POPULATION: 816,000–1.8 million (including Nepalese immigrants and other minorities)
LANGUAGE: Dzongkha (official); Nepali; Assamese; Gurung; Tsangla; Hindi
RELIGION: Mahayana Buddhism (official); Bon (shamanism); mix of Hinduism and Buddhism; Islam
Bhutanese is the name given to the people who live in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan is a small, landlocked country in the mountainous area north of India. The name Bhutan is derived from a word that means the "borderland" of Bhot, or Tibet. The Bhutanese themselves call their country Druk-Yul or the "Land of the Thunder Dragon." The ruling monarch of the country carries the title Druk Gyalpo or "Dragon King."
From the beginning of the ninth century AD , the region was settled by Tibetans migrating south. Bhutan was born in the early seventeenth century when a Tibetan Buddhist monk established his authority as king, taking the title of Dharma Raja. As of the late 1990s, the king was Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuk.
The British held colonial power over India in the early nineteenth century. In 1910, Bhutan's relations with other countries were controlled by British India. In return, Britain agreed not to interfere in Bhutan's internal affairs. In 1949 when India gained its independence, India took control of Bhutan's relations with other countries. Chinese forces took control of Bhutan's neighbor, Tibet, in 1950. Bhutan saw its ties with India as a way to fight off a threat from China. During the 1960s, Bhutan started to modernize and allowed people from other countries to visit without a special invitation from the king.
There is no reliable census of the population of Bhutan. The government estimates the total population at over 800,000 people, but they do not include immigrants. If immigrants from Nepal and other minorities are included, the population is estimated to be over 1.8 million. There are three major ethnic groups in Bhutan: the Bhutia (also Bhotia, or Bhote), Nepalese, and Assamese. Bhutia comprise roughly 50 percent of Bhutan's population. The Nepalese account for another 35 percent, while the Assamese make up 15 percent of the country's inhabitants.
Bhutan, with an area of 18,217 square miles (47,182 square kilometers), lies in the eastern Himalayan Mountain Range. Bhutan has three distinct geographic regions. In the south is a narrow strip of lowland known as the Duars Plain. The area receives between 200 and 300 inches (500 and 760 centimeters) of rain a year. It is covered with dense subtropical forest and undergrowth and is hot, humid, and a generally unhealthy atmosphere in which to live. North of the Duars is the Inner Himalaya, a region of mountains extending southward from the main Himalayan Range. Between these spurs lie fertile valleys at elevations between 5,000 and 9,000 feet (1,500 and 2,700 meters). With a relatively moderate climate, these valleys support agriculture. Most of Bhutan's population lives in these valleys. Further to the north, along the Tibetan border, are the main ranges of the Great Himalaya. The highest peaks approach 24,000 feet (7,300 meters), with Kula Kangra soaring to 24,784 feet (7,554 meters). Below the high peaks are alpine meadows used for grazing yaks in the summer months.
The official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, a dialect of Tibetan. In its written form, Dzongkha is identical to Tibetan. Other languages spoken in Bhutan include Nepali, Assamese, and Gurung. Some Hindi is spoken in southern areas that border India.
There are many folktales in Bhutan that relate to events and personalities of the past. One tradition tells of a prince from India who settled in Bhutan in the eighth century AD . He invited the monk Padmasambhava to his kingdom. Known in Tibet as Guru Rimpoche ("Precious Teacher"), Padmasambhava was primarily responsible for introducing Buddhism in Bhutan. Other stories center on the fifteenth-century lama Pemalingpa, who is seen as an incarnation of Padmasambhava. Another heroic figure of Bhutan is Shabdrung, the lama who assumed the title of Dharma Raja in the seventeenth century and laid the political foundations of Bhutan State.
Approximately three-fourths of Bhutanese are Buddhist. The dominant religious order in the country is the Red-Hat sect (Kargyupa). Belief in sorcerers, spirits, demons, and the need for exorcisms as undertaken in the "devil dances" are a part of everyday Bhutanese religious practices. Lamas (religious leaders) skilled in rituals perform the necessary religious observances. Animal sacrifice has been replaced in Bhutan by the offering of torma, ritual figures made from dough and butter. Hinduism, or a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism, is the religion of the Nepalese peoples of Bhutan.
