Social Customs And Traditions In Bhutan
Customs And Traditions, Books On Customs
Men and women in Bhutan
customarily wear traditional clothing. Clothing for men consists of a gho, which is a
garment that wraps around the body like a coat, reaches the knee and is worn with a belt.
The kira is what women wear as a
custom. Kira is a garment that is made from a piece of cloth (in the shape of a rectangle)
that reaches the ankles. Kira is secured at the shoulders with a clip, while a woven belt
holds the garment closed and in place. It is custom for both sexes to use scarves or
shawls and on occasion, men will wear earrings as well.
The majority, roughly 75
percent, of Bhutan's population practices Mahayana Buddhism which is similar to
Tibetan/Lamaist Buddhism. After Buddhism, Hinduism is the next most popular religion.
There is a broad range of Hinduism that is practiced ranging from traditional Hinduism to
a combination of Buddhism/Hinduism where gods in both religions are worshipped.
Monasteries and convents are
common throughout Bhutan. Monks and nuns kept their heads shaved and wore distinguishing
maroon robes. Days are spent in study and meditation but also in the performance of
rituals honoring various bodhisattvas, praying for the dead, and seeking divine
intercession on behalf of the ill. Some of their prayers involved chants and singing
accompanied by conch shell trumpets, thighbone trumpets (made from human thighbones),
metal horns up to three meters long, large standing drums and cymbals, hand bells, temple
bells, gongs, and wooden sticks. Such monastic music and singing, not normally heard by
the general public, has been reported to have "great virility" and to be more
melodious than its Tibetan monotone counterparts.
Greetings and farewells: Shaking
hands is not a Bhutanese tradition but it is becoming quite common, especially in the
towns. Women may prefer to say the customary greeting of "Kuzu Zangpo" to
children, acquaintances and subordinates and "Kuzu Zangpola" to older people or
To indicate respect, the
Bhutanese add "la" to the end of sentences during a conversation. This custom is
so strong that the Bhutanese will add "la" even when speaking English.
The hierarchical social structure plays a very important part of the culture. When a
senior person enters a room, everyone is expected to stand until the person sits down.
When it is time to leave, everyone waits until the senior person or the guest of honour
stands, indicating that he or she is about to go.
A formal greeting used is to bow with the hands open and outstretched and the palms up.
Formal etiquette and public behaviour: The Bhutanese adhere to a strict code of etiquette
(Driglam Namzha) which is officially taught to all government employees and students.
People are expected to behave in a formal and respectful manner, especially towards their
superiors and elders.
When people of the same rank are together, they behave in a relaxed and informal manner.
There is a rich tradition of obedience and service to elders.
Ceremonial scarves: The wearing of ceremonial scarves is an important feature of Bhutanese
culture. A ceremonial scarf, kabney, is worn by all Bhutanese when visiting Dzongs and
monasteries and during religious ceremonies and festivals. Scarves are also worn when
meeting the King, members of the Royal family and at times senior officials.
The colour of the scarf indicates the rank of a person: The majority of people wear white
scarves. A blue scarf is worn by Royal Advisory Councilors. Dashos wear a red scarf of raw
silk or cotton. The King awards the red scarf and the title of Dasho to selected senior
officials. An orange silk scarf is worn by Ministers and Deputy Ministers. The scarf is
unfolded for Deputy Ministers and has five folds for Ministers. The King and the Je Khenpo
wear large saffron yellow scarves. The scarf worn by the King has seven folds. Women wear
a narrow red cloth (rachu) which is draped over one shoulder and is made of either cotton
or raw silk and decorated with different coloured patterns and fringed at both ends.
Indications of respect: Respect for superiors and older people is an important part of
everyday Bhutanese life which is shown in many ways. The body inclined slightly forward
when standing, legs held straight against a chair and knees covered with a ceremonial
scarf when seated, right hand placed in front of the mouth to avoid defiling the air with
one's breath when speaking, looking at the ground instead of at someone's eyes and not
smoking, all indicate respect. Using the word "la" at the end of a sentence,
even in English, is another sign of respect.
The head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body and the foot the most
impure, which means that you must never touch another person's head nor point your feet at
anyone or towards a holy object.
Forms of address: A male member of the Royal Family is addressed as Dasho and a female
member as Ashi. A minister has the title of Lyonpo and high officials such as Secretaries
are called Dasho. Directors are often called Dasho out of respect, but it would be
incorrect to address a Director as Dasho in official correspondence. The title Dasho is
not hereditary but is conferred by the King on selected people as a recognition for
service. Teachers are called Lopen. A monk is called either Gelong or Lopen according to
In all cases, these terms of address are followed by the first name or the entire name of
the person, but never directly by the last name. Many in Bhutan, however, will only have
one name. Often foreigners are formally addressed by their first name, such as Mr. (first
name) instead of Mr. (surname); there is no customs or concept of a surname as such in the
Status of women: Unlike many other countries of South Asia, there is no evidence of
discrimination against girls and women under the law or in terms of nutrition, health care
and education. The enrollment rate for girls in educational institution is increasing at
the primary level and is almost the same as boys. There is no stigma attached to divorce
nor to a women without a husband having children. Men and women share many tasks such as
child care and cooking. Because of the large degree of equality between men and women,
increasing numbers of well educated women are becoming an important part of the work
Invitations, Visits, Drinks and Meals
The Bhutanese are warm, open-hearted, tolerant and kind people. Whether rich or poor, they
are very hospitable and always make a guest feel welcome. Doma, or betel nut, which used
to be offered as a traditional greeting, has mostly been replaced by tea or ara.
