TOWNS, CITIES AND VILLAGES IN BHUTAN
About 57.3 percent of Bhutanese live in rural areas, a much smaller proportion than in the past. Many Bhutanese live in small agricultural villages scattered around the mountain valleys. Villages are often made up of only a dozen houses that are several hour walk from the nearest road. Many of the people in Bhutan’s remotest villages have never seen an automobile, an airplane or a foreigner. Many people lives in villages more than a day’s walk form the nearest road.
According to Geo-Data: “Most Bhutanese live in small rural villages in the Inner Himalayan region. Settlements are spread out among the valleys in this region, with farmers living in houses on the lower mountain slopes above their farmland. At higher elevations, population distribution is more concentrated because the lack of level land forces inhabitants to cluster together in smaller areas. The upper reaches of the Himalayas are largely uninhabited except for scattered Buddhist monasteries in valleys. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]
There are also a number of cities. The capital city of Thimphu is situated at the northern edge of the Inner Himalayas, in the western part of the country. It is home to the royal family and seat of the government. Other cities include Wangdue Phondrang and Tongsa. Bumthang is the spiritual heart of the city. The mummified body of Bhutan’s founder, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, is kept in a temple there. The royal family used to be based there. The region has a number of monasteries and pilgrimage sites, as well as numerous religious legends associated with it. The major commercial centers of Phuntsholing, Geylegphug, and Samdrup Jongkhar are located near the southern border with India. [Source:“Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001; Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]
According to “Countries and Their Cultures”: The use of space in Bhutan “involves preserving both the environment and the quality of life of Bhutan residents and at the same time using space to preserve wildlife. As part of Bhutan's Buddhist heritage, this includes preserving the numerous Dzongs (monastery fortresses) that are located throughout the entire country.”
Houses in Bhutan
All homes in Bhutan are required to be built in a traditional style with a sloping, Tibetan-style beamed roof, whitewashed walls, and arch windows. A typical house in Bhutan has mud-brick walls and a slate roof. The traditional wood door is generally about twice as tall as anybody that would ever enter it. Many houses are decorated with images of dragons and snow leopards and symbols from Tibetan Buddhism such as the Eight Auspicious Signs. Some are decorated with images of penises. Large stones are used to weigh down wooden roofs against fierce Himalayan storms.
In the 1990s, a typical three-generation family of 14 in Bhutan (with a per capita income close to the national average of US$174) lived in a three story house. Many of Bhutanese rural residents live in houses built to withstand the long, cold winters, with wood-burning stoves for both heat and cooking. Nearly all these rural houses are surrounded by some land that is used for growing vegetables. Sometimes you see houses high up in the hills, and it is unclear what they are doing up and how they are supported or were built. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001; Peter Menzel, "Material World," Sierra Club Books, 1994]
All homeowners are eligible for assistance through subsidized timber purchases and group fire insurance. The Municipal Act of 1999 was established to decentralize control of housing and utilities. The government has also established the National Committee on Human Settlements to oversee projects for urban development. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007 =|=]
Traditional Houses in Bhutan
Traditional houses in Bhutan are built of blocks or layers of stone set in clay mortar, with roofs formed of pine shingles kept in place by heavy stones. Roofs are gently inclined and formed of pine shingles kept in place by heavy stones. Sharchop houses of stone and timber were sometimes built on hillsides. In the southern areas inhabited by Nepalese, Assamese, and Bengalis, housing was more likely to consist of bamboo and thatched roof houses and mud and thatch dwellings. The construction of housing often was a cooperative task of the community.
According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “Secular architecture in Bhutan finds its main form in traditional farmhouses that form small clusters in tiny villages. A Bhutanese home is not only a residential unit but also a social, economic and religious unit. Apart from providing a home for the family and shelter for domestic livestock, it was also an extension of the religious space of a temple. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]
Bhutanese housing has a distinct character from that of other Himalayan countries. Relatively spacious compared with those of neighboring societies, houses took advantage of natural light and, because of the steep terrain, were usually built in clusters rather than in rows. Timber, stone, clay, and brick were typical construction materials in upland Ngalop areas. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Among Buddhism's contributions to Bhutan were its rich architectural embellishments. The walls of residences and public buildings, inside and outside, were subject to colorful decoration, as were furniture, cupboards, stairs, window frames, doors, and fences. Wooden shutters rather than scarce glass were used throughout the 1980s. Buddhist motifs and symbolic colors also were extensively used.