Losar, the Tibetan New Year, is one of the most important festivals in Bhutan. It is celebrated in February with feasting and drinking. Folk dances, including masked dances, are performed and archery competitions held. Friends and relatives exchange greeting cards. Domchheo and Tsechu are annual religious festivals marked by worship ceremonies and performances of the ritual masked dances by monks. These are held at monasteries and dzongs, the forts around which many Bhutanese villages are built. Various other Buddhist and Hindu festivals are observed. The king's birthday (September 22) and the National Day of Bhutan (December 17) are celebrated as public holidays.
Birth and marriage in Bhutan are social or family events. Funerals, on the other hand, are elaborate religious affairs. After a death, a lama (Buddhist religious leader) is called in to extract the sem (spirit) from the body and speed it on its way. The body is placed in a sitting position before an altar, on which various ritual objects—including torma (figurines made of dough and butter)—are placed. A lama leads the service for the dead, reciting passages from various Buddhist texts. Cremation is the usual form of disposal of the corpse, although bodies may be buried or thrown in a river. Rituals are performed for forty-nine days after death. During this period an effigy (symbolic model) of the dead person is kept in the house. Both the end of the mourning period and the one-year anniversary of the death are celebrated with a feast.
A Bhutanese host greets a guest by bowing slightly, extending his or her hands towards the ground with palms facing the visitor, and moving the hand in a gesture inviting the guest into the house. The host may also say, "Yala! Yala! Kuzu zangpola?" ("Hello! Hello! How do you do?"). The guest, after responding in an appropriate manner, is then seated in the drawing room. She or he is served tea, beer, or other refreshments. Men and women mix and converse freely, without restrictions.
Bhutan was isolated from the outside world until around 1960. As a result, health care services in Bhutan are not very well developed. Leading causes of death include respiratory infections, diarrhea and dysentery, skin infections, infections from parasites, and malaria. Over 10 percent of all babies die shortly after birth.
Ninety percent of Bhutan's population live in villages scattered throughout the country. Although there are a handful of small towns in Bhutan, only Thimphu, the capital, exceeds 20,000 inhabitants in size. Living standards are generally low, with per capita income (money earned by one person) less than $200 per year. Bhutan's mountainous terrain makes communications difficult.
Most people in Bhutan marry within their own ethnic group. The legal age for marriage is set by the government at sixteen years for women and twenty-one years for men. In the past, marriages were arranged by the parents. By the 1990s, more and more young couples were selecting their own marriage partners. Bhutanese marriages are relatively simple. A lama (Buddhist religious leader) officiates at the ceremony. Offerings of chang (beer) are made to ghosts and spirits. Betel leaves, areca nuts, and fruits are distributed to wedding guests and observers. More food and entertainment follow the ceremony.
The Bhutanese are essentially monogamous (have only one husband or wife). Polyandry (more than one husband) has been abolished (made illegal). Polygyny (more than one wife) is restricted to a maximum of three wives per husband. A bride does not necessarily move into her husband's household. The new husband may live with his wife's family, if her family needs laborers to help with their work. Alternatively, the new couple may set up their own household on their own plot of land. Divorce is permitted, but the spouse who wants the divorce must compensate the other with money or goods.
Bhutanese dress for men consists of a ko (long, loose robe) that reaches the ankles. During the day, the ko is hoisted up and fastened at the waist by a woven belt so that it reaches the knees. At night, it is let down to the ankles. A coat, worn over the ko, fastens at the neck but is worn open during the day. The sleeves are long and loose. Bhutanese men seldom wear a hat, but they sometimes wrap a scarf around the head at night. Shoes are rarely worn, though some men wear sandals. Wealthier men wear woolen boots. Every man carries a long knife slung from his belt. When the ko is tied in the "up" position, it forms a pouch that is used for carrying objects.
