dranyen, lingm, and chiwang. The dranyen is a stringed instrument with six strings and is said to resemble a lute. The lingm is a unique type of flute that is long and flared on the open end; it has six holes for finger placements. Finally, the chiwang is a special type of stringed instrument that has only two strings and a body that looks similar to that of a violin.
In addition to its music, Bhutan also has a number of traditional dances. Some of these dances include the: Zhungdra, which is performed by women as an offering to deities; Pchiwang, which is performed by women who simultaneously carry the chiwang instrument; and Drametse Nga, which is performed by men who wear an animal mask and colorful robes.
Literature And Arts
Bhutan is rich in intangible cultural heritage, which means that written literature is not very common. The people of this country have a long history of oral storytelling traditions that have helped to keep folklore, myths, and legends alive. Some literature has been published, although most of these published works are in the Nepali language. This difference in language is because in the years leading up to 1960, the population of Bhutan primarily communicated in Nepali rather than the current official language, Dzongkha.
Art in Bhutan often takes the form of crafts and usable objects, both of which are heavily influenced by the Buddhist religion. During the late 17th century, the ruler of Bhutan identified 13 traditional arts, including: woodworking, clay, bronze casting, precious metal smithing, weaving, stone carving, and needlework (among others). Over time, different regions of Bhutan have come to specialize in specific arts. The designs incorporated into many of these objects are often highly detailed and reflect important Buddhist imagery.
The cuisine of Bhutan is centered around locally produced and sourced goods. Because of this reliance on local crops, many dishes incorporate a special red rice that can be grown at high elevations. This rice is often served with a vegetable curry and with a side of meat. Additionally, this country produces significant amounts of dairy products, like butter and cheese. In fact, butter tea is a popular drink here and believed to help maintain energy at high altitudes. It is prepared with tea leaves, hot water, salt, and yak butter (although cow butter may also be used).
About the Author
Amber is a freelance writer, English as a foreign language teacher, and Spanish-English translator. She lives with her husband and 3 cats.
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