Rich in natural beauty and one of the very few thriving hubs of the ancient Buddhist culture, Bhutan stands tall among other countries for preserving age-old customs and traditions as well as historical monuments of great religious significance. The rulers of the land have chosen to voluntarily isolate themselves from the outside world to cherish and nurture their religious beliefs, customs and traditions and their idyllic way of life. The agrarian society heavily influenced by Buddhism is well cared for by the Government, which too draws inspiration and insights from the Royal rulers and religious leaders.
Steeped in culture and tradition, Bhutan has since opened its door to tourists, but allows just a limited number of foreign visitors every year to conserve its religious and natural settings so painstakingly sustained. Bhutan Tourism Council has strict entry norms for travelers, requiring them to fully pre-pay tour expenses to get a Visa.
Here are few traditions characteristic of Bhutan that visitors must do well to acknowledge/respect during their travels.
Locals follow a simple and fulfilling lifestyle based on Buddhist culture and religion. People here fly tiny white flags on their rooftops to indicate that they’ve appeased the local gods. They have their meals seated cross-legged on wooden floors, serving the head of the family first. A crumb of food is left as offering for spirits before consuming the meal.
When offered food for the first time it is customary to utter “meshu meshu” and politely cover one’s mouth to decline a couple of times before accepting the meal!
Both men and women are treated equal, with men moving in with their wife’s family after marriage in some parts of the country.
Bhutanese wear their national costumes as required by the law. Men are dressed in Gho outfits (The National Dress of Bhutan) while women wear the Kira paired with wrap-around skirts. Richly embroidered scarves of men and women are indicative of their social status and are worn when meeting with authorities and other special occasions. There is a typical etiquette or code “driglam namzha” that governs all aspects of life ranging from behavior, dress code, protocols for communication, marital responsibilities, eating habits etc.,
Religion and Mythology
Rituals are practiced with fervor and reverence. Religious places and monuments, stupas and prayer flags are extremely significant. When passing by places of worship people make sure that their right side is nearest to the structure as a mark of respect. They spin their prayer wheels in a clockwise direction. Foot wear is left outside religious sites and temples. Interestingly all art in the country is based on religious themes, are anonymous and do not have any specific aesthetic purpose!
Mythology too has a great influence on the locals who are generally quite conservative. Phalluses are painted on the exteriors of homes to ward off evil. It is believed that a Divine Madman once protected the people by using his phallus to defeat evil forces.
Dogs are held in high-esteem by locals who believe that they most likely will assume human form in the next birth as they are highest among all animal life forms.
Birth and Death
There is no gender discrimination. No one other than the immediate family is allowed to see the new born and the mother before the purification ceremony done three days after birth. Children are named after their local deity and it is quite common for people to have the same first and second names. First names tagged with valley, village or house name usually helps identify the person, however, you may not able to guess the gender of the person from their name.
Belief in afterlife is common and funerals are elaborate rituals that pray for safe journey and re-birth. Ceremonies are held at select days and death anniversaries as well. Cremations, burials and in some areas ‘Sky Burials’ are done to bid adieu to the departed. Sky burials are similar to traditional Parsi funerals in India, where the body is left atop mountains to feed vultures.
Traditional music and dances are not only colorful and entertaining but are also religious rituals that protect people from evil forces. Monks at the different monasteries don masks and perform the spiritually significant Tsechus that impart Buddhist teachings to the public. Dromchoes are dances dedicated to the regional protective deities. Different types of Zheys folk music/dances are conducted at the different monasteries during special occasions. Masked Cham dances are a visual treat with moral messages. Each traditional dance is likely to go on for hours together and festivities across days.
Religion has an impact on the architecture of traditional structures across Bhutan. While the layout of each type of structure is basically based on the same blueprint, designs, material and décor tend to vary, adding interesting visual variations to the space. Each valley in Bhutan has a Dzong or fortified monastery, with a central temple surrounded by other structures. Monasteries are aplenty and so are Stupas and Mani stones. Structures are strikingly similar yet distinctly different.
Monks do not restrict themselves to the monasteries. They perform rituals at local residences on special occasions such as birth, death, marriages etc., and participate in dances apart from creating rich embroidery as well. They also study English!
Bhutan Tourism has been active only since the 1970s. Visitors from India and few other countries enjoy several travel privileges when compared to Westerners. It is however important to team up with a reputed/credible tour operator to make the most of your trip to Bhutan considering that not everyone gets a chance to visit the place! Soak in pristine settings, appreciate local customs and traditions, marvel at the architectural, cultural nuances of the place and take time to meditate and relax in the quiet settings before heading back to chaotic cityscapes!