Bhutan People, Society and Religion

In general, Bhutan is an open, multi-ethnic and a good-spirited society. In Bhutan, one will find three main ethnic groups: the Tshanglas, Ngalops and the Lhotshampas. Predominantly a Buddhist country, Bhutan is said to be the last fortress of Vajrayana Buddhism. Hinduism, Islam and Christianity are also present in Bhutan with the Bhutanese constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion. Citizens of Bhutan and visitors are free to practice any form of worship as long as it does not impose on the rights of others. The Bhutanese are a fun-loving people fond of song and dance who that enjoys weddings, religious holidays and other events as the perfect opportunities to gather with friends and family.

Main Ethnic Groups:

Together the multi-ethnic Bhutanese population number is just over 700,000.

Tshanglas: The Tshanglas (or commonly know as the Sharchops) are considered the aboriginal inhabitants of eastern Bhutan. Historians say that this ethnic group are the descendants of Lord Brahma and speak Tshanglakha, one of the most spoken languages of Bhutan. The Tshanglas are known for their beautiful weavings, mainly of silk and raw silk, produced by the women.

Ngalops: Ngalops are of Tibetan origin who have mostly settled in the Western regions of Bhutan. Their language, Ngalopkha, is a polished version of Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan. Agriculture is their main livelihood cultivating cereals (rice, wheat, barley, maize) amongst a variety of other crops. Ngalops are recognized for their ornamental speech (Lozeys) and dances (Zheys), distinctive of this ethnic tribe.

Lhotshampas: Having settled in the southern foothills of Bhutan, the Lhotshampas speak Lhotshamkha (Nepali) and practice Hinduism. Their community can be broken down into various lineages like that of Nepal: Bhawan, Chhetri, Rai, Limbu, Tamang, Gurung and Lepcha. (Link to people of Nepal when ready) The Lhotshampas are mostly employed in agriculture cultivating cash crops such as ginger, cardamom and orange.

The other minority groups are the Bumthaps and the Khengpas of Central Bhutan, the Kurtoeps in Lhuentse, the Brokpas and the Bramis of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan, the Doyas of Samtse and finally the Monpas of Rukha villages in Wangdue Phodrang. Together the multi-ethnic Bhutanese population number is just over 700,000.

Bhutanese Cultural Society

Bhutanese society is a caste-free system, despite the various ethnic groups, and maintains relative gender equality. The Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, abolished slavery in the early 1950s.

When you live in (and by) the Bhutanese society, it means you have an understanding of codes and etiquette, such as Driglam Namzha. Driglam Namzha teaches people a code of conduct to adhere to as members of a respectful society. Examples of Driglam Namzha include wearing a traditional scarf (kabney) when visiting a Dzong or an office, letting the elders and the monks serve themselves first during meals, offering felicitation scarves during ceremonies such as marriages and promotions and politely greeting elders or seniors.

Greetings are usually limited to saying hello, “Kuzuzangpo”, amongst peers. When greeting a senior or elder, it is more respectful to slightly bow the head and say “kuzuzangpo la”. Shaking hands has recently become an accepted norm too, but not the traditional way of greeting.

The Bhutanese are a fun-loving people fond of song and dance and would happily participate in friendly contests of archery, stone pitching, traditional darts, basketball and football. Weddings, religious holidays and other events are thoroughly enjoyed by locals; a perfect opportunity to gather with friends and family.

Bhutan’s Religion

Bhutanese citizens and visitors are free to practice any form of worship as long as it does not impinge on the rights of others. Other religions, apart from Buddhism, also present in the country include Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.

Buddhism: People say that Bhutan is the last stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism. Indian Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava was the first to introduce Buddhism in the 8th century. Until then, the people practised Bonism, a religion that worshipped all forms of nature, remnants of which are still evident in some remote villages in the country.

Buddhism began to take firm roots within the country with the visit of Guru Padmasambhava. This led to the propagation of the Nyingmapa (the ancient or the older) school of Buddhism. Later, in 1222, Phajo Drugom Zhigp from Ralung in Tibet, came to Bhutan and established the Drukpa Kagyu sect of Buddhism, the state religion. His descendants were instrumental in spreading it to other regions of western Bhutan. The greatest contributor of Buddhism in Bhutan was Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal, arriving from Tibet in 1616 arrival – a landmark event in Bhutanese history. He brought the various Buddhist schools that had developed in Western Bhutan under his domain and unified the country as one whole nation, giving Bhutan a distinct identity.

The Buddhism practised in the country today is a vibrant religion that permeates nearly every facet of the Bhutanese lifestyle. It is present in the Dzongs, monasteries, stupas, prayer flags, and prayer wheels punctuate the Bhutanese landscape. The chime of ritual bells, the sound of gongs, people circumambulating temples and stupas, fluttering prayer flags, red-robed monks conducting rituals stand as testaments to the importance of Buddhism in Bhutanese life.

Animism: You can still come across animistic traditions and beliefs being practised by people in Bhutan, even though the country is often referred to as the last Vajrayana Buddhist country. The form of Buddhism practised in Bhutan has absorbed many of the features of Bön - such as nature worship, worship of a host of deities, invoking and propitiating them. According to Bön Buddhism, these deities were the rightful owners of different elements of nature. Each different facet of nature was associated with its own specific type of spirit.

Every village has a local priest or a shaman to preside over the rituals. These shamanistic rituals are performed for various reasons ranging from to keep evil spirits at bay, bring in prosperity, to cure a patient or to welcome a new year.