Bhutan, nestled in the Himalayan folds, has depended on natural isolation to preserve itself from outside cultural influences. A  sparsely populated nation bordered by India to the south and China to the north has long practised cultural and economic isolationism to preserve its cultural history and sovereignty.

This culture had an impact on the early development of this country. The principal Bhutanese languages, Dzongkha and Sharchop, are closely linked to Tibetan, and Bhutanese monks read and write chhokey, an old variety of Tibetan.

Cultural Heritage of Bhutan - Sheet1
Bhutan_©Forbes

Bhutan is renowned as a country of ardent Buddhists, where Buddhist teachings pervade many parts of people’s lives even today. Despite its proximity to the two great powers of China and India, the country preserves its distinct practices, and a wide range of cultural heritage and ancient skills continue to play a significant role in an individual’s life.

The Bhutanese regard cultural heritage as primarily spiritual rather than physical, by Buddhist theory. A survey by JCIC Heritage revealed a need to take action to protect oral traditions and traditional weaving techniques that are revered in Bhutan yet are in danger of disappearing due to globalisation.

The intangible

The Drametse Mask Dance is a sacred dance performed in honour of Padmasambhava, a Buddhist guru, during the Drametse festival. The Ogyen Tegchok Namdroel Choeling Monastery organises the celebration, which takes place twice a year in this eastern Bhutanese community.

The dance features sixteen masked male dancers dressed in colourful costumes and ten other men who make up the orchestra. The dance has a serene and thoughtful phase representing the peaceful deities and a fast and athletic half that portrays the wrathful deities. Dancers clothed in monk robes and wearing wooden masks with features of actual and legendary animals execute a prayer dance in the dirt-deep cham, the main shrine, before entering the main courtyard one by one. Cymbals, trumpets, and drums are used in the orchestra, including the bang nga, a big cylindrical drum; the lag nga, a small hand-held circular flat drum, and the nga chen, a drum hammered with a bent drumstick.

For centuries, the Drametse Ngacham has been performed in the same monastery. Its form has religious and cultural significance because it is believed to have been performed originally by celestial heroes and heroines. Versions of the Drametse Ngacham were introduced in different parts of Bhutan in the nineteenth century. The dance is a source of spiritual empowerment for the audience, and it is attended by people from Drametse and other villages and districts to receive blessings. Today, the dance has evolved from a local event centred on a specific community into an art form symbolising the Bhutanese nation’s identity as a whole.  

Another such performing art can be experienced at the spectacular Punakha Tsechu (Festival), held in the grounds of the magnificent Punakha Dzong. A Tsechu is a Buddhist festival in honour of Guru Rimpoche, the saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.

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Tsechu at Punaka Dzong_©JCIC Heritage

The cuisine

People in Bhutan typically have red rice (like brown rice in texture, but with a nutty taste, the only variety of rice that grows in high altitudes), buckwheat, and increasingly maise, while soups and stews of meat, rice, ferns, lentils, and dried vegetables, spiced with chilli peppers and cheese, being a favourite meal during the cold seasons. Ema datshi, cooked very spicy with cheese and chilli peppers (similar to chilli con queso), could be considered Bhutan’s national delicacy due to its popularity and pride among Bhutanese. Dairy products, particularly butter and cheese from yaks and cows, are quite popular, and nearly all milk is converted into butter and cheese. Butter tea, black tea, locally brewed ara (rice wine), and beer are all popular beverages. When offered food, one exclaims meshu meshu, covering one’s mouth with one’s hands in refusal, and then accepts the second or third offer.

The tradition

Guru Padmasambhava, the second Buddha and the foremost practitioner of Tantric Buddhism, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century, prophesied the coming of five Terton (treasure finder) monarchs and one hundred renowned Tetons. Pema Lingpa attained enormous wisdom and extraordinary powers, and as Guru Padmasambhava predicted, he unveiled many riches benefiting the Dharma across Bhutan. Terton Pema Lingpa was highly renowned for establishing multiple religious dances and for his skills in various crafts, including metalwork and wooden carved blocks for printing scriptures, which can be found in several Bhutanese monasteries.

Numerous locations associated with Terton Pema Lingpa, including monasteries, temples, and pilgrimage sites, continue to preserve the Peling legacy in Bhutan. These sites serve as a religious service centre for the surrounding community and an education centre for Bhutan’s young monks.

Tamzhing monastery was built in 1501 by Pema Lingpa and is well known for its remarkable mural paintings, various unique statues and other cultural properties that are significant to Bhutan’s history and Peling customs. Tamzhing is the birthplace of the distinctive sacred dances enjoyed at traditional Tshechu (festivals) throughout Bhutan. Pema Lingpa aimed to educate Buddhism in Bhutan through religious dances, which remain a living tradition. Furthermore, these dances are still remembered by the monks and local communities who live at Tamzhing monastery.

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Entrance of Tamzhing Monastery_©TripAdvisor

Tamzhing monastery represents an outstanding example of a unique type of architectural style in Bhutan. Situated in Bumthang District in central Bhutan is a Nyingma gompa in Bhutan, it is home to over 95 Buddhist monks. Tamzhing monastery remains the primary residence of Pema Lingpa, and the monks who live there continue to offer religious rituals for the benefit of the surrounding people and the country. The monastery was submitted for inscription on the list of World Heritage Sites in March 2012 and is currently on the tentative list.

The protector

The Drukgyel Dzong, the most iconic and beautiful archaeological complex in Bhutan, is located on a ridge in the upper Paro valley. Drukgyel Dzong is one of the Dzongs erected by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the lineage holder of the Drukpa-Kagyud Buddhist School and the unifier of Bhutan, who arrived in Bhutan in 1616 to escape a battle over the recognition of the Drukpa-Kagyud School’s senior abbot in Ralung, Tibet. These Dzongs were built as a fortress and a court of clerics and administrators after Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal established the unusual dual government system led by Je Kenpo (the Head of Religious Affairs) and Desi (the Head of temporal affairs).

Ancient Ruin of Drukgyel Dzong_©The Orange Explorer

Drukgyel Dzong was served solely for defensive purposes without administrative and religious functions, especially against external threats from the border.

Although most timber components of the Dzong, such as roof trusses, door and window frames, floors and ceilings, are almost entirely gone, a significant section of the stone and rammed earth wall structures remain. The Dzong comprises two parts: Utse, the central tower building that originally housed a shrine to guardian deities, and Shabkhor, which are rectangular buildings that surround the courtyards. It was created for the hill’s topographical conditions and had a distinct design.

References:

Centre, U.N.E.S.C.O.W.H. Bhutan, UNESCO World Heritage Convention. Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/bt (Accessed: January 1, 2023).

Culture of Bhutan (2022) Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_Bhutan#:~:text=Modern%20Bhutanese%20culture%20derives%20from,Tibetan%20language%2C%20known%20as%20chhokey. (Accessed: January 1, 2023).

Survey on the protection of Cultural Heritage in the Kingdom of Bhutan |JCIC-heritage JCIC. Available at: https://www.jcic-heritage.jp/en/project/asia_bhutan_201103/#:~:text=Typical%20tangible%20cultural%20heritage%20in,)%2C%20and%20old%20folk%20houses. (Accessed: January 1, 2023). 

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