Bhutan's traditional society has been defined as both patriarchal and matriarchal, and the member held in highest esteem served as the family's head. Bhutan also has been described as feudalistic and characterized by the absence of strong social stratification. In premodern times, there were three broad classes: the monastic community, the leadership of which was the nobility; lay civil servants who ran the government apparatus; and farmers, the largest class, living in self-sufficient villages. In the more militaristic premodern era, Bhutan also had an underclass of prisoners of war and their descendants, who were generally treated as serfs or even as slaves. In modern times, society was organized around joint family units, and a class division existed based on occupation and, in time, social status. With the introduction of foreign practices in recent centuries and increasing job mobility outside the village, however, emphasis has been placed on nuclear family units. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Human Development Index score: .654. Bhutan ranked 129th out of 189 countries (compared to 1 for Norway, 13 for the United States and 189 for Niger). The Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income per capita indicators. A country scores higher HDI when the life expectancy at birth is longer, the education period is longer, and the income per capita is higher [Source: United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report, Wikipedia]
Population below poverty line: 12 percent (2012 estimated). This is much lower than in the past. Bhutan has made great strides improving the quality of life of its people — both in terms of gross national happiness and gross nation product — in recent decades. In the early 1990s a typical Bhutanese earned slightly more than US$1 a day. Four of ten children were undernourished and half the people older than 15 can not read. Now the literacy rate is 66.6 percent the GDP per capita is US$9,000. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
Percentage of Population Living in Poverty: Under US$1.90 per day:: 1.5 percent under US$3.20 per day: 12 percent; under US$5.50 per day: 38.6 percent. [Source: World Bank, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]
Income Inequality: United Nations rich 20 percent versus poor 20 percent: 6.6 percent; World Bank Gini Index: 37.4 (2017) ; CIA Gini Index: 38.6 (2012). Rich versus poor 20 percent is ratio of the average income of the richest 20 percent to the poorest 20 percent. Gini index is a quantified representation of a nation's Lorenz curve. A Gini index of 0 percent expresses perfect equality, while index of 100 percent expresses maximal inequality. [Source: UN: Data from the United Nations Development Programme; CIA World Factbook, World Bank; Wikipedia Wikipedia ]
Social Life in Bhutan
Living in Bhutanese society generally means understanding some accepted norms such as Driglam Namzha, the traditional code of etiquette. 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. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
The Bhutanese are a fun-loving people fond of song and dance, friendly contests of archery, stone pitching, traditional darts, basketball and football. We are a social people that enjoy weddings, religious holidays and other events as the perfect opportunities to gather with friends and family. The openness of Bhutanese society is exemplified in the way our people often visit their friends and relatives at any hour of the day without any advance notice or appointment and still receive a warm welcome and hospitality.
Karma Phuntsho wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Although the spirit of Buddhism pervades all facets and all levels of Bhutanese life, there are no formal Buddhist rites and rituals pertaining to family life and marriage. Religious influences are, however, evident in Bhutanese family life. Bhutanese are well known for their laxity and openness in sexual affairs, and most indulge in sexual promiscuity, perhaps because of the influence of tantric figures such as the "crazy saint" Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529). The fact that both polygynous and polyandrous relations remain common may be explained by the same influences.” [Source: Karma Phuntsho, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
Social Stratification in Bhutan
According to the Bhutan government: “Bhutanese society is free of class or a caste system. Slavery was abolished by the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in the early 1950s through a royal edict. Though, a few organizations to empower women were established in the past Bhutanese society has always maintained relative gender equality. In general our nation is an open and a good-spirited society. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Social status is based on a family's economic station. Except among the Hindu Nepalese in southern Bhutan, there was no caste system. Although Bhutanese were endogamous by tradition, modern practices and even royal decrees encouraged ethnic integration in the late twentieth century. Primogeniture dictated the right of inheritance traditionally, although in some central areas the eldest daughter was the lawful successor. In contemporary Bhutan, however, inheritance came to be more equally distributed among all children of a family. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Except for the royal family and a few other noble families, Bhutanese do not have surnames. Individuals normally have two names, but neither is considered a family name or a surname. Some people adopt their village name, occasionally in abbreviated form, as part of their name, using it before their given name. Wives keep their own names, and children frequently have names unconnected to either parent. Some individuals educated abroad have taken their last name as a surname, however. A system of titles, depending on age, degree of familiarity, and social or official status, denotes ranks and relationships among members of society. The title dasho, for example, is an honorific used by a prince of the royal house, a commoner who marries a princess, a nephew of the Druk Gyalpo, a deputy minister, other senior government officials, and others in positions of authority. *
