Bhutanese people, society & religion
The Bhutanese Society:
The Bhutanese society is an open one, free of class, caste or gender discrimination. The Bhutanese are a fun-loving people; dancing, singing, playing archery, stone pitching, partying, social gatherings etc. are common things that one observes. Visiting friends and relatives at any hour of the day without any advance notice or appointment clearly depicts the casual openness of the Bhutanese society.
Driglam Namzha, the traditional etiquette determines the general behavior and conduct. The Driglam Namzha dictates that the members of the society conduct themselves in a most modest and courteous manner, extending due curtsies to one’s superiors, those of the monastic order and the elderly. For instance, wearing a scarf when visiting a Dzong, letting the elders and the monks serve themselves first, offering felicitation scarves when someone gets a promotion, greeting the elders or senior officials before they wish you, etc. are some simple manners that synchronizes and defines the Bhutanese society.
In the Bhutanese society, the head is considered sacred and legs impure. So it is wrong to touch anyone’s head or stretch your feet in public. Normally, greetings are limited to saying Kuzuzangpo amongst equals. For seniors and elders, the Bhutanese bow their head a bit and say Kuzuzangpo-la. But of late, the western mannerism of shaking hands has caught on with people in the urban areas.
Bhutan is the only country in the world where Mahayana Buddhism is observed as the state religion. Most Bhutanese are followers of Mahayana Buddhism and around two-thirds to three-quarters of the populace practice Drukpa Kagyupa or Nyingmapa Buddhism. Other religions are Hinduism which is mostly followed by some of the southern dwellers. Of late Christianity is emerging and gaining footing as well. Hinduism is practiced by one-quarter while Christians and non-religious group comprise less than 1 percent of the population.
Until the advent of Guru Rimpoche, a great saint who ensured the flourishing of Buddhism in Bhutan, the people practiced the shamanic religion of Mon Choed and Boen Choed, the evidence of which can be witnessed to this day in some of the practices of people in the rural pockets of Bhutan. One has to wait until the 7th century to find the earliest texts referring to the development of Buddhism in Bhutan. They relate the construction of Kyichu lhakhang in Paro and Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang by the Tibetain King Songsten Gyembo who made some efforts to spread Buddhism. But it was only with the arrival of Guru Rinpoche who had been invited to cure an ailing King sometime in 747 that Buddhism really began to spread.
The Bhutanese population is made up of a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual society. The extreme north east is home to the Brokpas, the semi-nomads of the villages of Merak and Sakteng. To the extreme north are the semi-nomadic Layaps who speak the Layapkha. The Doyas are another tribal community and are settled mostly in southern Bhutan. They are considered the aboriginal inhabitants of western and central Bhutan, who over the years settled in the present areas of Dorokha. They have a dialect of their own and dress in their own unique style.
To the east are the Tshanglas, popularly known as Sharchops or the easterners who speak Tshanglakha. The Kurtoeps of Lhuntse are the other section of people in the east.
In the central pockets of Bhutan are the Bumthaps who speak Bumthapkha, Mangdeps who speak Mangdepkha and Khengpas who speak Khengkha.
In Western Bhutan are the Ngalops who speak Ngalopkha which is the polished version of Dzongkha – the national language of Bhutan.
And finally, down south are the Lhotshampas or the southerners who speak Lhotshamkha – the language of Nepal.
About two dozen dialects are spoken by the people all over the country, with Dzongkha (one among the many Tibetan languages) being spoken and taught as the national language. Officially meaning- “the Language spoken in the Dzongs” (kha means language or literally, mouth), Dzongkha bears close linguistic similarities to the language spoken in the southern part of Tibet and was instated as the national language by the Zhabdrung during his reign over Bhutan. The style of writing is also similar, although not wholly, to Tibetan scriptures.
Besides Dzongkha, English is also taught as a medium for education in schools all over the country. So it comes as no surprise that the people in Bhutan speak this foreign language fluently. The most widely spoken dialects besides Dzongkha are the Sharchop-kha (language of the east also known as Tshangla) and the Lhotsam-kha (the Nepali language spoken in most of the southern parts). Except for the Lhotsam-kha all the other dialects in Bhutan can be classified under the Tibeto-Burman languages. There is also a considerable population of people who speak the Kheng-kha in central parts of Bhutan with a small language diversity existing among certain villages which are both lexical and different in the way certain tenses are formed.
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