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.
Bhutan is rich in cultural diversity and this richness is further enhanced by the wide variety of elaborate and colourful religious festivals that are celebrated throughout the country. Every village is known for their unique festival though the most widely known is the annual Tshechu, meaning a religious festival.
As the Tshechu begins, the villagers and the general populace dress in their finest clothes and congregate at their local temples and monasteries where these festivals take place. Tshechus are usually occasions to mark important events in the life of the second Buddha, the Indian/Pakistani Tantric master known as Guru Rinpoche or Guru Padmasambhava. Various mask dances are performed together with songs and dances for three days.
These religious celebrations are lively, high-spirited affairs during which people share meals of red rice, spicy pork, EmaDatsi, and Momos (pork dumplings) whilst drinking the heady traditional rice wine known as Ara. These occasions provide the villagers a respite from the hard labour of their day-to-day lives and gives the community an opportunity to catch up with family and friends.
One of the most distinctive features of the Bhutanese is the traditional dress, unique garments that have evolved over thousands of years.
Men wear the Gho, a knee-length robe somewhat resembling a kimono that is tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as Kera. The pouchformed at the front of the Gho was traditionally used for carrying food bowls and a small dagger. Today it is accustomed for carrying small articles such as wallets, mobile phones, and Doma (beetle nut).Women wear the Kira, a long, ankle-length dress accompanied by a light outer jacket known as a Tego with an inner layer known as a Wonju.
Tribal and semi-nomadic people like the Bramis and Brokpas of eastern Bhutan generally wear clothing that differs from the rest of the Bhutanese population. The Brokpas and the Bramis both wear dresses woven either out of Yak or Sheep hair.
Bhutanese still wear long scarves when visiting Dzongs and other administrative centres. The scarves worn vary in colour, signifying the wearer’s status or rank. The scarf worn by men is known as Kabney while those worn by women are known as Rachu. The Rachu is hung over the left shoulder of a woman. Unlike the scarves worn by men, Rachus traditionally did not have any specific rank associated with its colour. However, with women joining the ranks with men now, some Rachushave been retrofitted to indicate these ranks.
Until just a few decades ago, arranged marriages were common and many married among their relatives. In eastern Bhutan, cross-cousin marriages were also once common. However, this practice is now becoming less common amongst the literate masses and most marriages are based on the choice of the individuals.
Marriages are simple affairs and are usually kept low-key. However, elaborate rituals are performed for lasting unions between the bride and the bridegroom. As the religious ceremony comes to an end, parents, relatives, and friends of the couple present the newlyweds with traditional offerings of scarves along with gifts in the form of cash and goods.
In Western Bhutan, it was commonfor husbands to live in his wife’s house after marriage – this still happens in rural areas. While in Southern and Eastern Bhutan, the wife generally moves into her husband’s home. Of course, the newlyweds may also choose to live on their own. Divorce is also an accepted norm and carries no ignominy or disgrace within the country.
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 being served first to the head of the household.
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, pans, and rice cookers have largely replaced their use. A typical Bhutanese meal consists of red rice, a dish of Ema Datsi – the country’s favourite dish of chili and cheese, pork, beef curry, and lentils.