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: “While Bhutan has no caste system, a pattern of discrimination against the minority Hindus of Nepalese origin exists. Thousands of Nepalese were deported from Bhutan in the late 1980s, and many others fled to refugee camps in Nepal. The government launched an effort to promote the cultural assimilation of the remaining Nepalese. Nepali was no longer taught in schools, and national dress was required for official occasions.” [Source:“Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Buddhism and Bhutanese Society
Karma Phuntsho wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Buddhism adopts an egalitarian approach to social issues. A person's status is determined not by birth, caste, color, or race but by his or her moral and spiritual qualities. Because it is believed that there is no inherent self and that everyone is equal in being an assembly of psychosomatic components, there is no innate difference in people's status. It is the quality of the physical and spiritual components that determines the personality and that differentiates one person from another.
“Bhutanese Buddhists also believe that all sentient beings are endowed with the Buddha nature and that all beings have been a person's mother in the course of the innumerable rebirths he or she has had in this cycle of existence. Both of these beliefs help nurture a sense of equality and equanimity toward all persons. Perhaps because of these religious influences, Bhutan has greater social, racial, and sexual equality than its neighbors.
“The strongest and most vivid impact of Buddhism on Bhutanese society is perhaps seen in the application of the two principles le jumday, the law of cause and effect, and tha damtshig, a popular Bhutanese code of moral rectitude (which has a variety of referents, including honesty, fidelity, integrity, gratitude, and loyalty). These concepts dictate the Bhutanese way of life, and since the 1980s they have also taken on strong political overtones. The government has also worked on incorporating into its judicial system and its plan for decentralization the values of Buddhist vinaya (monastic rules), which uses a democratic style of decision-making through consensus.
Jeffrey R. Timm, “Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics”: “The vision guiding Bhutan's approach has emerged from the core values of Vajrayana Buddhism, specifically the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma lineages that dominate the country's spiritual landscape. The effect of those values on modern technological development is suggested in the frequently quoted maxim of Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the king of Bhutan: "Gross national happiness is more important than gross national product." [Source: Jeffrey R. Timm, “Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics”, Thomson Gale, 2005]
“Ideas such as ley jumdrey, the law of karma; tha damtshig, the sacred commitment to interpersonal relationships; and the interdependence of all things are illustrated in the ubiquitous iconography of thuenpa puenshi, "the Four Friends," four animals that achieve a common good through thoughtful cooperation, an image that is painted on the walls of classrooms, government offices, hotels, shops, and homes throughout the country. Hagiographies of successful Buddhist practitioners convey the importance of self-discipline, the efficacy of ritual and contemplative practices, and the perfectibility of human beings, along with universal values such as honesty, compassion, harmony, and nonviolence. Divine madmen such as the antinomian folk hero Drukpa Kunley offer a corrective to pretentious, self-important authority and the soporific effects of habituation to mundane, consensus reality.
The Bhutanese code of etiquette is known as driglam namzha. Passang Lhamo wrote in the Daily Bhutan: “ Driglam means the way of maintaining order, while namzha refers to a concept or system. Therefore, driglam namzha is a system of orderly and cultured behavior, and by extension, the standards and rules that constitute it. It also regulates a number of cultural assets such as art, the way we speak and also our internal mind too. Driglam can be categorised into three disciplines: Physical, verbal, and mental/ inner mind. [Source: Passang Lhamo, Daily Bhutan, April 2, 2019]
“The physical discipline includes the way people behave and wear clothes. The way the Bhutanese eat, behave and walk is also part of this discipline, known as zhacha dro sum. External behaviors should reflect wholesome values such as humility, self-control, calm and compassion while also displaying sensitivity and respect towards others.