Architecture of Yue Chim (Dwelling & Farmhouses)
According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “The arrangement of spaces within an indigenous Bhutanese house is extremely functional. An ideal traditional house was one that had three main floors and an attic, with each level having distinctive functions. Spaces usually flow organically from one room to the other in a relationship that brings the residents together. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]
“Spaces due to functional demarcations were normally laid out in a vertical hierarchy, which start from the simple lower ground floor spaces used for sheltering livestock, to the storehouses for products from the farms in the middle level to the sacred upper level spaces, used for sleep, family, guests and spiritual rituals. Spaces in traditional Bhutanese homes are designed to be functional yet flexible. “
“The division of spaces are typically arranged as follows: a) The Compound / courtyard - Gagona; b) The Ground Floor - Wothok; c) The Middle Floor - Barthok; d) The Upper Floor - Taenthok; ) The Kitchen - Thabsang; ) Deck - Nyimchu; ) The Living room - Yuelkha; ) The Prayer room - Choesam; e) The Attic - Yotoka;
Form of a Traditional Bhutanese House
According to Bhutan’s Ministry of Works and Human Settlement: “The built form of indigenous houses generally consists of a light thin structure suspended and floating above a heavy massive boxlike structure. These forms project out from the land and are notable in that they do not seem to try to simulate the natural curves and slopes of the hills and valleys that make up the natural topography of the land. This box-like built form is seen to have come about due to the following main reasons: 1) The influence of the local materials used. 2) The simple local technology used for construction. ) The climatic conditions of the land. ) The functional and spiritual demarcations of spaces. [Source: Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, Royal Government of Bhutan, 2014]
“The natural climate and topography of the place and the use of local natural materials like rammed earth for the walls were the main aspects that determined the formation of the built form of indigenous houses. In the past, lack of technology to produce curved formwork, that would allow rammed earth walls to have curved „organic‟ forms, restricted formwork to box-like forms which gave rise to straight regular walls that were joined together in straight angular corners.
“The shape of the buildings could also be a response to the climatic conditions of the land. The box-shape of the houses meant that there was a smaller ratio of surface area to volume thus lesser area of the building envelope was exposed to the cold climatic conditions leading to a smaller amount of heat loss than there would be with a single storey „ranch style‟ building form.
“The wide overhangs of the roof came about from the need for protection to the earth walls and timber structures from the heavy rainfall during the monsoon season. To help to drain rain, during the monsoon, and snowfall, in winter, the roof had to be designed with an inclination. To prevent stones, which were used in the absence of nails to hold down timber shingles used for roof cover, from rolling off the roof, the inclination of the roof could not be too steep and was thus kept to around 11 to 13 .
“The absence of refrigeration meant that food for the winter months was dried for preservation. A space that was secure, clean and had good ventilation was needed for this drying process. An attic that was open to the environment thus came about leading to the roof being suspended above the ceiling to create this space. This space was also used to store feed for animals.
Rooms in a Bhutanese House
Family residences frequently have three stories, with room for livestock on the first or ground story, living quarters on the second story, additional living quarters and storage on the third story, and an open space between the third story and the roof for open-air storage.
In a traditional three-story rural housethe first floor is a kind of barn used for storage and keeping animals. The third floor is used for drying yak meat and cheese. Only the second floor is occupied. People eat and sleep — and since 1999 legally watched television — here. Passage to the different floors is often done on steep ladder-like outdoor stairs with railings.
The three story house from the 1990s occupied by the three-generation family of 14 had a 726-square-foot living room, 1,134 square foot basement/barn and 726-square-foot storage attic. [Source: Peter Menzel, "Material World," Sierra Club Books, 1994]
Inside the house people sit cross-legged on the floor around a wood-burning stove used for both heating and cooking. Many houses have prayer rooms with altars with sacrificial water and butter lamps and images of Buddha.
In rural areas, many people have traditionally cooked on open fires inside the house, which produces smoke that can cause respiratory ailments. Because animals live on the ground floor of the house, flies are a nuisance and disease-causing germs are plentiful. In the 1990s, photographer Peter Menzel wrote: "The combination of smoke and flies was the worst I have seen anywhere. All the kids had diarrhea and runny noses, and most had some kind of skin infection." The family of 14 he stayed with included a father with a club foot, a hunchback son and dwarf-like daughter.
A typical bathroom in rural Bhutan is an outhouse in the back of the house with wooden walls and a roof. The toilet is usually a hole in the ground. People squat instead of sit. Most guest houses and hotels used by foreigners have Western style toilets. Many rural homes have no toilet or even an outhouse. People and animals piss and shit right outside the door of the house, often not caring if anyone sees them.
Possessions in Bhutan
The possessions of the family of 14 in the 1990s included a butter lamp, 9 hoes and cultivators, a basket for winnowing grain, basket and bag of rice, ladder for reaching the attic (made from a tree), clay pot for water, pantry cabinet, 3 storage chests, 3 blankets, treadle-style sewing machine, pitch fork, butter churn, cooking pots, 11 storage baskets, built-in altar, built-in earthen stove, rice milling machine, battery-operated radio, woodpile, yoke for bulls, four cats, two dodge, many chickens, dart game and candles. The parent's most prized possession was a religious book and the one daughter's most treasured possession was her jump rope.
The majority of the possessions have a religious purpose: 2 “bumpas” with peacock feathers (used in water purification rituals), 2 “jeles” (double-reeded ceremonial clarinets), 14 “choeps” (metal bowls used for water offerings), book of Buddhist teachings, chodom (tables used by visiting monks), “troe” (bronze ceremonial vessel), statue of Nämtose (god of wealth), Buddhist statues with a silk robe, wind socks for temple decoration, 5 rugs (for the altar room).
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