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Journeys in Bhutan

About Bhutan

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People and Customs

The people of Bhutan can be divided into three main ethnic groups.

The “Sharchops”, who live in the east of the country and are believed to be the original inhabitants. The “Ngalongs”, who live mostly in western Bhutan and are the descendants of Tibetan immigrants who arrived in Bhutan from the 9th century, The “Lhotshampas”, settled in the south of Bhutan in the late 19th century. The Lhotshampa (meaning Southern Bhutanese) represent Nepali- speaking groups.

Bhutan is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, with 79 percent of the people living in rural areas.

Bhutan is the only country to maintain Mahayana Buddhism in its Tantric Vajrayana form as the official religion. The main practicing schools are the state sponsored Drukpa Kagyupa and the Nyingmapa. Whereas Buddhism is the main religion in the northern and eastern Bhutan, Southern Bhutanese are mainly Hindus.

Bhutanese art reflects major Tibetan influences, though it has developed many of its own derivations. It has three main characteristics: it is anonymous, religious, and performs no independent aesthetic function. Intricate wall paintings and thankas (wall hangings), most historical writing and fine sculpted images all have a religious theme.

Although both Buddhism and the monarchy are critical elements, it is the general extensive perpetuation of tradition that is possibly the most striking aspect of Bhutan’s culture. This is most overtly reflected in the style of dress and architecture. All Bhutanese continue to wear the traditional dress: the gho for men and the kira for women. Generally colorful apparel, the fabrics used range from simple cotton checks and stripes to the most intricate designs in woven silk.

The Bhutanese architectural landscape is made up of chortens, stonewalls, temples, monasteries, fortresses, mansions and houses. Associated with a number of clear-cut architectural concepts and building types rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, there is a strong association between state, religious and secular forms. What makes it quite unique is the degree of uniformity, with all structures corresponding to traditional designs. Thus ancient monasteries and fortresses appear to merge with more modern popular dwellings to create a setting that is fully internally consistent.


The Buddhist festivals or Tsechus are one of the prime examples of the living culture of Bhutan that many have come to admire and to treasure. The Tsechu is a festival in honour of Guru Rinpoche, the saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan and the Himalayan world.

These Tsechus are held in almost every district attracting hundreds of Bhutanese people in a spirit of festivity, celebration and deep faith. The Tsechus have spiritual connotations, and Buddhist practitioners perceive a symbolic communion between dancers and spectators. Those attuned to the faith can feel the spiritual powers evoked by the dancers dressed in elaborate, often ancient, costumes, masks and headgear. Apart from monk dancers, community folk dancers and singers also perform during the Tsechus. The Bhutanese people consider it a blessing to be able to watch the dances.

Tsechus are held on auspicious days, on the tenth day of the Bhutanese month, and last up to four days in which a series of highly stylised masked dance rituals are performed. The dances are well known and loved by the Bhutanese who come dressed in their best for the very special social occasion for all Bhutanese families.

Some of these festivals unfurl a giant thangkha known as a throngdel that is usually a silk appliqué and embroidery of a Buddhist saint. The word throngdel means “liberation on sight” and people form long queues to receive blessings by touching their heads against the bottom of the thangkha.

Religious song (Chhoeshay)
This commemorates the opening of the gateway to the pilgrimage site of Tsari in eastern Tibet by the founder of the Drukpa School of Buddhism, Tsangpa Jarey.

Regional Tsechus
Tsechus take place throughout the country in every district at different times of the year. The smaller Tsechus are often more interesting as visitors get a close and better perspective of a local festival.
The Department of Tourism maintains a list of Tsechus, locations and dates for the year. (LINK this to the webpage)

Folk festivals
Apart from the main Tsechus in every district, folk festivals exist on a smaller community scale that provides a fascinating insight into local beliefs. Some of these festivals are inspired by the pre-Buddhist tradition – the Bon practice.

Ache Lhamo Dances, Bumthang:
This folk festival takes place on the eighth day of the seventh month of the Bhutanese calendar. The girls in Ura village trek up to the mountain to make their offerings and dance all day. In the evening, they return to the Ura temple, bringing flower offerings. More dances are performed called the Ache Lhamo dances, specific only to Ura in Bumthang.

Hungla dances, Trashi Yangtse:
This ancient festival is celebrated on the 28th of the sixth Bhutanese month among the communities of Bhainakha, Kenmong, Changmadung and Tokaphu in Trashi Yangtse district. Villagers from two rival teams use home made tinder to have firefights at night. The next day, Buddhist scriptures are carried around the villages to bring blessings to people. Religions ceremonies continue on the 30th of the month.

Bon festival, Ha:
A pre-Buddhist practice, the Bon festival is celebrated among the communities of Zongma, Gorsumeth and Ungar in Ha district. The festival takes place on the 10th day of the sixth Bhutanese month.

Bon festival, Trashi Yangtse:
Another Bon festival takes place annually on the 15th-18th day of the ninth Bhutanese month. Villagers in the communities of Changmadung, Pang and Memung, share a communal meal and perform a Bon dance together.


Buddhism is practiced through out the country. Almost all the Bhutanese are Buddhist. In the south, most Bhutanese people of Nepali and Indian origin practiced Hinduism. Yeshi Gonpo or Mahakahala is the main protective deity of Bhutan, often appears in the form of Raven.

Before the arrival of Buddhism to Bhutan, various forms of animistic religion such as bonism were followed by people in Bhutan. In some parts of the country, we can still see, these traditions and rituals are still practiced by minority groups.

Guru Rinpoche brought Buddhism to Bhutan in 8th century. After this, Bhutan has become home to many sages and saints. Some of the key figures of the

Bhutanese Buddhism are Kuenkhen Longchen Ramjam, Phojo Drukgom Zhigpo, Drukpa Kuenley, Zhabdrung Ngwang Namgyel and Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye.

The official state religion of Bhutan belongs to the Drukpa sect of Kagyudpa, school of tantric Mahayana Buddhism, the Great Vehicle. It is similar to the Tibetan Buddhism, yet it has its own set of unique beliefs and practices.

The religion in Bhutan is strongly supported by the all walks of life. Monks, nuns and gomchens (lay priest) play a very important role in the people’s daily lives. The monk body also includes monks, nuns and gomchens who are not part of state sponsored institutions.

Bhutanese people are very pious and the importance of the Buddhism is evident in its every aspect of life in the Bhutanese people.



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