“Driglam namzha” serves “as a courteous mode of individual development. With more exposure to the outside world, Bhutanese people take pride in driglam namzha as a unique identity of Bhutan and promote it not only as a righteous code of conduct, but also as a marker of Bhutanese identity. Driglam namzha was discussed many times in the Parliament and resolutions were passed on its preservation and promotion, mainly to counteract the invasion of Western culture. In a nutshell, driglam namzha deals with eschewing crude and bad physical, verbal and mental behaviours and adopting civil and courteous conducts of the body, speech, and mind.
“The elders and the leaders of the nation must follow the code of etiquette because they set the example for the rest of the people to follow. It is a courteous mode of individual development, as well as a civilised mechanism for the harmonious functioning of a society. Its intrinsic value lies in it being an expression of civility, tact, propriety, decorum, and elegance, and it is by seeing this value that driglam namzha can be sustained and celebrated as a unique Bhutanese heritage.
History of Driglam Namzha
Some have called “driglam namba” an ancient code. Whether that is true and what defines “ancient” is a matter of debate. King Jigme Singye Wangchuk (reigned 1972- 2006) took many measures to preserve Bhutan’s traditional culture. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he issued a series of edicts designed to “preserve native culture” and made “driglam namba” part of the school curriculum. 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.
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. The edicts designed to “preserve native culture” focused on Buddhism and Bhutanese culture.
This "Bhutanisation drive" 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]
Customs and Behavior Based on Driglam Namzha
Passang Lhamo wrote in the Daily Bhutan: “ According to driglam namzha, we need to have a good mindset, a mind who thinks good about the welfare of all sentient beings. The inner mind, driglam, means the way Bhutanese people think: their love for the country, King and people, and the respect for the nation’s rules and regulations. Respect for our national dress is paramount, because it is a unique identity of our country and the same should be applied to the national language Dzongkha. There must also be the willingness to serve Tsa-Wa-Sum (King, country, and people) as much as we can and to have the determination to make everyone happy. Having a good mindset helps to maintain good relationships with everyone, as well as being loyal to friends, spouses, parents and oneself. [Source: Passang Lhamo, Daily Bhutan, April 2, 2019]
Way of walking: “Walking without conscious, running while walking, making a loud noise with our footsteps, taking big footsteps, holding your hand on your hips and dashing with others, holding hand with friends and walking, and keeping your hand at your back while walking are all considered as ill-mannered. One should walk without making noises, and while walking with high officials, we should walk on the left behind them. While walking with high officials, we should walk on their left and behind them. :
Verbal discipline - how we talk: “According to conduct defined by driglam namzha, we should maintain decorum while talking, and talk according to time and space with a conscious mind and introspection. We are also required to talk clearly so that others can understand what we mean. A) The way we talk with elders: We should talk with respect to lama's, high officials, parents, and elders. B) The way we talk with people of the same age: We need to talk with our friends or people of the same age as us with love and affection. C) The way we talk with the younger ones: We need to talk to younger ones with compassion, cherish them and guide them by giving good advice. D) Telling lies, harsh words, spreading rumours, scandalising, backbiting, accusation and defaming, and murmuring are considered a bad way of talking and have to be avoided at all times. We need to welcome a guest, whether it is a high official or a common man, with a smile and treat them with respect.
