Bhutan has gone through great lengths to preserve its cultural heritage, which includes Tibetan-style art, elegant and dramatic masked dances, refined native clothes, the Dzongkha language and its Buddhism-inspired code of ethics and etiquette. While Bhutan is one of the smallest countries in the world, its cultural diversity and richness are profound. As such, strong emphasis is laid on the promotion and preservation of its unique culture. By protecting and nurturing Bhutan’s living culture it is believed that it will help guard the sovereignty of the nation. [Source: Los Angeles Times; Tourism Council of Bhutan,]

The National Museum of Bhutan opened in 1968 at Paro Dzong, in a seven-story 17th-century fortress, featuring religious art objects reflective of Bhutan's unique Northern Buddhist culture, as well as historical objects. Some monasteries have valuable collections of Buddhist manuscripts and art objects.

Sacred Buddhist art in Bhutan includes painting and sculpture as well as ritual dances, known as Cham, which are usually performed by monks to bless onlookers and impart Buddhist teachings. There is also weaving, metalworking, woodcarving and herbal medicine. "What is required of a small country with a small population is felt ever more strongly with all this globalization," Dasho Penden Wangchuk, the Secretary of Home and Cultural Affairs, told Smithsonian magazine. "We feel ourselves a drop in the ocean. And what do we need to survive? Our culture. You want to preserve a plant or the black-necked crane because they are endangered. But [people] are the highest form of living being. The world goes gaga over a particular variety of orchid, but here is a nation. Would you like to see Bhutan disappear?" [Source: Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008]

Culture from south also make its way in. Urvashi Sarkar wrote in The Hindi: “The Indian influence in Bhutan is palpable. Apart from Indian dishes offered by most restaurants where other dishes and liquor are also available at reasonable prices, Bollywood music is also fairly popular and can be heard drifting through shops and clubs. [Source: Urvashi Sarkar The Hindi, August 26, 2011]

In the early 2000s, the pop music scene and the fledgling television production industry was controlled by Ugyen Dorjee, an entrepreneur that moved up from selling vegetables to bicycles to clothes to pop music cassettes and saved up enough to create Bhutan’s first recording studios. He released a number of CDs, including one with the local pop hit “Hey Girl”. In the late 1990s he began producing some of Bhutan’s first television programs. He sent an assistant to India to take a crash three-month course in video filming. His first production, about a woman that falls in love with a handsome man with a heart problem, was shown at local theaters in Thimphu. Money made from ticket sales was spent on generators so the show could be taken on the road to small towns and villages.

Impact of Buddhism on Bhutan’s Culture

To bring Buddhism to the people, numerous symbols and structures are employed. Religious monuments, prayer walls, prayer flags, and sacred mantras carved in stone hillsides were prevalent in the early 1990s. Prayer walls are made of laid or piled stone and inscribed with Tantric prayers. Prayers printed with woodblocks on cloth are made into tall, narrow, colorful prayer flags, which are then mounted on long poles and placed both at holy sites and at dangerous locations to ward off demons and to benefit the spirits of the dead. To help propagate the faith, itinerant monks travel from village to village carrying portable shrines with many small doors, which open to reveal statues and images of the Buddha, bodhisattavas, and notable lamas. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “Bhutan's culture is deeply rooted in Tibetan Buddhism. The country began as a theocracy (i.e., its ruler was a religious leader), and even today lamas are highly influential in the affairs of the country. The dzongs (forts) and monasteries remain centers of political, economic, social, and religious life. It is here that festivals are celebrated with religious music and masked dances, and lamas continue the traditions of Buddhist learning. Religion finds architectural expression in numerous chorten (relic mounds) and temples, while dzongs are often patterned after the Potala, the Dalai Lama's palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Religious objects such as the mandala (Buddhist Wheel of Life) and thanka (a painted religious scroll) are works of art in their own right. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Karma Phuntsho wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “In Bhutan Buddhism is almost the only theme in art forms such as painting and sculpture, though much of what can be classified as folk craft, comprising architecture, metalwork, weaving, carving, and bamboo work, has little to do with religion. Folk songs evoke both religious and worldly subjects, while monastic hymns and music are of a purely religious nature. Performing arts are more or less bifurcated into profane folk dances and sacred religious dances. The growing number of new songs, dances, and dramas, which are set in modern Western styles and reflect contemporary Bhutanese life, do not usually touch on spiritual themes. [Source: Karma Phuntsho, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

Bhutanese Literature and Folklore

Traditionally, most of Bhutan’s written texts and literature has been Buddhist texts such as the teachings of the Buddha, the biographies of religious figures and Buddhist chants and texts. Oral folklore includes stories about mermaids in the lakes and flying tigers in the mountains. Stories about evil King Langdrama are especially popular. In one tale a monk with a bow and arrow concealed in the sleeve of his robe slays the monarch. The largest library in Bhutan, the National Library at Thimphu, has one of the largest collections of Tibetan Buddhist literature in the world and has 10,000 wood block prints. The queen mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck organized the Mountains Echoes literary festival which has received help from people who run the famous Jairpur literary festival in India.

