CLOTHES IN BHUTAN
One of the most distinctive features of the Bhutanese is their traditional dress, unique garments that are said to have evolved over thousands of years, and draconian laws that force them to wear it. Arthur Lubow wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: Ngawang Namgyal is revered today as a saint and is credited with founding Bhutan in the 17th century. The country's religious rituals and unique dress style (the kimono-like gho for men and kira for women), stemmed from his desire to distinguish the country from its expansion-minded neighbor Tibet. [Source: Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008]
Traditional clothing is still commonly worn in Bhutan at least in part because people are required to by law to do so. In the 1990s, a typical family in Bhutan spent 33 percent of its income on clothing. Karma Phuntsho wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “Bhutanese men wear a long-sleeved robe known as a gho, which, pulled up to the knees, is then tied at the waist with a sash. Women wear a long dress called a kira, held by silver hooks on the shoulder and tied with a sash at the waist. A short jacket is worn on top of the kira. These garments, worn originally by the Buddhist Bhutanese in the north, has become the national dress and is worn by most Bhutanese. Most men and women keep fairly short hair. It is believed that this tradition derives from the shaving of the hair during Padmasambhava's ordination of Bhutanese men and women as lay Buddhists. Monks and lay priests wear red robes similar to those of Tibetan Buddhist clergies. [Source: Karma Phuntsho, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, Thomson Gale, 2006]
In the old days, both men and women sometimes wore elaborate earrings, and both sexes wore color-coded scarves or shawls, with white for commoners and carefully specified colors, designs, and manners of folding for higher ranking individuals. Traditional clothes are usually made of bright handwoven materials that come in variety of patterns: stripes, plaids and geometric shapes. For festivals the colors are often bright: claret red, deep blue, green and yellow. Ghos and other clothes are still made with fabric produced on n backstrap looms. Many people use to go barefoot or wear only flipflops. Today, many men wear black dress shoes and knee-high socks with their ghos.
Bhutanese still wear long scarves when visiting Dzongs and other administrative centers. The scarves worn vary in color, signifying the wearer’s status or rank. The scarf worn by men is known as the kabney while those worn by women are known as the rachu. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
Clothing Etiquette in Bhutan
According to rules defined in national code of etiquette (driglam namzha): Men wear a knee-length robe tied with a belt — the gho — which is folded in such a way to form a pocket in front of the stomach. Women wear an ankle-length dress called kira with blouses called wonju and short silk jacket or tego.. [Source: Passang Lhamo, Daily Bhutan, April 2, 2019]
Passang Lhamo wrote in the Daily Bhutan: “While visiting a dzong (fortress), temple or office, Bhutanese people should maintain their dress code of the gho and kira. Men who are commoners should wear a kabney, a white raw silk sash with fringes from left shoulder to opposite hip, with other colours reserved for officials and monks.Women should wear a rachu, a narrow embroidered shawl draped over the left shoulder whenever they visit a Dzong or a temple, and when appearing before a high-level official.
In regard to the kabney (scarf) worn by men and rachu (shawl) worn by women white for commoners and carefully specified colors, designs, and manners of folding for higher ranking individuals. The Rachu is hung over a woman’s shoulder and unlike the scarves worn by men, does not have any specific rank associated with its color. Rachus are usually woven out of raw silk and embroidered with beautiful rich patterns.
Only the Druk Gyalpo and the Je Khenpo were allowed to wear the honorific saffron scarf. Other officials were distinguished by the color of the scarves they wore: orange for ministers and deputy ministers, blue for National Assembly and Royal Advisory Council members, and red or maroon for high religious and civil officials, district officers, and judges (anyone holding the title of dasho). Stripes on scarves of the same base color denoted greater or lesser ranks. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
Government Decree to Wear Traditional Clothing in Bhutan
Under the 1989 promulgation of driglam nam Zha (Etiquette and Manners) made by the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck (reigned 1972-2006) people are 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.
The clothing decree was part of measures taken the Bhutanese government in the late 1980s and early 1990s 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. The laws, aimed at promoting national unity it was said, also included making Dzongkha, the language of the Buddhist Bhutanese, 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.
Tshering Tobgay, the Prime Minister of Bhutan from 2013 to 2018, eliminated some of the restrictive customs enforced by the previous government, including occasional bans on vehicular traffic and some dress code requirements. He acknowledged that preserving the country’s traditional culture would be challenging in an era of rapid urbanization. These days many Bhutanese wear their traditional clothes during the day and slip into Western-style clothes at night. More and more you see Yankee’s caps, Nike shoes and Tommy Hilfinger T-shirts worn with the traditionally garments.