When he was Prime Minister of Bhutan from 2013 to 2018, Tshering Tobgay, the New York Times reported, “eliminated some of the restrictive customs enforced by the previous government, including occasional bans on vehicular traffic and a dress code requiring men to wear ghos, a dresslike traditional garment. He acknowledged that preserving the country’s traditional culture would be challenging in an era of rapid urbanization. [Source: Gardiner Harris, New York Times, October 4, 2013]
Change in Bhutan
Arthur Lubow wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “On rural highways in Bhutan, trucks hauling huge pine logs rush past women bowed beneath bundles of firewood strapped to their backs. In the capital of Thimphu, teenagers in jeans and hooded sweat shirts hang out smoking cigarettes in a downtown square, while less than a mile away, other adolescents perform a sacred Buddhist act of devotion. Archery, the national sport, remains a fervent pursuit, but American fiberglass bows have increasingly replaced those made of traditional bamboo. While it seems that every fast-flowing stream has been harnessed to turn a prayer drum inside a shrine, on large rivers, hydroelectric projects generate electricity for sale to India, accounting for almost half the country's gross national product. “ [Source: Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008]
Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “A generation or two ago, the people of Bhutan lived in a medieval, feudal bubble. When the first jeep arrived in Thimpu in the 1960s, locals ran in fear of the fire-breathing dragon. Television was legalized in 1999, and democracy was imposed by the fourth king on his reluctant subjects in 2008. Now, roads, schools and hospitals have been built. And although there is more work to be done, the Bhutanese enjoy near universal access to safe drinking water and primary education, in stark contrast to their South Asian neighbors. Bhutan is on track, the United Nations says, to meet its Millennium Development Goals. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, October 30, 2011]
“One of the greatest challenges facing Bhutan is that universal education has proved a double-edged sword. Children who complete secondary school — and watch television when they are not studying — do not want to spend their lives tilling the fields. Instead, they have poured into Thimphu and into an economy that can barely support them.’
When asked how change has affected his country, American- and Oxford-educated Prince Dasho Jigyel, brother of the King, told CBS News: "It is both a plus and a minus, with globalization and us opening up our doors. We can't really swim against the tide. Back in the day we didn't have something called shoes. We didn't even have socks. So this is an evolution of it, sir." Karen Beardsley, a Fulbright professor teaching global mapping courses to students at the Royal Thimphu College, says Bhutan resists potentially losing its identity by inviting in American businesses: "I've been to other countries where those kinds of American shops are everywhere and it starts to feel like you're just in America. “I think the cultural identity of Bhutan is very important, and I think they really want to maintain that. And I think by having those kinds of stores here would take away from that." [Source: Barry Petersen and T. Sean Herbert, CBS News April 17, 2016]
Barry Petersen and T. Sean Herbert of CBS News wrote: “Evolution that took centuries, from feuding warlords and serfdom to a monarchy founded in 1908, to democracy decreed by the king in 2008 ... just like that. Even without fast food, the incoming tide of technology is changing Bhutan, as we learned when we stopped at a local archery tournament. Archery is Bhutan's national sport; women dance to cheer their favorite team. But the younger generation is losing interest. School teacher Sonam Dorgi's father taught him archery at age ten. He says today's children don't like to play the game. Does that mean that in Bhutan archery might go away? “Maybe. We are so worried about that," Dorgi said. A 14-year-old Bhutanese boy told CBS News he had “a passion” for computer games. When asked if he has tried archery, the teenager laughed. "No, I didn't try."
Bhutan Modernizes the Bhutanese Way
Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “The growing number of day-care centers in Bhutan is just one of the ways in which this ancient civilization is modernizing, often at rapid speeds. More Bhutanese are moving to cities and away from their extended families, traditionally a vital part of the social structure here. In the capital, Thimphu, young Bhutanese are wearing Western-style jeans and tuning in to satellite TV for the first time, watching programs such as "Desperate Housewives." [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, April 4, 2008]
“Now, many fear Bhutan's unique culture will be diluted, or even overtaken, by the powerful forces of globalization. “Bhutan is a society on the threshold of change," said Namgay Zam, 22, a disc jockey at "Kazoo FM: The Voice of the Youth." "We're struggling to find the right balance. It's one of the most challenging questions for the next generation: How do you modernize, but also remain Bhutanese?" Bhutan has remained peaceful. Buddhist prayer wheels sit like kings in village squares, and centuries-old fortresses poke up through blue pine forests.
One Bhutanese leader has remarked that Bhutan may well be the last country on earth to allow a McDonald's to raise its arches, which here would sit among monasteries and pagodas.”
Bhutan “was the last country in the world to introduce broadcast television. It did, however, later ban MTV and the World Wrestling Entertainment channel. “Apparently it was making the youth too violent, since they were wrestling each other all day. The government felt this violence was not Buddhist and goes against our gross national happiness philosophy," Zam, the DJ, said with a laugh. She said she opposed the ban, but also saw the reason for it. "Maybe it was a good thing to be able to understand our Bhutanese identity first, and then open up to the world," she said.