Karma Phuntsho wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Most traditional Bhutanese literature focuses on religion or is heavily laden with religious content. Even writings on nonreligious topics such as language, history, biography, and folktales could not escape the influence of religion. Today, however, there is an emerging class of literati who are trained in the West or receive a Western-style education and who write in English, although there are also a large number of traditional virtuosi who write in classical Tibetan and take their inspiration from Buddhism.” [Source: Karma Phuntsho, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “The Bhutanese possess an extensive lore relating to events and personalities of the region's past. One tradition tells of an Indian prince who settled in Bhutan in the 8th century AD and invited the monk Padmasambhava to his kingdom. Known in Tibet as Guru Rimpoche ("Precious Teacher"), Padmasambhava was primarily responsible for introducing Buddhism into Bhutan. Other stories center on the 15th-century lama Pemalingpa, who is seen as an incarnation of Padmasambhava. Pemalingma is known for composing various dances that are popular among the Bhutanese. Another heroic figure of Bhutan's past is Shabdrung, the lama who assumed the title of Dharma Raja in the 17th century and laid the political foundations of Bhutan State. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

Four Friends Story in Bhutan

The Four Friends story — a parable rooted in Buddhism — is about four animals that become harmonious friends Zann Huizhen Huang wrote in the Daily Bhutan: “One of the most commonly recurring themes in Bhutanese folk art, the ‘Four Harmonious Friends’ — elephant, monkey, rabbit and the bird — can be found on the murals of many monastery walls and stupas. Regarded as the national folklore of Bhutan”, the story shows up in “popular household decorative items such as paintings and wooden sculptures.” The seemingly simple tale teaches unity, selflessness, generosity, respect, care for the environment and nature as well as friendship and is well-loved by the Bhutanese. [Source: Zann Huizhen Huang, Daily Bhutan, January 20, 2020]

A parable steeped in Buddhism, the didactic tale of the four harmonious friends is also well-known throughout Tibet, Mongolia and India. The primary source of this story likely originated from the canon of Tibetan Buddhism, the Vinayavastu, found in the first section of the Kangyur. The iconic image of an elephant carrying a monkey, a rabbit and a bird on top of one another as they stood together under a fruit tree sets one’s mind thinking about what it symbolises.

The delightful tale begins like this: an elephant, a monkey, a rabbit and a bird lived by a huge fruit tree. Out of curiosity, the four animals sought to find out who is the oldest amongst them, by measuring their age with the tree. According to the elephant, the tree was already fully grown when he was young while the monkey said that it was still small back then. As for the rabbit, the tree was a mere sapling when it was a little bunny and when it came to the bird’s turn, it said: “I ate the fruits of a great tree nearby, then excreted the seeds from which this tree grew.” Henceforth, the little bird was recognised for its seniority, followed by the rabbit, the monkey and lastly the elephant. From then on, the four friends lived in harmony, with due respect given to the eldest, as they tended to the tree and helped one another to enjoy its sweet fruits.

“While it may seem that the elephant deserves to be accorded the highest respect based on its size and strength, it is actually the little bird that holds this position, based on its seniority. Therefore, the moral value that this tale is trying to impart is that communal harmony can be achieved through respect for one another based on age, as a barometer of one’s experiences in life.

“However, it has also been argued that respect based on seniority is not always the best gauge of a person’s character or wisdom. Especially in the realm of monastic life, respect is measured according to the number of years that one has been ordained as a monk, rather than the actual age. Moreover, respect has to be earned from both sides. Spiritually, this is gauged based on one’s progress in the practice of the Dharma and the accumulation of merits.

“The fact that the four animals of different sizes and age could co-operate and live together harmoniously and enjoy the ‘fruits’ of their labour suggests that the young and old can both learn from each other. It does not necessarily infer that there should be blind submission to someone simply based on seniority. Another valuable lesson to be learnt is that each of us, regardless of our size, age or appearance, has talents. By synergising these talents, we could all reach further heights, following the example of the four harmonious friends who helped one another to gather the fruits for sharing.