Bhutanese women wear the kira, a woven dress that is fastened at each shoulder by silver buckles. A woven belt is tied around the waist. Women commonly wear necklaces of coral and turquoise, strung together with silver amulets (charms). The hair is usually cut short.
Rice is the main food in Bhutan. Rice is accompanied by meat whenever it is available. Though most Bhutanese are Buddhists, they are not vegetarians. They eat beef, pork, goat, chicken, and eggs. A typical Bhutanese meal might consist of thugpa, a meat soup prepared with herbs, rice (of the round, red variety), and a meat curry or omelet. Sweet rice (white rice cooked in milk and sugar) is served on special occasions. Tea, made with salt and butter, is a Bhutanese staple. Chang (beer) is made from grain and is served to guests and offered to the gods.
At high altitudes, barley and buckwheat (cereal grains) are grown. The cereals are ground, then roasted or fried, and stored for future use. Fried corn powder is popular among the Bhutanese. Milk is scarce and of poor quality, although a hard cheese is made from yak milk.
No formal schools existed in Bhutan before the early 1960s, except for those associated with religious institutions. The government has tried to improve education, but Bhutan still lags behind its neighbor countries in education. Only about 20 percent of children from ages five to twelve are enrolled in school. Only 2 percent of children thirteen to eighteen are enrolled in high school. About 20 percent of adults can read and write.
Bhutan's culture is deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism. The country began as a theocracy (its ruler was a religious leader). Even in the 1990s, lamas (Buddhist religious leaders) influence government affairs. The dzongs (forts) and monasteries remain centers of political, economic, social, and religious life. It is in these places that festivals are celebrated with religious music and masked dances. Lamas continue the traditions of Buddhist learning. Religion finds architectural expression in numerous chorten (mounds of relics) and temples. Dzongs are often patterned after the Potala in Lhasa, Tibet (part of China since the 1950s). The Potala is the home of the Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama. Religious objects such as the mandala (Buddhist Wheel of Life) and thanka (a painted religious scroll) are works of art in their own right.
Bhutan is essentially an agrarian (farming) country. Over 90 percent of all workers are involved in subsistence agriculture (growing enough food for the family's use, with little left to sell) and raising livestock. Only 3 percent of Bhutan's area is used for farming, since much of the land is mountainous or heavily forested. Rice, wheat, maize (corn), and millet are the main crops grown in the country. Fruit production is important, with apples, peaches, plums, and apricots among the varieties grown. Livestock raised in the region include cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and the yak, an animal adapted to high altitudes.
The Bhutanese are well known for their archery skills, and archery competitions are commonly held at the time of festivals and national holidays.
Bhutanese have limited access to modern forms of entertainment. For radio, FM broadcasts are aired in Thimphu, and short-wave broadcasts can be received in the rest of the country. In 1989 the government banned the viewing of television by ordering all TV antennas in the country to be dismantled. The government publishes a weekly newspaper, Kuensel, but with the country's low literacy rate, the paper has a very small circulation. Religious festivals and folk traditions such as singing and dancing are the primary forms of entertainment and recreation.
Bhutanese women are skilled at weaving. They make their own clothing, bedding, tablecloths, floor coverings, and items for religious use. Embroidery is a favorite art. Much effort goes into making costumes and masks for the ritual dances performed at festivals. Smiths excel in working gold, silver, brass, and other metals.
The Bhutanese live in the least-developed country in all of South Asia. Despite efforts at modernization, poverty, lack of potable (clean) water, inadequate health care, illiteracy, and difficulties in transportation remain serious problems. Tensions between the Bhutanese and Nepalese minority have created a problem in the country. Since 1990, antigovernment extremists among the Nepalese have been waging a terrorist war in Bhutan.
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Karan, P. P. Bhutan: A Physical and Cultural Geography. Lexington, Ky.: University of Kentucky Press, 1967.
Matles, Andrea, ed. Nepal and Bhutan: Country Studies. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1993.