Nepal React Negatively to Decree to Wear Traditional Clothing in Bhutan
Mostly Hindu Nepalese that live in Bhutan live mostly in the south near the Indian border, and make up about 25 to 35 percent of the population. Many of the Nepalese are descendants of laborers brought to India after 1910 to work on a railroad in India near the Bhutanese border. Others came to Bhutan to work as farmers.
The clothing and driglam nam etiquette edicts, designed to “preserve native culture”, focused on Buddhism and Bhutanese culture. This "Bhutanisation drive" alienated the country’s 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]
Women’s Clothes and Jewelry in Bhutan
Women in Bhutan wearing traditional clothes, which they are required to do, wear the kira, an ankle-length dress made of a rectangular piece of cloth held at the shoulders with a clip and closed with a woven belt at the waist, over a long-sleeved blouse. Social status was indicated by the amount of decorative details and colors of the kira and the quality of the cloth used. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]
The kira is like an ankle-length jumpers and often usually made from wool or silk. They are longer than ghos worn by men and are cinched around the waist. The kira is is fastened at each shoulder by silver buckle and is accompanied by a light outer jacket known as a tego with an inner layer known as a wonju. A woven belt is tied around the waist.
Kate Middleton wore a kira when she and Prince William and Kate visited Bhutan in 2016. 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," she told the Washington Post. "It can be done." [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, April 4, 2008]
Some women wear silver earrings. Turquoise and coral jewelry are also popular as they are in Tibet. Women commonly wear necklaces of coral and turquoise, strung together with silver amulets. Troe-ko is the name given to the craft of making traditional jewelry and ornaments widely used by Bhutanese women. A master craftsman skilled in shaping beautiful ornaments is regarded as Tro Ko Lopen. Using precious stones and metals such as corals, turquoise, silver and gold, these master craftsmen create all manner of ornaments and implements including necklaces, bangles, earrings, rings , brooches, amulets to contain ritual objects, traditional containers to carry the much chewed beetle nut, ritual objects and much more.
Men’s Clothes in Bhutan: the Gho
Men in Bhutan wearing traditional clothes, which they are required to do, wear the gho, a wraparound, coatlike, knee-length garment, with a narrow belt. The gho has traditionally been hand-stitched and is worn in formal situation with a sash. Traditionally a warrior’s robe, the gho that looks like a cross between a bathrobe and a kilt and is somewhat similar to a kimono. It was worn as far back as the 16th century and has no pockets and has turned up sleeves. When the weather is warm many men slip out the sleeves and tie them around their waists. The gho is put on a particular way in part so the folds can be used like pockets.
The gho is tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as a kera. The pouch that forms at the front traditionally was used for carrying food bowls and a small dagger. Today however it is used more for carrying small articles such as wallets, mobile phones and Doma (beetle nut). [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt]
According to “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: “During the day, the gho is hoisted up and fastened at the waist by a woven belt so that it reaches the knees. At night, it is let down to the ankles. The coat fastens at the neck and, generally, during the day is left open. The sleeves are long and loose. Bhutanese men seldom wear a hat, but they sometimes wrap a scarf around the head at night.” In the old days, shoes were rarely worn, though some men wore sandals, and those of the wealthier class used Tibetan-style woolen boots. Every man carried a long knife slung from his belt. When the gho is tied in the "up" position, it forms a pouch that is used for carrying objects. [Source:“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009]
Men wear their ghos when they play soccer, shoot archery and play drunken games of Bhutanese darts. King Jigme Dorje Wangchuk dresses in a grayish gho with long socks and white sneakers when he played basketball. Some men where knee-high argyle socks under their ghos. Others were pink pants. When they get a chance many young Bhutanese toss off their ghos and don jeans and T-shirts and stylish sunglasses. When they tie their sleeves them around their waists they reveal T-shirts with designer labels. Smart phones are tucked into the folds and pouch in the front.
How to Put On a Gho
A gho can be complicated to put on. Foreign tourists often need two people to help them get it right. Little Bhutan reports: “While it looks fantastic when worn correctly, for an outsider, to put it on can be quite a challenge. It helps to have a person assist you to wear it properly. But if you’re on your own, don’t sweat it. Just follow the instructions below and give it your best shot. [Source: Little Bhutan, July 17, 2015] ·
“A gho is big enough to cover the wearer’s body. So, put it on like you’d do a bathrobe. Now, put the right side of the gho inside the left one (right in the middle where the crease or seam is). That done, take the edge of the left side and bring it to adjoin the right seam, while still holding the other part. The two points of the gho that you’re now holding – pull it up evenly and take it to your behind so that the bottom of the fabric is just at level with your knees. Adjust your gho at the back and then tie it tight at the waist with your kera (belt). Remember, if you do not wrap the belt around tightly, your gho will not hang correctly.