Jigme Singye Wangchuk and Preservation of Culture

The Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk (reigned 1972-2006) took many measures to preserve Bhutan’s traditional culture. He established a commission to maintain Bhutan’s 2,000 monasteries and made “driglam namba”, the ancient code of conduct, part of the school curriculum. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he issued a series of edicts designed to “preserve native culture.” The Bhutanese National Assembly passed a law that called for the restoration of driglam namzha and stated that buildings had to be built to conform to traditional architecture and satellite dishes were not allowed.

In 1988, the Bhutanese government made a decision to take active measures to protect the unique and precious heritage of Bhutan, the last remaining stronghold of Himalayan Buddhism. Accordingly, many temples and monasteries were closed to outsiders. Under the 1989 promulgation of Driglam Nam Zha (Etiquette and Manners) people were required to wear traditional Bhutanese clothes such as the gho in public. Western clothes were banned. Those who didn’t wear traditional clothes had to pay stiff fines and faced jail terms. Some of these laws are still place today to some degree.

Government decrees promulgated in the 1980s sought to preserve Bhutan's cultural identity in a "one nation, one people" policy. The government hoped to achieve integration through requiring national dress in public places (by a May 1989 decree that was quickly reversed) and insisting that individual conduct be based on Buddhist precepts. The government stressed standardization and popularization of Dzongkha, the primary national language, and even sponsored such programs as the preservation of folksongs used in new year and marriage celebrations, house blessings, and archery contests. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Other cultural preservation efforts, especially those aimed at traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts that had long been under royal family patronage, were embodied in the Sixth Development Plan. Bhutan participated in the Olympic Games and in other international games, and imported high-tech bows for use in national archery tournaments, although for a time only the simple traditional bow was permitted in contests within Bhutan. In 1989 Nepali ceased to be a language of instruction in schools, and Dzongkha was mandated to be taught in all schools. *.

Negative Side of Bhutan’s Cultural Preservation

To promote national unity, Dzongkha, the language of the Buddhist Bhutanese was made the national language and the language taught in school. The teaching of minority languages was discouraged. There were also laws that discouraged Bhutanese from marrying non-Bhutanese and limited the number of journalists, tourists and other foreigners allowed to enter the country.

The Bhutanese insistence on preserving Bhutanese culture has not pleased everyone in Bhutan. The edicts designed to “preserve native culture” have focused on Buddhism and Bhutanese culture and has alienated the country’s largely Hindu Nepali population. Nepalese within Bhutan formed political groups and tried pressure the government to make social reforms. The government responded with force, and violence broke out. Large numbers of people of Nepali origin were expelled from Bhutan. The majority of them, estimated to be between 100,000 and 135,000 in number, ended up in refugee camps in eastern Nepal. [Sources: “Gale Encyclopedia of World History: Governments” Thomson Gale, 2008; “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

Govinda Dhimal was a Bhutanese Nepalese in a refugee camp in the late 2000s. Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: A devout Hindu, he and his family had lived contentedly in the southern district of Tsirang for more than half a century. But the indignities piled up. Dhimal was required to wear a bulky gho, ill-suited for the subtropical heat. A soldier forced him to erase the Hindu markings from his forehead. When Nepali militants organized protest rallies, the army responded with mass arrests — and Dhimal ended up in jail. Weary and broken, the 69-year-old signed a “voluntary migration form” and fled into the unknown. When he reached the border, in early 1992, he hurled his gho back into Bhutanese territory — the last vestige of Drukpa culture imposed on him. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]

No Television and Internet in Bhutan Until 1999

Until 1999, Bhutan officially had no televisions, no satellite TV, no Internet and no television stations. "We are trying to modernize our country, not Westernize it" the Bhutanese Foreign Minister told the Washington Post in the 1990s, "We have not allowed satellite TV. We feel it will erode or country in no time — within a year or two our value system would change."

The rules were ignored. Some people had satellite dishes hidden in their barns. Others watched movies on pirated videos brought in from India on home VCRs. In the late 1990s, Thimphu had 25 video stores, the largest of which rented out 350 videos a day, including many new Hollywood and Bollywod films.