“Bhutan likes doing things its own way. It is the only country in the world to ban the sale of tobacco. Thimphu is the only capital in the world without a traffic light; instead, a white-gloved traffic officer directs cars, pedestrians and yak herds. The city had a zoo, but freed the animals, saying it wasn't in the Buddhist spirit to cage the national mammal, the takin, which has the head of a goat and the body of a moose.
“While Bhutan's ways are quirky, the culture, at least in urban areas, is morphing into something new. Thimphu's central square is filled with teenagers strumming guitars and wearing buttons with the names of rock bands such as Metallica. A transvestite recently went out in public to a disco — a sign, the DJs at Kazoo said, that youth culture is open to previously shunned ideas. Many younger Bhutanese have started to fuse their culture with the tastes of the West. The Zone Cafe in Thimphu, for instance, serves yak burgers and pizza with yak meat. A Bhutanese fashion designer, Sangay Choden, put Velcro around the waist of her traditional kiras to make them easier to wear. “I wanted to be creative and voice what our youth feel today. But I also wanted to keep being Bhutanese," Choden said. "It can be done."
Impact of Modernization in Bhutan
Officials believe that the influence of Western culture has contributed to increase in drug use and crime rates. Posters on ridges and trees warn about the dangers of AIDS and smoking. The owner of an avant guard café in Thimphu told Reuters that when her monk brother left a monastery when he was in his 20s he suffered culture shock. “He’s never seen all this before — parties and other things. The family wasn’t happy about his decision initially, but they realized it was his choice.” Rieki Crins, a Dutch scholar doing PH.D. research in Bhutan told Reuters, “The impact of television has been exaggerated. But at the same time, you can’t expect Bhutan to remain a museum forever.” There are still places where people have never seen an automobile.
Many Bhutanese who have gone abroad, including students who went to foreign universities on scholarships, have returned unimpressed by what they saw in the West. The Bhutanese trade minister Khandy Wamgchuck told Time, “It’s not as though we want to be like North Korea and keep our people in the ark. Let them chose. But we want them to see what happens in the West, that you can have all the TVs and cars and still be unhappy.” Ugyen Tsherong, Bhutan's foreign secretary told the Los Angeles Times, "yes were are trying to have it both ways. We want to modernize Bhutan, and were are determined to do it our way.
In the 1990s, Father Macket, founder of Bhutan's first university, told National Geographic: "You have to understand that this country has one foot in the Middle Ages and the other in the 21st century. It's made remarkable progress." The monarch at the time, King Jigme Stingye Wangchuk, said that he hoped Bhutan will "achieve the essential balance between the values of the past and the innovation of the present...Only through a blend of tradition and modernity can we enhance the quality of life of our people."The king added "We have time to wait until our people are ready for the changes the outside world will bring." [Source: Bruce W. Bunting, National Geographic, May, 1991]
Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: Blasting from the speakers is not a Buddhist incantation but the opening riffs of Shakira’s risqué pop anthem, “Hips Don’t Lie,” piped in from a sleek white Macintosh laptop. And when Norbu twirls to a stop in a no-hands headstand, his shirt rides up to reveal his homage to global youth culture: red Nike high-top sneakers, baggy Adidas sweatpants, and a temporary tattoo that spells out, in jagged English letters, the name he and his homeys have adopted — “B-Boyz.”“ [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]
“When the song fades out, Norbu struts away with an impish smile and a crooked-finger gang salute. His fellow B-Boyz whistle and cheer. The monks break into befuddled red-tooth grins. And the sun-burnished peasants? They just gape at the boy. If he were a masked festival dancer, spinning toward enlightenment, they might understand. And yet, for all the mutual incomprehension, the moment still binds them together. For in one mind-bending performance, Norbu has captured the essence of a country that is attempting the impossible: to leap from the Middle Ages to the 21st century without losing its balance.”
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Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (tourism.gov.bt), National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (gov.bt), 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