“Once that is done, fold the lagey – pinned to the sleeves to form cuffs. Usually, one wears long knee-length socks with a gho. The shoes may be of your preference. The pouch or the hemchu formed by the belt gives the gho a rather big pocket to hold a considerable amount of stuff including a wallet, a notebook, keys, mobile phones et al. After all, it is not called the world’s biggest pockets for nothing.”
Kabney and Rachu
A kabney is a silk scarf worn with the gho in formal situations and visiting a dzong.. Made of raw silk and measuring 90 centimeters × 300 centimeters (35 inches × 118 inches) with fringes, it is worn over the gho, extending from the left shoulder to the right hip. [Source: Wikipedia]
Also known as bura, which means silk, the and kabney is expected to be worn during ceratin occasions according to driglam namzha rules. The female equivalent of the kabney is the rachu, a narrow embroidered shawl draped over the left shoulder and worn over the kira whenever a woman visits a dzong or a temple, and when appearing before a high-level official.
In regard to the kabney but not the and rachu, colors are very important. White is for commoners. For higher ranking individuals, carefully specified colors, designs, and manners of folding indicate profession and level of prestige. The Rachu does not have any specific rank associated with its color. Rachus are usually woven out of raw silk and embroidered with beautiful rich patterns.
Rank and color of the kabney (scarf): 1) The King: saffron yellow; 2) Je Khenpo (Head Abbot): saffron yellow; 3) Lyonpos (ministers and other members of the government): orange; 4) Judge: green; 5) Members of parliament: blue; 6) Gups (headmen and district administrators of the 205 gewogs). red with a small white stripe; 7) Dashos (male members of the royal family and highe officials: red. The red kabney can also be conferred upon Bhutanese civilian. It is one of highest honors a Bhutanese civilian can receive, and comes directly from the throne in recognition of an individual’s outstanding service to the nation. 8) Commoner: white. [Source: Tourism Council of Bhutan, tourism.gov.bt; Wikipedia]
Making Traditional Clothes for the Wedding of the Bhutan King
About a month before the royal wedding, Adam Plowright of AFP wrote: The royal dress weavers are at work and excitement is building in Bhutan ahead of the royal wedding. In their apartment in Thimphu, weavers Kelzang Choden and her mother are hurriedly working on an outfit for the future queen, an intricately patterned dress of geometric shapes dominated by gold thread and yellow. “She will wear according to her element. There are five elements in our culture. For example, red is fire and earth is yellow,” Choden said. “Her element is earth so it will probably be mostly yellow.” [Source: Adam Plowright, AFP, September 12, 2011]
“Pema, 21, has ordered numerous kira, the elegant national dress for women made from raw silk that takes months to finish and can cost up to US$3,000. Several famed weavers are competing for the honor of clothing her on the big day. “It would be the biggest privilege,” said Choden, whose mother Kuenzang Wangmo has designed outfits for the previous king and his four wives, as well as the younger sister of the present king.
“At The Traditional Boot House in Thimphu, manager Tshering Tobgay says average daily orders have doubled since the king announced his intention to marry in May. Tobgay and his half-dozen team are working frantically in a bid to clear the backlog for their colorful knee-length boots which are worn on special occasions. “Everyone is working overtime until 9 to 10pm at night,” he said.
Clothing of Bhutan’s Ethnic Groups
Small indigenous and tribal groups that live mostly in the far northern, southern, and eastern parts of the country have their own distinctive clothes. The Bumthaps inhabit the central areas of Bhutan, raising yaks and sheep and producing fabrics of wool and yak hair. The Brokpas (Drogpas) and Bramis are a semi nomadic community settled in the two villages of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan. They too depend on yaks and sheep for their livelihood and have their own unique dress that is made of yak hair and sheep wool.
The Layaps live in the extreme north of Bhutan. They are semi-nomadic and are dependent upon yaks and sheep. Men wear traditional Bhutanese clothes (the gho) but women wear black woolen coats that reach right down to the ankles. Some yak herders wear odd-looking conical hats that look like shrunken versions of Vietnamese hats with small indentations in them.
The Monpa or Mompa is a major tribe of Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India. A small community of them lives in Rukha under WangduePhodrang. Together with the Doyas they are also considered the original settlers of central Bhutan. The traditional clothes of the Monpa are similar to those worn by Tibetans. Monpa men and women wear hats made of yak hair, with long tassels. The women tend to wear a warm jacket and a sleeveless chemise that reaches down to the calves, tying the chemise round the waist with a long and narrow piece of cloth. Ornaments are made of silver, corals and turquoise. Some wear a single peacock feather in their hat.
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