Up until the 1990s radio was the only official source of news and information. Bhutan Broadcasting Service, established in 1973 and given its current name in 1986, operated under the auspices of the Department of Information; it offered thirty hours a week of shortwave radio programming in Dzongkha, Tshanglakha, Nepali, and English. There was daily FM programming in Thimphu and shortwave reception throughout the rest of the nation in the early 1990s. In 1991 there were thirty-nine public radio stations for internal communications. There were also two stations used exclusively for communications with Bhutan's embassies in New Delhi and Dhaka and thirteen stations used by hydrologists and meteorologists.

There were no television stations in Bhutan in the early 1990s, and a 1989 royal decree ended the viewing of foreign television by mandating the dismantling of antennas. The government wanted to prevent Indian and Bangladeshi broadcasts from reaching Bhutan's citizens. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991]

Introduction of Television in Bhutan

Bhutan was the last country in the world to permit television within its borders. Television was officially introduced in Bhutan in June, 1999 in what King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk dubbed the "Light of the Cyber Age" had come. The first television broadcast was of a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the king's coronation. The first broadcast featured a speech by the king in front of 15,000 of his subjects at a stadium and one of Bhutan’s queens cutting a white ribbon in a television studio while dignitaries and reporters from the United States, Britain, France. Denmark and Germany looked on.

The Bhutanese government set up its own television station — the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) — which has its studio and offices in a building in a suburb of Thimphu. At first transmissions were limited to Thimphu and provided with one kilowatt broadcast signals that were bounced off towers on hills. Programming was limited to a few hours a day and consisted mostly of documentaries and news about the Bhutanese. Programming ended with a Buddhist prayer. The aim was to use television to strengthen the Bhutanese identity rather than open up the Bhutanese to the outside world.

The restrictions on satellite television were lifted in 1998 just before the start of the World Cup soccer tournament. According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: The introduction of television into Bhutan was sparked by the World Cup Soccer Final of France in 1998. The 3-0 victory of the home side over Brazil was watched by thousands on a big screen in Bhutan's National Square. TV in Bhutan was such a success that a year later, on the 25th anniversary of his coronation, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk decided to allow the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), founded in 1973, to broadcast TV programming. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

During the first broadcasts, people who had never seen a television before sat in rapt silence. Teenagers who had seen plenty of videos on illegal VCRs found the broadcasts boring. The first commercial was a shot of large offering of congratulations to the king from Penden Cement.

Television sets — many of them Malaysian-made Sonys or Indian televisions — sold at a rate of around 100 per week on the eve of the first broadcast even though the sets cost two months pay for an average Bhutanese. In the early days of Bhutanese television it was not unusual for 40 or 50 people to gather around a single television set

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “ Euphoria reigned in the towns as the outside world in all its garish glory beamed into shops and living rooms. Pulling the lid off Pandora’s box, however, raised concerns. What happens, after all, when an isolated, deeply conservative society is suddenly exposed to gangsta rapper 50 Cent and the World Wrestling Federation? [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]

Impact of Television in Bhutan

After the television was introduced in June 1999, Bhutanese was had access to cable were suddenly bombarded with 46 channels. For vast majority of Bhutan's population, they did not have electricity, let alone access to television.

One villager told he Washington Post, "It's better to have television. That way I can see what people in other countries are doing.” Foreign Minister Jigmi Thinley said: "The whole world is getting smaller, and we need to be part of the global village,"But how to do it while maintaining our traditions is a challenge...We are quite happy to be on our own. But is very important that the Bhutanese people not remain oblivious to the rest of the world. Kinlet Dorjee, editor of Bhutan’s only newspaper told Reuters: “It’s an aerial invasion. Bhutan is a small country...Its strength is its unique identity, its religion, clothes. Television exposure is seen as a dilution of this culture.”

The government controls television access. Some politicians said the government only introduced television because it was criticized by foreigners for keeping the foreign media out. Television has been credited — or blamed — with changing conversation topics and children’s behavior and speech patterns, Before television families sat around and chatted for a while after dinner and went to bed but after the introduction of television they often ate more quickly, watched three or four hours of television and went to bed later.

Satellite television service launched in February 2006 expanded BBS's programming to content from in almost 40 Asian countries, including Turkey and Indonesia. Parents complained their children are so fixated on the television they don’t say hi to their parents when they come home from work and they pick up Bollywood songs before they learn Bhutanese songs. Traditionalists complain that children watch pro wrestling instead of practicing traditional sports like archery and use English slang instead of studying Bhutan Buddhist literature.