When taking tea with a superior, the cup should be held in the hand and not put on the
Chang, a local beer, and ara, a spirit distilled from rice, maize, wheat or barley,
depending on which crop is grown in that area, are also popular drinks. In the East,
instead of tea, chang or ara may be offered. Again, it is polite to have at least two
glasses. If you really dislike it, a few sips will be acceptable. Sometimes ara is served
hot with a raw egg broken into it. This is a good drink on a cold winter's evening.
When invited to a meal: If you are offered food or drink, it is considered polite to
decline at first. Your host will not take your refusal too seriously and will continue to
offer refreshments. Similarly, if you are entertaining a Bhutanese guest, be more
insistent in offering food or drink than you would be in your home country.
The staple diet consists of the local red rice served with either a little dried meat
cooked with very hot chillies or a sauce made from chillies and local cheese. It is quite
common to see bright red chillies (small peppers) drying on the roof and strips of yak
meat or beef hanging out to dry in the sun like a line of washing.
Large quantities of tea are drunk. There are two types of tea: suitja which is tea with
butter and salt and natja which is tea with milk and sugar. Breakfast generally consists
of puffed corn or rice soaked in butter tea. The Bhutanese eat with their right hand. The
dried cheese, churpi or chugui, which looks like an eraser, is very hard and is chewed
between meals as a snack. Doma or betel nut is often offered at the end of a meal.
Guests will often leave as soon as the meal is finished. At an official dinner, the guest
of honour will indicate when it is time to leave; normally nobody will leave before s/he
does for this is disrespectful.
Exchanging gifts: The exchange of presents is an important part of Bhutanese life. When
you receive a present from someone, other than a superior, you are expected to reciprocate
by giving a present in return. If the present comes in a container, you are expected to
return the container with a few sweets, fruit or biscuits in it. To return an empty
container is thought to indicate a lack of prosperity. A present is never opened in public
nor in the presence of the one bringing it.
When you first move into a house, especially in a country area, your new neighbours may
welcome you with gifts of eggs, apple or potatoes from their garden or home-made bread.
Presents are also given to someone going away from home to study overseas or on a long
Visiting on Special Family Occasions: For the first three days after a child is born,
until after a child is born, until after a lama has performed a purification puja, the
mother receives no visitors apart from close family members. Always ask if it is
convenient before visiting a mother with a new baby. A present of eggs, rice or maize
would be given in a village and perhaps baby clothes or nappies in a town. A small amount
of money is also given to the new baby for good luck. The new mother drinks hot ara
enriched with butter and eggs to stimulate her milk.
When someone is married or promoted, it is traditional to present a white scarf and
several pieces of cloth. The white scarf is always offered but an envelope containing
money sometimes replaces the cloth.
When a death occurs in the family of a friend or colleague, it is polite to visit the
family taking a white scarf, an uneven sum of money in an envelope and some food e.g.
biscuits for the deceased. Ask when would be a suitable time for your visit. It is much
appreciated if you also take a bottle of whisky for the bereaved. You will be expected to
sit quietly for short time with the family and drink tea.
Visiting a Dzong or a Temple: When you visit a temple or monastery it is appreciated if
you take a gift of incense sticks or a packet of dalda for the butter lamps and leave a
small offering of money. Remove your shoes before entering and speak quietly as a sign of
respect for the sanctity of the place. Umbrellas and hats are not allowed inside
monasteries or Dzongs and cameras should never be taken into a temple. It is acceptable to
take photos in the courtyard but not inside the temple.
Always step over doorsteps, not on them, when entering temples or Dzongs. In the temple
you will usually find a monk or lama to show you around. If he offers you holy water,
accept it in cupped hands, drink (or appear to drink) some and wipe the rest across you
head from front to back. Give the incense to the monk or leave it on the altar. To make an
offering of money, fold the note lengthwise, press it to your forehead and then place it
on the altar.
If you are invited into the altar room of a house in which you are a guest, it is
acceptable to ask your host if you may make a small offering. Proceed as in a temple.
Always remember to walk around a chorten, prayer wheel or temple in a clockwise direction.
Bhutanese people are generally good-natured and it is easy to make friends. They are
invariably cheerful and accept life as it comes, an attitude due partly to their Buddhist
traditions. They are polite and courteous and expect the same from others. It is
considered unacceptable for anyone, Bhutanese or foreigner, to publicly show strong
emotion. Public displays of anger bring shame on both the person displaying it and on the
The Bhutanese dislike being put in a situation where they may be forced to contradict
someone. It is considered to be more polite to suggest something rather than to make a