Society was traditionally divided into the zhung (monarchy and bureaucracy), dratshang (religious community), and misey (people) without a caste system. During the medieval period, when a loose form of feudalism prevailed, people working for the kings and lords in different dzongs (forts) were categorized by their professions. But the division was not rigid since anyone could rise to the highest position. All people were taxpayers.
Ethnic Groups: There are three main ethnic groups. Sharchop largely live in eastern Bhutan and the Ngalop of western Bhutan were people of Tibetan descent who immigrated as early as the fifth century. People of Nepalese origin settled in the south of the country toward the end of the nineteenth century. However, the ethnic division is becoming blurred with increasing intermarriage, migration, and settlements.
Culture and Tradition: Although the kingdom of Bhutan is one of the smallest countries in the world, yet the cultural diversity and its richness of its tradition are profound. As such strong emphasis is laid on the promotion and preservation of its rich cultural diversity. One of the four pillars of Gross National Happiness is the Preservation of Culture and tradition. Preserving and maintaining this unique culture and uphold the age old tradition is every Bhutanese citizen’s responsibility because that ensures protection from the disappearing of culture and traditions. Furthermore, preservation of our unique culture would assist in protecting the sovereignty of the nation.
Child Birth: In Bhutan the birth of a new born baby is always a happy moment for the entire family and relatives and is welcomed heartily. Bhutanese value children as progenitors of future and therefore does not discriminate between a girl child and a boy child. Mothers are always looked after carefully and because of the strong belief that the mothers should be treated with high quality food so that the baby will be strong physically and mentally. Except the family in the household, outsiders and guests are kept at bay for the first three days as it is believed that the house is polluted. On the third day after the child’s birth, a short purification ritual is performed to cleanse the impurities believed to have brought into the house and after which the outsiders pay visits to the new born child and the mother. Gifts are offered ranging from dairy products, wine, eggs, cloth and money.
The child is not immediately named in many different regions but in rare cases, the grandparents give the name. Naming a child is always the prerogative of a highly religious person so, whenever they have the opportunity to meet with High Lamas (Rinpoches), they would request to name the child. The mother and the child also visits a local temple to receive blessings from the local deity (natal deity) and the name associated with the deity is given if they are in the remote region where high lamas are not easily available to meet. In some cases, the child is given the name of the day on which the child is born. Based on the Bhutanese calendar, a horoscope known as ‘Key-Tsi’ is writtenthat details out the time and the date of the birth, various rituals to be performed at different time in the life of the child and to an extent predicting his future.
Marriage: Arranged marriages were popular during the good old days but now it is rarely accepted to be arranged by the parents or grandparents. In the olden days, it was believed that they need to marry among the relatives so that their own people live together. Cross-cousin marriage is still popular tradition amongst farming communities of eastern Bhutan. This is now becoming unpopular among the literate mass and most of the marriages take place on their accord depending on their choice.
Bhutanese marriages are simple affairs and are kept low-key. In eastern Bhutan, there was a custom that the boy would sneak into girl’s house at night was popularly known as night hunting. Then the boy would propose to girl for a marriage and if both agree, parents would name them as husband and wife by the next day. It was so simple that even the neighbors would recognize them as legitimate. However, in the towns and in some part of Bhutan, elaborate rituals are performed for lasting unions amongst the bride and the bridegroom. As the religious ceremony comes to an end, parents, relatives and the friends present the newlyweds with traditional offerings of scarves along with gifts in the form of cash and goods.
In the western part of Bhutan, the husband goes out to the wife’s house after marriage while the practice in eastern Bhutan is that the wife usually accompanies the husband. The newlyweds may also choose to live on their own. An accepted norm of the Bhutanese way of life is divorces that carry no ignominy or disgrace and in most instances they move on with a new life partner.
Funeral: Death signifies re-birth or a mere passing on to a new life. In keeping with the traditions, elaborate rituals are performed to ensure a safe passage and a good rebirth. Important days such as the 7th day, 14th day, 21st day and 49th days are earmarked where prayer flags in the name of the deceased are erected and rituals performed.
The deceased are normally cremated while the southern Bhutanese bury and the Brokpas in the north eastern Bhutan take the death body to the high barren mountain and chop off to feed the vultures. Elaborate rituals are also conducted on the death anniversary with erection of prayer flags. The relatives and people of the locality come with alcohol, rice, or other sundry items to attend these rituals. Every year, on day of person’s death, a ritual ceremony is also performed to mark the death anniversary and also to help quick release and re-birth.
Food: Staple diet is red rice, buckwheat, wheat, maize, pork, beef, chicken, yak meat, cheese and chilies, which are taken as vegetable and not as spice.
Eating habits: Traditional Bhutanese eating habit is simple and generally eats with their hands. The family members gather together and eat sitting cross legged on the wooden floors with food being first served to the head of the household. It is usually women who serves food and in most cases the mother. Before eating, a short prayer is offered and a small morsel placed on the wooden floor as offerings to the spirits and deities. With modernization, eating habits have changed and in urban areas, people usually eat with spoons and make use of dining tables and chairs.
Traditionally dishes were cooked in earthenware’s, but with the easy availability of imported pans and pots, the use of earthenware’s have been replaced. Usual meals consist of rice, a dish of chili and cheese known as Ema Datshi, pork or beef curry or lentils.