“The impact of access to TV screens has changed Bhutanese society considerably, especially one that, as a matter of policy, attempts to preserve and conserve traditional values. The editor of Bhutan's only regular newspaper, the bi-weekly Kuensel, explained that the thinking in the country is that as it will never be a military or economic power, its strength must be its unique society. He believes that television represents a direct threat to this. Some observers have noted an increase in violence among children and a rise in crime, while others note that the more the Bhutanese are exposed to globalization, the more likely they are to lose their own culture. Such concerns have led to the regulation of the industry and control what goes out over the airwaves through acts such as the 2006 Information, Communication, and Media Act, which bans the broadcasting of material (e.g. pornography and the U.S. wrestling series WWE, both of which, it is believed, leads to violence among Bhutanese children) thought to be detrimental to Bhutanese society. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]

Negative Impact of Television in Bhutan

Television has been blamed for destroying family life and increasing crime and juvenile delinquency. Three years television was introduced in 1999 some shows like professional wrestling were taken off the air because they blamed for causing a surge in the crime rate.

Reuters reported: Since cable TV first arrived in her tiny village in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan” in 2005, “55-year-old Kencho Om keeps getting in trouble with her husband for staying up late watching movies. “My husband scolds me. He says at this age, I should be spending my time saying prayers," she said, sitting on the floorboards of her front room, the walls broken only by a shelf on which her small TV set is perched. "He says that after I die, instead of doing the funeral rituals, he will just put my body next to a TV." [Source: Reuters, May 15, 2007]

The Bhutanese were presented with an alternative vision — of glamour and wealth — and bombarded with advertisements for products they never knew they had missed. In a survey, more than 66 percent said TV had had a positive impact on society, and only 7.3 percent disagreed. Still, criticism persists. Petty crime and recreational drugs, almost unheard of a decade ago, have arrived in the past ten years. “I hate television," Chencho Tshering, the managing director of Kuensel, the state-owned newspaper, said, reminiscing about a recent night when the cable service went down. His wife was deprived of her Hindi soap operas and his three daughters missed Friends, but the family came together and started talking about the past. "That was the best night I can remember since 1999," he said

Introduction of the Internet and Cell Phones to Bhutan

Bhutan was one of the last countries in the world to open up to the outside world online. The Internet was introduced along with television to Bhutan in 1999 and has only been officially allowed since then. The fourth king of Bhutan, King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk (reigned 1972-2006) brought the Internet to Bhutan as part of his "Light of the Cyber Age" campaign

By 2006, many villages had access to high speed Internet service. One of the goals was to offer long distance learning and telemedicine. At that time Buddhist nuns had e-mail addresses and people used the Internet to check on prices at the Sunday markets. Teenagers chatted online with their friends in the United States while their fathers milk the family cows and yaks.

Percent of population with Internet access: 48.11 percent (July 2018 estimated); compared with other countries in the world: 160. In the early 2000s there were 26 Internet users per 1,000 people, compared to 28 in low-income countries 538 in high-income countries and 630 in the United States. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020; Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, 2007]

In 2004, surveys funded by the French communications company Alcatel and a Danish development company began surveying Bhutan to set up cell phone transmitters based on microwave radio and wireless technology. Subscribers to their service got a telephone hand set, a small antennae able to receive data from a central base station in the village and a solar cell for power. The project was difficult to implement. In many cases equipment had to be brought on by ponies on walking trails. The goal was for most villages to have access by 2006. One of the goals was to offer long distance learning and telemedicine. A director at Bhutan telecom told the International Herald Tribune, “The project is a revolution in terms of education and communication. for the rural people.”

Today many men keep their smart phones tucked into the folds of their traditional dress, the gho. CBS News reported in 2016: Cell phones are everywhere. Some wonder how they got along without them, like freelance journalist Tshering Choeki. “I can't live without my cell phone today," Choeki said. "I make my appointments on my cell phones. I check my emails on my wi-phones. And sometimes when I'm in a hurry I even do articles on my cell phone." [Source: Barry Petersen and T. Sean Herbert, CBS News April 17, 2016]

Modern Culture Makes Inroads Into Bhutan

Bhutanese youths and well as people in the 20s and 30s like Western fashions, Bollywood films, rock n’ roll and hip hop. Some smoke cigarettes and get high on locally-grown weed. Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Tshewang Dendup owns the only denim gho in existence. He also plays a mean air guitar, hangs a Che Guevara poster in his living room, and often wears his hair so long he pulls it back into a ponytail. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]

A rebel in the making? Not quite. Dendup, 38, runs the news department at the government-financed Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), the country’s only television station. The son of a weaver and a lay Buddhist priest, Dendup strives to balance tradition and modernity. “If we only had the old, we’d still be cocooned here, left out of the wider world,” Dendup says. “But if we only had the modern, we would have lost our culture. We need both to survive.” He’s confident that technology and tradition can blend, citing the CD player he bought for his father, who had never seen such a gadget before and who now pulls out the machine to play sermons and chants for his guests.

“Cultural vitality resists easy measurement. Is it a zero-sum game, in which every Britney Spears video signifies an irretrievable loss, sending Bhutanese traditions one more step toward extinction? Or is it more like three-dimensional chess, a complex arrangement in which Buddhism and Game Boys can live side by side?

“If optimists like Dendup are right, Bhutan’s emergence is invigorating local culture. As modern communications spread — 28 percent of households now own a television, 11 percent a cell phone, about 3 percent a computer — citizens are connecting with each other as well as the rest of the world. This is no small achievement in Bhutan, whose only cross-country road is so slow, narrow, and sinuous that it takes three days to traverse the 150 miles (as the raven flies) from east to west. Villagers separated by mountains now share the experience of watching their national TV network. New radio stations, such as Kuzoo FM, bring young people together to talk about music, culture, and modernization. In 2006 the king even allowed two independent newspapers to emerge as alternative voices to Kuensel, still seen by many as the official mouthpiece.”

In 2018, Reuters reported: “For decades Bhutan had no television, no traffic lights and a culture that had barely changed in centuries.But bars now dot the capital, Thimphu, while teenagers crowd internet cafes to play violent video games, and men smoke and gamble in snooker halls. There are still no traffic lights after residents protested against the installation of one, but otherwise the once-isolated Buddhist country is changing, and bringing the modern world's problems in its wake. "I'm not happy or sad about things, I have no other choice," said Lhaden, who only has one name. Lhaden, who earns $125 a month, is counting the pennies. "I live in such a small apartment so I can afford food and clothes." [Source: Reuters, January 18, 2018]

Signs of change are everywhere. Smoke billows from construction sites across the country and a giant bronze-and-gold Buddha statue that commands the entry to the Thimphu valley now shares space with modern telecom towers. On the streets and even in the countryside, jeans have become as commonplace as the traditional Bhutanese knee-length gho robes for men and the ankle-length kira dresses that women wear. Bhutan's $2.2 billion economy remains predominantly agricultural, but cellphones and TV sets are everywhere "Children are spending more time on their cellphones and not studying," said Ap Daw, 43, a farmer who also bemoans the rising mounds of trash by the road. Next to his house, a squad of Buddhist monks has discarded their crimson robes to play soccer, in Manchester United and Chelsea jerseys. Daw's 13-year-old son, Sonam Tshering, a football fan himself, has big dreams too. "I would love to become a science teacher and watch Cristiano Ronaldo play for Real Madrid," said Sonam as he helped feed the family cattle.

Dark Side of Modern Culture in Bhutan

With the advent of modernization, Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Bhutan’s traditionalists...see a darker force at play: the invasion by a materialistic global monoculture that is eroding their values. The government has banned channels deemed harmful, including MTV, Fashion TV, and a sports channel that featured violent wrestling spectacles. Sonam Tshewang, a junior-high teacher in Thimphu, believes something vital has already been lost. “Some kids have become so Westernized that they’ve forgotten their own cultural identity,” he says. One girl in his class even changed her name to Britney. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]

“The identity crisis runs deeper than a name change. A cocktail of social pressures is fueling new problems. Youth unemployment is running at about 30 percent in Thimphu, as rural high-school graduates flock to town dreaming of civil-service jobs that fail to materialize. Gangs with names like Virus and Bacteria have formed. Violent crime is still rare, but theft — once absent in a country with few locked doors — is becoming more common, as people covet their neighbors’ mobile phones and CD players.

“Drug addiction is also on the rise. Near the entrance to Destiny Club, one of Thimphu’s handful of new discos, three young revelers discuss the virtues of “pig’s food,” a potent variety of marijuana, abundant in the Bhutanese countryside, that is used traditionally as an appetite enhancer for livestock. “Do kids in America also get addicted?” asks the trio’s leader, a 23-year-old with reddened eyes. Thimphu’s drug scene might seem tame by international standards, but this can hardly be the kind of happiness the king envisioned. Ugyen Dorji, a former addict who founded Bhutan’s first drug-rehabilitation center three years ago with the help of the Youth Development Fund, says it reflects “the anxieties of a society in transition.”“

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (, National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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